The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov'd with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted.
—William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
There is nothing so heartening about the literary vitality of the Indy's readership than looking at the submissions to our annual poetry contest. We experienced an increase in submissions of nearly 60 percent over last year, and our panel of judges—all poets themselves—struggled mightily to winnow the field down to the verses published in this issue.
In reading the poems, one may notice the persistent theme of music—in one poem a fire rages inside a conservatory (which could be a metaphor for poetry itself), while another was inspired by James Brown and his backing combo. A heavy metal band makes an appearance in a third poem, while the chirpings of mysterious birds may or may not be heard in our winning poem.
This motif of music that courses through our winners may tell us something about the essential function of poetry, regardless of its verse forms and subject matter: That the versifier's task is to make words transcend literalness and harmonize with other similarly liberated words to create new meanings that are as rich as they are surprising. —David Fellerath
Please join this year's winners and some of our judges Friday, April 18, at 8 p.m. for a reading and reception at Open Eye Cafe, 101 S. Greensboro St., Carrboro.
Click to listen to the poets read their poems. You'll need the free Flash Player, if you don't already have it.
Judge's Comments: "AKA Decanter" asks many more questions than it answers; it tells you what is not a lot more than what is; what it offers is equal to what it asks from a reader: engagement. And what a great collection of words! This is a poem written with love for its language and channeled through a mirroring form that turns starlings into ravens, puzzles into jigsaws into enigmas, warbles into windcalls. Field guides are just a record of what one has seen—this poem, with its wealth of surprises, opens up a door on the unseeable, the unsayable. —Ken Rumble
As far as Jenny Jennings Foerst knows, not only is this the first time she's entered the Indy poetry contest, this is the first time she's had a work of verse published. But she's been published before—as a holder of an English Ph.D. Foerst, formerly of Florida, read William Faulkner and Henry James during her studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, and her master's thesis was published in The Faulkner Journal. After completing her dissertation (a post-feminist deconstruction focused on Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! and James' The Golden Bowl) she took a couple of local teaching jobs but didn't go into academia. "My husband was settled here and doing well in high tech industry. Most of the available [college] teaching jobs were in rural areas where you can't get other jobs." Foerst, who lives in Cary with her husband and 12-year-old son, is an editor/ writer at RTI International. Her poetry writing is casual—but chronic. "I just scribble when something comes to me," she says. "I have lots of these that are 10 years old."
Foerst almost didn't submit her winning poem: "I'm very long-winded and academic, and I was looking for a longer [poem]. I couldn't find a longer one in my files, so I opened up the computer and said, 'What is this?' I was under deadline."
Judge's Comments: With "It's A Man's World," Richard Allen has succeeded at something the Godfather himself could not do—articulating James Brown. With the rhythmic flair of longtime James Brown compere Danny Ray, Allen sets the stage for his soulful ode: "Hot lights flood the stage. Turned out in brown gabardine, the baddest band in this Super Bad world." Allen goes further using vivid, colorful language to introduce Brown's macho circle of minutemen, and before Allen's done, we've a panoramic view of the hardest-working band in the land:
"Jabo, stretching out some locomotive eighth-note high hats."
"the slow-burn horn men blowing low blue flames."
Then we're on the road, "Another sojourn on the night train," purveyors of soul, getting the band's inside jokes about James' firm hand while dissecting his groans of approval from his salary-docking grunts.
What Richard Allen has accomplished with "It's a Man's World" is a poetic portrait of Mr. Dynamite and his workings, placing us behind his eyes and in the pocket of the funkiest music ever made. The poem, like the music, bumps on the one and leaves the audience instructing, "one more time from the bridge." —Shirlette Ammons
RICHARD ALLEN studied poetry writing at New York University's M.F.A. program, under the tutelage of Galway Kinnell, an octogenarian who Allen says was "terrifyingly hale and hearty at that age, all his poems about wilderness and mountains."
Allen writes poetry as a sideline to his day job, which is the completion of his third year at Duke's law school before he takes a job next fall with a litigation firm in Washington, D.C.
There's nothing unusual about lawyers writing poetry. "I don't see much conflict—there are other lawyers that write poetry," Allen says. "They're [activities for] different times of day." (When pressed, Allen says poetry is a 2 a.m. occupation, and the law is 8 a.m. to midnight.)
As for his poem, "I was interested in the sideman tradition ... great players playing in crack backing bands," says Allen, who was a DJ at UNC-Chapel Hill's WXYC. "They're some of the hardest-working men in show business, but they're not number one."
Judge's Comments: I'm pleased to be writing about a poem by Debra Kaufman for the second year in a row. Like her winning entry from last year's contest, "The Rushing Way I Went, Where H is the Constant," "Zero" is a plunging pirouette, equal parts grace and speed. It opens with four acrobatic lines that start out as a cheer ("Give me a zero") and end as a tangle of limbs: in other words, "splat, love." I'm glad it's not me who's being so prettily excoriated here, but we've all been on one side or the other of this lopsided equation, and Kaufman's narrative of recrimination and self-reclamation is one with which we can all identify. But the real joy of this poem lies in Kaufman's hummingbird-light touch, which weaves the "callow yellow/ calla lily" and the "bass vibrato of a heavy-metal band" into a tinkling yet emphatic music-box melody. —Brian Howe
For the second year in a row, Debra Kaufman has placed third in the Indy poetry contest, but it's surely a coincidence that her winning entry last year also carried echoes of math and physics: "The Rushing Way I Went, Where H is the Constant."
Kaufman, who lives with her family in Mebane, retired from Duke University two years ago to devote herself to writing full time. In addition to poetry, Kaufman also has been writing plays, which she's done off and on for about 10 years. "When I worked full time, it was hard for me to write plays," she says. "I kind of stopped for a while—it's a bigger undertaking."
Earlier this month, Raleigh's Burning Coal Theatre staged a reading of her one-act, Variations on a Dream—"the first play I wrote after I left Duke. It's an experimental play that takes place in a dream. It's all in dreamscape, you never see the waking person."
Kaufman says the play was influence by Carl Jung. Kaufman says Jung believed that "dreams were expressions of soul.... [There's] the dreamer and the shadow, and the shadow is the part you don't want to look at in the dream life."
Judge's Comments: Con fuoco means "to play with vigor," but the poet takes the literal translation of this musical term—to play "with fire"—and gives us the quirky perspective of an arsonist's delight in an orchestra of destruction. The idea is charming: a beautiful, symphonic kind of arson set at a musical conservatory. Through its striking auditory imagery, this little lyric poem embodies the burning instruments with musical wordplay. We can almost hear the hissing of fire through the S-sound in the lines, "the singe of brass/ drips to the floor like steamy tar." This moment of destruction is also the creation of song. —Jaimee Hills
For some reason, poetry seems unlikely to be inspired by the sort of event that would motivate a television crime show, but according to Jennifer Coon, there really was an arson at the conservatory. "I worked in Toronto, at the Royal Conservatory of Music," she says. "There was an arson at the school—two fires in a week—and we found out it was one of the maintenance guys."
Coon, a native of Ontario, where she published poetry in several Canadian literary journals, moved to Durham a year and a half ago. While her husband works on his Ph.D. in religion at Duke, Coon directs the paralegal training program at Duke Continuing Studies, just a few blocks from her home.
"There are a lot of cultural differences, especially living in the South—I have a lot of things I could be writing about. One of the biggest things for me is that every day I'm reminded that you can carry guns in the U.S.A. You can't carry handguns in Canada."
On the other hand, Coon says, "I could deal with not seeing another flake of snow in my life, even though I'm Canadian. I love the weather here."
Ken Rumble is the author of Key Bridge (Carolina Wren Press, 2007) and President Letters (Scantily Clad Press, 2008.) He is an artist-in-residence at Elsewhere Artist Collaborative and a member of the Lucifer Poetics Group. His poems have appeared in Talisman, Wherever We Put Our Hats, Cranky, Parakeet, Fascicle and others. He lives in Greensboro.
Shirlette Ammons is a poet, writer, musician and director of an arts program for children. Her forthcoming collection of poetry, Matching Skin, will be published by Carolina Wren Press in May 2008 with an accompanying CD and a host of guest artists. Her first collection of poetry, Stumphole: Aunthology of Bakwoods Blood, was published in September 2002. She is also vocalist and co-bassist for the hip-hop rock band mosadi music, whose debut album, The Window, was self-released in 2006. Her poetry and essays appear in The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (University of Georgia Press), What Your Mama Never Told You: True Stories about Love and Sex (Graphia Press), The Asheville Review and other publications. She has received the Kathryn H. Wallace Award for Artists in Community Service and the United Arts Council Emerging Artist Grant for songwriting. Ammons resides in Durham with her partner and their dog, Zaji.
Jaimee Hills lives in Durham and is a freelance writer for the Independent Weekly. Her poetry has appeared in journals such as the Mississippi Review and the Kennesaw Review, and is forthcoming in the online journal Blackbird. Her work was selected for inclusion in the Best New Poets 2006 anthology. She holds an M.A. in Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and she is a former editor of Backwards City Review.
Brian Howe contributes to the Independent Weekly, Pitchfork Media and Paste Magazine. His poems and sound art have appeared in a variety of publications, including Octopus, Fascicle, MiPOesias, McSweeneys.net, Soft Targets, Effing Magazine, Cannibal, Word for / Word and The Village Rambler. He is the creator of the electro-poetic project Glossolalia. His chapbook Guitar Smash was published by Atlanta's 3rdness Press in 2006.