Isabel Catalan had never recited in public before. Her first audience was the Wawa Welcome America.
Isabel Catalan had never recited in public before. She had read her work for friends and in class, but never to strangers, and never to hundreds of people at the Wawa Welcome America event.
“I found out about the Philadelphia Spoken Word contest – the counselors at CAPA are constantly posting things about scholarships and different opportunities.” She saw the announcement and thought to herself “Oh! I could do that. I’m a writer. I like reading to people.”
The contest was sponsored by Philly Goes to College, a non-profit that assists local students. Contestants were high school students getting ready for college. PG2C teamed up with The Wawa Welcome America Festival “with the mission of uplifting the voices and celebrating the aspirations of the city’s young people.” Students had two options for entering: the “I Am College Bound” spoken word performance or the “Great Things Are Happening in Philadelphia” video challenge.
She wrote “Sentence Kisses for a City” in two days. They also required a video of her reading it, with a three-minute time limit. Most of her edits turned out to be to keep it under the time limit.
On Friday, July 2, she addressed the Welcome America audience, along with Candelaria Beatty and Teyanna Stone, winner of Great Things Are Happening in Philadelphia Video Challenge.
Catalan, 18, decided she wanted to write fantasy novels while still at Norwood-Fontbonne Academy. When she was a senior at CAPA she had to write poems for a class; she had written some before, but this was the first intensive work she’d done.
“I just really wanted to focus on tying in as much about my own experience while also capturing what it mean to be someone in this city.” In one section she describes herself:
I am a girl, woman,
Submissions were judged by an expert panel including Trapeta Mayson, the city’s 2020-2021 Poet Laureate; Quentin Williams, Founder and Executive Director of DragonTree Media and We The People Stage; Andrew Greenblatt, CEO & Executive Director of the Philadelphia Film Society; Professor Paul Swann of Temple University’s Department of Film and Media Arts; and Dave Silver, Founder of Rec Philly.
While she always had a appreciation for fantasy work, her real life had begun to become more of a focus for the poetry. In January 2020, her mother, Megan Terry, died unexpectedly. Catalan lives with her grandmother, Cheryl Terry, 64, in Roxborough.
And then there was the pandemic. Writing in the library and classrooms of the Philadelphia High School for the Performing Arts while hearing pianos down the hall and theatre rehearsals in the next room was a different experience from working in isolation. The poetry course came along at the right time.
She’s still focused long-term on writing fantasy. “I want to the next Tolkien, the next Rowling,” she laughed.
“One thing I wrote in every single card is that, a few months before my mother died, when I was seventeen, I just started to realize how blessed I am. Especially with my mom’s death, going through that, and then a few months later the pandemic hit, and everything that came with that, I think a lot of people have done a lot of reflecting.” She looked for the right way to phrase it. “All the things…losing a parent who raised me…I have so many things to be grateful for. I am facing anxiety and stress, because I am still coping with grief…but I’d like to think I’m a really, really happy person. And that I try to make the best of situations, even if I stress over them. Especially with the WaWa Welcome America event, I wasn’t that stressed out. That was surprising in a wonderful way.” She viewed it as the close of a chapter. She found the right word: “I was blissful.”
Catalan is starting at the University of the Arts in the Fall, studying creative writing.