Family at River of WordsIt’s rare to see children in the Soda Center. Their natural energy, their desire to explore through movement and play, might seem out of place in a such an official venue. But on April 28, children held court in the River of Words West Coast Awards Ceremony at the Soda Center, and theirs were the words we grown-ups came to hear.

River of Words is an art and poetry competition, founded by former Poet Laureate and Saint Mary's graduate Robert Hass and writer Pam Michael, to promote "literacy, creativity, and environmental awareness." For 17 years, it has held an annual competition for poets and artists between the ages of 5 and 19 from around the globe.

Finalists and winners are honored at a ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and a West Coast ceremony has been held for years in San Francisco. However, this year, after River of Words moved from Berkeley to the new Center for Environmental Literacy at the Kalmanovitz School of Education, the West Coast awards ceremony was held at for the first time at Saint Mary’s.

Seven of the national poetry finalists attended the ceremony, and each gave a reading of their work, which was followed by a short commentary by Hass, the emcee for the afternoon. All of the finalists at the ceremony were between 10 and 12 years old, and they inspired in the audience the deepest awe (also "aww," because they were pretty adorable).

Alicia Buchter of Santa Cruz read "Creek," a sonorous piece that evoked the flow of slow-moving water. Patricia Fong's "In the Middle" paired fierce imagery with unbridled, childlike imagination, prompting Hass to call her an "incipient poet shaman." Karissa Wong read "Spirit of the Bird," which she wrote first in Spanish, then translated into English, demonstrating an astonishing grasp of language as well as wisdom and  experience River of Words, Robert Hass and Phyllis Metcalf-Turner well beyond her years, which was captured in the final line: "I know the suffering of all birds."

But was that grasp really beyond her years? It’s true that the extraordinary grasp of poetic structure, repetition and alliteration evident in Kamala Rose's "For a Second" prompted even Hass to wonder how she could have such a handle on the craft at a young age and to exclaim, "It took me years to teach myself!” But what the ceremony demonstrated, time and again, is that we grownups often underestimate children's abilities.

The reading was followed by a slide show of some of the winning artwork from the 2012 River of Words competition, with commentary from children's writer and illustrator Thacher Hurd, who was the art judge for the contest. One of the highlights was Kristina Yu's "Relaxing on Water," which demonstrated, in Hurd's words "a natural design," an incredible sense of perspective and beauty – especially since Yu is only 6 years old! "Memory of Houbai River in Beijing," by Bill He Li, presented a vivid statement about the qualities of the human memory.

Hurd’s commentary was accompanied by stories about the young artists, both humorous and touching, the most incredible being that of Rohullah Hassani, an Afghan refugee who was the 2012 International Grand Prize winner.

"The world is going to need some very creative thinkers to move forward, to survive," says Michael.

River of Words is a program that fosters that kind of thinking, with a curriculum that encourages education that is "fun," "inquiry-based," and a marriage of science and art. It offers a way, in Hass's words, "for kids to pay attention to the world around them and mirror it back through words and language.

The contest also gives young children a tantalizing taste of tangible success. The winning artwork has been installed at the SMC Museum of Art, and each of the winning pieces, both art and poetry, are featured in the annual book honoring the best of this year’s River of Words submissions.

And from the exhilaration in the faces of the children at the awards ceremony, it’s clear that River of Words has given them the impetus and the encouragement to keep creating.

By Indrani Sengupta '12

Photos by Andrew Nguyen '14

View all the poems of the 2012 River of Words winners and finalists.

View all the artwork of the 2012 River of Words winners and finalists.

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