Vancouver student poet's work honored

VSAA 11th-grader with storytelling style wins national award, will read at Carnegie Hall

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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Video at bottom of story

Watch Ben Caldwell recite his poem "The Wandering."

When Ben Caldwell arrived at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics almost six years ago, he was a voracious reader and a fledgling writer.

He also was skeptical about poetry.

Consider the skepticism replaced by passion and talent. Ben will be reading his poetry at Carnegie Hall next month.

He just won a national award for his poetry from the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers. Ben is one of two 11th-graders in the country to be named Best in Grade. The award doesn't come with a money prize, but makes him eligible for scholarships at certain colleges.

Ben, his family and his teacher are going to New York City next week for the award ceremony, held at Manhattan's historic concert hall on June 1.

Brief stories

Ben started writing stories in second grade. He would take characters from existing stories and invent new adventures for them.

Over the years, he slowly transitioned from using established writers' characters to creating his own. A teacher in elementary school suggested he apply to VSAA, "because she knew I liked stories," Ben said.

Upon his arrival in sixth grade, Ben was introduced to poetry, which lends itself to writing classes because of its concise format. Ben wasn't convinced at first.

"I thought, 'Can you get anything across in that little space?'" Ben said. "But I came to value the brevity of it."

He wrote a lot of poems and developed his own style.

"I've been told that my poems give a sense of story in the briefest way possible," he said. "It's a story, however brief, that shows the character changing."

Jennifer Hockhalter has been Ben's teacher since he got to VSAA.

"He's always shown promise, but in the last year his writing became more mature," she said.

It appeared as though something clicked in Ben, Hockhalter said.

Stepping up

Ben said that he was inspired by his older classmates. The literature class had several very talented seniors in it, he said.

After they graduated, "the kids in my grade had to step up," Ben said.

They certainly did. At Hockhalter's suggestion, several submitted work to the Alliance's contest. A few VSAA students were recognized at the regional level. And Ben kept climbing through the levels of the contest, all the way to the top.

"At every level I advanced to, I thought, "Wow, this is a surprise,'" he said. "Each time, it gave me more motivation to write and to submit (my work)."

Ben's friend and VSAA classmate, Miles Hewitt, won a silver medal in poetry in the competition.

Ben credited Hockhalter with making her students realize their potential, encouraging them to submit their work.

"They have to go through the process of application and rejection," Hockhalter said.

Or in Ben's case, application and acceptance. The process has been very encouraging to Ben, he said.

But the awards ceremony, which includes his reading a poem on stage at Carnegie Hall, will be nerve-wracking, Ben admitted. He gets nervous in smaller venues.

"My knees shake every time I go on stage to read poetry," Ben said.

He might be nervous about the performance, but he should be proud of the material, his teacher said.

"His poems are subtle and fluid," Hockhalter said. "You don't realize you're reading poetry. He makes it effortless."

Ben plans to study publishing and editing in college, so he could work in the book industry while crafting novels, his ultimate medium of choice.

He also wants to make sure kids read.

"I started writing because I love reading," Ben said. "Reading is such a powerful experience."

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; http://twitter.com/col_schools; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com.