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A way with words

LAHS senior's poems win her a place in National YoungArts finals

A Los Altos High School senior has been recognized for her way with words by the National YoungArts Foundation.

Mountain View resident Libbie Katsev was one of 152 YoungArts Finalists picked from a pool of about 10,000 applicants from all over the country and U.S. territories. Thanks to her writing ability, she recently joined the other 151 finalists in Miami for a series of seminars, lectures and speaker panels intended to nurture the young dancers, actors, musicians, writers and visual artists recognized this year by the National YoungArts Foundation.

"I loved it," Libbie said, reflecting on the time she spent at the week-long YoungArts camp, which ran from Jan. 6 through Jan. 12. "It was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, week of my life."

Established in 1981, the National YoungArts Foundation, was created to support the "next generation of artists, and to contribute to the cultural vitality of the nation by investing in the artistic development of talented young artists," according to the organization's website.

While in Miami, Libbie met with a range of accomplished writers and poets, who helped her and the other writer finalists hone their craft. During the day, Libbie and her high school-aged peers participated workshops that pushed her to expand her vocabulary, her descriptive powers and the ways in which she thought about language. At night she would attend live performances featuring the YoungArts acting, dancing and musician finalists.

"I was exposed to so many different kinds of writing and ideas," Libbie said.

She worked on interdisciplinary pieces with a YoungArts dancer and spent time in the Miami Botanical Gardens with Beth Kephart, winner of the National Book Award and Speakeasy Poetry Prize. In the gardens, Libbie and her fellow YoungArts writers were pushed to describe the sounds they heard around them.

According to the YoungArts website, finalists in the writing category are picked because they possess a "unique, authentic voice. ... Finalists are writers who are not just good mimics, but are gutsy enough to pursue their own vibrant and original voices."

Libbie was picked after sending in a variety of writing samples, including short personal stories and prose poetry.

In one short story she submitted -- a meditation on the difficulty she finds in understanding and describing the natural world -- she tries to make sense of the powerful emotions she feels as she watches the sun set over the ocean. In the process she demonstrates her grasp of rhythm and syntax:

"Eventually, the tangled suburban streets flatten out into a coastal highway, moving from cities to beaches and forests to gas stations and always to California," Libbie's story begins. "The road runs parallel and never ending next to the sea, moving on even as the car stutters and stops along the beach in time for sunset.

"At the top of its flight, every tossed ball halts for an instant before falling back down to earth. We get out of the car just as the sun begins to set, and from 7:45 to 8:04 p.m. I understand gravity. I hang there in that moment, closer to the sky than I've ever been, and also more aware of the ground."

The tone of Libbie's writing is often dreamy and bittersweet, if not outright forlorn. "I'm so cold, cold and hateful," she writes in one of her poems, "and if I cry on the couch sometimes, at least that must mean some part of me is melting."

"When I write, a lot of the time what I'm trying to do is just to capture for myself what I see and what's around me," Libbie said. "By doing that I can almost make sense of my thoughts."

Allison Katsev, Libbie's mother, said she was proud of her daughter. She and her husband have always encouraged Libbie to pursue writing and storytelling, which the LAHS senior has apparently enjoyed for as long as anyone in her family can recall, Katsev said.

"She's always liked to make up stories," she said.

Before she could write, Libbie would make up elaborate stories for her toys to act out, or she would make rudimentary illustrations and explain them to her mother, so that she could write them down for her.

Libbie's father grew up in the Soviet Union before emigrating to the United States, and her mother, who was born in America, teaches Russian History at San Jose State University. Libbie's writing often focus on the stories she has heard about her father's family back in Russia and the Jewish folktales her grandparents told her growing up. She said she intends to study writing and Russian literature in college -- an aim that is "really meaningful" to her parents.

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