Poetry is a secret vocation for a surprisingly large number of people. Although the material rewards are few—ask Emily Dickinson in the Great Coffeehouse in the Sky how much she earned for her labors—humans from the earliest dawnings of language have sought to make art with words.
Where prose is descriptive and practical, poetry holds out the promise of giving expression to inchoate ideas and impossible suppositions. More than 150 Triangle writers put forth their verses for this year's Indy Poetry Contest. Our enthusiastic judges—habitual poets all—dove into them with gusto and found a delightful array of voices.
Final judge Michael Chitwood chose four winners based on a shortlist created by the preliminary panel. This year's first place winner, Thomas Costello, wins $500 for his first published poem, while the three runners-up will receive $200 apiece.
This Saturday, April 28, at 7:30 p.m., the Indy will honor the winners with a public reading at Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh, along with judge Brian Howe. Early arrivals may sign up to read their own poems after the award winners. We'll have wine and snackables, and you're invited.
and brought a cloudless simmering pulse.
And took with you
some of the things I needed.
If you look up "hot" in the dictionary
there is a North Carolina summer
burning up the pages
wrinkled with humidity.
It is so hot that everyone leaks sticky drops
that hang suspended in the air
and cling to your skin when you take out the trash.
Everyone pants with their mouths open
so the breeze smells like beer and fruit salad.
At the park
next to our house
chickens listlessly round the bases
waddling like weekend warriors
kicking up boiling infield dust
while outside the fence
the mariachi block party
which is held solely for mariachis and their proud families
is letting loose a blaring polka opus
And despite the trumpet players' struggle
to grip their instruments with slippery salted hands
or to play with shut eyes to avoid the horns' brassy reflection
the symphony is hailed as a critical success
by the pasty reporter
under an umbrella
eyeing his moles.
The children tend the tamales
whose scent soaks the air
and travels into my window
so that my sweat tastes like chipotle pollen.
I went to rinse it off
but you took the tub.
Out-of-towners might imagine that it is more temperate in the mountains.
I wonder where the hell they got that idea.
By the second week in July
the asphalt melts and
the roads are a swampy petroleum mess.
The Blue Ridge Parkway turns into a tar river.
Everyone builds rafts
out of old doors and empty propane tanks
and every year
on the first Sunday in August
there's a tar-raft regatta.
And every year
for at least the last ten
Sam Simon, a retired Highway Patrolman from Brevard
wins by a long shot.
I had thought about entering
but I remembered that you took the broom
so I just watched from the tar river banks
without an oar
as the old sergeant surfed to another victory
and another year of fitful sleep
under the gaze of the taxidermied squirrel trophy
dreaming of next August.
It was much easier to deal with the heat last year.
We shared summer duties.
I would fill one hundred glasses of water
and put them around the house
so we could always have a drink.
You oiled the fan
which squawked like a mockingbird
with a speech impediment
so that we could sleep.
I pointed a speaker out the window
and played Tumbling Dice
so that the trees would be inspired to grow bigger
and we could fit in the shade.
You shaved the cats.
I made frozen lemonade.
You cut the sleeves off my t-shirts
while I blew on your damp forehead.
And I remember
how you would tuck the sides of your skirt
in the bottom of your underwear
to cool your crispy legs.
I took out the photo box
so I could remember this is a little better
but you had cut out all of the you's
and taken them.
But I still remembered
that you took all the glasses
so I poured myself a bowl of water
used all the fan oil on the clippers
and set to shaving the cats.
Now summer is gone.
I no longer have to swim
through the thick southern air
or smell the collective pant
of tainted slaw.
The mariachi band is on Late Night
(gracias a nuestras madres)
and the chickens are in the tamales.
Most of the rafts were pulled out of the parkway
although some are stuck
left by teenagers or alcoholics
when the pavement cooled
causing some minor traffic accidents for the October leaf gawkers.
The cats are stubbly
and I've managed to sew my sleeves back on
although some of the left ones are missing.
It's made official
when the weatherman has called for the first frost
and as everyone rushes to the store
to buy bread and milk
I think about chopping some wood
when I remember
you took the axe.
ON THE POEM
What I liked about the winning poem was its surprising images—the pasty reporter eyeing his moles and the "you" shaving the cats because of the heat. Also, I thought it both clever and emotionally true that the poem's main concern, the fact that the you has left, is kept to the side, almost off stage. Like many hard blows, it is always present and yet not the main focus, because if it were the main focus it would be too much to bear. —Michael Chitwood
ON THE POET
A native of Kernersville, N.C., Thomas Costello lives in Raleigh where he is the assistant manager of Vertical Urge, a skateboard shop in North Raleigh. The N.C. State graduate's primary artistic outlet is music: He recently reformed his band, called Mount Weather, with whom he is rehearsing material. Most of Costello's verse writing takes the form of song lyrics, but he says that when he saw the ad for the Indy poetry contest, "I decided to try my hand at something less confining." He explains, "I started with the image of the parkway melting and I thought it was an interesting image." A fan of Gabriel García Márquez, Richard Brautigan and Raleigh poet Eric Amling (Twin Vapor), Costello cites the work of folk singer Bill Callahan (aka Smog) as an influence on his winning poem.
Finally at the water's edge we see
fish bobbing, water-sowing stones,
the yellow-nosed flowers whispering
across your muddy feet and mine.
There's nothing lonely by the river,
everything in pairs at least,
pairs and pairs in congregations.
Your feet are lovely muddy—
they seem so much more here,
your tender arm twined, twinned in mine,
a drawing smile my own smile rhymes,
our heads divine, our hands divine,
our heart and bone and blood divine—
and feet composed of earth, by mud defined,
and you and I are help and blessing,
flesh and blood, water to water,
mud to mud, breath to breath to breath.
ON THE POEM
The best poems are little surprises: Some contain a different perspective, others introduce a lovely juxtaposition of words or images, and a few make the familiar seem new. The latter seems the strength of "Adam and Eve by the River Gihon." We know the story of Adam and Eve and the poem contains dirty feet, bobbing fish and "yellow-nosed flowers." But look again and there are "water-sowing stones" and other signs that, beyond the common story and ordinary nouns, language has sprung to life here. Echoes and repetition bring the poem to song, and the voice, again so mundane and placid, lures us into love, with both a big and little "l". By the time I've reached "your tender arm twined, twinned in mine,/ a drawing smile my own smile rhymes," I'm smitten with the rhythm and the life that beats in this poem, as well as the vitality it lends to the original love story I thought I knew so well. —Tanya Olson
ON THE POET
Gabe Sealey-Morris teaches writing at N.C. State and will soon be moving to Athens, Ga., to work on his Ph.D. in Literature. "My wife will be pleased," he said upon learning he had placed second. "It was my poem to her for our wedding." Morris' creative publications include Earth and Soul: An Anthology of North Carolina Poetry and Mantis. He is also the co-author of Song of the Lesbian Pirates, a short film notorious for frustrating expectations.
As if each day were the same river
The galaxies in our field of view
with variations—one day tires, shingles,
are flying away from us.
a doll bobbing past, the next
The speed and distance of this retreat
a heron, hunched and studious on the bank.
I'd wake up, put in (yes,
the farther away the galaxy,
I had then delusions of steering),
the faster it is moving.
and set in motion this sequence:
Ho = v/d, where H
make coffee, wake and feed the kids,
is the constant,
get them to school on time,
v the recessional velocity
on to my job, the turnpike commute,
of a flying galaxy,
yada yada yada. Evenings, upwind, rewind.
and d its distance away from us.
Where were you?
One recently suggested theory:
In those short remaining hours,
the universe is not as big
your inevitable flights
as we thought—
took away the best parts of us.
when we peer into the distance,
All so long ago. Now I wash dishes
some of the galaxies we see
to the tunes of smoky angels
may be reflections, ghost images
and doves calling from the deep
created by rebounded light.
down of their soft, gray breasts.
ON THE POEM
The title demonstrates the tense balancing act between reeling scenery and logical rigor that keeps this poem precariously aloft. Like an atom or a galaxy, it's swirling and multivalent: Micro- and macrocosm hurtle away from yet contain each other, and then they retract in concert. There are two voices in a taut helix, one careening blankly through the mundane, "Evenings, upwind, rewind." The other scrupulous, shrouded by distance, melting into the orderly calculus of retreating galaxies. But it's impossible to divine the mysterious telemetries set in motion between these contrasting registers—the personal and the abstract—in that ectoplasmic space where all images are "ghost images" and there's no such thing as a fixed point; no formula to solve the distance between where we are and "Where were you?" —Brian Howe
ON THE POET
Despite the subject of her winning poem, Mebane resident Debra Kaufman says she has never studied astrophysics. Instead, she drew on her reading of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. A native of the rural Midwest, Kaufman worked for Duke University for more than 20 years before retiring last year to write full time. Kaufman is the author of two poetry chapbooks—Family of Strangers and Still Life Burning—and a poetry collection, A Certain Light. Her poems have appeared in many literary magazines and anthologies, including Word and Witness: 100 Years of North Carolina Poetry and Writer's Digest Book's The Art and Craft of Poetry. Kaufman is married and has two sons.
Major Sweeney, flying the B-29 named "Bockscar," didn't bomb Hokoru—the primary target for the second atomic bomb—because of haze over the target. Short of fuel, he flew to the second target choice, Nagasaki, which cleared long enough for the bomb to be dropped. It exploded 1,600 feet above the city, instantly killing 40,000 people.
Mister Tadzuo places his water bottle
on a flat stone in the lap of a willow.
Slipping off canvas shoes,
feet as hard as the dirt in his vegetable garden.
Today still doesn't look like rain,
high clouds dull the August sun
that makes armpits sweat
while pulling parsnips and carrots by limp green hair.
Thank you, God, for small favors.
Five miles above a pilot presses a button at his neck.
We'll go to target secondary. Say again. Roger, T-two.
From his map shelf the navigator unrolls a cellophane overlay.
The silver Superfortress tilts gently to port.
ON THE POEM
The poem immediately establishes clear contrasts between nature and man's violent nature through language and image, and the writer never lets the poem go. Mister Tadzuo and Major Sweeney are two men in their respective environments, going about their daily tasks: One just involves dropping a nuclear bomb. Figurative language such as "the lap of a willow" and "feet as hard as the dirt in his vegetable garden" evoke mood and place. We as readers also feel the August heat that day as Mister Tadzuo pulls the vegetables by their "limp green hair." The next line reads "We'll go to target secondary," and we know what happens next. The poem ends as the bomber "tilts gently to port," almost as if the plane has joined the natural world. This line echoes the first line when Mister Tadzuo gently placed his water bottle down on the flat stone before he went to work in his garden. The last word ends with a consonant, mirroring the finality of the situation.—Alice Osborn
ON THE POET
After many years working for IBM, Garry Somers is a stay-at-home dad with a wife, Kristin, and two young daughters (those are the feet of Olivia, 8, below), on 15 acres south of Chapel Hill. When not writing poetry and editing The Blotter Magazine (blotterrag.com), Somers is working to get his first novel published. He has published numerous stories and poems, and in 2003 his poem "The Tomato Man" won second place in the Indy poetry contest. Somers attended the College of Charleston and received a Master's Certificate from George Washington University in Project Management—"which it turns out is a really useful skill for an editor to have." He has a cat named Gettysburg.
Born and raised in the hills of the Virginia Blue Ridge, Michael Chitwood is now a free-lance writer and a visiting lecturer at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Poetry, The New Republic, Threepenny Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Field, The Georgia Review and numerous other journals. He has published five volumes of poetry, including From Whence, released in March 2007 from Louisiana State University Press. Tupelo Press will publish his book Spill in October 2007.
Brian Howe writes about music, books and culture for Pitchforkmedia.com, the Independent Weekly and Paste Magazine, where he is a contributing editor. His poems have appeared in many print and online journals, including Fascicle, MiPOesias, Effing Magazine, Cannibal, Soft Targets, McSweeneys.net, The Village Rambler and Octopus, where he was named a "young hot shot poet" along with former Independent Poetry Contest judge Randall Williams. Howe's first chapbook, GUITAR SMASH, was published by Atlanta's 3rdness Press last year.
Tanya Olson lives in Durham and teaches at Vance-Granville Community College, the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University and Governor's School East. She holds an M.A. in Anglo-Irish Literature from University College, Dublin, and a Ph.D. in 20th-century British Literature from UNC-Greensboro. Her work has been published in, among other places, Cairn, Bad Subjects, Main Street Rag, Pedestal Magazine, Elysian Fields and Southern Cultures. She won first place in the 2005 Independent Poetry contest and reads often in the area, including at the Carrboro Poetry Festival and the Wave Books Poetry Bus tour. She helps co-ordinate Durham's Third Friday, is a member of the Black Socks poetry group, and serves on the board of Carolina Wren Press.
Alice Osborn expresses herself through poetry, songs and personal stories. She is the author of Right Lane Ends and her poems have been recently published in the Iodine Poetry Journal, Mothering Magazine and Windhover. Her poetic influences include Ai, Yusef Komunyakaa and Sharon Olds. She holds her M.A. in English from N.C. State and is a creative writing teacher with Duke Continuing Ed, Encore at N.C. State, OLLI at Duke and the Sertoma Arts Center. She also serves on the board of Carolina Wren Press.