Poetry is hard. There's an immense history of form, meter and voice to contend with. You have to say so much by saying so little. Every word counts—which means that every word is a chance to go wrong. Carrying a thought or feeling from the first line to the last without dropping it is like a magic trick, a feat of levitation. When a poem falls flat, it falls very flat. When it doesn't, it puts us on the ceiling and leaves us there long after we've finished reading.
All three winners of the INDY's 20th annual poetry contest make that incredible leap through language. We hold our breath as they arc through the air, exhaling only when they nail their landings. In "Notes from Our Chef," first-place winner Rajeev Rajendran movingly but unsentimentally channels the inner life of his mother, who happens to be a well-known Chapel Hill chef. In "How to See a Ghost," second-place winner Ashley Memory intently tracks a surprising line of thought toward an ingeniously counterintuitive conclusion. And in "Bibingka," third-place winner Jeffrey Pineda exhumes a vast web of memory, geography and time from a deceptively simple cake.
There is a pleasing symmetry in how two poems about cooking frame one of a decidedly less corporeal nature. But all three of our winners are united in performing acts of profound imaginative empathy, resulting in the transubstantiation of unique personal experience into broadly relatable, endlessly reinterpretable literature.
Over the last two decades, the INDY Poetry Contest has brought together new writers who are earning their first publication credits and experienced ones with books and awards already under their belts. Every year, we are astonished and delighted by the undiscovered talent in the Triangle. We are thrilled to be giving all of our winners their first publications this year—though Memory is a published novelist, "How to See a Ghost" is the first serious poem she ever wrote.
After leading the in-house screening of hundreds of entries—for the record, I've been publishing my poetry in the small press world for a decade, and have been a preliminary judge on the INDY Poetry Contest for nearly as long—I sent a dozen finalists to our esteemed judge, Jeffery Beam, who selected the winners.
In 2011, Beam retired after many decades as a botanical librarian at UNC-Chapel Hill. The poetry editor of the journal Oyster Boy, he lives in Hillsborough with his partner of 35 years, Stanley Finch. Beam is the author of more than 20 works of poetry and criticism, including The Broken Flower, Gospel Earth, The New Beautiful Tendons: Collected Queer Poems 1969 – 2012 and the spoken-word multimedia album What We Have Lost: New and Selected Poems 1977 – 2001.
Beam's song cycle Life of the Bee, with composer Lee Hoiby, continues to be performed on stages around the world, and its Carnegie Hall premiere can be heard on the album New Growth. Beam is currently at work on a opera libretto based on the myth of Demeter and Persephone, a commonplace book on poetry and spirit, and a new song cycle with soprano Andrea Moore, composer Daniel Thomas Davis and Hillsborough authors such as Allan Gurganus, Michael Malone and Lee Smith.
You can read Beam's essay about our first-place winner on the following page, and then join him at Letters Bookshop in Durham at 7 p.m. on May 6, where he and our winners read from their work. Poetry is hard, but listening to writers of this caliber? That's easy.
2014 INDY Poetry Contest Winners, First place
by Rajeev Rajendran
Move fast, stay sharp. If it's not sharp, it's not a knife.
Be attentive to guests. Be interested, be loving, be generous in all things,
to each other and to them. The answer is yes.
The work we are doing is sacred. This food has come to us through God,
and we will serve it as his hands and feet. Wash your hands frequently
and wear closed-toed nonslip shoes. Be patient. A great meal is a spiritual experience.
You are empowered now as an extension of me to have a sense of ownership.
Own this, the words that you say and your every action. These ships that are blown
by strong winds are driven by small rudders, so watch your touch
that you don't put a single hand onto a plate in anger. And above all,
watch your tongues. Your tongue becomes your eyes when we lose our sight,
but it moves as a deadly weapon—more poisonous than the serpent's tooth. Control it.
It does not control you. Beloved, not many of you should become chefs
because you know that we who teach shall be judged more harshly.
But I am with you in this. Do as I would do. You are empowered
to give what you need to give and say what you need to say
to make their experience positive. They are not customers, they are our guests.
They are not your guests, they are your family. Your self and the hand that feeds you,
nearer than sight when your own family leaves you. They will come back and be here
believing when you are tired, because you'll forget as you feed from this every day,
how good this is, but they won't, because it is. It tastes good to them,
it tastes good to them, you can tell by the way they give themselves to it,
it is that good, down to the base chemistry.
We are alchemists working through generations of history.
Learn the recipes.
Notes from our judge
Poems evince in mysterious ways. For me, the best of them work through a precision that recognizes the various states of Being breathing symbiotically in the poem. I've always preferred Denise Levertov's rewriting of Robert Creeley's dictum, "Form is never more than an extension of content," in which she replaces "extension" with "revelation."She fathoms poetry's prescientbiological and spiritual insistence, in contrast to a mechanical "extension."
The intelligence in "Notes from Our Chef" entered my body, spirit, mind, brain and heart, filling them with an immediate joy in its achievement. Rajeev Rajendran limns the human need for guidance—whether in the kitchen or the laboratory, the soul's waiting room or the hearth's circle—with elegant wit, sincerity, declarative pulse and concentrated metaphor. I love the quick allusion to William Carlos Williams' plums in "it tastes good to them."
The poem can be read as an instruction manual or a scripture, even a satire or warning.I think it quite lovely and amazing how seamlessly these activities offer themselves under the culinary guise and the poet's skill—there's certainly an alchemy "working through generations of history" in which we cook ourselves to learn the recipes of living. Remembering the sacredness of gathering and sharing a meal; remembering food-as-offering; remembering the chef's art and expertise is, indeed, to "be interested ... loving ... generous." Some might take offense at the implication that the chef is God's emissary, or perhaps a God herself, but I see "God" as our higher self, our genius, our inner guide.
For me, the great moment in the poem is the reminder that you may lose yourself and that "they will come back and be here / believing when you are tired, because you'll forget as you feed from this every day, / how good this is, but they won't, because it is." —Jeffery Beam
Rajeev Rajendran, 27, has lived in Carrboro for most of his life. He studied theater at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem for two years before he left with the intention of studying writing at UNC-Chapel Hill. Instead, he found himself drawn into the acting world, and is currently performing in the Manbites Dog Theater production Spirits to Enforce and preparing for a run at Burning Coal this fall.
"In school, when I wasn't in a show or rehearsal, I would usually be at the library reading poems and plays," says Rajendran, whose poetic and dramatic inspirations include Anne Carson, A.R. Ammons, John Berryman, William Shakespeare, Will Eno and Sarah Ruhl. "Notes from Our Chef" is an excerpt from an in-process play about his mother, Vimala Rajendran, and her renowned Chapel Hill restaurant, Vimala's Curryblossom Café.
"I was trying to represent her from her point of view," Rajeev says. "Obviously, that's an illusion—it's always going to ultimately be from the writer's point of view. I tried to give special attention to her spirituality, which is not something that's as important to me personally."
When Vimala first took her cooking from weekly community dinners to a dedicated restaurant space, Rajeev pitched in doing dishes and working the line. These days, when he's not acting in plays or working as a barista at Caffe Driade, he works in the restaurant on scheduling and ordering. For his family, cooking means so much more than basic sustenance, and it shows in the delicate flavors blended in his poem.
"This poem incorporates my mom's dreams and fears for us as her children," Rajeev says. "She's had a really interesting story with regard to her path as an immigrant who left her own family and country to create a community for herself here. It's been an amazing thing for me to witness the change in her from when I was in high school, and she was cooking to support us, to now, when she owns this restaurant and is a more actualized person because she's wholeheartedly going after her dream of being a great chef. All that work is linked to her values—generosity and caring about what you do. The way she works has been really inspiring to me as an artist who's trying to take my art seriously too." —Brian Howe
by Ashley Memory
Don't read up on the occult and
linger around those reputedly haunted places
expecting to hear the whispers of soldiers
planning an ambush or the
cries of women mourning their dead children
and the creak of those old rocking chairs.
Don't ask the docent at those houses
if she has ever heard strange noises.
Either she has or she hasn't but she
probably won't tell you.
Instead she'll look away with annoyance ...
Thinking you're just one of those people.
If you really want to see a ghost,
do none of those things.
Nothing at all.
Be like two ordinary people, God-fearing, practical people
with no interest in the supernatural whatsoever
who, while driving home one night
along a road they had traveled hundreds of times,
passed through a white mist
with a sad little face.
Although they did not believe in such things
they instantly knew it was a ghost
because when they drove on,
for a split second the sadness was with them in the car
filling up the void between them.
The ghost didn't cackle,
it had no message.
And just as suddenly,
it was gone.
I'll tell you something else
because I know you'll ask.
It was the clearest of nights, no rain, no fog,
no crows and no owls circled overhead.
There wasn't even a full moon.
There was nothing special about it at all.
Ashley Memory, 46, lives in Pittsboro with her husband and son, and works as Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill. Marketing and public relations allow her to express herself and communicate about other people's stories. "It's therapeutic for me to have this personal writing on the side," she says.
She's being modest—her writing "on the side" resulted in two wins for the Doris Betts Fiction Prize, numerous short story publications and a novel, Naked and Hungry, released in 2011 by Ingalls Publishing Group in Boone. But "How to See a Ghost" is not only her first published poem—it's the first serious one she ever wrote.
Memory grew up in Asheboro with parents who were always hauling her out of bed to be an artist's model, among other creative activities. "My father was an artist who later became a stockbroker, going the other way than Gauguin," she laughs. Memory studied English and creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, becoming infatuated with William Trevor, Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver. It wasn't until her 30s that she began submitting her own stories to contests and journals, and only in her 40s did she catch the poetry bug.
"I was always intimidated by poetry," she says, "as I think a lot of writers are. Fiction writers have a little more space, but poetry has to be really crisp and on point. What I love is that it's the perfect form for capturing ephemeral moments, whether you're watching your puppy sleep or you've had an argument with your husband and you're trying to make a pound cake."
The interest took root over the past year, when Memory took some poetry classes at Chatham Community College. "At UNC, we concentrated on 17th- and 18th-century poetry, and that's a great place to start," she says. "But let me tell you what—contemporary poetry in America is a tour de force!" She became enamored of William Carlos Williams, Mary Oliver and especially Billy Collins. "I know it sounds metaphysical," she says, "but through discovering poetry I feel reborn—what have I been missing all my life? I can't stop reading and writing it."
"How to See a Ghost" is contemporary, but it stems from an experience Memory had in her childhood. Poetry simply gave her the proper form to express it, which she hadn't been able to find in the story or the essay.
"I was that girl growing up," she says, "fascinated with the occult, with the Ouija board and everything. I was sure that if a ghost was going to appear, it was going to appear to me. It never happened—but to my parents, it did."
Filtering an experience her parents had through her desires and perspective gives Memory's poem its potent blend of intimacy and distance. "They were artistic, but neither would describe themselves as psychic," she says, "and when they told me about this experience separately, I knew something had really happened to them. It changed them." With this poem, Memory finally lays claim to an encounter that eluded her. Her secondhand ghost story may change you as well. —Brian Howe
by Jeffrey Pineda
This is not a recipe,
this is meant to be a poem.
It starts with a coconut scraper,
primitive in its shape and function.
A star used to carve into flesh.
The coconut's yield is taken up
with both hands by a mother,
an older sister and folded into rice flour.
Later a small bite is held out to a child.
With hesitation, the offering is accepted.
And this cake begins to carve out a memory.
This is not supposed to be sentimental.
Never intending to be a bridge, across so much water,
linking something distance, foreign.
But as crumbs fall on the plate,
you cannot help noticing a string of islands.
Calling out to you across an ocean, across a simple cake.
This is not a recipe," begins Jeffrey Pineda's "Bibingka." "This is meant to be a poem."
The clarification is vital in establishing Pineda's careful tone, but unneeded beyond that. While you certainly could use these lines as a starting point for learning how to make the Filipino holiday cake of the title, they quickly rise toward poetic rather than utilitarian function, unfolding the recipe into a lyrical meditation on family, tradition, displacement and the specter of loss.
Pineda, 34, has lived in Durham with his wife and two dogs for about seven years. After receiving classical French training at culinary school and cooking professionally in Seattle and Philadelphia, he moved into the biotech industry, and currently works as Manufacturing Associate at Argos Therapeutics. He maintains his knife skills at home and as an adjunct instructor at the Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham, where he teaches the cuisine of Asia.
Pineda credits his older brother, a writer, with introducing him to many poets and authors; he especially likes Billy Collins and Tim Seibles. "Their poetry is almost like a conversation," he says, "and I could easily imagine having conversations with them." This accessible style carries over into Pineda's writing, and into his love of that most conversational of musical genres, bluegrass.
Pineda's poem is based on his childhood memories—his father is from the Philippines. "I mention in the poem that [the recipe] uses a coconut scraper," he says, "so the adults put the children to work with this kind of dangerous kitchen tool to scrape out the coconut. It's a very communal thing." Love, lineage and a hint of danger—all packed inside the warm, porous texture of "a simple cake" that proves, under Pineda's pen, to be not so simple after all. —Brian Howe
This article appeared in print with the headline "Poetry in the air."