It’s The GB in GBYPA

Gwendolyn Brooks and the path to the Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards

Brooks Mom and Daughter

By Nora Brooks Blakely

Read Time 7 minutes
April 2, 2024

“This is the urgency: Live!
and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.
(from “The Second Sermon On The Warpland” Gwendolyn Brooks)

First, Gwendolyn Brooks was born. In 1917. In Topeka, Kansas. Seven years later she was writing. And for the rest of the time she was on this planet, writing was a priority in her life. At the age of 11, she had four poems in a local newspaper. At 13, she was published in a national children’s magazine, American Childhood. And, as a teenager, she made frequent contributions to the Chicago Defender. Along the way, she crafted her own books of poetry with coloring tools and self-designed construction paper covers. Her family supported this appetite for poetry. Frequently, if Gwendolyn was writing her parents or her brother completed her household duties (although I’m not sure how happy my uncle, Raymond Brooks, might’ve been about this reconfiguration of tasks).

She kept on writing, even though sometimes –

Gwendolyn Brooks at 19 in the backyard of her 4332 S Champlain home photo courtesy of Nora Brooks Blakely

My mother at the age of 19 in the backyard of the house at 4332 S Champlain Ave in Chicago.

“Art hurts. Art urges voyages —  
  and it is easier to stay at home.”
(from “The Chicago Picasso” Gwendolyn Brooks)

Her fascination with writing was not the only through-line in her life. What goes on in the minds of children had its own on-going allure. In her first book, A Street in Bronzeville, published in 1945 she wrote —

“I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back“
( “a song in the front yard” Gwendolyn Brooks)

These lines of longing and frustration were clearly at least semi-autobiographical.

My mother understood the importance of childhood as Experience and as Foundation. The first portion of her second book of poetry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Annie Allen is titled “Notes from the Childhood and the Girlhood”.

Strewn throughout this powerful book are recognitions of children.

“What shall I give my children? who are poor,
Who are adjudged the leastwise of the land”
(from “the children of the poor (2)” Gwendolyn Brooks)

“Not that success, for him, is sure, infallible.
But never has he been afraid to reach.
His lesions are legion.
But reaching is his rule.”
(from “Life, for my child is simple, and is good” Gwendolyn Brooks)

Annie Allen Book Cover

Originally published on October 1, 1949 by Harper & Brothers, New York.

More children. More children. More children on her mind. In 1956, Bronzeville Boys and Girls was published. Diving into 36 young souls, she displayed worries and wishes, such as

“What good is sun
If I can’t run”
(from “Paulette” Gwendolyn Brooks)

“I had a dream last night. I dreamed
I had to pick a Mother out.
I had to choose a father too.
(from “Andre” Gwendolyn Brooks)

“Do you ever look in the looking-glass
And see a stranger there?”
(from “ Robert Who Is Often a Stranger to Himself” Gwendolyn Brooks)

“When I hear Marian Anderson sing,
I am a STUFFless kind of thing.”
(from “Gertrude” Gwendolyn Brooks)

Bronzeville Boys and Girls Book Illustrated by Faith Ringgold

Bronzeville Boys and Girls by Gwendolyn Brooks and Illustrated by Caldecott Honor artist Faith Ringgold

Her care and concern for children are woven into her work throughout the years.

  • She used her style of “verse journalism” to share the true story of Elizabeth Steinberg, who died from brutal abuse;
  • She shared a vision of the lives of children, struggling to survive and triumph in a world of apartheid;
  • Her tale of Patrick Bouie at Cabrini-Green, “Our Interrupted Man” shot down in the streets at a young age, is frighteningly relevant in today’s world more than 40 years after it was written;
  • We revere the resilience and revelations of ‘the little linc’ in “The Life of Lincoln West”.
  • We experience —
    • gang girls;
    • the son Big Bessie throws out into the street;
    • the boy who breaks glass, because “I shall create!
      If not a note, a hole. If not an overture, a desecration”;
    • the young child who discovers that “aloneness is delicious”;
    • the children who are able to live in joy and say
      “I smile when I see people coming”.

In 1968 a thing happened. A thing that made it possible for Gwendolyn Brooks to offer children something more. Illinois Governor Otto Kerner asked her to become the Illinois Poet Laureate. Only the third person in the history of the state to hold that position, she asked what her duties would be. The governor told her her duties would be commensurate with her pay — which was nothing. But my mother was never one to celebrate a basket of title-age that was empty inside. She came up with the idea of the Illinois Poet Laureate Awards, prioritizing poetry from young people, kindergarten through high school. All those years of creating impromptu contests at schools across the country. Now she could encourage more children to speak their truths with the weight of the state behind her. But SHE promoted the contest, SHE read and judged the poems and SHE paid for the awards out of her own pocket. Songs of praise must also be sung for the University of Chicago who in later years housed the contest and provided delicious lunches for award-winners, families and guests.

Brooks with young girl University of Chicago 19870607

My mother with a young Illinois Poet Laureate Awards winner at the 1987 ceremony at the University of Chicago. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Sun-Times)

The last Illinois Poet Laureate Awards were held in 2000 just a few months before the death of Gwendolyn Brooks.

But that was not the end. As Gwendolyn Brooks said:

My Poem is life, and not finished.
It shall never be finished.
My Poem is life, and can grow.
Wherever life can grow, it will.
(from Winnie by Gwendolyn Brooks)

And it did. In 2017 in honor of the centennial celebration of Gwendolyn Brooks’s birthday a new contest was born. Sponsored and administered by Illinois Humanities and The Poetry Foundation, housed by the Logan Center at the University Of Chicago and enthusiastically supported by Brooks Permissions, the Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards (GBYPA) were born. A new contest for a new era of young people using poetry to tell us what’s really going on in their lives.

2017 GBYPA winner reciting poem on stage at the Logan Center for the Arts Photo by Bleh Seton

Winner recites his poem at the 2017 Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards Ceremony. (Photo by Bleh Seton)

GBYPA2023 Winner D

Winner recites her poem at the 2023 Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards Ceremony. (Photo by GlitterGuts)

…the wind isn’t a straight path
And I can take myself anywhere
My deepest desire
(from “Flying Free” 8th grade, 2018)

Years and years of putting my people through misery
For power?
Or because you just don’t like that I’m different from you and
(from “Years And Years” 6th grade, 2023)

i want to be sea glass
so many blues you can’t pinpoint and
shades of time you can’t understand,
(from “beautiful mess” 11th grade, 2023)

“But people will die
While May passes by.”
(from “Dear America” 2nd grade, 2022)

Dear heavens! 2nd grade!?! In this time and place we are handing down so much mess and misery to our children. And yet, these young people have found they can pour their pains and their pleasures into their poetry. And whether it sparks or soothes or simplifies, the words and phrases become new ways to visibilize their worlds.

And, oh! The sparkle in their eyes, as they stand on a stage and share their words. As they see the people who are there to hear THEM. Who are listening to THEM!

Thank you Gwendolyn Brooks for developing the path to such a necessary celebration. Thank you Illinois Humanities and the Poetry Foundation for understanding need and prioritizing continuation. Because of you we get — TRUTH FROM THE YOUTH!

So many vibrant voices, so many wonderful wisdoms. They speak to us and to themselves. We hear their words. And all are better for it.

Nora Brooks Blakely
Author/Arts Administrator
Brooks Permissions

Ilhumanities09092023 3847 nora 2023 GBYPA with moms purse

Displaying the items in my mother's purse at the 2023 Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards Ceremony. (Photo by GlitterGuts)

Submit Your Poem

Submit your poem for this year’s Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards competition by May 1, 2024. Learn more about the competition and find resources to help you write your poem at