2022 Poetry of Place Celebration

Group photo of winning student poets with former and current state poets Twyla Hansen and Matt Mason in the capitol rotunda
Front row (L to R): Jessica Suckstorf, Josie Painter, Aylla Weeder, Layla White / Back row (L to R): Matt Mason, Gabrielle Burns, Jonathan Fressler, William Paxton, Nova Chasek, Addison Henshaw, Cris Santiago / Not pictured: Semhar Hailesellassie, Madison Mittlestet, Stella Morales

On Friday, May 6, 2022, student poets from all over the state of Nebraska came together to read their winning poetry in an annual celebration called Poetry of Place. The event, sponsored by the Nebraska Writing Project and Humanities Nebraska, took place in the Rotunda at the Nebraska State Capitol Building.

Learn more about Poetry of Place

Winning Poets

Click on a poet to read their award-winning poem.

Stella Morales

Stella Morales

Grade 5, Raymond A. Watson Elementary School, Juniata.

Teacher: Megan Fago

Layla Waite

Layla Waite

Grade 5, Shelby-Rising City Public School, Shelby.

Teacher: Madisyn Jakub

Madison Mittelstet

Madison Mittelstet

Grade 4, Zeman Elementary School, Lincoln.

Teacher: Nancy Svoboda

Jessica Suckstorf

Jessica Suckstorf

Grade 6, Pierce Junior/Senior High School, Pierce.

Teacher: Melissa Legate

Josie Painter

Josie Painter

Grade 7, Pierce Junior/Senior High School, Pierce.

Teacher: Melissa Legate

Gabrielle Burns

Gabrielle Burns

Grade 8, Aspen Creek Middle School, Omaha.

Teacher: Jill Grant

Oliver Brassil

Oliver Brassil

Grade 8, Irving Middle School, Lincoln.

Teacher: Joel Green

Addison Henshaw

Addison Henshaw

Grade 10, Arts & Humanities LPS Focus Program, Lincoln.

Teacher: Sally Hunt

Nova Chasek

Nova Chasek

Grade 10, Arts & Humanities LPS Focus Program, Lincoln.

Teacher: Sally Hunt

Cris Santiago

Cris Santiago

Grade 10, Arts & Humanities LPS Focus Program, Lincoln.

Teacher: Sally Hunt

Semhar Hailesellassie

Semhar Hailesellassie

Grade 10, Arts & Humanities LPS Focus Program, Lincoln.

Teacher: Sally Hunt

Aylla Weeder

Aylla Weeder

Grade 9, Pierce Junior/Senior High School, Pierce.

Teacher: Melissa Legate

Poetry in the Parks Winning Poets

William Paxton

William Paxton

Grade 10, Stuart Public School.

Teacher: Brenda Larabee

Jonathan Fessler

Jonathan Fessler

Grade 10, Stuart Public School.

Teacher: Brenda Larabee

Winning Poetry

The Daily Dance by Oliver Brassil

Dreams with no sight of you
Days with no thought of you
Diaries with no word of you

I have always turned back to you
Sometimes gliding over moon-lit roads
Returning from some far away trip

More often walking
Each step a thought about the school day’s events

The world around you can’t seem make up its mind
One morning, blue sky with cotton ball clouds like a nursery wallpaper
The next, melodramatic sunrises full of their own beauty
After school, white snow contrast the green grass and redbuds of spring
Coming just as I thought winter had said its last farewell

But you feel ever-steady, omnipresent, even-keeled
Solid concrete, manicured lawns, cutsie houses
Everything looks intentional

Even the moving parts of you seem constant
The same people, cars, animals waltzing over you
Bowing to time, the lead partner in their daily dance

But I know you were not always here
Before you, this land was natural:
Grass covered hills
Wind sailed by
Unencumbered by houses, or trees
Bison trod upon you long before I ever did

And I know you won’t always be here
Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I won’t always be here
No matter how many times I will walk over you, there will be a last;
A last time I pause at your traffic light, seemingly always red
A last time you and I fantasize futures
A last time your trees shake out songs with their leaves
On the last time my body will not turn back
But my mind will, memories of who I was

To me, Van Dorn, you are not a man, but a break between places
Although I may overlook you, you are the thread holding my crazy quilt together
Each patch a day of my Nebraska life.

Who is Nebraska? by Gabrielle Burns

Nebraska is an indecisive child,
Who is in awe of all types of weather.
Who is friends with spring rain drumming on the wall,
Who loves the summer sun, and the cool breeze in fall.

Who sings with the birds on pleasant days in June,
And who dances with snowflakes in winter.
Who scribbles with the colors of leaves in fall.
Who can’t choose a favorite because they love them all.

Nebraska is a difficult teenager,
With mood swings and sarcasm.
Something different every day,
Coming back to bring snow in May.

Thunder rolls like slamming doors,
And the wind howls like angry words.
Returning for one sarcastic comment more,
But still the indecisive child at core.

Nebraska is a loyal dog,
Always glad to see you return.
Waiting with a wagging tail, like they always do,
To let you know how much they love you.

With rain like precious licks,
And thunder like protective growls.
Making you laugh with races and random spins,
Protecting you through the thick and thins.

Nebraska is a nurturing mother,
Holding tightly to your hand.
Keeping you safe, but letting you soar,
Preparing you for what the world has in store.

Who smiles for your success,
And who also feels your pain.
Helping you reach for all the stars you can see,
Guiding you to become the best you can be.

Nebraska is soft-singing grandma,
Lullabies of meadowlark’s, sweet soprano.
The low owl’s song to mourn the day,
And the maracas of when the fields sway.

The percussion of slamming wooden doors,
And the long, still rainy days.
The violin the crickets create,
And the creaking of an old rusted gate.

Nebraska is a twinkle-eyed grandpa,
Telling stories of once upon a time.
Who knows every person in the town,
With a laugh that erases any frown.

Who instills life’s most precious morals,
And doing so with jokes and puns.
Who has seen the world and history unfurled,
But still, makes you feel like you’re his world.

Nebraska is the people,
The young and the old.
My family and those I know,
The ones that will come and go.

Nebraska is us,
The people on the land.
The ones that are, and the ones yet to be,
Nebraska is you and me.

Following the Road by Nova Chasek

My family crams inside of a nauseatingly hot car.
As the engine starts, 
the searing seatbelt burns my skin.
I turn towards my window
and watch as the city quickly turns into 
blazing gold rows of corn and crops.
Outside of the car,
the same sight repeats over and over again.
The same fields of golden yellow,
the same power lines,
and the same radio station 
playing classic rock hits
I’ve heard hundreds of times before.

The repetitive stimulus finally starts to change.
The yellow scenery turns green and
the desolate feeling has faded.
I see the familiar break in the road.
I feel the car
turn to the left
and decline slightly.
The light silo,
the tree shaded roads,
and the kind streets
I’ve known for years.

I step out of the stuffy car
into the cool house
with soft carpet,
and figurines stored behind glass panes,
and beautiful paintings
hung in every open space,
and finally,
my grandmother.

She is a woman that never changes.
Her short stature,
her dark pixie cut,
her soft ramblings,
and most importantly,
her earnest and golden heart.

My grandmother is the kind of woman
who cooks for every gathering,
who keeps toys from when I was small,
and plays cards with her friends on weekends.

My grandmother is the kind of woman
that I hope to become.

The Massacre of Fossil Hillsby Jonathan Fessler

Around the watering hole
Hundreds of animals gather
Drinking water in harmony
But that will soon shatter

Before the water vanished
And all the animals lived in peace
Wolf dogs ruled the area
Soon that will cease

In the Fossil Hills
Where all the animals gather
There sits a watering hole
That really does matter

Be quick to leave
You will come to find
For if you don’t
You will be left behind

Bear dogs, ruthless and wild
Rule the entire pond
They let the animals drink
But nothing further beyond

But one day something changed
A very dry summer
The watering hole sinks
And animals must leave from her

The rulers of the pond
Mean and ruthless bear dogs
As they pond slowly starts to sink
They begin to think themselves as gods

All of a sudden the dogs pounce
Killing everything on sight
Consider it a bloodbath
But it isn’t very right

Some animals run
But they are soon to find
That they will soon die
Consider them very blind

Without a water source
To quench their thirst
All of the animals will die
The bear dogs die first

In their genocide
They only delayed
What was to come
On the ground they laid

a machine meant to move Semhar Hailesellassie

there's a kind of busy that follows you all day
in your mouth                            when you brush your teeth
in your shoulders                      when you put on your backpack

a pen in your hands,
a thought in your brain,
a car in motion.

the kind of busy that makes all your clothes uncomfortable
the kind of busy that traps air in your joints,
                                                      in your fingers,
                                                      in your neck,
the kind of busy that makes you check the clock,
                                   waiting for something to end,
                                   and hoping something else doesn't.
the kind of busy that makes the lights too bright
                                  that winds your jaw too tight
                                  that pours a white noise over your ears
                                  so that even in a silent room, you never get any quiet.

the kind of busy where there's
a pen in your hands,
a thought in your brain,
a car in motion
and no end in sight.

but when it all

there's a kind of stillness you've been waiting for
on the drive home from something you never thought would end
even leaving the car seems like a chore
and you've done enough chores for the day.

what if you just
stayed put in the passenger seat,
lights on in the car,                  lights off in the garage,
feet on the dash,                      black behind the windows,
tasteful predictability,             complete control
in a machine meant to move, and deliberately choosing not to.

nothing in my hands,
                no thought in my brain,
                              darkness that could stretch for miles
                                             and no end in sight.

nothing exists but me and the chair that i'm in.

crack your knuckles,
close your eyes,
and enjoy the silence.

Loess Addison Henshaw

Every summer I work on my grandmother’s farm
moving trays of plants to the pastures. 
My arms ache as they pull panels to lay, 
but my grandmother’s creaking joints are moving smoothly, 
dragging heavy hoses from the house with little struggle. 
Empty ice cream buckets, cleaned and filled with potatoes,
whose eyes stare back at me, look up towards the grey clouds.
Hands, stubby and short fingers, soft like fresh clay, 
hands, old and skilled, cracked like the droughted earth, 
work the soil to plant tomatoes and peppers and squash.
We lay down irrigation to protect from the scorching days, 
cages to keep the bumbling deer from eating the year’s crop. 
Thunder rumbles in a dance of lighting. 
Cicadas sing their tune, crickets hop into the tall, wet, itchy weeds.
I run to the house, kicking raindrops off of clovers. 
She plops herself on the old, sun-bleached mower, 
ancient motor purring to life,
and slowly through the rain, she makes her way to the house.
I stand under the overhang, waiting.
One day, these young hands will turn old, cracked.
And I will plant alone.

by Madison Mittelstet

Oh, Nebraska Sun!

Rolling over sandy hills
Shedding red, orange, and yellow
Like molten lava as you move

Midday heat
Cloudless sky
Too bright
You always seem to find my eyes
Like a famous singer on stage

Still heading West
Oh, Nebraska sun!
No matter what happens
You always have the same course
Do you know that you are watched?

At sunset, you shed more glorious colors
Pink, violet, yellow,
Even bluish-white
In red streaks and orange balls your colors roll
I am a picture-taking paparazzi

In midnight quiet, still you shed your light on open prairie land
through the moon
A never-ending partnership

Oh, Nebraska Sun!

Nebraska Skate Park by Stella Morales

Rusty rough ramps
Cracked chalky concrete
Ramps tall as a skyscraper
Floors like a stage

Fences protect me
From the care and stares
Of the outside world

The cool air stabs me
Needles like ice
The coldness makes me feel uneasy
The screeching noise goes by
As bikes weave through
Skateboards go crack
As they hit the floor

Tall statue like ramps,
Broken frozen floors.
Chipped discolored paint,
Ramps push me high like a swing.
The smell of freshly cut grass fills the air,
The skate park calms me

The Crick by Josie Painter

As the sun glinted on the roof,
we laughed as we tumbled out the door.
Yelling behind us, we were going to explore.
We skipped down the beaten gravel trail.
and raced up the hill to see,
who would be the first to the big red barn.
We twisted around,
made sure no one was watching,
and he gripped the barbed wire, we slipped through.

We stumbled down the grass-covered slope.
In front of us was a mysterious path,
and we wondered where the trail might go.
We followed the path for 100 miles or more.
Finally, we came before,
a wooden bridge,
that was as sturdy as a table with 3 legs,
and right below.

A stream that shimmered like glass,
and thousands of tiny, brown, algae-covered fish.
We ran like a child to its mother.
Leaping like bunnies over the stream of water.
We stood on the sandbar,
after departing with our shoes.
We stepped slowly,
in the green-brown water.
As cold as a January night,
capturing fish in our hands,
And splashing each other.
I took some mud,
and soon we were all throwing it at one another.

When we finally went home,
our parents gaped at us,
wondering where we’d been.
We, soggy and soaked, simply said,
We had gone out exploring.

The Ballad of the Plighted Turtle by William Paxton

It was that day I basked in the still sun
Which proved to be His last
My sympathy could not overcome
My natural snap jaw grasp.

But before the action, I lie by the river
My lifeblood, my savior, my home
This river brings food and life abundant
Its uniqueness like that of Rome.

Through this desolate, unliving plain,
A verdant area flourishes
This Niobrara, like a vein through a desert
Adjacent life is nourished

The sandy bank from this narrow river
Is where I currently sprawl
I stretch my legs out of my shell
As the flowing water calls.

I leisurely slip into the river
Its cool liquid glides on my shell
I stretch my neck over the surface
My webbed feet continuously propel.

My breath continues in a relaxed motion
My eye catches on the horizon
A movement, I fear, is coming closer
A four-legged creature, I’m frightened

As proximity closes
And a figure appears clear
I realize the struggle this animal is facing
Starvation, yearning for a feast I fear

My shelled body recedes
To the sandy, short bank
My claws anchor down
This safe haven is one I thank.

The figure approaching
Looks to be in dire need
For I’ve seen before a coyote
But none lacking surplus of feed

The fur coat which this Coyote wears
Is scrappy and thin, at best
The silver-grey has lost its luster
This dog is sick, I assess.

The drooping eyes from a hollow skull
Look at me from the riverside
A danger so close could not look
More sickly had it tried.

As its scrawny body inhaled a breath
Painful as it seemed
The Coyote began speaking to me
In a hollow, gasp-like stream.

His words did not make sense to me
A turtle is slow to hear
But through the moans and exhausted breaths
He stuttered, “Have you a heart to spare?”

My confusion is evident as I try to process
“What do you speak of,” I reply
The animal, unmoving, stares at me
An empty look from grey eyes

“I need to eat”, the coyote pleads
And this I could already tell
“Do you have food or anything to give?”
I feel a shudder down my shell

The hunger of the near-death Coyote
Give me a sense of emptiness
This abundance of meat I contain
Could help this creature progress.

Perhaps it’s wrong to give your life
So one can live another
But my soul pleads to help the coyote
A life exchanged for the other

“You want to eat me?” I say to the animal
His expression conveying confusion
A meal he thought would be won by struggle
Was offering an odd illusion.

But none can understand
The sympathy of I
For my life would be helped
To make the coyote once more alive

And so I swam to my dying place
With some sort of pleasure
Although there was no saying
How much longer my life would measure.

The coyote still stood watching
Or perhaps saving his energy
A sight was unfolding before his eyes
He thought never would be

I made my way to the opposite shore
The Niobrara persisted
We sat and stared for a long minute
He was reluctant, but I insisted.

From another’s perspective
Feeding yourself to a coyote isn’t logical
But there was a pull, a hurt, just looking at the creature
My need to help was biological

The coyote unhinged his powerful jaw
As he licked his lips to feast
I could only feel a sense of sorrow
For this dying, degraded beast.

I stretched my arm out willing to feed
His sharpened teeth started grasping
The shock of pain was unparalleled
From the unforgiving clasp.

And without a thought of hurting the Coyote
My head flashed to its snout
My natural instincts used forceful pressure
To snap his sharp teeth out.

The sympathy I felt for the Coyote
Is doubled so after my reaction
For my snap cut the Coyote’s mouth
Its fate is undoubtedly starvation.

One can not change an animal’s instincts
No matter how bad it feels
As so was my story with the coyote
And my true sadness is revealed.

All I wished was to help the animal
Who’d been beaten on these desolate plains
Never did I imagine before
The mortality my help would contain.

Isla del Encanto by Cris Santiago

Take me back to that island
Where the sand’s soft, smooth
’Til crabs poke out their little heads
Like it’s a game of whack-a-mole
A strong wind blows, carrying the salty scent of the sea
But it isn’t cold, it’s comforting
An invisible hug
Coconuts are cut from palm trees
Difficult to eat, but worth all the struggle
Puerto Rico

Take me back to that city
Cobblestone blue as the ocean it resides in
Buildings all different pigments
As if a rainbow fell from the sky, exploding into colorful paints
Splashing everything in its path
Red, green, yellow, blue
Iguanas wander the walls, like little Godzilla’s,
Heads peeking over, observing
As the world bustles below
Viejo San Juan

Take me back to those people
Smiles as warm as the weather,
Invading every last inch of the face
You’re greeted when you pass,
Anonymous, but not unknown
Words are spoken,
Loud, yet gentle
And hands dance along to every sound
A spoken symphony
Las Boricuas

Take me back to the night
Where the sun falls
Its final rays reaching towards the island, desperate
Turning everything they touch gold
And King Midas sleeps
As sunset turns to dusk
Silence, but only for a second
Because something awakens from its rest in the canopy
And just as doves cry out in the morning
It begins to sing
Another awakens, again, once more
Singing syncing, a chorus created
A creature no bigger than the nail on your thumb
Can be heard for miles El Coquí

A symbol of the island
Short statured, but carrying confidence
As if they are Puerto Rican themselves, reincarnated

Take me back to my culture Mi Idioma Mi Familia Mi Vida

The Sempiternal Creek by Jessica Suckstorf

Sitting on the rocks by the creek,
I can feel the damp air brushing against my face.
As I watch the gray water flow.
We never know where this shallow but broad creek goes…
This incredibly beautiful and wild creek.
This creek, never-ending.
I can’t stop myself from wondering.
Is this creek ephemeral?
Is this creek everlasting?
Maybe this creek is ending in a problem.
Maybe this creek is ending in a solution.
Maybe… maybe just ending.
I hear the water as it hits the rocks.
I watch.
I listen.
Taking in this creation.
Never knowing where this water I see will now go.
Resembling to never knowing where in life we will go.
We wait.
We listen.
We see.

A Town’s A Town No Matter How Small by Layla Waite

Where I live isn’t big, yes I know
but here in Shelby, we have a lot to show.

We don’t have a restaurant or an ice cream shop,
but in Shelby at least the easter bunny doesn’t have much to hop.

When it rains grab your coat, grab your boots, and your hat
but don’t bring your small and friendly cat.

On a busy day when you don’t have time to brush,
don’t worry about traffic, you don’t even have to rush.

This might make you feel bad and have a frown
but remember there are a lot of pros to having a nice and friendly town.

Forevermore by Aylla Weeder

Beneath hazy moonlight we stroll downtown
From dirt to paved without a care of time
The music booms out through our speakers, blared
A heartbeat dancing with the melody
A gust of wind catches my hair in swirls
It’s burning ice against my sunburnt skin
A waft of summer air fills up my lungs
Cool, sticky ice cream melting on my tongue
The lights beam brightly in the darkness, deep
Like fireflies they glow bright, endlessly
Or are they like stars burnt out but still seen
As I live day by day worn down but free
If only moments stopped right where we stand
This memory would stay forevermore