For Marion County High School senior Josie Benningfield, writing poetry isn’t about entertaining others.
“Some people write poetry for other people,” she said. “For me personally, I write poetry for myself. Sometimes it’s crazy up there and you need a place to gather your emotions and poetry is the best way I know how to do that.”
Nevertheless, her poetry has certainly been noticed by others. Last school year, Benningfield won the Beta poetry contest at the state convention and then traveled to Oklahoma City to compete at the national level during the summer.
With those competitions, students are given a prompt and a limited amount of time to draft a poem -- a situation that isn’t always completely comfortable.
“For me it’s nerve-racking because you see all of these people in the room and some of them glow confidence and you feel the intimidation,” Benningfield said. “Others are just as nervous as you.”
Despite those nerves, she earned top honors with a poem based on a prompt that consisted of a photograph of an elephant and a zebra walking through downtown New York City. However, that prompt didn’t produce immediate results.
“When I saw this prompt, I was like, ‘No way,’” Benningfield admitted. “Sometimes you see a prompt and it’s so out of left field -- after like 15 minutes of thinking it through I decided to stick on a subject.”
Not unlike much of the work of her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, Benningfield chose a theme of social isolation.
“In my poem, the elephant felt like he had stepped into another prison because he was being judged by everyone that passed him.I don’t even know where that idea came from,” she said. “When you’re writing poetry you can draw inspiration from your own life without even knowing it because you mask it in so many metaphors. When I saw the elephant and zebra walking it felt like freedom, but the city it felt like it kept them gated in still -- even though they had escaped a cage they had gone out into this brand new world that they knew nothing about and that just seemed so scary to me -- to escape from some place you wanted to get out of and then suddenly you’re in another prison.”
At the convention’s awards ceremony, the top five participants from the poetry contest were called on stage, but still didn’t know the exact order of how they finished. As the awardees were announced, Benningfield found herself as the only one remaining, meaning she’d received first place.
“As I was left standing there, I thought, ‘I can’t believe this!’ I was shocked,” she said. “You have all these people from your school cheering you on and suddenly you’re one of the recipients.”
Despite that success at the state level, she said she “was definitely nervous at nationals.”
“It was like a whole new world [...] at state competition there’s one thing everyone has in common: you’re all from Kentucky. But suddenly you’re in this even bigger room with more people, and so many different people have different backgrounds and they have different personalities, and you can see it in the room, too.”
At the national convention, the poetry prompt directed students to write about a historical event only using figurative language.
Benningfield chose to use Obergefell v. Hodges -- a supreme court case dealing with gay marriage -- as the subject of her work. She’d studied the case in her US Government course at Marion County High School taught by Brett Underwood.
“It affected a lot of people’s lives at the time, and I have a lot of friends who are LBGTQ and I think that’s impacted my views of society,” Benningfield explained.
That poem earned her seventh place.
She’s not expecting to make a return trip to the national convention after this school year because of other travel plans. However, she does still have the state convention and its competition ahead of her, although she’s not guaranteeing to defend her title.
“I don’t think you can go into a poetry room being really cocky because your senses are clouded -- you’re supposed to think outside of the box and be really invested in what you write,” she said. “For me it entirely depends on the prompt. I just think it’s whatever prompt I’m most comfortable with.”
Of course, her writing isn’t limited to Beta contests.
She started writing while in the seventh grade, when her work was “more like song lyrics.”
“In fifth and sixth grade I thought writing was the dumbest thing and suddenly it’s something I do every day,” she said
She’s currently taking Imaginative Writing, a new elective course offered this year at MCHS. And she’s planning on using the skills she’s developed in English courses in a career someday, although she’s still figuring that out.
“I know I’m going into something related to English but I’m not sure how I can utilize my skills best,” she said.
STATE CONVENTION ENTRY
City skylines envelope me
pedestrians walk along
by the time my captors realize
I’ll already be far gone
No one wants to talk about
The elephant in the room
They stare at me, a glance of doubt
I know it’s me that they’re talking about
I escape a prison to walk through another
Filled with curious gossipers and judgmental lovers
They whisper as if I can’t hear
Sharp words fly as I walk near
Why do they only talk like this about me?
The words about my friend are nothing but lovely
He hovers closely as if he knows
But it does nothing to stop jealousy’s glow
No one wants to talk about
The elephant in the room
Unless they are without any doubts
That the elephant can’t hear what they’re talking about
I escape a glass wall to be put behind another
Judged instead of admired by others
There’s no show or game to put on
So I’m stared down by the people I walk among
I know I should just ignore the noise
Like my fellow prisoner
He walks so poised, almost overjoyed
I wish I could be like him
NATIONAL CONVENTION ENTRY
On a June day, the sun gleams
The building stays calm as the people begin to scream
Hearts rise and fall in anticipation
A landmark verdict is the cause for the waiting
On the heels of their feet, listening is the nation
The date is short-lived, but the controversy isn’t
Most people don’t know why this day is worth remembering
No war was won but a battle was fought
Over the distinction and individualism this country had previously lost
The state of this country was as fragile as a tea kettle
Even though our walls were reinforced by strong metal
We were all boiling on the inside
Our emotions and our rights were being compromised
But the country came together, as we always have done
Swallowed our pride, and reached for nothing but love
Love is love and there is nothing else to be said
We could have chosen hate, but we chose something else instead
We set an example for everyone else
And even though we weren’t first, we finally found ourselves
We keep our liberty by searching for equality
We are slowly getting better now that we know
A rainbow stands taller when it can show