When Elisa Brickner died at age 17 in a 1973 horseback riding accident, it was a tragedy for all who knew and loved her.
But thanks to the generosity and thoughtfulness of her father, the late Rabbi Balfour Brickner, that heartbreaking loss became the impetus for a gift that even now, four decades later, continues to touch the lives of many. It is a moving example of a bereaved parent turning loss into an opportunity to bring joy and benefit to others.
Wishing to memorialize his young daughter in a way that would be meaningful and reflect something of who she was, Rabbi Brickner that same year established and funded the Elisa Brickner Poetry Corner at the Chilmark Public Library. The Rabbi and his family were longtime Menemsha summer residents. Because Elisa loved poetry, he sought to foster that same love in other youths and all who would visit the little library, both in summertime and year round.
Today, the Elisa Brickner Poetry Corner collection contains well more than 1000 volumes for both adults and children, thanks to the rabbi’s significant generosity. But that was only the beginning.
In 1993, Rabbi Brickner approached the library again, sending a letter with a new, far-reaching proposal.
“We feel it is time to expand the memorial in a new and challenging way,” he wrote. “We propose the establishment of an annual poetry contest to be known as the Elisa Brickner Annual Poetry Contest.”
One year later, in 1994, the contest for junior high and high school students was launched and immediately attracted hopeful young poets, dreaming of recognition for their creative work.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the well-loved competition, which is now underway, with entries accepted until August 11.
In addition to honoring the winners, the Elisa Brickner Fund, to which the rabbi added from time to time, enables the library to award them substantial cash prizes. Usually given to only the first and second place winners, this year a cash award will also be presented to the third prize winners in observance of the anniversary.
According to Kristin Maloney, the library’s program coordinator, from the very beginning the contest has drawn 35 to 50 entries each year from both year-round Islanders and summer residents. She said that many of the previous contest winners have gone on to be actively involved in writing endeavors, from poetry to novels and plays for both stage and screen.
This year’s judges are John Maloney, Donald Nitchie, and Laura Wainwright. Marlan Sigelman, summer library assistant who is also a poet, will join the usual three-judge panel for this 20th anniversary contest.
Judging takes place promptly after the deadline date and winners are invited to read their pieces at a library ceremony on Monday, August 18, at 5:30 pm.
“One of the special parts is the ceremony and the reading of the winners’ poems,” said Ms. Maloney.
For many years Rabbi Brickner would faithfully attend the ceremony, serving as emcee and announcing and congratulating the winning student writers. Since his death in 2005, his son Rabbi Barnet Brickner participates whenever possible.
Ms. Maloney said that previous winners and family members often attend the ceremony to meet the successful contestants and hear their poems. She added that earlier prize recipients have told library staff how meaningful it was to have their poems chosen, and both they and their families have fond memories of the occasion.
“The kids say how honored they were to be acknowledged and taken seriously,” Ms. Maloney said. “They say how important it was to them.
“Kids don’t really have an arena to be celebrated for writing poetry, unlike sports or performing arts. This ceremony spotlights their talent and who they are. They’re really appreciated.”
Winning poems have been displayed in a scrapbook since the beginning. As a special feature of this anniversary, the library will publish a book compiling all winners from 1994 through 2014. The volumes will be given to the contest winners, all local schools and libraries, and will be available to the public.
The Elisa Brickner Annual Poetry Contest invites entries from students in two age categories: Junior High School (entering grades 6 through 8), and Senior High School (entering grades 9 through 12).
Contestants may submit one original poem: any length, style, or subject, typed or printed on 8 1/2” by 11” paper. The writer’s name must not appear on the submission. A cover sheet with name, grade category, and contact information must be attached.
First prizewinners in each category will receive $200; second and third prizewinners will receive $100. Winning poems will be read at a ceremony on August 18 at 5:30 pm.
The deadline for submitting poems is August 11 at 5:30 pm. Entries may be mailed, faxed, or delivered in person.
For information, call 508-645-3360 or visit chilmarklibrary.org/youth.php.