This year, we decided to move INDY Week's poetry contest to April to coincide with National Poetry Month. As it happens, several of our winners have ties to organizations devoted to the appreciation and practice of the art.
We had well over 100 entries this year, and our screening judges read all of them and produced a baker's dozen of finalists to this year's head judge, Howard L. Craft.
Please join us for a winners reading at 4 p.m. April 27 at McIntyre's Books in Fearrington Village. —David Fellerath
by Marjorie Schratz McNamara
We made one
once, me and my sweet
Cassie. Just a try
like those prissy
cookbook photos: marble
swirls, not shooters
or cat-eyes, child.
You wanted to hoard
that bowl of chocolate
batter: I thought what
does it matter—you always
liked the chocolate,
even then. It said to alternate
the colors, meaning to keep them
separate. So we spooned
the batters straight;
then tongue tipped determined
between your teeth,
you pulled chocolate
delighted to see
that all turned
to chocolate—like this boy
you now tell me
you mean to marry.
The best poems are the ones we come back to because they move us and they make us think. That thinking usually leads us beyond the poem to a personal place where we question things deeply. The best poems use poetic devices strategically; they have flow, rhythm and sound. They are tongue tipped determined like the poem "Marble Cake."
The power of this poem comes from the voice of the mother and the authenticity of the situation the author uses as a metaphor for her daughter marrying a black man. The poem breaks down in subtle details the mother's feeling about race as she retells all the signs she missed that should have hinted at her daughter's actions. The poem works on multiple levels, using vivid imagery appealing to our senses and putting us in the kitchen with the mother and daughter while the baking takes place. The poem leaves us wanting to know what happens next. We care; we are invested; that's what the best poems do to us, and "Marble Cake" is this year's best. —Howard Craft
Marjorie Schratz McNamara almost didn't enter this year's INDY Week poetry contest. It took a reminder from a friend and fellow poet for her to submit her entries to the contest.
So McNamara entered, and she included the striking, autobiographical effort that inspires the cover of this issue. In a demonstration of the power of regular workshopping, that friend, Mary Hennessy, also entered the contest and won third prize.
McNamara's winning poem, "Marble Cake," is an evocation of a mother and daughter sharing a ritual they've performed many times, but this particular occasion is momentous.
"My daughter studied abroad in Togo," the Burlington resident says. "She met a man and fell in love." That was several years ago, she adds, and her daughter is now happily married.
For McNamara, who is semi-retired and teaches English as a second language in Alamance County, poetry is a later-in-life pastime.
by Tori Reynolds
Her hand was twice the size of mine, and bony,
the sheen of water on my arm gave her grip
an extra pinch when she grabbed my wrist and shook.
I heard the pennies splat the surface,
watched the brown disks rush back
to the blue bottom.
At the center of the fountain, the angel's mouth
erupted in a hiss:
Don't ever steal another's wishes.
In the first three-line stanza, we learn that the poet is reaching back into childhood for this memory, and therefore that it's a memory that matters, perhaps because it's unresolved or because it's formative. The detail of the large hand gives us the image of the child grabbed by the adult. But Tori Reynolds, our poet, saves the "why" of the poem for its second half, enacting the gradual process of her realization of what she's done wrong.
I'm kind of a line break addict, and I love Reynolds' choice to break after "grip" rather than the arguably more rhythmic word-locations "arm" or "pinch." It focuses us on what the little girl would have been focused on—the sensation of being grabbed. By breaking the line there, she puts us off-balance, just like her girl-self does not know why she's in trouble.
Sensations follow in quick succession in the second stanza—what she hears, what she sees—but like that grip, they're all from outside herself. This is seen from a time-distance, a recollection from adulthood.
Reynolds returns to a more present narration with the fountain's hiss, adding her realization into the image to draw the poem to its close. Knowledge, here, is a fall from innocence. —Chris Vitiello
When we tried to contact Tori Reynolds to notify her of her second-place finish in the poetry contest, we got her voicemail. A few days later, she called back. It turned out that she had been hiking all week in the Grand Canyon, all the way down to the bottom. Reynolds, a trained psychologist, was taking a break from her day job working with criminal defense lawyers all over the country who represent persons charged with capital offenses. Her job is to provide psychological assessment in death penalty mitigation proceedings.
The Massachusetts native moved to the Triangle in the 1990s. Her poetry writing turned from a hobby to a serious avocation after she spent time at Vermont Studio Center. She's now a member of the North Carolina Poetry Society, where she has found a senior mentor in distinguished Greensboro poet Ann Deagon. (The two of them will give a reading at 7 p.m., April 25, at the Southwest branch of Durham Public Library.)
Reynolds lists Seamus Heaney, Franz Wright and Jane Hirshfield among her poetic inspirations. Among her recent publications is a poem in Eno River Press' 27 Views of Durham.
We thought delayed-gratification was a single word
by Mary Hennessy
My blue-eyed daddy
caught hard in the thicket of a Nebraska
Mom, raucous and funny
not one false thing between the two of them
except maybe me.
Not a moment of guile.
Later nine of us around
the supper table and one chicken.
We knew hunger but
would have called it
"Delayed-gratification" is drawn crisp and sharp by the observation of the poet, but it's sweet and secretive too, keeping its charms half-concealed. The "blue-eyed daddy" and the good-humored Mom keep their own counsel, and the voice of the narrator senses and sorts out the world of secrets and order from the small perch of childhood between these two formidable figures. One rides the poem's subtly broken lines into the middle-mystery of the story and, finally, into the heart of a particular kind of language––one well acquainted with gratitude and sacrifice. This is a poem full of careful pleasures. —Laura Jaramillo
Mary Hennessy is a retired nurse whose career included tending to wounded Vietnam veterans. After she retired, the Raleigh resident went back to school, obtaining a bachelor's degree in English at N.C. State, where she met first place winner McNamara. Hennessy's poems have long found outlets and acclaim—she's active in the North Carolina Poetry Society, and she has twice placed in this paper's poetry contest, most recently in 2002.
Once a month, she hosts McNamara and another writer, and they work on their poems together. "We each bring a poem we're working on, or have just finished," Hennessy says. "We read them, listening for lines that take us out of the poem, things like that."
But it's not all work. They also make time for chocalates and hot beverage—and the occasional champagne: Recently, McNamara brought over a bottle to celebrate their respective successes with the N.C. Poetry Society contests.
For more information about the NCPS, visit ncpoetrysociety.org.
The Sphinx of Professor Street
by Richard Livingston
Under the Carolina dusk-between
Reclined yet standing guard upon my driveway
and bathed gently
in the garage's rattling fluorescence
my mulch pile
has assumed the stature of sphinx.
his own slow, deliberate decline.
Monument to mole hill.
Godhead to garden bed.
Compost as stoic guardian
once believed eternal is fleeting.
A few shovels of dirt.
Very often, poems are bolts of inspiration amid mundane circumstances. Such is the case with Richard Livingston, who works in Cary as a marketing executive with a technology firm.
His honorable mention entry, "The Sphinx of Professor Street," was inspired by yard work. "You have a lot of time to think when you're moving 15 yards of mulch," he says with a laugh. "It was one of those evenings when the light was just right—the light from the garage."
Asked about his inspirations, Livingston cites Robert Frost and, "depending on your definition of poet, Dylan, too." —David Fellerath
Howard Craft is a father, husband, poet, playwright and arts educator. He is the author of a book of poems, Across the Blue Chasm, and his poetry also appears in Home Is Where: An Anthology of African-American Poets From the Carolinas, edited by Kwame Dawes. He is the author of several plays, including Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders and The Jade City Chronicles Vol. 1: The Super Spectacular Bad Ass Herald M.F. Jones. He teaches creative writing in public and private schools and also to adults through the North Carolina Writers Network.
Laura Jaramillo returns for a second go-round as a preliminary judge. She 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). She is the author of the full-length book Material Girl (subpress).
Chris Vitiello, a frequent contributor to INDY Week, published his third book of poetry, Obedience (Ahsahta Press), last year.
Correction: Tori Reynolds is inspired by poet Jane (not James) Hirshfield.