To read a poem is to dance with an anonymous lover who choreographs full abandon with the gyration of words, the confident, perfectly-placed metaphor and the hypnotics of well-timed images. And then like a bandit, the poet steals away, never giving face to the one who undid you. Well, thanks to the Indy, three of the bandits are revealed.
I am wooed into the first place poem, "Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus," with the familiarity of a two-step. But then suddenly the music changes and I am alone, rising and falling in a mix of all the dances I've ever known. Though I am in the heartbreaking center of the poem, I am simultaneously kept in a state of euphoria with the beauty of the composition. I think we all live to experience a poem that so clearly expresses an emotion we've had, a piece of art that seems to get-at-it despite the stumbling blocks of language, using the awkward and linear fashion of words to gracefully relate the chaos of human thought and emotion. Amo leaves me steeped in the details of the excruciating pain of loosing a parent, your first and most obscure love. It expresses an early state of mourning that when put to song is sweet in its sorrow. Tanya Olson so truthfully leads this dance by taking me by the hand before I can say no to that painful but intoxicating encounter with parental death.
Olson brings us into this poem using familiar references to love. She tricks us with a casual simplicity.
Love is a crazy old thing.
One night, you will find yourself on your knees praying
Jesus, please don't let me kill her.
If I go to jail, it will break my mother's heart.
In the short space of two stanzas, Olson leaves us suspended in an emotional storm, stranded in the full experience of strange but true responses to love lost. Metaphor and the juxtaposition of objects are arranged like odd notes in a jazz tune that really works:
... all I wanted to do was walk right back out the plane's little umbilical cord and march my clunky boots
down the narrow staircase to where they store all
the luggage, the food, and the gas and crawl straight
into the hold where my mother was, because I thought
It must be cold down there, and lonely too, and that's no way to go back home.
Had Olson opened with these words, many would never read the poem for fear of revisited pain, and therefore never allow themselves the irony of a short-term high due to a stealthily orchestrated dance of pleasure and pain.
The experience of reading the three winning poems was like the tango--I got my feet all stepped on and it hurt, but in the end, I got dipped. The second and third place poems left me lingering in that dip, and were unbeknownst to me written by the same master of movement, Laura Jent. Her work wooed the preliminary judges and left a lasting impression on this process. In her style, there is less courting. She just grabbed me up by the collar and took me with her willingly or unwillingly, like she does in the first stanza of "The Choosing of Names":
I want a nickname only you know,
that means something like New Orleans to you.
I want to be the space around it, the low-lying swamp
you imagine holds all the dangerous jaws, dangerous teeth
What a direct expression of what it means to long for signs and signals of love. Similar in its directness, Jent's other winning poem, "An Invitation to Visit or Stay," drives home a message of love's lost-and-found nature:
There's a train in your window, honey
... That one headlight
chases something through the trees, and we laugh
a summer laugh that starts somewhere behind our knees.
When I was 18 I wrote my first poem about love, some syllogism that went something like: Jesus is love, and love is blind, so Stevie Wonder must be Jesus. I've been writing poetry ever since, and thank goodness I have come a long way since those days, but still I strive to do what these poets have done: In a short space of text and time, take the reader to a place of joy or pain, into forgotten or untapped emotion, all the while holding the reader in the comfort of the poem's structure. Though these two poets get at that in different ways--Olson with a poem that starts out on safe, familiar territory, takes you to the desert, and makes the circle back to comfort, while Jent's poetry gives it to you in straight lines with no arcs. The effect is the same--the reader is moved and wants the experience again and again.
Honorable mention goes to Kim Arrington's "mama do:," which offers something to the dance that is both daring and risky. It takes language and turns it upside down and inside out. The piece is a disconnection of sounds and rhythms, like a break dancer mixing dance and acrobatics, conveying a more illusive meaning. I am left with a visceral response only. Like listening to a song in a language I do not speak, I dance to the rhythm in my own way, hoping never to be persuaded away from my private interpretation of the piece.
In daily life, it is a struggle to live like a commissioned bard--we live in a society that forgets to accommodate its truth-sayers. The process of judging this contest has redeemed society--well, at least redeemed the Triangle. Thank you, Independent Weekly, for reminding me that I live in a community that honors and rewards brave poets who in the face of social adversity do what they must do. I am boosted by the creative energy generated--there were over 500 entries to this contest. Though only three poets are acknowledged here, I urge you all to continue to create and distribute your works in whatever venues open up to you, because your work is food or medicine for others. On behalf of myself and all who are fed and healed by your words, thank you.
Ken Rumble is the director of the Desert City Poetry Series, a contributing editor of the poetry journal Fascicle, a member of the Lucifer Poetics Group, and a member of the board of Carolina Wren Press. He received an MFA in poetry from Penn State University. His poems have appeared in literary journals including Carolina Quarterly, Parakeet, 5AM, effing magazine, Cranky and others. Key Bridge, his second collection of poems, was a finalist in the 2004 Verse Press Book Prize and a semi-finalist for the Slope Editions Book Prize. Currently, he is organizing the annual fall conference for the North Carolina Writers' Network to be held in Asheville in November.
Tony Tost is the author of Invisible Bride, which was the winner of the 2003 Walt Whitman Award. American Book Review described the book as "one of the more engaging and interesting avant-gardist books of recent memory." Additionally, two chapbooks are forthcoming: World Jelly from Effing Press and Complex Sleep from Desert City Press. Tony is a member of the Lucifer Poetics Group, a Triangle-based collective of innovative-minded writers. After getting married tomorrow in Arkansas, he will begin work on a Ph.D. in English at Duke.
Zelda Lockhart's poetry has appeared in Sinister Wisdom: A Journal of Women's Literature, Word Wright Magazine, and Sojourner: A Women's Forum. She has published one chapbook, and fuses poetry with prose in the writing of her fiction. Her novels include Fifth Born (Simon & Schuster 2002), The Evolution, a serial novella that appeared in USAToday.com's Open Book series, and Cold Running Creek, a lyrically written historical novel, the first to deal with the politics between white, black and Native American plantation owners during the Civil War (appearing this fall by Simon & Schuster). Lockhart teaches workshops in poetry, fiction, non-fiction and folklore in coffee shops, universities, public schools and by the woodstove in her living room. Visit her website at www.zeldalockhart.com.
Be sure to join us Tuesday, June 7 at 7 p.m. for a reading and reception celebrating the contest winners at the Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham.
The reading will include an open mic for the public.