SC Governor’s School student wins international poetry contest

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Maggie Olszewski is a senior this year at the South Carolina Governor's School for Arts and Humanities. Photo by Will Crooks.

Maggie Olszewski doesn’t want to be a professional writer.

The 17-year-old was named one of 15 of the 2018 Foyle Young Poets — an international contest in London where 6,000 young poets submitted 11,000 poems for consideration.

It’s not that Olszewski doesn’t love to write — she’s been writing short stories and poems since first grade — she just doesn’t want her ability to survive to hinge on her writing.

“I do love writing, but I don’t think I want to be a ‘writer,’ with a capital ‘W,’” Olszewski said. “It’s super hard to make it as a writer, and especially as a poet.”

Columbia native Olszewski submitted a few poems to the Foyle Young Poets contest from her creative writing portfolio with the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, where she’s a senior. She said she almost didn’t submit the one judges ultimately selected, titled “At a Funeral.”

“I actually wrote it as a short story in fiction class first quarter,” Olszewski said. “In fiction class, it was about two sisters that had been abandoned by their parents, and I didn’t like it, so I didn’t turn it in. I got to poetry (class), and I had no ideas for workshop one day, so I pulled it up and was like, ‘I’m just going to make it into a poem.’”

The poem focuses on a brother and sister with two polar bears, which were added in the final draft.

“Before it was more about the siblings’ relationship, and then I just wanted it to be about mourning and losing a parent, and how that might impact somebody,” Olszewski said.

When she writes, Olszewski said it’s typically a reflection of her own emotions, but it’s not just how she expresses those emotions, it’s how she copes with them.

“Even though I don’t want to do it professionally, I do need to write,” she said. “It’s not a matter of what I want to do, it’s kind of like when I feel sad, the only way I can think to express that is through a poem or through a story or nonfiction essay.”

Olszewski wrote a series of poems this year addressing Laika, the first animal launched into orbit by the Soviet Union in 1957, after reading about the dog’s death. Laika died within hours of the launch, from overheating.

“They were all about my emotions,” Olszewski said. “It was really cathartic in the best way.”

Olszewski said she initially wrote “At the Funeral” when she was dealing with emotions about her own family.

“Whatever I’m feeling, I find a way to try to say that,” Olszewski said. “Poems this quarter have been about heartbreak and losing a friend — whatever is going on in my life, I try to express it without calling anyone out.”

Olszewski was the only U.S. contestant to win the 2018 Foyle Young Poets contest.

Maggie Olszewski’s poem, ‘At the Funeral.’
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