Produce and friendship inspire young poet

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Alex Simon presents Margaret Mackey with a copy of his award winning poem, Apples to Oranges. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

The story of a local student’s passion for poetry begins with a produce lady. Margaret Mackey, who co-owned Mackey’s with her husband Milford, gave Clayton Ridge senior Alex Simon a nudge in the right direction when he was just six years old – and that nudge may have pushed him all the way to the All-State Speech Festival this spring.

“You inspired me,” Simon told Mackey at a recent reunion. “You took one of the poems I had written and entered it into a contest. It got published!” The poem was titled The World and was published in the 2004 edition of Celebrating Poetry, where as a first grader Simon was honored alongside poets from all over the world. 

In 2009, as a fifth grader, Simon’s poem The Twelve Months was published in Lyrical Iowa. “Poetry has been a huge part of my life and I owe a lot of that to you,” the high school senior shared with his early supporter. “It’s kind of looked down upon as artsy, you know, and you want to be a jock, so someone showing interest gave me an extra boost to keep going.”

Mackey’s son David was one of the first students to attend the All-State Speech Festival in 1973. “It was the first time they’d done anything like that, way back then,” she told The Press. This spring, Simon was also nominated to perform at All-State after success at conference, district, and state competitions. 

“I didn’t realize how big a deal it was until I went this year,” said Simon. Nearly 9,000 students competed at the district level, 464 were selected for All-State, and only 44 achieved what Simon did, earning nominations for the festival in two categories. Of the approximately ten students on Clayton Ridge’s speech team, three were chosen to perform at the All-State Festival. 

Simon performed both an original poem titled Apples to Oranges, and also acted a monologue from the movie True Story. He intends to pursue a career in acting and plans to move to Dallas and then L.A. after high school, where he has relatives in movie production. The monologue he performed at All-State is a serious piece in which a man confesses to the murder of his wife and three children – but the man is a compulsive liar. “I really liked that because I had to do subtle things with my mouth or eyes, that I didn’t think most people would catch, to show that I was lying in certain areas,” he told The Press. The judge caught on, telling Simon he had mastered his voice for acting scenes.

“I think my poetry has helped me with that,” Simon said. His close observation of daily details has influenced his ability to incorporate such details into scenes and characters. Speaking poetry aloud, he says, is another acting lesson. “Speaking is a huge part. It almost has to be subconscious; there have to be words you emphasize and there are cadences in poetry, and I think that has helped me with perfecting a certain voice.”

“I’ve had really good teachers, including Mrs. Whalen as poetry teacher at St. Mary’s,” said Simon. “My inspiration comes from observing daily life and taking appreciation for the little things. I really like to expand or progress in talents I enjoy. Poetry for me is another way to get better, so in some of my poems I don’t look at them as a poem or as sweet sounding, I look at them as puzzles. I have to pick them out and add certain words in certain places, like putting a huge puzzle together.” 

Of his All-State poem, he explains, “It’s a metaphorical personification comparing apples to oranges. Apple is just a new kid going to a new school and he meets this girl, Orange, and then he finds out Orange was with Banana and Apple was hurt,” said Simon. An excerpt from the poem where Apple meets Orange, laced with emotion and wit, follows. 

"Apple squeezed at the mo- ment

a light in him went flicker

his pulp was through the roof

dazed by her appealing round figure

so Apple got up and left to

chase down the little cutie

He rolled to her and said

"Hey this might sound fruity

maybe would you like to get a smoothie?"

Orange said "What?"

her voice hit a High C

then understanding the ques- tion

she blushed and said maybe"

“It really made me think,” Mackey said. She happens to be an expert at comparing apples to oranges. “I was a produce lady for about 20 years. I really enjoyed doing what I did.” Margaret often interacted with school children on her weekly trips to deliver fruits and vegetables to the school, and she and her husband employed over 300 teenagers during the years they owned the grocery store. 

She recalls a mother once reprimanding her for hurting a child’s feelings with her words. “I don’t even know what I said, but I’m glad she did that, because forever after that I was more careful. You never know, when you’re talking to somebody, how you’re influencing them.” Mackey’s words surely had a far-reaching effect on Simon. “I’ve enjoyed him immensely,” she smiled. “I just never dreamed that he would do so well!”

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