Poetry is movement, however paradoxical this may seem for a form that either sits on a page, inert, or is performed by people standing still before a microphone. Yet it is defined by motion—of thought and feeling over time and space, of the rhythm of a voice and the tidal flow of lines, of the transformation of an idea from the first word to the last. A successful poem puts us down somewhere far away from where it picked us up. It moves us.
The winners of our 2015 Poetry Contest all achieve this feat, turning flat walls of language into deep tunnels of experience. First place winner Travis Smith takes us from farthest space to humble earthen tiles in his witty yet poignant "Hangover with Mosaic of a Man Leading a Giraffe." Second place winner Mary Hennessy—making a remarkable third appearance in this contest—sends us hurtling through a strangely luminous darkness and then "back towards the sun" in her breath-bating "Winter Solstice." And third place winner Kelly Jones turns an outsized presence into a gaping absence in her inexorable prose poem, "Ruby-throated Goner."
This year, our judge was Ross White, the Executive Director of Durham-based poetry imprint Bull City Press and a teacher of creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. His poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Best New Poets 2012 and others, and he is the author of the book How We Came Upon the Colony (Unicorn Press, 2014).
You will hear White's acute editorial sensibility in his judge's notes on each poem, and we invite you to come hear him and our winners read and discuss their work at So and So Books at 7 p.m. on May 19. In the INDY's 21st year of celebrating local talent, as always, it's poetry in motion.
All interviews by Laura Jaramillo
INDY: What do you do for a living?
TRAVIS SMITH: I live in Durham, but I work at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill full-time. I do a combination of bookselling, marketing and social media.
Are you from the area?
Yes, I went to Chapel Hill High School and then to UNC, so I've got the Chapel Hill bona fides wrapped up. And I went to Ole Miss for three years. I did an MFA in poetry. I lived in Providence for a year, when my girlfriend was working at Brown, but then we moved back here.
How did you become interested in poetry?
I kind of go way, way back with poetry. My mom is a writer and my aunt is a poet and has an MFA from UNC-Greensboro, so they encouraged me whenever I did anything poetry-related as a kid. Poetry writing got serious for me in high school.
So you consider yourself primarily a poet?
Definitely. But you know, I would like to write essays and that sort of thing. The fiction of W.G. Sebald is really huge for me. If I wrote something like that, I would totally write prose all day.
Sebald is a very poetic prose writer. Which poets have been influential to you?
Among the living, people like Mary Ruefle, L.S. Klatt and Geoffrey Nutter. Nutter is maybe one of my favorite poets. Loosely, the Wave Books poetry crew is sort of my guiding star in terms of what I want to do. Among the dead, there's Sebald, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop.
What was the germinating moment of your winning poem?
It's funny because it's not really typical of my writing in a lot of ways—specifically, the way it has a very straightforward, paraphrase-able argument, which is a little bit odd for me. It came out of a time in my MFA program. It originated in a poem that was a lot more dense, not as straightforward, laden with indecipherable imagery. My teacher at the time, whose name is Ann Fisher-Wirth, wanted me to "just write something real." I sort of broke it down, and what I ended up with was the idea of the hangover. At the core, I was trying to get at what happens when a sense of cosmic expansiveness comes up against limits and boundaries, which it inevitably does. The dramatic situation of the hangover turned out to be the best way to get all those ideas in one place in a "real" way, as she wanted me to do.
To what degree did your MFA program affect your writing?
I think the experience of writing this poem encapsulates a lot of what you could say about my MFA experience, which is that it wasn't a situation where everyone was like, "Oh, I totally get what you're doing." It was a challenging process of questioning some of my assumptions about my writing and coming up against a lot of different views of what writing should be. I think that was an incredibly valuable thing. And even though the poem doesn't end up being completely representative of my writing now, I'm very glad that I wrote it and that I can do that. I ended up finding a group of people in my MFA class who I learned so much from, and we still keep in touch from far afield. So that definitely made me a stronger writer and reader of myself as a writer. —LJNOTES FROM OUR JUDGE
Who hasn't, at times, felt like a waste of atoms? Who hasn't wondered about his or her place in the universe? In the throes of "day one of the hangover"—suggesting that he will be drinking for the long haul—the speaker of this poem accepts Carl Sagan's notion that we're all descended from the same stuff as stars, even as he does all he can to make himself small.
At its outset, the poem announces its intention to keep us woozy and off-balance. Trapped between a moment of cosmic awareness and the remnants of an evening of overindulgence, the speaker cannot determine which is the truer human state. But even with the thunderous report of the "blunderbuss / firing in my forehead," he waxes philosophical.
This speaker is no dummy—he knows a bit about galaxies and interstellar formations, and he's familiar with Sagan's pop cosmology. So familiar, in fact, that he feels comfortable addressing the late astrophysicist directly during a self-deprecating moment where he repudiates the notion that he could possibly share molecules with celestial bodies.
In an imaginative ending, the speaker moves from the grand to the minute, wishing that he could instead be the stone tile of a fifth-century Byzantine mosaic. But that intelligence keeps getting in the way: He can't help but teach Sagan a fact or two about another favorite subject, naming the tiles "tesserae" with a precision that Sagan's description, "made of star-stuff," lacks.
I love this poem's plain-spokenness; it relies on juxtapositions to create dissonance, and relies on the reader to recognize the elegance in the dissonant equation it proposes and solves. It explores imperfection with a certain exactitude, finding its terminus in the mosaic, an art form that, like the poem, suggests a beauty and unity at odds with the humble, seemingly inconsequential materials from which it is composed. —Ross White
INDY: Tell us about yourself.
MARY HENNESSY: I worked as a nurse for most of my life, as an RN. When I was in my early 50s, I went back to school at North Carolina State, and that's when I started writing. I started writing late, but I feel very lucky about having that happen in my life. I have a family. I'm married to the love of my life for 50 years. I have a daughter and three grandchildren here in Raleigh, and I have a son in Poland, and he has a wife and two children, and I have a son in Kansas, who also has a wife and two children.
I'm glad you started writing, if late in life. Your poems are very delicate.
It gives me enormous pleasure to write—reading, writing and talking about it all.
Was your time at N.C. State the beginning of your interest in poetry?
Well, I'd been a nurse and I had always lusted after an English degree, so I went back [to college] when my youngest son started, and we were in a fiction-writing class together. This woman said to me, "Do you write poetry?" I always thought you had to be born to writing poetry; that, you know, it was not just for ordinary people. So that was my introduction, yes.
What poets are especially influential to you?
Oh my goodness, almost whoever I'm reading right now. I think my favorite poet of this last year is Rumi, but I could give you thousands, really. I used to say I'd say my morning prayers and then read poems, but now I've kind of gotten them mixed up. Can't tell which is which. It's just that it's essential for me and I feel very lucky to have it.
You mentioned Rumi—are you interested in devotional poetry?
Well, my sense is that I like ecstatic poetry. To be honest with you, I'm uncomfortable with a lot of devotional poetry, but Rumi, I love.
Does "Winter Solstice" have a story behind it?
You know, Laura, I'll tell you the truth. I started that poem many years ago. I started it actually when I was at State. I often tell people that I feel like a lot of the poems are written by a committee that I'm not a member of, and that would certainly be true of this one. The conversation the poem begins with never happened, although I have lost all those things that I listed. Some of the quotes are from T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, and the angel—we had just come back from Poland to visit my son and I saw that angel—and the water really caught my attention, as much as anything. So, I'd have to ask the committee, I guess.
There is an interesting collaged element here, but the surface feels very smooth. It sounds like the committee works well together.
[Laughs] It just means the world to me. Thank you for saying that.
You have an epigraph from Rilke. Do you have a particular affinity for him?
You know, Laura, I do love Rilke, and I guess his poetry would be considered devotional?
I think it has a devotional aspect, but he can't be called just a devotional poet.
Right, because it does seem to me that gets kind of flat, and he doesn't have any flatness in him. I do love those Duino Elegies. There's a group that comes to my house once a month, four of us, and that's such a blessing, a gift, because we get a sense of clarity, you know. I've benefitted from that kind of help.
I was a judge the last time you placed, and here I am, years later, encountering your poetry and still liking it so much.
I'm so glad to talk to you because I remember your comments on ["We thought delayed-gratification was a single word"]. You said it was a careful poem, and that meant a lot to me. I do remember. —LJNOTES FROM OUR JUDGE
"Winter Solstice" pulls off an impressive feint, seeming at first to be mired in stasis and regret, its first three tercets beginning obsessively with the same line. But when the pattern breaks under the weight of angelic intervention, the poem surges with images: curls, crows, the dark waters. Ominous and mysterious, the speaker glances at the pain of her loss in the second tercet, then looks away, only to resolve it in a gorgeous moment where "buds on the flame azalea swell in the dark" and hope seems an inevitable function of a new day. —Ross White
INDY: What do you do here in the Triangle?
KELLY JONES: I write online web content from home a lot. So that's what I'm using my MFA for right now. My family's in the Triangle. I like going to movies, going to coffee shops, seeing friends, going to shows.
How did you come to your interest in poetry?
I fell in love with it in middle-school. I started reading poetry in English classes and really liked that form of expression, and then started doing it as a hobby, then started taking it more seriously, and kind of just followed that path as it went. Right now in my life, it's just a practice I'm trying to maintain while making rent. There's a level of dedication I hope to heighten as I grow older and more wise.
Did you enter the contest on a lark or with more planning?
Oh, no, it was on a lark. I just happened to be reading the INDY at Cup A Joe and I saw the ad, and I was like, "Oh, I should look into that." [Laughs]
Which poets are especially influential to you?
Just to name a few, poets who really got me interested in poetry were Nikki Giovanni and Amiri Baraka. And The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot. So it was a mix of the activist, socially-minded poetry that came out of the Civil Rights Movement and onward, and then some of the classics. And I love some contemporary poets right now. Matthea Harvey is one that I adore. Eula Biss was my favorite for a few years, but then she switched to non-fiction. But I love her book The Balloonist, which is just an epically long prose poem about family and tracing a narrative of that history. And Kathleen Ossip. She has a few books that have come out in the past five to 10 years that are astounding and very experimental.
Does "Ruby-throated Goner" have a story behind it?
A couple-year long obsession, maybe? While I was in grad school, I wrote a lot about war and people I knew, just observing it from a kind of young and curious perspective and trying to make sense of that in a way you can do in poetry that maybe doesn't make sense when you're having a conversation or reading a historical account of it.
You do get a sense of that urgency in the poem. Is there any central image or idea?
Something that came out in revising the umpteenth draft of this poem is that I liked the repetition of "worms." The isolated idea of something being something and then not being something—that pleased me a lot. I would say it runs through the series I've been working on. And the ideas of conversation and what is lost through memory—that would be another connecting element, for sure.
What draws you to the prose poem?
I like the form. When I'm writing, it's helpful for me to not think about the lineation. Sometimes, like in this poem, an earlier draft of it was lineated in some capacity, but I just like the pace that the prose poem provides. I think of it as an overwhelming affront to the senses, in some ways and I enjoy that, especially when dealing with some content. It's a good medium to present an idea, or a thought, or an experience. If I'm thinking of life imitating art or art imitating life, the prose poem is a good representation of that, because—at least in my experience with this poem—it's not a pretty, well-formed idea or experience. So putting it all together or having it clumped up, as it is in my head, seems to be the right thing to do. —LJNOTES FROM OUR JUDGE
That this poem's matter-of-factness might be mistaken for nonchalance is its strength. As the speaker tries to make some sense of mysterious bird deaths, like those in Arkansas a few years ago, she finds herself riffing in an associative loop. Recklessly moving between description of the "mass die-off" and her childhood love's own death in wartime, she risks using present tragedy as an entry to nostalgia. However, the ease of the association is undercut by a rejection of easy sentimentality; in revealing that she's "no longer certain if his eyes were blue," she suggests a vulnerability in her relationship to, and understanding of, the truth of her loss. —Ross White