January 2020


Hill-Stead Museum is exceptionally proud of the six talented young writers presented here — all winners of the 2019 Fresh Voices Student Poetry Competition. A beloved component of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, this competition has introduced countless emerging student poets to one of the country’s most receptive audiences for 26 years. Fresh Voices is part of the museum’s ongoing commitment to promoting poetry and creative arts initiatives in schools across Connecticut. This highly selective program culminates with a performance by the winners before a live audience on the closing night of the festival.

2019 Fresh Voices Poetry Competition Winners

Sophia Ciraldo – Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts
Danny Diaz-Villafane – Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts
Stella Georgian – East Lyme High School
Autumn Munsell – Granby Memorial High School
Camden Robertson – Granby Memorial High School
Ava Varano – Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts

The 2019 Fresh Voices Chapbook, generously published by Grayson Books with support from Ginny Connors and the Adolf and Virginia Dehn Foundation, is available for sale in the Museum Shop.

Sophia Ciraldo

Sofia Ciraldo is a rising senior and a creative writer at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts. In addition to poetry, she enjoys songwriting and playwriting. She also participated in the Hartford Stage’s Write to the Point program and Neighborhood Studios writing apprenticeship. She is very thankful for the support of her creative writing family.

Mahogany Dresser

The rich mahogany exterior
holds a brave face
with its carved-on smile.
It’s misleading.
People graze their fingers
on the soft wood.
They like how it feels.
There is something
beyond the keyhole
waiting to be opened.
Locked like your knees
when you’re standing
captive too long.

I was almost there,
but could not be
Enough is my mantra.
Maybe if I carve deeper,
smile wider,
I can grasp enough
and finally place it
on the mahogany pedestal
I’ve set aside for it.

What goes on behind the words?

Outside is lavish
The center is hollow

Can you see the panic inside?

They can only see what I show them
And I swallowed my key years ago.

Childhood Height Wall


The world seems so big
And I am so small.
Mommy starts to measure my height on the kitchen wall.
I stand up as straight as I can
Pretending to be taller.
I can’t see past the countertops yet.
I brush my teeth with fruity rainbow toothpaste.
I have frequent staring contests
With my teddy bear and I never seem to win.


I’m always thinking about
What I’ll be like when I’m all grown up
I make a promise to myself I will be a fun adult.
I draw smiles on erasers and create my own eraser kingdom.
I host pancake cooking shows and dramatically
Sing into my spatula for my nonexistent audience.


I feel like I’m never taken seriously.
I make up my own secret language
in hopes that maybe someone will understand.
Maybe I’ve been speaking the wrong one all these years.


A girl at school tries to control me.
I let her,
Until one day I say no.
She doesn’t like it when you say no
I sit by myself on the tire swing.
I must deserve it.
I don’t want to go to school anymore.
Instead I lie in bed
staring at my popcorn ceiling
looking for shapes:
A large foot,
A heart,
And a water stain I named Reginald.


I am mourning my childhood,
Devastated that my imagination cowers
As reputations and responsibilities take over.


They bring in their cans from Home Depot
Ready to repaint all the walls in the house.
I fight for them to paint around my childhood height wall
I’m not quite ready to let go of it yet.

The people who feel too much

To the people who feel too much
There is nothing wrong with you.
Please know this,
Live it,
And remember it every morning
When your feet touch the floor.
There is nothing wrong with you.
Sensitivity is not weakness,
And you are not lesser than anybody for truly feeling.
You dream in vivid colors
You try to get your fingerprints on everything
You would pile the world into your backpack
And carry it with you everyday if you could
You see yourself reflected back in everything
That is why you cry
That is why there are so many highs and lows
Because love is never a straight line
And your light is so bright, that it can be blinding.

Ode to Goodwill

I think I will get married
in a Goodwill someday.
I’ll walk down an aisle
of secondhand clothing racks,
wrapped in a makeshift curtain dress
as one of the employees
plays the “Final Countdown”
on a beat-up Casio keyboard.

We’ll have the reception
in the furniture section.
The food will be catered
from the pizzeria next door
and we’ll use the store’s mismatched
plastic plates and silverware.
Before we eat, we’ll raise our glasses
and toast to Jimmy the toaster
on the top shelf
because he has been a loyal friend
through all my thrifty thrifting.

When people get restless,
the otherwise-forbidden back storage area
will be turned into a dance floor.
Scratchy Nat King Cole records will play
and the welcoming fluorescent lights
will shine down on the dancing crowd.

That is how I want it.
Only at Goodwill.
Where the cashiers are never surprised
when I’ve found my latest treasure.
Where my something borrowed
is the entire store.
Where I’m surrounded
by all the goodness.

Tea Leaves

Read me
Like you read the tea leaves.
Warm me up
with subtle glances
silly, awkward greetings.
Pour a cup
Of swing sets at dusk
Of grass stains
that cover our pants
And make us feel alive.
Take a sip
The inside jokes
And doodles
steeps me more and more.
Chug it
Our bicycle wheels fly faster
To new destinations.
We chase telephone wires
Till we can’t see where we began.
Now you know everything there is to know.
You can connect all my dots blindfolded.
Now you can read me like the tea leaves.


Danny Diaz-Villafane is a senior at the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts, enrolled in the Creative Writing/Media Arts department. He aspires to become a poet who focuses on the hard truths of the world. He won the Wallace Stevens Poetry Scholarship two years in a row, and has been published in two literary magazines. Diaz-Villafane plans to attend University of Hartford and where he will major in creative writing with a minor in agriculture. Then he expects to study for a teaching degree. His dream is to own his own ranch, where he can host neighborhood writing classes to help kids from lower-income backgrounds.

Diaz-Villafane considers himself an urban poet, someone who can write the truth and push boundaries. He often focuses on his upbringing, raised by a single mother who has battled addiction. He sees life as a place that’s crooked, yet stays in perfect balance like a Picasso painting. He feels that he can connect with a wide variety of people and make space for life’s messiness in his writing. Diaz-Villafane says, “You don’t have to come from my neighborhood to understand my experiences because chaos is universal.”

Mother’s Day

after “wishes for sons” by Lucille Clifton

I wish her steps in my shoes.
I wish her a strange room
alone and cold,
flashlights beaming
through windows.
Cops knocking
on paper thin doors,
my baby sisters in hand,
fresh out of foster care.

I wish her gardens of lies, a
the sweet stings
of sober dreams:
I’ll get clean,
it was just a mistake.
I wish her bloody knuckles
from days of fighting brick.
Scars on calloused hands,
murmurings of unwantedness.

I wish her steps in threadbare shoes,
but above all else
I wish her a long life,
full of happiness
and ignorance.

Prehistoric Artifacts

A small bird
with the wingspan
of a pterodactyl
soars above me.
Besides the way it flies,
it is so unlike
the prehistoric creature
but the heart
is the same.
It beats
615 times per minute
before it’s silenced
by the swoosh
of a plastic bullet
coming from little Tony’s
front porch.
The corpse free-falls
as gravity gains control.
The small bird
with the heart of a dinosaur
is hushed
Its story unspoken,
unthought of,

Baby Hen

Fresh autumn leaves
dipped in oranges and reds
give way to the weight of you,
just five years old,
as you jump the outstanding height
of four inches.
The innocence in your eyes
fills my heart with a warmth
only an older brother can feel.
Your olive-green irises well with euphoria
as you gaze upon baby hens
dwelling in their cage
of a Walmart tub
and bandana bedding.
Your hands are too small to hold one
yet you reach out
to mother them.
As I place your palm in mine,
I remember how I guided the orange juice
to your lips when you started using
a big girl’s cup.
I remember, not much later,
how the leaves fell from the trees,
blowing past the window
of Mom’s hospital room.
Now, as the baby hen
lays her hollow bones
gently into the nest of our hands,
I promise to make sure
your eyes never lose their innocence.

Promised Land

With a first line borrowed from THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway

Yes, isn’t it pretty to think
when you walk home
purses will remained unclutched,
the burning sensation
in a cop’s trigger finger
will go unsatisfied.

Isn’t it pretty to think
hate will evaporate
from tongues
like puddles after a rainstorm,
and names like spic and wetback
will be nothing
but words in a history book.

Pretty to think one day
white, black, and brown
fingertips will come together
like the teeth of a zipper
and protect us from segregating eyes.

To think the words of Martin Espada
will travel from Massachusetts
to curbside memorials
and unnamed graves.
To think they’ll welcome the ones
taken by street violence,
This is your land too. 


Your hands were slow to stiffen.
Arthritis took shelter in your knuckles,
nuzzling its unwanted head between joints.
Scarves that usually took thirty minutes to knit
began to take forty, take fifty, take one hour.
Now it’s two days before achy hands wrap fabric
to the nape of your grandchildren’s necks.

Your fingers used to pull their hair into cornrows.
Intricate braids gripped their scalps.
Now, age has evicted your ligaments,
limiting movement one twist at a time.
Pigtails and loose hairs drape across their necks.
Their Puerto Rican curls go untamed.

Your body has become a crowded house,
filled with swelling knees and bony growths on fingers and toes.
Your grandchildren watch as their abuelita, their Pipa–
the name given by your oldest and only grandson–
grows older, becoming slower.
Your body isn’t yours anymore,
and soon, you won’t be able to call it home.


Stella Georgian is a poet with a passion for words, art, and life. She attributes her mother Ellen Georgian and grandmother Pauline Karalis for supporting her in everything she does.

until i am nothing

deep pools of emotion and tenacious swamps of self sabotage
that i so willingly surrender to…


there are walls i convince myself are doors
i’m so sick in my head i tell myself my self destruction is kindness
it is empathy
it is because i’m a fucking pisces

i used to think this side of me was beauty
that i would do anything for you
that i can’t get the word “no” to escape my mouth
that i don’t know when it’s time to leave

that i’m left with an
version of myself
i do not recognize.

because i do not belong to myself.

i belong to you
i belong to passive aggressive text messages 6 months after they are sent
i belong to guilt
i belong to shame

i belong to the mere idea of belonging

no matter the cost
no matter if i lose myself in the process of it all

things i tell myself over and over and over

THERE ARE THINGS I SHOUT AND CACKLE AND whisper and moan and run to for salvation
from the ordinary
and the real
and life feels like a group chat i’m trying to private message God to take me out of

because nothing I SHOUT OR CACKLE OR whisper or moan or run to
feel of any importance
or feel real

i shout when i want to be heard
and i whisper when i realize i won’t ever be

makes me realize i’m no good with words
words are good with me

my tongue tied sloppy slue makes my mind feel like a ball pit at a kid’s 11th birthday party and it is in this moment
of when i realize i’m spamming an academic group chat instead of writing this in a diary or typing in my notes
is when i realize
that some mania should be kept unsaid

not shouted or cackled or moaned or whispered. lost in the ball pit







It’s a shame that I’ve come to convince myself

That happy me
Is boring

That my laugh
Is ugly

That I look better pouting in pictures
Rather than smiling

That I’m only worth a sloppy poem
When I feel
Like I’m worth nothing

Because that’s what it’s come to, right?

Who’s most miserable and who can document it most clever


Autumn Munsell is an incoming senior who has been published in the 2019 Connecticut Student Writers Magazine and has received a Halo Award for Scenic Design and Execution. She is a member of her school’s National Honors Society and Spanish Honors Society, she is vice president of her choir and is the Production Stage Manager for her school’s Drama Club. In her free time, she trains and teaches at Villari’s Martial Arts as a second-degree black belt and performing in musicals. She would like to thank her family and friends for encouraging her, especially her Meme for being her inspiration for ​Butter in her Eyes​ . She would also like to thank her English teachers, Mrs. Shafer and Mrs. Quinn, for introducing her to the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival and always helping her improve her writing whether it’s during school or during Poetry Club.

The Arrival and Departure of the Robin

They arrived on a sunny day,
That was masked with gloom and distress.
There was no light or glow
to illuminate the fuzzy, overgrown
Ruby bellys of Robins whose feathers
Were unkept and warmed by the
quickened metabolism and resting heart rate
that persisted after their trek back from
their sun kissed blamy Mecca.

Skittish and weary; searching the barren forest floor
For fallen berries and unsuspecting bugs
Who are spotted with poisonous red and green.
Eaten only to infuse the frail rain slicken feathers
with color, interest, and opportunity.
To stand out against a wash of cloud colored gray
and oh too familiar earth brown is a primal instinct for the Robin;
Embedded into the genetic makeup,
of both the bird and the bug.

Being stagnant is the greatest foe of the Robin.
Mary Poppins put it best when she laced
Lyrics and melodies together producing
A tune synonymous to the Robin’s own
Mating call or morning song.
Statinh so simply that,
“A robin feathering his nest
Has very little time to rest.”

Soaring through the atmosphere,
cutting oxygen particles in two
with its nimble, sweat-slicked feathers,
Frantically stock hoarding twigs and pine needles
and the rejected feathers of their brethren,
jettisoned of their wings to become
lean, quick, and more efficient, so
that one glowing mysterious night
the Robin can finally lay to rest.

Butter in her Eyes

Butter in her Eyes!
Simply, sweet, butter.

The anatomy of the eyeball is complex.
Filled with rods and cones,
bundles of nerves that fire every millisecond
as your eyes dart across their environment
scanning and transmitting millions of
gigabytes of data to the bodies mainframe, the brain.

But she, and her alone, had butter in her eyes.
Smooth and silky. Salt with sugar.

Flowing in from her peepers,
circulating around in her bloodstream;
tinting the crimson oxygen rich blood with
a hue of a different purpose, rich in bake goods
and fuzzy blanket hugs and goodnight lullabies.
Glossing over the heart and finishing at the
center of attention: the brain.

Butter made her better, therefore
the butter made me better too.

Over many children with many childish dreams
she lost the deep mysterious chocolate scent
that steamed about in her retinas.
They became lighter due to over exposure
and failed, at some points, to pick out the details
that were littered in the works of Monet and
in the crayon masterpieces plastered on the fridge.

Yet, butter remained in her eyes, wanted or not.
Because she was special, lovely, and above all gracious.
Which meant that she would except her responsibilities
because she, and her alone, had butter in her eyes.

Seeing the Music

Patiently, waiting for that harmonica roar.
Visualizing the immersive sound of love and war,
she tried to see the music.
Feeling the percussion’s thunderous vibrations,
anticipating triplets, triads; every notation,
she tried to see the music.
Listening was never enough for her.
She didn’t accept the symphony’s dull purr.
Greed, driving her to listen and look.
Wanting music to be a picture book,
with stories that showed magic and truth
only visible in one’s youth.
Teaching you, so sweet and small,
that seeing is believing in all.
So she held her breath with glee.
Holding, for that melodic spree.
Ears perked and ready to spot.
She waited for the music, which ought
to finally convince her of its beauty and might;
and teach her that believing is not in sight.
Yet, her vacant stare persisted.
Along with her beliefs, ever so twisted.
Still trying, to see the music.

The Ways to Love Me

I tell you to love me like,
apples and crust, whose marital bonds
are laced together with a dash of cinnamon.

Why don’t you love me like
the far away ice cream truck
With it’s not so distant nursery rhyme calls.
Trudging slowly from house to house
Increasing my anticipation for a rainbow snow cone.

I ask you to please,
love me like the
straight and narrow paths of Sedona.
Where you can stroll,
in one direction for hours and
still be a wandering neighbor among the
great upheavals of stone and vegetation.

I ask you, now, to simply love me.
Love me, like how the wind loves
colored leaves in a wise old oak tree.

Love me like sticky barbeque
from a cedar wood fire.
Which was constructed one an
equally sticky summer day.

Love me like freshly fallen snow,
which spells out freedom for
Hopeful elementary news watchers.

I ask,
I tell,
I plead with you, to love me as I am.


Camden Robertson is a rising senior at Granby Memorial High School. She has had an interest in writing and poetry since elementary school, volunteers as a student tutor for writing, and works as an intern for her school’s English Department. Outside of poetry, Camden is heavily involved in her school’s music department and intends to continue her exploration of the arts in college.

love is,

I have always struggled with defining love,

because sometimes I feel like warm socks on cold nights is love but would
I die for these warm socks?
probably not.

and sometimes I feel like his hair in the sun is love but would I die for his hair in the sun?
maybe, stupidly,
I might.

or maybe you don’t need to be willing to die for something in order to love it and maybe love
can be as simple as the smell of vanilla but then what makes his hair in the sun different
than the smell of vanilla?

or maybe, maybe it’s that love is your passions and your dreams and your hopes but as I see
him holding his clarinet with blistered hands and blistered lips I wonder is that love? my
father missing his children hours away on business but that was his dream right?
is that love?

or maybe, just maybe, love is nothing more than a stronger, like
I like these warm socks
I like the smell of vanilla but what if you were
willing to die for something you like?
what would that be called because
his hair in the sun, stupidly,
I think I’d die for that

or maybe, love, could you be all
these things at once? loving you,

on monday i made the most beautiful porridge
you have ever seen but you came home so
hungry, and so I gave all that porridge to you.
I was so happy to feed you.

on tuesday I made the porridge again I was craving it but you came
home and told me how much you had liked it yesterday, you said
you were craving it
so i gave that porridge to you again
I began to notice the pain in my stomach as you ate that porridge
but you were so happy, that happiness made me feel full

so i kept making porridge for you

but by friday
the bones in my fingers became ever so slightly more visible and all i wanted was to
make you more porridge but the sounds of my stomach began to drown out the sound
of my breathing I was too weak
to make more porridge for you

was so busy trying
to feed your hungers
that i didn’t realize it
was myself
that was starving

(there is such a thing as loving
too selflessly)

dear parents, what you tell your
children, matters. to them, you
speak only the truth.

in second grade a boy chased a girl around the playground, pulling on her ponytail
and by the end of recess, she had dirt caked to her knees from everytime he pulled
hard enough to knock her down

when she came come and told her parents,
they told her that the boy
liked her that the boy
had a crush on her
“sometimes boys show love in funny ways”

by the time she hit sixth grade she had had several boys push her around during recess.
according to her and her friends, lots of boys had a crush on her, she
felt liked. she felt popular. all those boys that pushed her on the
playground, made her feel wanted.

by the time she hit high school she walked to school, and
almost everyday she was whistled at, or called at,
“I like that ass” and she found herself feeling validated
by these objectifications
because sometimes boys show love in funny ways

and by the time she hit college she’d had two serious boyfriends,
one of them hit her, and promised he’d never do it again.
one of them touched her when she said she wanted to sleep, and told her he was sorry.
both of them told her they loved her, and that sometimes boys show love in
funny ways

teaching young girls that the boy who pushed
her on the playground must have a crush on
her drops her into the hands of those
who abuse her and
call it love.


Ava Varano recently graduated from the Greater Hartford Academy of The Arts and Hall High School. She plans to attend Pace University in the fall. There she will go on to study journalism and deepen her love of poetry. She would like to thank all of her talented instructors from the Arts Academy with a special mention of teacher Megan Collins. Her dedication and immense knowledge over the past years have guided Ava to the privilege of reading in the festival today.

Creation Story

Eve didn’t know she was naked.
And neither did I,
screaming and bald,
born like the sun into morning.
Flesh bundle of baby girl,
born girl as punishment for sin,
for letting the setting sun
paint a naked breast
before she even recognized
skin as skin.
Flesh bundle of baby girl,
born girl and so
born wife,
born mother,
born disaster,
born to the doctor’s hands.
I did not squirm beneath them,
as maybe I should have,
or maybe I would have
if I could tell the difference
between angel and snake
when the fruit was ripe and I was
given these hands for grabbing.

The First Cherry

Grew in the mouth
of woman
before she could speak.

Formed first as a pit
lodged like a bullet
in her cheek.

Its flesh blossomed
from the words
stripped from her tongue’s tip.

And bled with her, cracked her molar,
when she clenched her jaw, then
ripped the stitches from her lips.

Orpheus Sings

Of love everlasting,
and Hades cries for him.
He recognizes the pain
in Orpheus’ eye as his own
during Demeter’s spring
when his sweet Persephone
is stolen to Earth
and assaulted by the sun.
He looks to his Persephone
and she, too, is crying.
For Eurydice,
for the word everlasting,
for the winters she will spend
untouched by the sun.
She looks to her palms,
deep red,
still stained with the six seeds.

Grief Flies

Kerry wets her wood chip tongue with slow sips of water and always keeps her doors unlocked. She is afraid of another broken window upon its return. She sits at the kitchen table, parallel to the back door and waits. She only trusts her own eyes as the dog’s dementia barks at everything: his water bowl, the chickens in the yard. But never this odd bird as it slips so silently between her two good eyes and whispers from behind the mind, as if not to wake a sleeping daughter, how’s your father? She says …you know. And it does. Grief is no chicken; quieter and heavier, it perches on her chest as she sleeps and, though not quite rooster either, wakes with the sun to eat all her cereal.

Children’s Crusade

King taught us survival,
taught us how to use a smile like a switchblade,
talk quick, lace letters between lips
to stitch sorry mouths shut.
Taught us to be strong is to be swift, smart, safe
in the skin God put you in; everywhere is home.

King’s words give mine a home.
I swallow systematic survival,
let it bloat my belly. Mama says, “Stay safe.”
Her safe means small, means she doesn’t want to see this switchblade
smile, slice between my ears, as I wave to her and paddy wagon doors shut.
I press my fingers to my mouth and blow a kiss from my lips

to hers. I wonder if kisses have ever gotten lost on the path to her lips.
If love has gotten lost in translation throughout my home,
caught in the hinge of my front door while swinging shut.
I imagine this is how my mother will survive
when I’m gone, collecting kisses like the blades
dropped on battleground boulevards, tucking them into boxes to keep them safe.

Or maybe to keep her safe,
when hoses blast water from nozzles and police blast hate from their lips
and dogs bear their own switchblade
snarl, growling like a thunderclap to shake the homes
we’ve built within ourselves. This is survival.
Not building yourself unbreakable, but sifting through the wreckage with eyes unshut,

because our eyes can’t ever shut.
My fingers are open and scrounging for safety,
searching under rocks and between buildings for a survival
I can hold under my tongue, between my lips,
unravel like caution tape across crime scene homes,
hold in my hands like switchblades.

One day, when bullets switchblade
the sky, tear it at the seams, there will be no intention of sewing it shut.
And a patch of sky will fall, like the final curtain over my home,
maybe softly, as a cloak of safety
or maybe it will crumble the foundation, remind me I am only lips
and limb and bone, protection no thicker than flesh, this human survival.

Expertly wielding a switchblade is not how you survive,
but just a way to stay alive behind unshut lips,
beneath brick house, in a home of skin and bone. Maybe there is no safety.