Student’s poem rises above the rest in If the River Could Sing contest

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published October 3, 2023

 Julian Gagnon, 8, of Grosse Pointe Woods earned first place in InsideOut Literary Arts’ annual poetry contest.

Julian Gagnon, 8, of Grosse Pointe Woods earned first place in InsideOut Literary Arts’ annual poetry contest.

Photo by K. Michelle Moran

GROSSE POINTE WOODS — In the vivid world of Julian Gagnon’s imagination, if the Detroit River could sing, “She would sing me awake in the painted blue morning.”

It was literary observations like that that earned Gagnon, 8, of Grosse Pointe Woods, first place in InsideOut Literary Arts’ annual poetry contest this fall. Gagnon, a third grader at Monteith Elementary School, bested about 100 other writers in the age 18 and under category — many of whom were twice his age. He was invited to read his poem during an event Sept. 14 at the Detroit Riverfront’s Robert C. Valade Park as part of If the River Could Sing: A Celebration of Writing and River with InsideOut. There was also an adult contest for those over 18. Writers were asked to respond to the prompt, “If the river could sing.”

“His poem was just so beautiful and so genuine,” Julian’s mom, Mary Gagnon, said. “He did a lovely job of capturing the prompt.”

Mary Gagnon said her oldest child excels in the free writing environment that poetry provides.

“He loves to write poetry,” she said. “He does a lot of writing at home.”

Julian’s river poem is no fluke. He has also written other pieces that demonstrate a maturity and acuity with language far beyond his years.

“I write poetry a lot,” Julian said. “I usually like making my own topic (to write about).”

Founded in 1995, InsideOut is the largest and oldest literary nonprofit in Detroit. Through programs and classes, InsideOut encourages young people to develop their writing and find their own voices. For If the River Could Sing, InsideOut partnered with another community nonprofit, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

“InsideOut Literary Arts is known for our work in schools and with students, but we are committed to creating community events that demystify poetry and engage new audiences,” InsideOut Executive Director Suma Karaman Rosen said in a press release. “If the River Could Sing is a beautiful and unforgettable evening that culminates with a sunset showcase of music and poetry.”

This was the second year for the contest and reading on the riverfront.

“It was a little scary, but I was brave enough to do it,” Julian said of reading for the large crowd.

Julian should be getting used to the attention by now, though. Two years ago, while he and his mom were hiking the Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve in Rochester, Julian discovered a mastodon tooth in Paint Creek — although he initially just thought he’d pulled a “cool rock” out of the creek bed. Mary Gagnon contacted the paleontology department at the University of Michigan, where the find was authenticated. Julian donated the tooth to the museum, where he got a special behind-the-scenes tour. His name is now attached to the find.

“Julian’s paleontology career was kind of kicked off then,” Mary Gagnon said. “We spent the entire summer (that year) fossil hunting and rock hunting.”

Besides getting to read his poem, Julian met Nandi Comer — the poet laureate of Michigan — at the InsideOut event.

“She introduced him and introduced his poem,” Mary Gagnon said. “That was very exciting for him.”

It was his mother who urged Julian to enter the contest. Mary Gagnon is a writer herself, as well as a former high school English teacher who now works as a lead teacher for InsideOut. Her connection isn’t the reason why Julian won, however — the entries were submitted without the names of the writers, so the judges evaluated the poems based on their individual merits and not who penned them. Mary Gagnon laughs that she submitted a poem to the adult portion of the contest but didn’t walk away with an award.

Writing is in the family’s DNA. Mary Gagnon said her parents immigrated to America from Lebanon, where her father, Kamal Bazzi, was a published poet. Julian was only 9 months old when Bazzi died in 2015. Mary Gagnon said Julian learned he’d won the poetry contest on the anniversary of his grandfather’s death — Sept. 12. She said her father would have been extremely proud of his grandson, the oldest of Gagnon’s three children.

“I feel like if my dad were still alive, this would be a really big thing for him,” Mary Gagnon said. “Julian was one of his first grandchildren.”

Being able to share their mutual love of reading and writing has been special for mother and son.

“I have been writing my entire life,” Mary Gagnon said. “It’s been a really integral part of my life and career. I’m just so happy to see one of the kids has a love for writing. As an English teacher, I couldn’t be happier.”