Last Tuesday (July 12), six poets from the Tunkhannock area trekked to Washington, D.C., to compete in an international youth poetry festival known as the team with the unpronounceable name from somewhere in Pennsylvania.
On Sunday, the same six poets left the nation’s capital known as the team from Tunkhannock, the team that slayed the stage and broke the ground they stood firmly upon.
For the forth consecutive year, the Breaking Ground Poets were given the opportunity to share their voices on a global platform as part of the Brave New Voices youth poetry festival designed to create a safe space for youth to “share their truth,” which was held in Washington.
“Some years teens are really focused on open mics, some years they want big name performers to visit,” said Breaking Ground director Katie Wisnosky, who also teaches English at Tunkhannock Area High School. “This year their goal was to make it to Brave New Voices semifinals.”
And, that is exactly what they did.
The team was comprised of rising Tunkhannock High School seniors Bobby Hunt and Mason Crawford, 2015 alum Georgia Sherry, Olivia Romano, and Sarah Schork, and local youth resident Jesse Westerfield.
Since May, the team has worked tirelessly to perfect their poetry and performances in determination to prove to the festival why they deserve to share the stage with the top youth poets in the world after originally being wait-listed.
After three days of workshops, seminars, and a series of open mics in front of historical landmarks, the competition segment of the festival began and was executed through three rounds divided into separate bouts that were composed of five teams each. Each team performed in two of the three rounds and was ranked on a scoring system by random judges in their bout.
Hunt explained how it’s not about the points, though, it’s about the poetry, so the team went in to their first bout Friday morning prepared to perform. They were not prepared to come out of their bout placing second for the first time in Breaking Ground history.
During their second bout of the day, the team watched the scores closely, but as the round came to a close they resigned to the fact they had pulled a solid third - or so they thought.
“The moment Katie took us outside, I thought she was going to break the news that we pulled a three, but she brought us out there and told us we scored first and at that moment all of us started losing our minds,” Romano said. “All of the pain and waking up early and the stress and everything building up to that was rewarded.”
Through a mere lapse of fate, the Breaking Ground Poets not only were the talk of the festival as word got around that they not only placed second, but won a bout, they accomplished their goal of making it to the semifinal round of the competition where the were grouped with teams from New York City, Philladelphia, Washington, and Baltimore, the 2016 Brave New Voices champions.
In semifinals, the team wanted to grasp the opportunity to share their story of Tunkhannock that is portrayed through their poetry in attempt to enlighten the audience mainly composed of people from big cities.
The team carried pieces of weight confronting issues such as substance abuse in the area, the corruption in government, and the struggles of living in a small town.
The line up was finalized, but two poems before the Breaking Ground would perform their final piece, a duo by Sherry and Hunt, Hunt turned to Wisnosky and told her he believed Sherry’s solo poem, the only piece to not be performed throughout the festival, should be given the chance to grace the stage.
“I immediately started crying because all three of us knew the great sacrifice he just made,” Wisnosky said. “He said, ‘Katie, it’s what we do. We are family. And, family looks out for each other. She deserves to put that poem on stage.’”
Though their time competing in the festival had come to an end after semifinals despite their success to keep up with big city teams, the Breaking Ground Poets found themselves on stage at the Kennedy Center during the “Grand Slam Finals” in a collaborative protest addressing the wrong doings of Brave New Voices and their partner Youth Speaks from throughout the festival.
Romano represented the Breaking Ground on stage alongside poets from New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington to draw attention and solution to the health hazards the festival brought to the poets as they were expected to walk long distances in greater than 90-degree temperatures, not offering trigger warnings before vividly emotional poems, and stacking the semifinal bouts by region, which is against the rules of competition.
“Over the years politics have taken a bigger role in the festival than I think youth voices have and it was time we took BNV back, which I think was the heart of the protest,” Romano said. “ It was probably one of the best moments of my life to be up there and realizing we weren’t just doing it for the East Coast teams, but it was on a much grander scale.”
After a humbling historic week, the Breaking Ground Poets return to Tunkhannock as a team which has grown confident that they have the power to make their voices heard and continue to break the ground in which they roam. Despite the aging out of three members, the remainder of the team has high hopes to take this year’s experiences and build upon them as they have for the past four years to continue their standing tradition of exceeding expectations, so no one ever again forgets how to pronounce Tunkhannock.
“These kids may never get the fire truck welcome or the high school drum-line send off, but they are still returning heroes,” Wisnosky says.