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Copyright 2000 The Hartford Courant Company  
By Lary Bloom

The Litchfield Inn is a place where locals and privileged refugees from Manhattan gather to revel in seasons of temperate weather. You can see evidence from years past on the walls: the gallery of snapshots that feature well-recognized faces. There is Curt Gowdy, who announced Red Sox games for many years, and Frank Gifford, from pre-Kathie Lee days. Sports personalities predominate here, as they do elsewhere in our celebrity culture.

And so it was gratifying that on the evening of June 1 the banquet room of the Litchfield Inn had no table setting for running backs or point guards or power-hitting center fielders. The high school students driven to that place by proud parents may very well possess a limberness unavailable to the older in the crowd. Yet other more remarkable talents -- specifically, the ability to write well -- qualified them for the roasted chicken with red peppers and the accompanying acknowledgments, including $1,000 checks for winning the zoned competition and the possibility of more. I was there as the seventh speaker of the evening, the one who would introduce the keynoter, novelist Wally Lamb (and also because I had served as a poetry judge). By the time I did so, an unremarkable day had turned into something of a religious experience. This sometimes happens when a person prays at the altar of young talent.

I need to tell you of Natalie Araujo, who won last year's top prize of $2,000 and the right to come to this year's banquet to say what it meant to be chosen the best poet in the state by the IMPAC-CSU Literary Award judges and to read a sample of work. It had taken some extra effort to get Natalie to the podium on time. When her car broke down several miles away, a Litchfield Inn waitress was dispatched to save the night.

Natalie arrived unruffled, or, more precisely, in a sun dress, and displayed a self-assurance that seemed well beyond her years. She read her poetry with the confidence and polish of someone who had been at it a long time.

The featured poem had been distributed to the tables earlier, and had already caused something of a stir. She undertook it, she said, to explain to herself how it came to be that two people, apparently unsuited to each other, came to make a life together. She imagined her father at 20 years old, and her mother at around that age, at their first meeting. The poem, called "Myth-Making," begins:

The summer of his 20th birthday
My father is draped in gold
And arrogant radiance -- sun kissed,
Self-possessed; he is the master
Of his own destiny.

In this arrogant radiance (a telling juxtaposition) begins the meeting of the dancing Adonis and the woman who became Natalie's mother, an account that you can justifiably assume is not framed above the Araujo mantelpiece.

Natalie knew, when she began to write poetry, there was no point unless the page told the truth. This is an understanding that may have needed no amplification on this night.

Still, there are times when preaching to the choir can be worthwhile, as was the case when Suzanne Heyd reached the podium. She is a teacher at Danbury High and, from the evidence -- sending five finalists to the statewide competition -- an ideal choice to represent teachers who over many years have championed young writers. She asked, "Does poetry matter?" and answered her question resoundingly and eloquently in the positive, pointing out how it "gives language to our common humanity." And though it is not an intensely sought marketplace commodity, it addresses feelings that would otherwise be unacknowledged.

Even so, the marketplace is coming around in certain ways. At table one, I sat near Mark E. Macomber, president & CEO of Litchfield Bancorp., which had the distinction a few years ago of being the first corporate contributor to IMPAC chairman James B. Irwin's ridiculous idea of giving away lots of money and wide recognition to young people who write well. (Irwin, by the way, inaugurated the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award that each year gives away 100,000 Irish pounds -- the world's richest literary prize for a single work of fiction).

Macomber told me it's smart business to be associated with something of this ilk -- that athletes get more than enough recognition, and that it's high time that young writers get their due.

The crowd -- dotted with distinguished folks, literary and otherwise, was in total agreement. Here was Bill Cibes, head of the university system, and the poets Marilyn Nelson and Kate Rushin and Leo Connellan. Also here was John Chapin, Governor Rowland's former press chief, who brought his son -- not because he was a winner (he wasn't -- oddly, there were no males among the finalists) but because this sort of evening is inspiring, and something a young man ought to be exposed to.

Wally Lamb delivered his keynote address with his customary warmth. As I said in my introduction, the Wally Lamb we know now is the pre-Oprah Wally Lamb, the guy who remains humble despite the success of his two blockbuster novels. He read an essay he had written for Northeast, called "Passports," part of which made clear the fleeting fame of authorship -- the part about being on a book tour in Dayton, Ohio, and arriving at his hotel room just in time to turn on "Jeopardy" and see the answer: "He wrote, 'She's Come Undone.' " And then wait, on the edge of the bed, for the three dumfounded contestants to press buttons they never pressed. He was left to sit there alone, in the dark, to provide the question, "Who is Wally Lamb?"

You can labor, as Wally did, for many years on a first novel, and many more on a second ("I Know This Much Is True") and achieve literary success but you'll never be Frank Gifford. And yet, for this crowd, Wally was surely a hero, and he received the first of the evening's three standing ovations. The second and third were reserved for this year's two grand-prize winners.

Julia Wong, a student at the Hopkins School in New Haven, was recognized for a poignant, heartbreaking essay she wrote about her grandfather's loss of memory.

Adrian Kudler, a student at Hall High in West Hartford, had won her prize for a poem that was untitled, though it had a title in parenthesis ("On Heat and Saturday Night"), a poem that I and two other judges had selected as the best in Hartford County. Now it was named the best in the state.

Afterwards, I spoke with Adrian's mother, who said that her daughter wouldn't let her see the piece before she submitted it for the contest. Poets are that way. They don't look for approval from mothers. Even mothers who, on nights such as this one, beam with the pride that a star linebacker might envy.

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