2009 Poetry Issue | Poetry Contest | Indy Week
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2009 Poetry Issue 

Flights of evanescence

Join us at The Pinhook!
The winners and judges
will read from their work
Wednesday, March 18, 7 p.m.
117 W. Main St., Durham
Admission is free and
there may even be snacks!

Although poetry commands only a small slice of the commercial literary market, one needs to look no further than the inauguration of President Barack Obama to realize the continuing centrality of the form to the American imagination. In "Praise Song for the Day," Elizabeth Alexander declaimed,

Someone is trying to make music somewhere, with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum, with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus. A farmer considers the changing sky. A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

Indeed. Everywhere in the Triangle, from Wake Forest to Saxapahaw and points in between, Indy readers honed their writing implements and put their inchoate thoughts, feelings and impulses into alphanumeric characters.

Our preliminary judges read approximately 300 poems submitted by more than 150 readers. As always, it was an impressive snapshot of the private literary toils of our fellow citizens, and it never fails to inspire awe.

A note about the judging: We'd planned to have the finalists judged by Piedmont poet laureate Jaki Shelton Green, but a health issue sidelined her at the last minute. (She will make a full recovery.)

Fortunately, Durham poet kathryn l. pringle agreed to step in. She judged the 10 finalists and wrote a commentary about the first-place poem without knowing the writer's identity.

In a small-world coincidence not uncommon in Triangle literary circles, the first-place winner, Christopher Salerno, turned out to be a curator of a reading series pringle is scheduled to participate in later this year. She has never met him, did not know he'd entered the contest and had not read his winning poem prior to the contest. —David Fellerath

First Place

"Whirl"     Play MP3
By Christopher Salerno

We fall for distance,
the way we grieve. An end
to this district whose molecules cannot stop spinning
in the downtown air. The dilation
of snow-brittle buildings built only to survive
in outfits of thick ice.

Each night on the terrace where crows pick locks
I paint my little crow gold, and it sings my new favorite
part and we go for a spin in a good gear

led upward through ceilings we refuse to own,
with the patience of gladioli left all day in elevators.

I am embarrassed,
not for us, but for our building's inability
to translate from its stoop the letters
I drop from the window chased by metallic bugs
blinking like prototypes from the countryside.

Clean lines hurry wind. All day my window hoards its crust
of snow. A hawk moth on the Coffee-mate
folds asleep and out of the cat's dream.

My strategy: all the birds you see in a day.
To cut and paste their matted feathers
into this recurring dream,

a disproportionate world where the actuality of hunger,
like a skirt filled with coins,
like the light in a still-life,
is as pointed now as the steeples we stood below
to study the tongues of bells,
to craft the metalogical laws that govern our listening.

I fall asleep to
the sound of birds bumping glass. I go to bed full
of blackberries and wake as a bride...

Winningly, winter locks itself in a carriage of ice. Outdoors,
zero down. A catalogue trapped in winter branches.

Judge's Comments: "Whirl" presents us with a world that is both completely familiar and completely disorienting. There are buildings, there are creatures, there is snow. There is evidence of humanity: grief, embarrassment, logic and duty. This sense of familiarity, what we know to be true about the world, about things and ideas in the world, is then adjusted, just so. Yes, there are buildings, but the buildings have a life that is their own. There are birds and bugs, but they are "prototypes." The world of "Whirl" is seductive and sterile, like "gladioli left all day in elevators." This poem, this "Whirl," is an artful ride through a futuristic, but all too familiar, world. A ride I am happy to have taken. —kathryn l. pringle

The chilly urban milieu of Christopher Salerno's winning poem is a product of a childhood spent in New Jersey, 30 miles from New York City. "The landscape reaches back to my childhood in a lot of my work," he says. "Whirl" was written as a personal capstone to his first book of poetry, Whirligig, but was not published in that volume. Rather, Salerno plans to include it in a new manuscript he is preparing. Salerno received an M.F.A. from Bennington College, where he studied with the late Liam Rector. For the last six years, he has been an English lecturer at N.C. State while pursuing his writing. He's a poetry editor for the Raleigh Quarterly and organizes poetry events in Raleigh as co-curator of the So and So Reading Series. He has recently been published in such journals as American Letters and Commentary, Carolina Quarterly and The Laurel Review. —David Fellerath

Second Place

"Anatomy of an Umbrella"     Play MP3
By Alisha Gard

Creeping through crowds in rain,
I am ever-fearful that some
umbrella talon, orb-hungry,
might claw out my eye.
The rain-parasols carpet the sidewalk,
as far as the eye can see.
Walkways are crowded, like rivers
overflowing with tumbling lumber
as the loggers send
the days' work downstream.
I walk, unadorned,
allowing my wettening hair
to fasten to my forehead.
Rain slips past the guard of my collar,
and nips at the early knobs of my neck.
I scout puddles and navigate
murky perimeters, noting that
the gray water reminds of
weak tea with milk.
As they've no need to run for cover,
these sheltered pedestrians
limit my clip; the rain shows
as much remorse.
I watch the opposing processions
of geodesic domes around me.
I think of lily-pads,
suspiciously convex when
a frog huddles beneath them.
Just so, most persons own a sanctuary,
in beetle-black, retro-art reprints,
circus-tent glee.
Clutching at rain-covers
as they ricochet past me,
the bearers are granted wide berth—
as I said, I fear the oblivion
that accompanies their dry security.
I avoid collision, and see how
umbrellas bob overhead like
concerned circles of motherly bats.
Some passers-by support more
bedraggled specimens:
wire frameworks protrude,
like bones from a broken wing.
Reaching stoop-safety
or an overhang set forth from
building's maw, umbrellas shy away
and are reduced to alarming
smallness—like an albatross
folding its wealthy span.
Tucked away as a shame,
these dewy parapluies are
kept close, guarded, like
a baby bird in a breast pocket.
But sooner than not, they are once again
summoned to bloom like toadstools,
flaring up and hovering over
like so many protective wet hens.

Judge's Comments: This poem makes the misery and gloom of walking in a downpour seem fun by raining metaphors and playful phrases like "dewy parapluies." (The next time you're out walking, take notice of the sidewalk puddles of "weak tea with milk.") The crowded city street in the rain and the spectacle of so many umbrellas is commonplace, but the poem continually seeks new ways to describe the phenomenon: crowded sidewalks are "like rivers/ overflowing with tumbling lumber/ as the loggers send/ the days' work downstream," while the umbrellas "bob overhead like/ concerned circles of motherly bats" or are "summoned to bloom like toadstools." Each umbrella is a "sanctuary" that also becomes a hazard to others: "some/ umbrella talon, orb-hungry,/ might claw out my eye." And in the paradox of a crowd of people each isolated under their own umbrella, a telling symbol for modern alienation, the speaker proclaims: "I fear the oblivion/ that accompanies their dry security." —Jaimee Hills

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Alisha Gard - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

UNC sophomore Alisha Gard is in the middle of her first college-level creative writing class, with professor Michael McFee. But the Raleigh native has been writing for a long time. "I was writing in the sandbox," she says. "I really started seriously in high school, at Cary High, in poetry clubs." Her winning effort, which is her first published poem, came from her experience dashing to her astronomy class on a rainy day. "I actually don't like to edit," she says. Her poems "are a reflection of my thoughts, not something I work on for an extended period." Gard hasn't declared a major but is considering English, with a creative writing minor "and maybe some French thrown in." Among her favorite poets are Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop and T.S. Eliot, and she's currently "enamored of Pablo Neruda." —David Fellerath

Third Place

"The One We're Waiting For"     Play MP3
By James A. Hawley

"There is evidence of time before the Big Bang."
Harper's Magazine, "Findings," August 2008

A turquoise swan stands out in the darkened
Universe, notes that with few exceptions
Things continue to run downhill, the rock
Is so hard to roll back & time

Doesn't exist unless you're on the clock
Or in the NBA where dry-witted, blow-dried
Smooth-talking oesophageal commentators
Pronounce at the end of every quarter, half

Or game, that time has expired. We love
The sound of the horn at the half, can't
Wait for play to resume. But we've got
To pee & there's more beer to be drunk

& spilled on the highly waxed hardwood
Floors & the gorgeous scansion whose high
Cheekbones & half-Cherokee jawline
Ought to be sculpted in Carraran marble

Continues to deliver these rounds
(Repeatingly). To what are we to admit.
That we're bored? Are you kidding. We're on Mars!
Dactylic stars run through our sabine ribs;

The epitritic solar wind blows
About our overloaded & failing senses;
Comets & asteroids play pinball
With the least known parts of ourselves

Which include speed dating, whispered
Aperçus, chthonic phantasies
Verging on the precipice of romance.
These are indeed dark days & dark

Days demand dark secrets. We
Shiver in the quiver of love's ruin
Waiting for something to arouse our
Ire, to validate what little stichomythic

Bile puddles in these withered livers.
The shot clock's off as the game clock
Winds down. The game is lost, the High Life's
Gone as the crowds head for the exits.

Judge's Comments: Rainer Maria Rilke advised the young poet Franz Kappus to avoid the "big themes." It was sage advice: The big themes downplay what the poet actually knows—the personal—and as such, they risk floating off into the ether. Themes don't get much bigger than the nature of time, yet the author of "The One We're Waiting For" handles it admirably, by rooting it in something palpable and familiar: an NBA basketball game, its orbits and ellipses mirroring the wheeling celestial bodies overhead. The poem is a spindle housing three diminishing, conceptual layers, drawing out symmetries between them: the motions of the cosmos, the motions on the court, and the universes inside of us all. In all three arenas, time is running out, but there is plenty of wonder to be had ("We're on Mars!"). I also enjoyed the extremities of language in this poem. Its vocabulary admits "pee" and "beer" as well as headier words like "oesophageal" and "dactylic," these moments of linguistic opacity shaking us into renewed attention. —Brian Howe

Wake Forest resident James A. Hawley has lived all over: He went to college in Arizona and later spent time in California, Central America and New York. He eventually settled in Chicago, where he was a production supervisor for the Chicago Tribune. After he and his wife wearied of life next to Lake Michigan, they looked around, rejected other regions as "too rainy," "too far" and "too hot." North Carolina turned out to be just right. Hawley has published in the Brooklyn Review, the Iowa Review and the Salt River Review. His prize-winning poem is taken from a manuscript called Vezelay, for which he is seeking publication. These days, he works for a small signage business in Raleigh and writes at home. "This is my one talent. I don't have a lot of time—just a few hours a week—so I have to write when I can." —David Fellerath

Honorable Mention

"Offices"     Play MP3
By C.P. Mangel

"Their eyes do offices of truth..."
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest


You kiss me now,
dust ash off my wing.
Eye, you say,
as you look into mine.
What do you see?

At your birth something
burned, consumed
by the flame of your cry.
I breathe your skin.
You are my air.


Someone is burning leaves.
And the fire loosens its hair,
falls wild and dark
on the flannel sheet of sky.
A nightingale sings a prayer.

Beneath my lips your knuckles
flatten in sleep, your hand
a starfish on the seabed.
On my knees I wash the floor
beneath the chair where you ate.


Three pears ripen on the white window
sill, gold and pure.
What the mockingbird sings, heard low
in the mesh of trees at dusk, is a lay
of truth: love more than you can.

Judge's Comments: This poem has a delicate touch in its selection of detail; something as simple as "your knuckles/ flatten in sleep" shows how keenly a parent observes an infant. The domestic scene, the interplay between parent and child, grounds itself in a long literary tradition—first by referencing Shakespeare, but also through the presence of the nightingale and mockingbird, traditional emblems of the poet. The title plays with the idea of the home as a domestic office, but also makes reference to the work done as poet, a keen observer of the world, as when she sees "three pears that ripen on the white window/ sill." Nor are the eyes the only sense that observes. Here, the nose: "Someone is burning leaves./ And the fire loosens its hair." And the ears' "offices of truth" can be found in the simplicity and forthright sentiment of the last lines: "What the mockingbird sings, heard low/ in the mesh of trees at dusk, is a lay/ of truth: love more than you can." —Jaimee Hills

Chapel Hill resident C.P. Mangel will never be accused of tossing off a poem. "I write very slowly and revise endlessly," she says. Indeed, the first draft of her winning poem was composed 20 years ago, "when my child was a toddler. I revised it one more time, a week before I sent it to you," she says. Although she acknowledges that the subject of her poem is personal, "I find myself unable to talk about my poems. My philosophy is, 'There's the poem. It either works or it doesn't.' I personally feel my background is irrelevant." Mangel, who is working toward an M.F.A. degree after two decades as an attorney, has published her work in such journals as Arch and Quiver, Cold Mountain Review and Sojourner. She describes herself as a big fan of such local poets as Gerald Barrax, Michael Chitwood, Mimi Herman and Alan Shapiro. —David Fellerath

Final judge

click to enlarge Click for larger image • kathryn l. pringle - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON

kathryn l. pringle is a Durham resident and a graduate of the M.F.A. program at San Francisco State University. Her book, RIGHT NEW BIOLOGY, is just out from Factory School/Heretical Text Series. She is the author of The Stills (Duration Press) and Temper & Felicity are Lovers (TAXT). Her poems can be read in The Denver Quarterly, Fence, 14 hills, 580 Split and Sidebrow, among others. She is an editor at the literary magazine minor/american, and the co-founder of the minor american reading series. Contact her at kathrynlpringle.blogspot.com.

Preliminary panel

click to enlarge Jaimee Hills - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Jaimee Hills lives in Durham and is a freelance writer for the Independent. Her manuscript, Symbolophobia, is a finalist for the 2008 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in journals such as the Mississippi Review, Blackbird and Confrontation Magazine, and was also selected for the Best New Poets 2006 anthology.

click to enlarge Brian Howe - PHOTO COURTESY BRIAN HOWE
  • Photo courtesy Brian Howe
  • Brian Howe

Brian Howe, an Independent contributor, is a Durham-based journalist, artist and poet. His poetry and sound art have appeared in such outlets as Fascicle, McSweeneys.net, MiPoesias, Effing, Cannibal, Octopus and Soft Targets. He is the author of three poetry chapbooks, including This is the Motherfucking Remix (with Marcus Slease; Scantily Clad; 2008). His experimental video work (with Ashley Howe) has screened at the Asheville Fringe Festival and other venues. He is a member of the N.C.-based Lucifer Poetics Group, and recently edited a portfolio of their work for TheFanzine.com. He maintains his multimedia project, Glossolalia, at glossolalia-blacksail.blogspot.com.

First Place audio recorded by Christopher Salerno; all other audio recorded by D.L. Anderson.

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