Miles McInerney, self-described ‘cracked boy,’ translates his world via verse

For years, during classroom discussions, Miles McInerney didn’t talk much, which isn’t the same as having nothing to say.

His head was full of things worth saying.

Getting them out was the challenge. It often is for students with autism spectrum disorder, a developmental disability that turns their world into a frightening whirl of sensory overload. It’s hard for them to communicate, hard to learn, hard to behave. Sometimes, to cope, they shut down.

When Miles was in middle school, he had an English teacher who taught poetry. Miles wrote a couple of pieces and then waited for the papers to come back filled with red marks pointing out the spelling and punctuation mistakes. That’s what usually happened.

And then this: “You should keep writing.”

Miles did. In 2015, he entered the Foyle Young Poets of the Year contest, an international competition that’s the largest of its kind in the world. Sponsored by the Poetry Society in the United Kingdom, it draws thousands of works from all over the globe written by kids between the ages of 11 and 17. The judges pick 85 “commended” poems. They chose one by Miles about hiking in the desert.

He entered other contests and won other awards, culminating in three major ones this year. His poem “20 Reasons Why I Can’t Order in a Restaurant” captured a gold medal in the national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, an annual contest for students in grades 7 through 12. It dates to 1923 and includes among its past winners the writers Truman Capote, Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King and the artists Andy Warhol, Hughie Lee-Smith and Cy Twombly.

Another poem, “Seeking Cracked Boys for Clinical Trial,” was shortlisted for the international Hippocrates Prize, also based in the United Kingdom, which explores the relations between medicine and poetry.

In the National Student Poets Program, which judges a collection of five poems, he was named one of 35 semi-finalists out of 20,000 entries. The program recognizes original work that “exhibits exceptional creativity, dedication to craft, and promise.”

Ask him about his poems, though, and he doesn’t mention the awards. He’s a high school senior now, and busy. He competes in speech contests and history quiz bowls. He rows. He’s learning how to speak Mandarin, Persian and Arabic. He wants to be a foreign diplomat.

Speaking up during classroom discussions is not much of an issue any more.

“What poetry did,” he said, “is give me a voice.”

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