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With poetry, success is measured in fractions

2012 Poetry Issue 

The impossible art

With poetry, success is measured in fractions

Over six years of helping judge the Independent's annual poetry contest, I've had time to reflect upon what distinguishes a prizewinning poem. Polished craft or experimental brio? Metrical finesse or imagistic force? The specific or the universal, mystery or clarity, passion or discipline? Of course, one wants them all. But poetry is an impossible art where success is always measured in fractions. How to decide which fraction comes closest to the whole?

Many things about poetry simply aren't measurable. You can't rank the value of a person's perspective, the authenticity of the poet's emotions or the needs his or her poetry meets—in themselves and in certain ideal readers, for whom most poems are made. Absorbing the submissions, I am always amazed and humbled by the courage and conviction of our local writers. But there are also more measurable qualities of poetry, and paying special attention to them nudges an irrevocably subjective contest a little closer to an objective standard.

One is craft: the control of rhythm, form and tone that singles out poetry from other forms of speech, which can be honed through personal investment as well as academic training. Another is originality of intent, which shines out unmistakably when you read a lot of submissions in a row. Though they wildly diverged in perspective and form, the poems that emerged as contenders all had unique voices, internal organizing principles, deliberate angles and targets.

Of the hundreds of submissions, none met the criteria of visionary freshness and formal expertise quite as thrillingly as Joe Fletcher's "Thousand Hills Radio." It's a very bad dream of eternal war and pestilence and wonder, where darkly ecstatic pronouncements reel around with exquisitely muted intensity. Fletcher's visually complex yet vividly clear images need no amplification: "A wingless bird pried a nut/ from the shadow of a smokestack." But his poem really stood out for its rich and varied versification, which tends to be the least developed quality among submissions to the contest.

Fletcher knows how to spin us around with a grave yet graceful choreography of varied stress patterns, and then suddenly send us skating along a perfectly metered line. He knows how to lift us up with a rising rhythm and then slam us down with a falling one, as in the quotation above. He knows how to speed us up or slow us down by controlling the number of stressed syllables per line, conveying deranged breadth or clipped urgency at will. This stuff doesn't happen by accident. It's evidence of the kind of sustained attention, effort and engagement with poetry this contest seeks out and rewards. —Brian Howe

About the methodology: This year, for the first time, we accepted online submissions in addition to the traditional mailed-in entries. With the help of an intern, we sorted the submissions and sent the poems, nearly 250 of them, to three preliminary judges who reviewed them without knowing the names of the contestants. This panel settled on a short list of 16 poems and forwarded them to Brian Howe, who served as this year's final judge.

Join the winners and judges for our annual winners' reading. This year, we'll be at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham on Wednesday, March 14. The event runs from 7–9 p.m. Snacks and beverages will be served. We hope to see you! —David Fellerath

First place

Thousand Hills Radio
by Joe Fletcher

There was a ship
passed whistling through the star-pierced night.
A cavern of glassy rock where men hatched murders.
The empress's child staggered
behind the peacock, transfixed by
the flickering cosmos in its plumage.
Nightlong the sickly sea sludged
against the sagging sea-wall.

Untouched were the fly-speckled mangoes
on the banquet table.
Beneath blankets beside the cane-clogged creek
sleeping mouths exhaled malarial fumes.

You walked with a knife or
you were hunted.
You shared a cabin with strangers
and learned no names.
Something danced through the windy forest.

The general turned his face to a distant chorus
of diesel grind and someone shrieking.

We looked to the skies for water.

A rusted crane succumbed to the clench of vines
and toward dawn a paw-shaped cloud,
tinged rose, loomed above the horizon.
A priest quivered in the straw.

A doctor fingered the emerald beads on his bracelet.
A wingless bird pried a nut
from the shadow of a smokestack.
Seven metals slumbered in the mountain's red oven.

For all the world's talking, the drenched soil
still burst forth its barbed foliage,
its extravagant blossoms which dazzled
the passing convoy.

Hornets nested beneath the fountain
gurgling in the embassy garden.
Someone's solemn daughter buried
a rabbit beneath a papaya tree.

The pamphlets said nothing of the stench,
the dust-streaked jeeps descending the ridge,
the soldiers' skin so black it was purple,
their breath of goatmeat and mustard.
We saw what happened to the others, and yet:

Here comes the same sun
over the shanties and fish-strewn tidal flats.
Here comes the president,
so close to the screen you can see the elastic on his wig.
Chewing on a root that makes his mouth orange.

For moments there are only the clicking cameras,
like insects devouring images.

And then the clamor of excursions,
the hornblast in the careening marketplace,
buses rumbling through the smoky throats of cities.

The watcher on the ship watches the watcher on the shore.
On the terrace of a shrine a mirror is tilted toward the sun.
Our fingers warm with rooster blood,
we climb the day-splashed slopes.

If there was a word that started us,
no one will say it.

click to enlarge Joe Fletcher - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Carrboro resident Joe Fletcher arrived in the Triangle in 2005 after attending the University of Michigan as an undergraduate in the 1990s. After some years working in Montana and Oregon, he earned an MFA in poetry from UMass and now is working on a Ph.D. in English at UNC-Chapel Hill, with a focus on 18th-century British literature and the history of science.

Which means the chance to study, and work with, the poetry of William Blake, an important figure in his (and any) pantheon. Fletcher is a member of the editorial team behind the William Blake Archive, which gathers the poet's extensive, and often illuminated, corpus to help disseminate the work to scholars and the public.

Fletcher recently saw his chapbook, Already It Is Dusk, published by Brooklyn Arts Press. The 35-year-old has been writing poetry for "16 or 17 years, since I was about 19. What got me started writing [was reading] translated Latin American and French poems in English: Baudelaire and Rimbaud on the French side, Lorca and Neruda on the Spanish side. Coming across that when I was younger made me want to try it."

His winning poem takes some of its effects from reports of the Rwanda genocide, as well as time Fletcher has spent in Africa, but he emphasizes that the work is that of his imagination. The poem is also an example of one distinctive aspect of Fletcher's method: He likes to start with a title and an image.

"Some kind of image that triggers the process, build a world cluster without forethought or preconception. I came across the title—when I hear a title or phrase, I try to mark it or record it in some fashion. Then I return to it, my 'title bank.'"

Not all of his poems are written this way, he says, "but I feel lucky when that happens. Then I just have to write the poem!" —David Fellerath

Second place

In ten minutes, everything
by Jill A. Coyle

3:00 There's a tag in my dress and my neck is itchy. I bite my lip. I shift my weight. I reach behind to scratch. I try to do it casually.

3:01 I pick at my hemline. I grab at loose threads. The hem is unraveling. My best dress is unraveling and I can't stop my fingers from pulling at things. My favorite dress is unraveling. Should I cut the string?

3:02 The clock burns. It is a burning pool of wax. Time melts and runs together and sticks there. The back of my neck is itchy.

3:03 I adjust my hair, then my belt, then my hair, then my sleeve. Now my lip is hurting.
Where's that paperclip? A paperclip now would solve everything.

3:04 I notice the floor. On the floor are my feet. I manipulate the straps of my sandals. I consider my bare feet. I consider the cut on my heel. It's been red for decades. I note its linearity.

3:05 I find the paperclip. I bend it out of shape. The metal digs into my fingers. I have to fight the paperclip. I have to make it straight.

3:06 What I need now is a stapler. A stapler now would be just the thing I need. Or how about some water? If only I had a drink....they make fountains for these contingencies.

3:07 That didn't take long- should've gone all the way to the sink. I find the stapler. The stapler is jammed. It's been jammed since last week.

3:08 There's a piece of lint on the desk. One can see the lint better if one regards it at an angle of 90 degrees. I regard it at 90 degrees. The lint is green. It reminds me of your sweater, your sweater reminds me of the sea, the sea reminds me of everything.

3:09 The clock burns; time glows, a white circle. I've seen jellyfish trailing tentacles like living strings. They're translucent, effervescent, beautiful, but I'm pretty sure they sting. This poison is ancient. It supersedes you and me.

3:10 The back of my neck is itchy.

Judge's Comment: Allen Ginsberg, in a poetry workshop, once told us that poetry is the perpetual asking and answering of the question "What is my condition?" This poem enacts that working definition moment by moment through a carefully braided series of time-stamped observations. The compulsive narrator of Jill A. Coyle's "In ten minutes, everything" is both attentive to and distracted by haptic minutiae, which determines her staccato sentences. Each logged minute ratchets up her anxiety level.

That ratcheting is dramatic. In early lines, the lip biting and itchy tag raise the possibility of trauma, which the cut heel confirms at the 3:04 mark. Her unraveling clothing, needing constant adjusting, sets a frayed psychological tone, which is explained at 3:08 when the second character is mentioned. The causal power that this other person has over the narrator is frightening—sweater lint instantly telescopes into the vast sea, and then into "everything." Yikes.

The poem's sole memory, of poisonous jellyfish tentacles, affords the narrator some way to re-center herself, but the final line suggests that this 10-minute sampling of thought is cyclic. And the most harrowing thing about the poem is how mundane the cycle seems to be. —Chris Vitiello

click to enlarge Jill A. Coyle - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Contestants in the Indy poetry contest will sometimes include a wild card among their entries. This year, Jill A. Coyle found that the judges had been impressed by her dark-horse inclusion, "In Ten Minutes, Everything."

"It was experimental," she admits. "I was just playing around and making associations. The style and topic are unusual for me, and I wrote it indoors. Usually I write outdoors. I also use nature imagery—though I got nature imagery in there at the end, with the jellyfish."

The 37-year-old Pennsylvania native came to the area in 1996, and she now lives in Cary. Coyle earned a Ph.D. in classical literature from Duke, and this semester she's returned to school to work on a different course of literary studies: a master's program at N.C. State to study the connections between the classics and modern literature.

Did her poem come from an experience at work? "It did," she says. "I like to keep a notepad with me and I try to find 10 minutes [every day] to write in it."

Her contemporary influences include the modern contemporary poet David Lee ("He was the poet laureate of Utah a few years back. I love his stuff.") and former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins.

Other than a period of publishing ambition in middle school, Coyle has kept her poetry confined as a private pursuit for most of her life. But two years ago, she started submitting her poems for publication. Thus far, her work as appeared in Avocet, a New York-based journal of nature poetry; Main Street Rag of Charlotte and Blueline, a publication out of the Adirondacks. —David Fellerath

Third place

I would invent a reset button
by Maria Isabelle Carlos

I would walk backwards by the front desk.
The rack of brochures would teeter upright,
Pamphlets floating from the floor, You are not alone
and You will be heard settling neatly into stacks.

Back inside the counseling room, I would sit
on the too-soft couch and stare at her sad brown eyes,
her pen moving right-to-left across a sheet of paper,
scratching out phone numbers, email addresses,

names of others with sorry eyes who would only
send me elsewhere. My mouth would take back words,
swallow my aunt's stories: boyfriends with fists,
spilled wine creeping back into the bottle,

bruises on my cousin's wrists fading from blue.
The counselor would lift a glass of water
from the coffee table between us: glossy liquid
streaming upward into the mouth of a jug,

and there would be no ringed evidence on the table.
No knock on the maroon front door,
no timid call through the intercom.
And later, driving, when I would see her

crossing Rosemary Street—head bent in the sun,
eyes seeking mine through the windshield—
there would be no flash of recognition, no sinking
of shoulders. There'd be nothing to remember.

Judge's Comment: Upon reading "I would invent a reset button," by Maria Isabelle Carlos, I was immediately struck by the poet's precise control over the poem's backwards narrative thread. The poem takes a risk in leading the reader through its events in reverse order, but it is Carlos' attention to detail with images like a pen "moving right-to-left across a sheet of paper" and "spilled wine creeping back into the bottle" that grounds the reader in this world with "a reset button." As I read the poem again, I noticed not only is the pace of the poem fantastically controlled, but so too is the poem's form. The reader encounters lines of almost identical length presented in quatrains. Content-wise, this poem suggests a turbulent scenario—"bruises on my cousin's wrists fading from blue." To impose such a constrained form on an unsettling subject was an intelligent, effective choice by Carlos. —Bridget Bell

click to enlarge Maria Isabelle Carlos - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Maria Isabelle Carlos isn't just any 20-year-old junior at UNC-Chapel Hill. She happens to hold a prestigious distinction as a Thomas Wolfe Scholar. Named for the author of the Asheville, N.C., roman à clef Look Homeward, Angel, her all-expenses-paid scholarship is given to one member of each incoming freshman class, based on creative-writing merit alone.

The award is what brought this Missourian to Chapel Hill, but she says her Indy poetry prize is her first publication outside of The Cellar Door, a UNC literary magazine. With her winning poem, she says, "I wanted to convey the speaker's memory without being sentimental ... [I wanted to] resolve her obsession with the detail and her desire to forget it."

Carlos is "definitely primarily a poet. I'm not a very good prose writer—there are too many words," she adds with a laugh. Her work is focused on family and relationships, with a particular interest in her Filipino heritage. After graduation, Carlos plans to "take a few years off, work on my writing, earn some money, then get an MFA and teach."

At UNC, her mentors include Michael McFee, not to mention the poets she knows through their work: "There are so many poets I look up to: Stephen Dunn—direct images and straightforward yet has profound things to say. And Theodore Roethke: I love the music of his language, the rhythm and imagery. The Far Field is one of my favorite collections." —David Fellerath

Honorable Mention

Clarification:
by Andrew Bryson

People who live in glass houses are
letting them go all to seed;
wisely allowing the ivy
to grow up and over,
and, hopefully, cover them totally
(chimneys excepted);
pruning back only
those vines that entangle the downspouts,
that threaten the gunholes
or air-intake vents.

People who live in glass houses
have stopped getting stoned,
but still they grow paranoid; often
the feeling of somebody watching,
of being sealed up in a coffin,
steal on them softly and awfully,
they pause in the kitchen,
stare into the distance,
and stir at their coffee.

People who live in glass houses
jar their own jams, preserves that remain
on a shelf in the basement—
and from an adjacent hillside,
on a stormy night sometimes, one sees through the floors,
dramatically lit from behind under thunder,
sprawled out in rows like an army of pottery soldiers,
the syrupy fruits of their labors.

And people who live in glass houses keep lamps lit
well after transacting their day's worth of business;
for people who live in glass houses alone
know that sound is to water as ghost is to window.

Judge's comment: Andrew Bryson's poem "Clarification" takes the old glass houses adage, a potential minefield for cliché, and makes it wonderfully strange. The poem moves cinematically from stanza to stanza, each bearing its own delicately sketched image of isolation and paranoia. People shiftlessly "stir at their coffee," "wisely allowing the // ivy to grow up and over" the entire structure. Night and the elements constantly evade the protagonist's control, seeping in through the very foundation of the house. Regret and failure hang in the dark atmosphere of Bryson's poem. And then the stunning last line: "for people who live in glass houses alone // know that sound is to water as ghost is to window." This final ghostliness just quietly gets under your skin. —Laura Jaramillo

click to enlarge Andrew Bryson - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Andrew Bryson, a 24-year-old Durham native, is taking a break from his studies in geography at UNC-Chapel Hill. Currently living at home with his parents, he's driving a delivery car as he makes plans to return to school. The truck-driving gig gives him some important mental space.

"I've been writing a lot ... and listening to lots of music that I never got to listen to before," he says. "I began writing poetry seriously at the beginning of last year," he says, and last summer he wrote "Clarification," the only poem he submitted to the Indy.

"'Clarification' was inspired by some of my good friends," he says. "I like the images of glass house, the turning inward but being relatively open to the world ... watching time pass, people not giving up ideals." He says that the glass house in the poem was also inspired, but by an actual "cool, weird modernist house" of his acquaintance.

Asked for his current poetic enthusiasms, Bryson says, "I've been reading Milton, and also John Berryman—the form of 'Clarification,' I think I stole from him. Well, not exactly."

And another writer who comes to mind with "Clarification" is Walter Benjamin, Bryson says. "He wrote something like, 'To live in glass house is a revolutionary virtue par excellence.'

"I don't think I was thinking of that when writing it, but I thought it was funny." —David Fellerath

Judge biographies

click to enlarge Brian Howe - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRIAN HOWE
  • Photo courtesy of Brian Howe
  • Brian Howe

Brian Howe, a freelance writer, editor and poet living in Chapel Hill, has been on the judges' panel of the Indy's annual poetry contest since 2007. During that time, he has issued electronic chapbooks on the Beard of Bees and Scantily Clad imprints; featured poets such as Heather Christle, Tony Tost and Tanya Olson in the Wax Wroth Reading Series; and published his poems in various journals. His recent work can be found online in the new "Revolution Issue" of Esque and in print in The Poetics of American Song Lyrics, a new anthology from the University Press of Mississippi. Visit waxwroth.blogspot.com for more.

Chris Vitiello's third book of poetry, Obedience, is coming out from Ahsahta Press at the end of the month. His previous books are Nouns Swarm a Verb (Xurban, 1999) and Irresponsibility (Ahsahta, 2008). He is a Durham-based arts and culture writer for a variety of publications, including the Independent Weekly.

Bridget Bell teaches English at Vance-Granville Community College and Durham Technical Community College. She is also an associate editor at Four Way Books, a nonprofit literary press based in New York City, and the executive director of The Hinge, a volunteer-run literary organization serving the Triangle area.

Laura Jaramillo is a poet from Queens, N.Y., living in Durham. She is the author of chapbooks, The Reactionary Poems (Olywa Press) and Civilian Nest (Love Among the Ruins). Her first full-length book, Material Girl, is forthcoming in March 2012 from subpress.

  • With poetry, success is measured in fractions

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