Read the winning essay from the 2011 Sylvia K. Burack Writing Award!
Published: September 2, 2011
We're proud to bring you the winning essay from the 2011 Sylvia K. Burack Writing Award: "Dear e.e. cummings" by Alex Cuzzo.
|Dear e.e. cummings,|
I remember reading “i carry your heart” and wondering whether or not I could ever be half the writer you are, could ever write a poem of that caliber, could ever love someone enough that I’d want to carry the weight of their heart around like some bag of groceries or a filled-to-the-brim watering can. Now, having read so many of your poems that the words seem almost etched inside me, I can look at the things I’ve written and imagine all the things I’m going to write and know that you were a treasure map that helped me to find my voice.
You were a poet that crushed words like they were cherries in your jaw, syntax falling out the corners of your mouth: glorious punctuation pits. I tasted them and they tasted like the ripest fruit(loops). I never want to brush my teeth because I don’t want this taste for words to ever go away.
You wore the blues like an overcoat, even in the spring. You took naps inside the curves of question marks and in the hammocks of parentheses. You were a syntax chimney sweep that left heavy soot word-footprints in my brain. Now my spacebar hesitates before it makes a move and my spell-check shakes its head at me, frowning.
It is mostly because of you that I want to be a writer. Because of you I’m passionate and silly and a little strange and really wordy and absolutely crazy about writing it all down. I started out so tiny with a voice the size of a pea. Now, my vocabulary could climb its way to the moon and back, all the while sketching haikus on the back of its hand. Now, I have journals upon journals stacked so high and wide in my room that it will never be clean, no matter how much my mom tries to tell me that one day it will be. I’m sure there are quite a few poems collected in the dust bunnies under my bed and stuck in the wheels of our vacuum cleaner, but sometimes I think even inanimate objects need love poems, too.
I could never sum up how much you’ve taught me, but you could see it in the laugh lines on my face and the heart line on my palm which I think has grown since I opened that first poetry anthology. Because of you, I now know an honesty so warm it melts in my mouth. I had already known I could grow taller than the tallest tree, but I didn’t know I could cut down my trunk to examine all the rings inside.
You’ve taught me that, in a crazy world full of so many books that I could crumble underneath the weight of all the words, I could be the Soapboxing Champion of the Entire Universe. I could make my own rules, my own words, let my punctuation do the talking and be successful—not just in my body of work, but in what I make of myself.
You got my ball rolling. You were the first poet I read that made me feel found, like I had figured out my future (finally!) and now I could see the endless telescope tunnel of it, the places it would take me, the ways I would transform for the better and write myself out of the worse. I wish I could thank you, thank you, thank you over and over again until I’ve used up what’s left of the air, but I’d rather just tell you this: You are the wonder that is keeping my stars apart. I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart).
A few words about the winning writer
The heartfelt tribute to poet e.e. cummings that won this year’s Sylvia K. Burack Writing Award came from a senior at South Elgin High School in South Elgin, Ill., who now attends the University of Illinois at Chicago. There, Alex Cuzzo is pursuing an English degree, while also planning to sandwich in courses in philosophy, religious studies and women’s studies.
“Dear e.e. cummings” is her first piece of writing to carry a monetary reward. She was previously published in the creative-writing publication Teen Ink; in The Best Teen Writing of 2011, from The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards; and in her high school’s “awesome” literary magazines.
“I mostly like writing poetry now,” Cuzzo says, recalling some experiences with other types of writing. “I had to write a novella for my final in my last creative-writing class, and it was cringe-worthy. I refuse to open the document ever again.
“I was on my high school’s newspaper staff for four years, where I wrote everything from sports stories to editorials. I initially liked it, but by the end of my senior year, all I wanted to do was write crazy, unformatted, free-verse poetry just to even everything out.”
The study in contrasts that e.e. cummings’ poetry provided Cuzzo clearly had a profound effect on her. “e.e. cummings was the first poet I found who made me really love what words (and punctuation) can do,” she says. “Up until e.e. cummings, I’d only ever read Robert Frost or Edgar Allan Poe poems in my English classes, so seeing how different his style was definitely made me want to get a pen and write down my own thoughts.
“I think it mostly had to do with the fact that most of what I had read up until discovering him was pretty structured and very ‘This is what this means and this is what that means.’ Compared to those kinds of poems, e.e. cummings’ poems are sort of clumsy with meaning. Different meanings and messages are all over the place in his writing. I like that about him. I’m constantly rediscovering it all.”
Most of this freshman’s favorite books are poetry anthologies, but she singled out a particular novel for praise—Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Why? “Mostly because it’s very beautiful, but I think the underlying reason is that I clearly have an affinity for weirdly formatted text.” Explaining her other favorite authors—who include Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, Tom Wolfe and Charles Bukowski—she says, “They’re all super weird in a really fantastic way and by extension they make me feel less weird, which is nice.”
Cuzzo’s career goal, unsurprisingly, is to be a writer. “What kind of writer I want to be is yet to be decided,” she says. “I’ll probably end up doing a little bit of everything. I want to teach writing, tour on my writing, and (hopefully) make some money off my writing along the way.”
The Sylvia K. Burack Writing Award is a writing contest for high school juniors and seniors in the U.S. and Canada, in memory of the longtime editor and publisher of The Writer magazine.|
Students entered a previously unpublished 600- to 800-word personal essay in response to this prompt: Select a work of fiction, poem or play that has influenced you. Discuss the work and explain how it affected you.
For winning, Alex Cuzzo receives $500, as well as publication of her essay in the magazine and on WriterMag.com, a one-year subscription to The Writer, and a copy of the Gotham Writers’ Workshop anthology Writing Fiction.