Each year's poetry winners seem to coalesce—surely unintentionally—around a theme. The first-, second- and third-place poems all seem brought to us by the number three: the insinuating repetitions of the word "tricolores" in Ricky Garni's first-place "The Waiter Offered To..."; the cutting open of three animals in Matthew Valades' second-placer; and the three kinds of "scapes" envisioned by Alisha Gard in her third-place poem. Only P.J. Gallo broke the pattern with his Honorable Mention effort, "American Repercussion" (although it does evoke three colors—red, white and blue—that bring us back to Garni's poem).
Whimsical connections aside, our three initial reading judges, all busy local poets and Indy contributors, reviewed a strong batch of submissions to deliver a short list of finalists to our grand judge, Chris Tonelli. Readers may notice that there are no Wake County winners this year (although our third-place finisher grew up there), but it's surely not by design, as Tonelli lives and works in Raleigh, where he teaches in the English department of N.C. State.
Congratulations to this year's winners. All of the winners as well as three of the judges will read from their work Tuesday, April 19, 6-8 p.m. at Nightlight in Chapel Hill. Admission is free and we'll provide snacks. Join us! (See the Facebook event.) —David Fellerath
"The Waiter Offered To..."
by Ricky Garni
Judge's Comments: Uncertain what the waiter is offering? Really? In the midst of what he himself describes as a deluge of pepper, the wary cynicism of Garni's speaker comes off more diabolical than skeptical. His patronizing cluelessness ("Why his Angelica left him I will never know") and fondness for poor Sal ("We like Sal") only emphasizes this for the reader. And yet, there is of course reason for the speaker to be wary; Sal's incessant pepper grinding may be the only thing keeping him from doing something rash—I'm picturing the scene from High Fidelity in which John Cusack's character daydreams of killing his nemesis (the pony-tailed, exotic cooking guru played by Tim Robbins) with an air conditioning unit. But the narrator's lack of self-awareness makes it clear that the two obvious answers to his question "What is the waiter offering?"—either pepper or revenge for stealing his wife—would be impossible for him to even consider. And to think, this isn't even a narrative poem. In fact, this poem reminds me more of Gertrude Stein's portraits and their language-based repetitions, or even of James Tate's or Russell Edson's brand of surrealism, than it does of more narrative works. Which is the genius of the poem really. The fact that it combines all of these elements so intelligently, so entertainingly, is kind of a miracle. —Chris Tonelli
This is not the first time Ricky Garni, a Carrboro resident, has published in the Indy. In the early 1990s, the Miami native wrote a wine column, so it's fitting that his poem has a gustatory flair. Garni says he was drawn here by the "silliness of slightly snooty food nomenclature." Indeed, no one reading his poem will be able to order anything "tricolores" without a slight smirk. (Garni says the term has various culinary uses, but here refers to a "three-colored rotini pasta dish, alfredo.")
These days, Garni is a graphic designer who works with a regional wine distributor. He's a fan of New York School poets like Ron Padgett and Kenneth Koch, but becomes especially animated in sharing his enthusiasm for younger writers who are publishing online, including Misti Rainwater-Lites, Leigh Stein and Rob MacDonald.
"I have always been interested in poetry where the sadness was in soft focus, somehow present in the piece but at the same time concealed by a distracting joy," Garni says. "The sadness here is one of betrayal—and the distraction is not that of joy so much as it is the ritual of food."
"Cutting Open Animals"
by Matthew Valades
some kind of crime
remind me of
you have to start
near the asshole.
a few times
when I was
by his knife
and our hands.
a grainy warm
i only remember that
it smelled and
we didn't eat them.
Judge's Comments: I couldn't shake this miniature triptych for a few reasons. First, its brevity is evocative without being vague. The repetition of "crime" in the first poem conveys reflection, even self-doubt—in six words. Many tiny poems read like bumper stickers or Facebook posts, but this one is a lovely amalgam of form and content. Doing a lot with a little—Ezra Pound's condensare edict—is a poetic virtue. Next, the mucus image at the poem's geographic center anchors it in gritty realism rather than a lame lyricism. The last reason I dug this poem is that I learned some new information from it. Now I know where to start when skinning a deer, for instance. I'm not as interested in windows into other people's souls (I mean, I already have a soul, apparently) as in windows into other places, lives and experiences. "Cutting Open Animals" might be just a triple peephole, but it's crystalline. —Chris Vitiello
Of our winners, Matthew Valades is the most recent arrival to the Triangle, moving from Brooklyn first to Silk Hope, then Pittsboro, in November of last year. Describing himself as a "half-student, half-farmer," he is taking classes in native plants and ecology. "Cutting Open Animals" was inspired by his stay at Silk Hope, he says, when he watched the skinning of a deer.
"In trying to learn more about forest ecology, plants and farming," he continues. "I'm also finding it necessary to cut through all the crap that society pulls to make us think that this kind of knowledge isn't necessary." He reads books on botany and nature, but his reading list also includes a "very good book called Black Nature, which is a collection of 400 years of African-American nature poetry, edited by Camille Dungy. I finished that book the day I wrote this poem."
by Alisha Gard
There was a man with wind-up hands who lived like a child in a closet. But when the children
came, to shuffle against each other and stare, he shooed them away saying, "You are not
potatoes; you cannot grow in the dark. Go outside and let the sun fall down on you." They turned
to leave with faces too solemn and leather shoes that squeaked. He never called them back but
his neck would ache from craning to see them go, and from watching for their return. Sometimes
they brought offerings in their tiny hands—acorn caps, jelly jars fogged with breath, strips of
film. Sometimes leaves which were never as vibrant the day after, which crumbled to dust in his
books. Everyone said he will never accept a radio because he only knows how to dream alone.
To this day, he sits bent with coattails brushing his head.
Together we are making something. I have grains of sugar between my fingers and your teeth are
stained purple with beets. I tell myself the color comes from crisp sweet plums and kiss you to
prove it. We are writing everything down as it comes to us; we are patient with quill and ink. But
the script of our lives is senseless on paper, and the letters keep growing tails, and ears to hear.
You promise, "When we are finished we will have a formula to stop the death of the heart." I say
I hope it's good for eating. Periodically, we lick spoons and scrape the insides of bowls. You ask
me what it tastes like, and when I know, I'll tell you.
There Are No Ducks
My mother thinks there's something poetic about a yard full of roosters. The lone goose,
however, is like a sentence trying to end with a semi-colon, as he stutter-steps past the laying
house upon his mismatched legs. But my legs are strong, even if my ankles are thin, and I need
no wings to balance me. Mother says people forget how to be glad, so she insists that I lose
myself to joy regularly. I flail my arms in the ivy; I leap out of my baths and leave wet footprints
that flicker like gold on the whirling wooden floors. The floors like amber and honey that my
father laid down, almost as gently as he laid down my mother. She comes to my bedside each
night to tell me that the center of the universe smells like raspberries, that I can know this for
myself. Outside the goose heaves himself into the washtub half-submerged in the ground, and
peers toward my window with a gleam in his depthless eye.
Judge's Comments: Alisha Gard's "Three Scapes" is an inspiring exercise in the fantastical that reads like a triptych of abstract short fiction bound by vivid imagery. Bloch, the first installment, begins, "There was a man with wind-up hands who lived like a child in a closet." No less than a Lewis Carroll novel, it exaggerates loneliness, playing in the realms of innocence and naiveté where solitude is an exercise in "how to dream alone."
The Keepers, the second "interval" of "Three Scapes," highlights a palate-rich lather of purple tones as the narrator, creating a meal with a lover, paints dense, violet metaphors for love and its nameless recipe. "I tell myself the color comes from crisp sweet plums," the narrator discloses, "and kiss you to prove it."
The triplet closes with There Are No Ducks, which performs much like a photo from a family scrapbook captioned with mother's anecdotes: "Mother says people forget how to be glad, so she insists I lose myself to joy regularly."
"Three Scapes" appeals to the secret compartment in us where dreams secure themselves from an all-too-encroaching reality while showering our most discerning poet, and more important, our inner child, with whimsical flights of the imagination. —Shirlette Ammons
Alisha Gard, the lone poet among this year's winners who has won before, is also the only one who is still in college. She's in her senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she majors in English and also studies French and German, two languages she would like to write in someday. Gard, a Raleigh native, says that in the time since she placed second in 2009, she has become a wiser, more knowledgeable writer. "I realize now that when I started out I knew nothing, I hadn't read anything!" She's delighted that of the three poems she submitted, it was her riskiest, most experimental entry that attracted notice. "It was a dark horse poem," she admits. "But I thought it would be killer if it won." For "Three Scapes," she credits the influence of Charles Simic and his 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection called The World Doesn't End. "I've been passing it to everyone I know," she says.
by P.J. Gallo
A man in velvet
pants moves a little more
like a panther than we do. She wants him more
than she wants a dead bird under her
tire. Modern is perpetually modern.
A wonderful equestrian thing.
A hot marsh
where hot bourbon drinks may even hel
assuage the heat of summer. You may not
publish an article on a lost diver
found fifty years after without a photograph
of his skeleton hands.
A man in velvet pants seems interesting, learns
everything from sports radio, says,
"The story of America, the highway.
This is my idea." The sensation of a marsh
constricting cold, offgassing under a wonderful
equestrian thing, hooves and bleating.
Strings of popcorn wound
around New England's Christmas trees.
It is Christmas!
A lost diver lives the length of an air supply
braced under every variable of the Atlantic Ocean.
A lobster lives a lobster-length life.
Judge's Comments: This poem is tight as a steel trap, which leaves us to wonder: What, exactly, holds it together? There are some recurring motifs, like the man in velvet pants and the lost diver. There are skewed aphorisms wedged amid the oblique descriptive elements, such as the supremely mysterious final line (good rule of thumb for a poem: leave them wondering). And there are thoughtful enjambments that create little beats of suspense before the lines resolve in surprising ways. But there doesn't seem to be a single story, emotion, or point to extract here: The poem proceeds according to its own strange and compelling logic, and summons intuitions too alloyed for narrative to handle, just as a poem should. Most of all, what holds "American Repercussion" together is the poet's unflinching adherence to the specificity of his vision, where the enigmatic interplay of striking images never succumbs to the obvious or literal. —Brian Howe
The 25-year-old P.J. Gallo works in the admissions office at UNC Law School. Before arriving here two years ago, he studied English at Virginia Tech and received an MFA in poetry from the New School in Manhattan. While he says his influences are "probably everything I've ever read," he does allow that with "American Repercussion," there is a distinct John Ashbery influence. Who is the man in velvet? "I was thinking about humans and animals," Gallo replies. He chose velvet as a way to express the "way humans become like animals by putting clothes on."
Chris Tonelli is one of the founding editors of Birds, LLC, an independent poetry press. He also founded and curates the So and So Series and edits the So and So Magazine. He is the author of four chapbooks, most recently No Theater (Brave Men Press) and For People Who Like Gravity and Other People (Rope-A-Dope Press), and his first full-length collection, The Trees Around, came out in April. New work can be found in upcoming issues of The Laurel Review and Fou. He teaches at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where he lives with his wife, Allison, and their son, Miles.
Shirlette Ammons is a poet, writer, musician and director of an arts program for children. Her second collection of poetry, titled Matching Skin, was published by Carolina Wren Press in June 2008. She is also vocalist and songwriter for hip-hop rock band Mosadi Music. Her poetry and essays appear in The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (edited by Nikky Finney, University of Georgia Press), What Your Mama Never Told You: True Stories About Love and Sex (edited by Tara Roberts, Houghton Mifflin), The Asheville Review and other publications. Shirlette is also a Cave Canem Fellow. She is currently working on a collaborative project with Chapel Hill-based band The Dynamite Brothers, due out this spring.
Brian Howe is an Independent contributor and a poetry contest-judging veteran. His poems have appeared in many print and online journals, most recently in Past Simple, Horse Less Journal and So-and-So Magazine, as well as in chapbooks from Scantily Clad and Beard of Bees presses. He capriciously runs the Wax Wroth reading series, which has featured Tony Tost, Heather Christle, Chris Tonelli and others. He keeps a blog at waxwroth.blogspot.com.
Chris Vitiello is a freelance writer, editor, teacher and half-polymath. He lives in Durham with two terrific daughters. His books include Obedience (Ahsahta, forthcoming 2011), Irresponsibility (Ahsahta, 2008) and Nouns Swarm a Verb (Xurban, 1999).