Earlier this month in Washington, D.C., the National Endowment for the Arts held Poetry Out Loud, its annual youth poetry reading contest. Classical High School junior Natasha Connolly represented Rhode Island – one of 1400 students who competed in the Ocean State. She was also awarded first prize for the Poetry Ourselves competition for an original written work. Connolly talked with Artscape Producer James Baumgartner about writing and the inspiration behind her poem, “Birdfolk at the End of the World.”

Natasha Connolly:

you did not bear wings until the last of it,

the final days when the world burned and we set fire to its ashes.

only then did they trace the curve of your bones,

admiring: here is someone who was made for flight.

the shadow of your own escape might swallow you

when acid oozes from the sky like rain

the dark clouds, the drops falling like feathers

the imperceptible outline of you against the night

sprung from your shoulders, your late-grown wings

like crumpled paper, flattened out by the wind.

nothing special, these days, your trash protrusions,

your traitorous and inhuman back, your spine so bright.

in the atomic cloud we are all sick, all dying, all dead,

so what is one more broken thing carving out its home against the sky?

the sky is coming down in a downpour all around you,

yet the crowd surrounds you whispering fly, fall, fight.

James Baumgartner: What is the topic of this poem? What's the inspiration?

Connolly: I think it's honestly multiple things. I mean, there's the kind of the obvious imagery which is very apocalyptic. I think there's a deeper sense to it than that, which is just a sort of more universal alienation thing. How does a person and a group respond to events or circumstances that make you feel separate or other, especially when those things are difficult or challenging things? I think a lot of it also just has to do with imagery that I find really interesting, which is why you see a lot of bird imagery and a lot of stuff like that. But I think the main focus is that kind of separation, that I think is a really interesting thing to write about, and just consider generally,

Baumgartner: What do you like about writing?

Connolly: It forces you to look at the world in a different way. And when you're trying to represent, whether it's through poetry or through journalistic writing, what the ideas you’re trying to represent – it's really interesting to break it down and think, like, how can I communicate an idea or piece or a fact, or an emotion to the audience? And I think it's a really interesting way of looking at the world.

Baumgartner: How does poetry fit into your life?

Connolly: Poetry is something that I do along with a lot of my other interests. And I wouldn't say it's the primary thing that I do. I think that's probably true for most people who really like poetry, because I think what's interesting about poetry is what it's about – like the real world, or I guess metaphysical, even, ideas that you convey through poetry. Like, that has to come from somewhere. And that doesn't come from just poetry. Whether it's reading poetry, or writing poetry, it's engaging with those kinds of ideas. So it wouldn't exist if I didn't have all these other interests.

Baumgartner: In hearing the poem, what do you hope for people to take away from it?

Connolly: I think the most important thing that people could take away from it is that there are multiple ways to consider one thing. So what I'm describing in the poem is this kind of transformation that is initially presented violently and tragically. And that imagery kind of continues throughout it. But in the final line, there's a sense of solidarity that I think brings a new perspective to it. And I think, in poetry and in general, it's important to remember that things are not always as they seem, and that there's always multiple ways to look at one thing, and that nothing is as simple as – it's never just bad or just good. Things are complicated.