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Zarah Bethea’s road to becoming a poet started in an unlikely place: with a broken violin.

The ECHS sophomore had participated in New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) programs before, specifically taking classes in acting and jazz. However, her pursuit of jazz was cut short in 2020 when her violin broke during COVID shutdown, and she couldn’t get a replacement.

Rather than the setback halting her artistic pursuits, Bethea pivoted to the center’s other available education program at that time, offered through a partnership with non-profit City Verses.

That program was poetry, and it proved a great fit. “I thought this is weird, I have never done poetry in my life. But I had had the teacher before.” She says, “She gave me a prompt. By the end of two weeks, I loved poetry.”

One of the earliest poetry prompts, says Bethea, was to “describe how your city makes you feel.” From this prompt, Bethea wrote a poem titled My City, where she described living on the border between East Orange and Bloomfield. She connected this idea with the isolation of COVID and tied in imagery from the book of Revelation.

Bethea has stuck with poetry from the pandemic until now. Recently, she was selected as the “face of NJPAC’s summer program.” The distinction earned her a magazine cover, a billboard appearance, and the honor of performing her own poetry in several places, including a St. Joseph’s banquet, a women’s banquet at NJPAC and an outside festival in collaboration with Rutgers University-Newark Program City Verses, called Sounds of the City. Among the works she performed was her early favorite, My City.

Bethea, who is inspired by the impact of Maya Angelou and wants to continue writing poetry beyond high school, sees writing poetry as a ministry of sorts. “The way I write, I write about other people’s point of view. I try to put myself in another person’s shoes, and I try to advocate for people who don’t advocate for themselves,” she shares. “As kids, we’re seen as ‘we can’t do this, we don’t care enough,’ but we do. It’s our world and we’re trying to fix it one step at a time.”

-Journalism student Luke Gomez contributed to this post.


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