Like a new bud joining a distinguished crop of beautiful flowered sprigs, with the shifting spring season comes the naming of a new Montgomery County poet laureate during April’s National Poetry Month. This year’s distinguished honor goes to Blue Bell resident Amy Small-McKinney.

“It means a great deal to me, actually,” says Small-McKinney. “To begin with, it is an affirmation and that is something artists often lack. I have been writing since I was in elementary school and to receive honors and recognition is sweet.

“I remember a teacher told my parents that I was a poet. They came home from the Parent Teacher Conference and told me. Who knew what that meant? I certainly didn’t, back then.

“This honor means that someone responded to my work, that I touched a reader. Aside from the personal pleasure, this role offers me a chance to use poetry to reach out to others.

“I was in high school and pouring over my issue of ‘Seventeen Magazine, of all things, and ran downstairs to tell my mother that I discovered what I want to do with my life! I had been reading about a psychologist/writer who worked in prisons. I just knew, even then, that being a counselor and a writer is who I am.”

“I should add that, in this short time, I have already met some wonderful people.”

Founded by Joanne Leva of Lansdale, for the past 13 years the Montgomery County Poet Laureate Program has solicited entries for the annual competition. As is the process each year, this year’s 35 entries were first ranked by two local judges from the writing community, Laura Eleanor Holloway and Charles Edward Mann in 2011, and then a “celebrity” judge made the final selection from the highest anonymously ranked work.

“I wanted to bring it back to the community,” says Leva of this year’s selection of Dr. Christopher Bursk as celebrity judge.

A renowned contributor to the Delaware Valley poetry community, Bursk is the author of nine books and the recipient of National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim, and Pew fellowships. In addition to working as a volunteer for three decades in the correction system with those on probation and parole, Bursk teaches at Bucks County Community College.

At the recent annual celebration of poetry held each year at the Ambler Theater, Leva created an evening of amazing local poetry infused with music.

Bursk and Small-McKinney read from their work and the talented singer/songwriter Brian Medlin performed.

Also taking the stage were future potential poets laureate. Founded and directed by the 2008 Montgomery County Poet Laureate Elizabeth Rivers, the PoetryWITS (Writers in the Schools) Program showcases student writing and encourages poetry teaching.

PoetryWITS youth poetry contest winners include the following students whose work can be read at http://www.a2pwebdesign.com/poetrywits/poetrycontest/home.htm:

Grades 1-3: Winner: Emma Small, Cynwyd Elementary; Runner-up: Miles Miltenberger, Copper Beech Elementary.

Grades 4-6: Winner: Sarah Felbin, North Wales Elementary; Runner-up: Clara LaBrake, Copper Beech Elementary.

Grades 7-9: Winner: Erica Kushner, Colonial Middle School; Runner-up: Susannah Gale, the Crefeld School.

Grades 10-12: Winner: Irena Frumkin, Abington Friends School; Runner-up: Nathalie Goykhman, Abington Friends School.

Also recognized was Mariah Rachel Burke, Friends Select School, who won the Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson Award in Poetry, an annual award of $1,000 given to a high school student (grades 9-12) from Montgomery, Bucks, Chester, Delaware or Philadelphia counties who has submitted the best example of a poem written in any form.

With the help of equally passionate program enthusiast Eric Medlin who serves as web manager, Leva leads an exhaustive program that offers numerous workshops, events and readings throughout the year.

While costs are minimal, funding is still needed to achieve the program’s mission to recognize and promote excellence in poetry that “benefits the county by building a long-term infrastructure for literary advancements in our community, in our schools, and in our homes.”

While Bucks County’s longstanding poet laureate program is supported by the county commissioners and community college, Leva is still working to establish similar support for Montgomery County’s program.

Her passion and tireless efforts are being recognized by the writing community. At the 2011 Philadelphia Writers Conference Banquet on June 4, Leva will be honored with the Community Service Award “for her dedication and tireless work on the Philly literary scene, helping other poets and writers, and for her creation and devotion to the Montgomery County Poet Laureate Program.” The last time the PWC Board felt compelled to honor someone was back in 1996.

To learn more and support the Montgomery County Poet Laureate Program, visit http://www.a2pwebdesign.com/montcopoet/support/home.htm.

— Nicolette Milholin is a literary columnist dedicated to interviewing authors, reviewing books and promoting events. Visit http://bookboundcolumn.blogspot.com for links to her published columns and a list of recommended literary events.

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