Monday, April 26, 2004

Young poet finding a voice

Recognition 'really uncomfortable' for teen

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON - Lauren Fraley is the most celebrated teenage poet in Greater Cincinnati. She doesn't love that.

Lauren Fraley, a student in the International Baccalaureate program at Holmes High School , has been awarded a $10,000 Scholastic Writing Scholarship for her poetry.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
Her poems, mined from 14 notebooks she has been filling since junior high, were supposed to be private. Not part of her bid to get into the Ivy League. Not subject to judges' scrutiny. Her creative life, she had hoped, would be hers alone.

But the poems wouldn't cooperate. Prompted by enthusiastic teachers at Holmes High School, Fraley has entered and won four writing competitions over the last two years, including the most prestigious high school contest in the country. In June, she will be honored at Carnegie Hall in New York as one of only four teenagers nationwide to win a $10,000 scholarship through the Scholastic Writing Awards program.

"Now that I'm getting a lot of recognition, it's really uncomfortable, to be honest," says Fraley, 17.

Making money or getting published was never her intention. She writes, she says, to carry forward the tradition of favorite female writers such as the poet Nikki Giovanni.

She writes to leave something behind for her daughters, whomever they may be. And she writes because she has trained herself to do it everywhere - at school, outside, at night - without stopping to make it perfect. There is power in the process, she says. And sometimes, the right words eventually emerge.

I come from lottery tickets bought as religiously / as the acrylic pink nails that scratch them / and a quiet history of bad luck / that we don't talk about anymore.

That's part of one poem. Others are built on scraps of images Fraley has scribbled down.

The rusty incense of Italian cathedrals. Rain smelling faintly of gasoline. And this description of a girl dancing: "spine poppin', hips lost and found."

It doesn't come easily.

"I don't think a lot of writers realize how much crap you have to write to get to the good stuff," Fraley says.

Her education on that subject began with a book called Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, suggested to her by a favorite teacher, Patricia LaRosa of Holmes Junior High.

Later, at the high school, teacher Ruth Johnson coaxed Fraley to begin sharing her poems. And as a sophomore, she attended the Governor's School for the Arts, an exclusive summer program at Transylvania University in Lexington.

There, top writers critique the work of high schoolers accustomed to universal praise. It's an unforgettable reality check, says Mary Brady, another Holmes senior.

One teacher "would look at me and say, 'No, this is no good,' and I'd never really experienced that," Brady says. She won a regional Scholastic award and will accompany Fraley to New York this summer.

Judges say Fraley's work stands out for its freshness and sophistication. She avoids the usual teenage fare - angst-ridden poems about "first love or lost love or everything's-going-against-me," as Andy Miller puts it.

An assistant professor at Northern Kentucky University, Miller has judged Fraley's work in an NKU contest and the Cincinnati Arts Association's Overture Awards. Fraley won both.

Her parents are educators: dad Charles an economics professor; mom Debra a kindergarten teacher. The family recently moved to Taylor Mill, but Fraley grew up in Covington and has always attended its urban schools.

Her classmates' struggles have helped keep her grounded. Some already work for a living. Some get pregnant and drop out. There is little patience for navel-gazing artists in the hallways of Holmes High.

The atmosphere is "wonderful," Fraley says. "Everything in my school is brutal honesty and brutal loyalty."

This has helped her writing. So, too, has her knowledge of the world, gleaned from reading, reading and reading.

On a school trip to France, Fraley saw an Indian boy roasting chestnuts in a shopping cart. She already knew about immigration tensions in the country. Muslim girls, for example, have been barred from wearing headscarves in French schools because the government disapproves of religious expression.

"I went to Paris expecting croissants and candles and wrought iron," Fraley says. Instead, she saw firsthand a darker side: "To be French, you have to be fully assimilated, versus just being integrated into society."

The image of the Indian boy became part of a poem, "Paris," that delicately conveys the difference.

What will Fraley do next? Attend Columbia University in New York, she says. Maybe diplomatic service later. And of course, writing.

There's a saying she likes to share: Poems are never finished, only abandoned.

She lives to avoid that.



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