NJ Student Writers Win Big in WTNJ Contests

Madison, NJ — Writers Theatre of New Jersey has just announced the high school winners of both the thirty-fourth annual New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival and the first annual New Jersey Youth Poet Laureate contest! Young writers from all over the state are represented.

The high school winners of Writers Theatre’s New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival are: Packing by Michael Villanueva, a student at the Middlesex County Vocational and Technical Schools – East Brunswick; Trust No One by Gabrielle Poisson, a Newark Academy student; Learn Your ABCs by Elijah Gaines & Jaleel Lindsey from the Greenfields Residential Community Home; Smile by Kianni Keys from Newark Academy, and Hot Dogs and Feminism by Jasmine Sharma, a student at Bergen County Academy for Visual & Performing Arts.

The winners of Writers Theatre’s first annual New Jersey Youth Poet Laureate Contest are Mel Xiao, a Newark Academy student from Livingston; Eileen Huang, a High Technology High School student from Holmdel; and Nicole Tota, a Cherokee High School student from Marlton. The three winners will represent North, Central, and South Jersey, respectively. Writers Theatre will present them with opportunities to perform and share their work throughout the state and their poems will be published later this year.

Winners of both contests will receive Governor’s Awards.

Over 450 plays were submitted for this year’s New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival as students all over the state worked to complete plays before the Festival deadline.  Finalists also had their plays critiqued by professional playwrights from all over the United States, allowing them the valuable chance to learn from these professionals and to revise their work, making it stronger before resubmitting it for final consideration. Along with the Governor’s Awards, the New Jersey Young Playwrights Festival winners will receive a one-year membership to the Dramatists Guild, the professional playwrights union; and will have their plays staged in a reading with professional actors and directors in June

Both Gabrielle Poisson and Jasmine Sharma are two-time winners, with Poisson having won in 2015 and Sharma in 2016. Sharma also has two poems represented in the NJ Youth Poet Laureate contest. Elijah Gaines & Jaleel Lindsey from the Greenfields Residential Community Home also won the Kennedy Center’s VSA Playwright Discovery Award Program earlier this year with Learn Your ABCs. “No one is probably more surprised than Elijah and Jaleel,” said John Pietrowski, Writers Theatre’s Artistic Director. “They reluctantly wrote Learn your ABCs as part of a required workshop with Master Teacher Dominique Cieri at Greenfields Residential. As part of the workshop, they performed it with professional actors at NJPAC, then suddenly found themselves at The Kennedy Center in Washington DC, and now they have won a state award.” A selection from the performance at NJPAC is available on the home page of the WTNJ website at www.wtnj.org.

The NJ Young Playwrights Festival also honors student-written plays in the Elementary School and Junior School Divisions. Winners from those two categories will be announced in the upcoming weeks.

The Youth Poet Laureate contest was something Writer’s Theatre Artistic Director John Pietrowski had long been wanting to provide for New Jersey youth poets, alongside the other educational writing opportunities the theatre already provides, like the NJ Young Playwrights Festival. Pietrowski: “This project is part of the National Youth Poet Laureate Program, run by Michael Cirelli of Urban Word in New York City. It has an enormous national presence. The winning writers will each have five of their poems printed in the national anthology, compete for a Northeast Region prize that includes an anthology of the winners work, and finally, have the opportunity to become the National Youth Poet Laureate. Additional performance opportunities will be available both in state and regionally.”

Over 165 students submitted 830 poems this year. Each student had to submit a Poem of Place, which literally or metaphorically describes where the poet lives. We asked Kaeley Ipson, a poet from Somerville High School who participated in the contest, how she approached writing her poem of place, “The World Outside My Window.”  She responded, “after hours of scribbling nonsense notes of sheets of paper, an idea emerged in my head. I saw the leaves falling from the tree limbs, lying cracked and calloused on the dry grass. I saw the sun dip below the autumn tree line. I saw how lethargic the tree limbs looked; they hung low in the air as the wind stripped away their leaves. While noticing these things, I realized though I was removed from the environment outside, I still was affected by nature.”

“I decided to write a poem about the sheltered life we, as modern humans, live. Though we shelter ourselves from nature, we are not exempt from the effects of nature. Just as summer must turn into fall, we must age and change as well. After I came up with this idea, the entire poem flowed from there. I wrote enthusiastically the rest of the night, editing, tweaking, re-reading, and repeating.”

Forty-one poems of place from this year’s competition will be collected and published on the Writers Theatre website and combined with a visual component to create a virtual poetic map of the state of New Jersey, which allows readers to find out about the places those poets are from through their poetry. Additionally, “Judge’s Choice” poems will be published online at www.wtnj.org

This year’s NJ Youth Poet Laureate competition was judged by professional poets and writers that include New Jersey State Council on the Arts Poetry Fellows, Pushcart Prize nominees, and more. The judges were Eloise Bruce, Arthur Wilson, Penny Harter, Meghan Privitello, Joseph Rathgeber, David Keller, Claudia Cortese, Gabor Barabas, Peter Murphy, and Nancy Scott. “All of the judges are well-recognized New Jersey-based professional poets,” said Pietrowski. “Our goal was to bring these writers into the rich community that is New Jersey Poetry.”

[A list of Poet Laureates, the “Judge’s Choice,” and Poems of Place winners follows. Students’ schools and hometowns are listed]

For more information on any of Writers Theatre’s programs, please visit www.wtnj.org, or contact Playwrights Theatre at P.O. Box 1295, Madison, NJ, 07940, 973-514-1787 x20 or [email protected]

Our event:

  1. First Annual New Jersey Youth Poet Laureate Winners!
  2. Julie Ann Earls – WTNJ Artist’s Profile

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