When Redmond resident Rick Smith was a young firefighter working the night shift, he began writing poems, but didn't share them with anyone—he stored them in a closet.
Forty years later, he published his verses. The resulting books are helping to fund an annual poetry contest that awards scholarship money to local high school students.
After Smith’s first book of poetry, A Sweeter Understanding, won an Independent Book Publishers Association award in 2007, he was invited to speak at a high school in northern Michigan. There he met a librarian who held a student poetry contest each year. The prizes were paper certificates. Rick was impressed with the motivating effect the contest had on the students.
“On the plane home,” Smith said, “I thought about what I could do to improve on the idea.”
He decided to raise funds for a local poetry contest with cash prizes. He recruited schools, donors, and judges, and in 2008 the New Poets Society awarded $3,000 to four students at three Eastside high schools.
Smith says the purpose of the group is “to encourage students’ creativity and interest in becoming writers.” But the former fire chief of Mercer Island and SeaTac airport, who hired and supervised numerous employees during his career, also believes that writing skills are critical for job success.
Smith visits participating schools and talks to the students about writing. He tells them, “Anybody can write poetry—it’s just practice, practice, practice,” and offers advice like, “To invoke wonder, pick ordinary things. Take the ordinary to the extraordinary.”
He gives each of the kids a packet with tips on how to write, find inspiration, and get published. Students can then choose to write a poem for the contest.
Teachers submit their top candidates and the New Poets Society judges—poets from all over Western Washington who donate their time—read and discuss the poems before choosing the winners.
Katy Boness, an English teacher at Interlake High School, has been working with the New Poets Society since it began. She says it offers her students “a terrific opportunity.” The judges “understand the wisdom, insights and creativity of adolescents.”
Money for the prizes comes from the Redmond Rotary, individual donors, and proceeds from Smith’s books. He volunteers his time.
In 2011, Smith spoke to 634 students, who submitted 250 poems. Six winners received $3,500 in scholarships. The first place Judges’ Choice Award went to Redmond High School student Clair Dunlap for her poem “Roots.”
"Not only has poetry helped me to work through a lot of different situations in my life," Clair said, "but it helped me get into college, to be more confident in front of others, and to know that what I have to say is important. I'm glad NPS is around to inspire other teenagers."
The contest is held each April during National Poetry Month. The first-prize winner’s name is added to a “perpetual trophy” that lives at that student’s school for a year.
The award recipients are given opportunities to recite their work at local poetry readings. Past venues have included Redmond Association of the Spoken Word, Soul Food Books in Redmond, Parkplace Books in Kirkland, and Redmond Rotary.
Smith says it’s been a joy to work with the students and see their talent and potential. “This is my passion."