Contests : War Poetry Contest : Past Winners : 2009 : Judge's Comments
Thanks to everyone who entered our eighth annual War Poetry Contest. We received 664 entries of 1-3 poems each. Once again we were impressed by poets' creativity and insight in depicting the lives of diverse people and cultures affected by war. We're always looking for that unusual anecdote that makes a familiar historical event seem immediate, heart-wrenching, and fresh—and our entrants delivered.
This year's group included a strong selection of poems about women's experiences, from the battered wife of a Vietnam veteran in Brenda Roper's "Cry Me a Bucket" to the Japanese schoolgirls drafted into manufacturing an unusual weapon in Jon E. Seaman's "Japan 1944: Fûsen Bakudan". Other winners astutely drew connections between war and racial inequality, as in first-prize winner Robert Hill Long's "Wolverine and White Crow", Wayne Christensen's "Canal Fishing Just Beyond", and Elaine Zimmerman's "City War Zone". These poems suggest that the human costs of war are easier to ignore in a culture that already deems certain lives less worthy than others.
Some of our top entries stood out for their innovative way of depicting war indirectly, through surreal happenings that conveyed the fragmentation of consciousness under fire or the delusional thinking that produces conflict. Frank Gaik's "Kid Bowdler Sings Phaecia, Played by Homey" retells a portion of the Odyssey in the voice of a manic jokester with a hip-hop style, while the soldier facing the firing squad in Christina Ginfrida's "Lt. O'Malley" imagines himself in a baseball game in order to translate his final thoughts into a less terrifying context.
This year, for the first time, we had two judges working together on the War Poetry Contest. Assistant Judge Ellen LaFleche is an award-winning poet whose work has appeared in Alehouse, New Millennium Writings, The Ledge, Alligator Juniper, Naugatuck River Review, and many other publications. (Read more about her on our Staff Bios page.) Ellen did the first close reading of all the poems and, after two more passes through the remaining entries, narrowed them down to a shortlist of about 75-100 entries. I looked at every poem we received, concentrating on the ones she'd flagged as most promising, but also promoting some favorites of my own. We then took several afternoons over the next few weeks to debate the strengths and weaknesses of our chosen poems and agree on a final ranking. It was a wonderfully stimulating process that probably produced a more diverse body of work than we'd each have picked on our own.
Ellen writes, "I would like to thank all the poets who sent their work to the War Poetry Contest. It requires deep faith and trust for a writer to send poems to a contest for judging and ranking. Reading these poems helped me to grow not only as a writer but as a person trying hard to understand the meaning of war and violence in the world.
"I immediately fell in love with Robert Hill Long's suite of first-place poems. 'Wolverine and White Crow' is a dignified masterpiece that indicts war through its gritty exploration of disenfranchised men. 'Dancing in Baghdad' contained a waltz-like rhythm that continues to resonate in my mind. 'Or Wend, Skull, with Your Teeth Like Bright Armor' contains visual images that are rich in symbolism; I especially appreciate the layers of metaphor and meaning in this creative exploration of an imagined soldier. To name just a few others, I was moved by the stunning images in Natalie Diaz's 'A Wildlife Zoo', a poem that included wry humor as a counterpoint to the foolish aggression of a zoo visitor tormenting a lion. I was amazed at the creative wit in 'Kid Bowdler Sings Phaecia, Played by Homey' and the quiet yet haunting imagery of 'Canal Fishing Just Beyond'."
Robert Hill Long's quietly tragic poems "Wolverine and White Crow", "Motivations", and "Insurrection and Resurrection" tell the stories of broken and discarded men. In the same spirit as Death of a Salesman, Long's character sketches demand that we pay attention to these anonymous veterans, who are unable to reintegrate into the society for which they sacrificed their bodies and minds. In "Wolverine", the bleak prospects for men on a Native American reservation both influence the protagonist's decision to join the military and compound his struggles when he returns. By contrast, for the disabled vet in "Motivations", it was his own youthful strength and manliness that made him feel invincible in battle—until the instant when he wasn't. Because of Long's lyrical imagery, specific details of time and place, and moments of dark humor, his characters are universal without being generic.
I appreciate a small, elegantly crafted poem quite as much as a weighty epic. Timothy Tebeau's second-prize entry "Dancing in Baghdad" is an example of the former. Perfectly poised between beauty and horror, this poem depicts elite revelers at an embassy where death waits just outside the door. Their heartlessness and self-delusion are privileges of their position but may also be their undoing. Tebeau deftly suggests multiple meanings for the "left together, right together" steps of their sinister waltz.
Susan McCabe's unique and striking third-prize poem "Or Wend, Skull, With Your Teeth Like Bright Armor" begins with the marriage of extravagance and death in British conceptual artist Damien Hirst's "For the Love of God" sculpture, a human skull encrusted with $18 million worth of diamonds. She imagines the skull as having belonged to a soldier whose brief life was so rich in some ways, so vulnerable in others. Perhaps more so than the original artwork, McCabe's poem prompts us to reflect on the wastefulness of a wealthy nation that fêtes dead things while discarding young lives.
Heartfelt thanks to all of our entrants for entrusting us with your stories of struggle, heroism, injustice, and reconciliation. We believe that your words make a difference.
Click here to read all
of the 2009 winning entries.
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the winning entries from other years.
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advice for war poetry contestants.