Junior Zoe DeYoung wins St. Louis Symphony Orchestra “Express the Music” Senior Poetry Division


Zoe DeYoung

Sitting in her bedroom, junior Zoe DeYoung writes in her notebook while in quarantine. DeYoung won first place in the Senior Poetry Division of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra’s “Express the Music” writing competition. “The poem was so different from everything I’d ever written before,” DeYoung said. “It made me proud of taking that leap and writing something like that.”

Out of 2000 participants, 476 submissions and 47 finalists, junior Zoe DeYoung won first place in the Senior Poetry Division of “Express the Music.” Express the Music is an annual writing competition hosted by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) which “invites students in grades 6-12 to discover a new orchestral work and respond with prose or poetry inspired by the music. This year’s music selection is Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherazade.’” As part of DeYoung’s Creative Writing II class, English teacher Dan Barnes asked his students to write a piece inspired by the music.

DeYoung’s poem told the story of a fictional girl in Monterrico, Guatemala whose father passed away in a boating accident. She was inspired by a mission trip to Guatemala that she attended through her church. The poem features several Spanish words and phrases which DeYoung learned in Spanish class.

I went to Guatemala as an eighth grader through a mission trip through my church, and that trip meant so much to me and taught me a lot about who I am,” DeYoung said. “The story I pulled from my experience in Guatemala, and I did some research because I had never been to Monterrico before. I also am in Spanish class, so any Spanish that I wrote in the piece was pulled from my Spanish class. It felt really authentic to me even though I did not grow up in a Spanish speaking home.”

This was DeYoung’s first time writing poetry under a deadline because she bypassed Creative Writing I and moved up to Creative Writing II, which first introduced her to poetry.

Being in Creative Writing was the first time I’d ever been given deadlines for poetry,” DeYoung said. “I’ve been given deadlines for writing in all my English classes and especially in journalism, but it was so odd to be given deadlines for poetry because I’ve always just written it on my own and whenever it felt right. I’ve learned through this process that I can write from deadlines and still make really good art. I came into Creative Writing not knowing any of these terms like ‘prose.’ I had grown up as a writer writing poetry, but the poetry I read came from silly things like Instagram or social media, other than that I had never read poetry.

Writing is special to DeYoung because she shares the interest with her dad, the relationship with whom she based her poem on.

Writing connects me to my dad in a lot of ways because he really likes to write, and he wrote a poem for me when I graduated from fifth grade that taught me a lot about what I liked in writing poetry,” DeYoung said. “In a lot of ways, the girl in the poem was like me and her relationship with her father was quite similar to my relationship with my father.”

Beginning the process of writing this poem, DeYoung had no intention or goal of winning the competition.

“I did not expect anything to come out of it. The first step in having it sent in was an activity where my class posted their poems up around the classroom and your peers would put a Post-it Note on the one they wanted to send into the competition. I did not think I would even move through that, so that was enough for me. To have it go all the way through was remarkable,” DeYoung said. “Honestly, at the end of the day, I wrote it for an assignment; I was proud of it though.”

Traditionally, the SLSO hosts an event at Powell Hall to celebrate the competition finalists and announce the winners. Due to COVID-19, this year’s event was cancelled.

My whole family was going to go to the Powell Hall celebration to find out who won, which would’ve been really cool because I’ve never really had an academic success that my family could celebrate with me,” DeYoung said. “It would’ve been really cool to have shared that with them and heard my name over the speakers, but we obviously couldn’t do that. Instead, Mr. Barnes called me on Zoom and told me I won the Express the Music contest and that my prize would be sent in the mail.”

Each piece written in Creative Writing class is edited by the author’s peers before it is turned in. DeYoung is grateful for her classmates senior Kelly Wehrmeister and junior Ally Martin, who won third place in the Senior Poetry Division, for helping her write the poem.

Quite honestly, with my poem, I had great help. My poem was looked at by Kelly and Ally, and I am confident that my poem would not have won without their help. In fact, Kelly played a huge part in the ending of my poem, and put the words that I was trying to say, out on the paper.”

Though she did not expect to win, DeYoung was delighted by her victory and will continue to write poetry in the future.

“Poetry makes the world make sense to me. There’s a lot of things that go on in my head that, if I don’t put it down on paper, I’m going to be overwhelmed by it. Once I put it on paper, it starts to make sense to me, and I think that the rhythm of poetry is really beautiful–at least I write it to be that way. It makes ugly things beautiful, and it makes them make more sense to me,” DeYoung said. “I don’t usually share my poetry. That was a big step for me and having a win really made me feel so proud of what I had written.”