Although poetry commands only a small slice of the commercial literary market, one needs to look no further than the inauguration of President Barack Obama to realize the continuing centrality of the form to the American imagination. In "Praise Song for the Day," Elizabeth Alexander declaimed,
Someone is trying to make music somewhere, with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum, with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus. A farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.
Indeed. Everywhere in the Triangle, from Wake Forest to Saxapahaw and points in between, Indy readers honed their writing implements and put their inchoate thoughts, feelings and impulses into alphanumeric characters.
Our preliminary judges read approximately 300 poems submitted by more than 150 readers. As always, it was an impressive snapshot of the private literary toils of our fellow citizens, and it never fails to inspire awe.
A note about the judging: We'd planned to have the finalists judged by Piedmont poet laureate Jaki Shelton Green, but a health issue sidelined her at the last minute. (She will make a full recovery.)
Fortunately, Durham poet kathryn l. pringle agreed to step in. She judged the 10 finalists and wrote a commentary about the first-place poem without knowing the writer's identity.
In a small-world coincidence not uncommon in Triangle literary circles, the first-place winner, Christopher Salerno, turned out to be a curator of a reading series pringle is scheduled to participate in later this year. She has never met him, did not know he'd entered the contest and had not read his winning poem prior to the contest. —David Fellerath
Judge's Comments: "Whirl" presents us with a world that is both completely familiar and completely disorienting. There are buildings, there are creatures, there is snow. There is evidence of humanity: grief, embarrassment, logic and duty. This sense of familiarity, what we know to be true about the world, about things and ideas in the world, is then adjusted, just so. Yes, there are buildings, but the buildings have a life that is their own. There are birds and bugs, but they are "prototypes." The world of "Whirl" is seductive and sterile, like "gladioli left all day in elevators." This poem, this "Whirl," is an artful ride through a futuristic, but all too familiar, world. A ride I am happy to have taken. —kathryn l. pringle
The chilly urban milieu of Christopher Salerno's winning poem is a product of a childhood spent in New Jersey, 30 miles from New York City. "The landscape reaches back to my childhood in a lot of my work," he says. "Whirl" was written as a personal capstone to his first book of poetry, Whirligig, but was not published in that volume. Rather, Salerno plans to include it in a new manuscript he is preparing. Salerno received an M.F.A. from Bennington College, where he studied with the late Liam Rector. For the last six years, he has been an English lecturer at N.C. State while pursuing his writing. He's a poetry editor for the Raleigh Quarterly and organizes poetry events in Raleigh as co-curator of the So and So Reading Series. He has recently been published in such journals as American Letters and Commentary, Carolina Quarterly and The Laurel Review. —David Fellerath
Judge's Comments: This poem makes the misery and gloom of walking in a downpour seem fun by raining metaphors and playful phrases like "dewy parapluies." (The next time you're out walking, take notice of the sidewalk puddles of "weak tea with milk.") The crowded city street in the rain and the spectacle of so many umbrellas is commonplace, but the poem continually seeks new ways to describe the phenomenon: crowded sidewalks are "like rivers/ overflowing with tumbling lumber/ as the loggers send/ the days' work downstream," while the umbrellas "bob overhead like/ concerned circles of motherly bats" or are "summoned to bloom like toadstools." Each umbrella is a "sanctuary" that also becomes a hazard to others: "some/ umbrella talon, orb-hungry,/ might claw out my eye." And in the paradox of a crowd of people each isolated under their own umbrella, a telling symbol for modern alienation, the speaker proclaims: "I fear the oblivion/ that accompanies their dry security." —Jaimee Hills
UNC sophomore Alisha Gard is in the middle of her first college-level creative writing class, with professor Michael McFee. But the Raleigh native has been writing for a long time. "I was writing in the sandbox," she says. "I really started seriously in high school, at Cary High, in poetry clubs." Her winning effort, which is her first published poem, came from her experience dashing to her astronomy class on a rainy day. "I actually don't like to edit," she says. Her poems "are a reflection of my thoughts, not something I work on for an extended period." Gard hasn't declared a major but is considering English, with a creative writing minor "and maybe some French thrown in." Among her favorite poets are Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop and T.S. Eliot, and she's currently "enamored of Pablo Neruda." —David Fellerath
Judge's Comments: Rainer Maria Rilke advised the young poet Franz Kappus to avoid the "big themes." It was sage advice: The big themes downplay what the poet actually knows—the personal—and as such, they risk floating off into the ether. Themes don't get much bigger than the nature of time, yet the author of "The One We're Waiting For" handles it admirably, by rooting it in something palpable and familiar: an NBA basketball game, its orbits and ellipses mirroring the wheeling celestial bodies overhead. The poem is a spindle housing three diminishing, conceptual layers, drawing out symmetries between them: the motions of the cosmos, the motions on the court, and the universes inside of us all. In all three arenas, time is running out, but there is plenty of wonder to be had ("We're on Mars!"). I also enjoyed the extremities of language in this poem. Its vocabulary admits "pee" and "beer" as well as headier words like "oesophageal" and "dactylic," these moments of linguistic opacity shaking us into renewed attention. —Brian Howe
Wake Forest resident James A. Hawley has lived all over: He went to college in Arizona and later spent time in California, Central America and New York. He eventually settled in Chicago, where he was a production supervisor for the Chicago Tribune. After he and his wife wearied of life next to Lake Michigan, they looked around, rejected other regions as "too rainy," "too far" and "too hot." North Carolina turned out to be just right. Hawley has published in the Brooklyn Review, the Iowa Review and the Salt River Review. His prize-winning poem is taken from a manuscript called Vezelay, for which he is seeking publication. These days, he works for a small signage business in Raleigh and writes at home. "This is my one talent. I don't have a lot of time—just a few hours a week—so I have to write when I can." —David Fellerath
Judge's Comments: This poem has a delicate touch in its selection of detail; something as simple as "your knuckles/ flatten in sleep" shows how keenly a parent observes an infant. The domestic scene, the interplay between parent and child, grounds itself in a long literary tradition—first by referencing Shakespeare, but also through the presence of the nightingale and mockingbird, traditional emblems of the poet. The title plays with the idea of the home as a domestic office, but also makes reference to the work done as poet, a keen observer of the world, as when she sees "three pears that ripen on the white window/ sill." Nor are the eyes the only sense that observes. Here, the nose: "Someone is burning leaves./ And the fire loosens its hair." And the ears' "offices of truth" can be found in the simplicity and forthright sentiment of the last lines: "What the mockingbird sings, heard low/ in the mesh of trees at dusk, is a lay/ of truth: love more than you can." —Jaimee Hills
Chapel Hill resident C.P. Mangel will never be accused of tossing off a poem. "I write very slowly and revise endlessly," she says. Indeed, the first draft of her winning poem was composed 20 years ago, "when my child was a toddler. I revised it one more time, a week before I sent it to you," she says. Although she acknowledges that the subject of her poem is personal, "I find myself unable to talk about my poems. My philosophy is, 'There's the poem. It either works or it doesn't.' I personally feel my background is irrelevant." Mangel, who is working toward an M.F.A. degree after two decades as an attorney, has published her work in such journals as Arch and Quiver, Cold Mountain Review and Sojourner. She describes herself as a big fan of such local poets as Gerald Barrax, Michael Chitwood, Mimi Herman and Alan Shapiro. —David Fellerath
kathryn l. pringle is a Durham resident and a graduate of the M.F.A. program at San Francisco State University. Her book, RIGHT NEW BIOLOGY, is just out from Factory School/Heretical Text Series. She is the author of The Stills (Duration Press) and Temper & Felicity are Lovers (TAXT). Her poems can be read in The Denver Quarterly, Fence, 14 hills, 580 Split and Sidebrow, among others. She is an editor at the literary magazine minor/american, and the co-founder of the minor american reading series. Contact her at kathrynlpringle.blogspot.com.
- Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
- Jaimee Hills
Jaimee Hills lives in Durham and is a freelance writer for the Independent. Her manuscript, Symbolophobia, is a finalist for the 2008 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in journals such as the Mississippi Review, Blackbird and Confrontation Magazine, and was also selected for the Best New Poets 2006 anthology.
- Photo courtesy Brian Howe
- Brian Howe
Brian Howe, an Independent contributor, is a Durham-based journalist, artist and poet. His poetry and sound art have appeared in such outlets as Fascicle, McSweeneys.net, MiPoesias, Effing, Cannibal, Octopus and Soft Targets. He is the author of three poetry chapbooks, including This is the Motherfucking Remix (with Marcus Slease; Scantily Clad; 2008). His experimental video work (with Ashley Howe) has screened at the Asheville Fringe Festival and other venues. He is a member of the N.C.-based Lucifer Poetics Group, and recently edited a portfolio of their work for TheFanzine.com. He maintains his multimedia project, Glossolalia, at glossolalia-blacksail.blogspot.com.
First Place audio recorded by Christopher Salerno; all other audio recorded by D.L. Anderson.