Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest 2017
Congratulations to the winners of the 2017 Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest!
First Prize $1,500 Poetry
Karen Harryman, A Word Like Rat
First Prize $1,500 Traditional Verse
A.T. Hincapie, From the Mouth of Kitsee’s Inlet
Honorable Mention $100
- Sylvia Adams, Water, Poetry
- Katie Bickham, Shorn, Poetry
- Richard Brook, My Brother In Law Leaves the World, Poetry
- Rata Gordon, Celestial Bodies, Poetry
- Atoosa Grey, Belonging, Poetry
- Mary K. O’Melveny, A Short Bibliography of Secrets, Poetry
- Michelle Tibbetts, Seeing Through Glass, Poetry
- Trent Busch, Aletha, Traditional Verse
- Teri Foltz, Estate Sale, Traditional Verse
- Curtis LeBlanc, Sonnet for the Driveways of Our Childish Years, Traditional Verse
- Jeanne-Marie Osterman, The Vultures of Mumbai, Traditional Verse
- Kathleen Spivack, The Following Shadow, Traditional Verse
- Eliot Khalil Wilson, The Insurgent, Traditional Verse
Judge Soma Mei Sheng Frazier comments on the winning entries
As final judge of the Contest, I was tasked with selecting two winning poems—one in each category—and ten Honorable Mentions. I failed.
It's not that I didn't read each poem assigned to me from among 2017's 3,223 submissions. I did. It's not that I didn't reread them. Over the course of several months, I did. And it's not that the poems were too similar; that none of them stood out. Indeed, it was their dissimilarity that undid me. For how to choose, when the comparison is not apples to apples but apples to a Hesco fence, a short bibliography of secrets, or the Towers of Silence where the dead of the Parsi tribe wait?
"Unshorn, we are death itself: serpentine / and secret. Our hair conceals our power / to bear souls into the world, to feed them / from our own flesh: sower, tender, reaper, / shepherd, wolf, wool and fur." These poems incited me. "...Birds practice ascending declensions / of birdsong: Amo; Amas; Amat..." These poems lulled me. "Gradually words scattered, fled their posts, / dictionaries, unread, lay open on his desk." These poems wracked me. "When you put Saturn in the bath / it floats. / It's true." These poems schooled me. There were too many standouts.
Winding through the Bay Area's redwood forests with my daughter, then, I noted which poems tracked and followed me. Teaching a class of MFA students, I considered which poems I might've used as examples of impeccable this or explosive that. And in bed, tossing and turning, I acknowledged which poems leveraged words, strategies, motifs, cadences I wished I'd come up with first. Ultimately, I settled upon fifteen poems—and Winning Writers was gracious enough to green-light the additional honorable mentions, because...well, read on and discover exactly why.
"A Word Like Rat" by Karen Harryman
Tom Howard Prize for verse in any style
Each of us is, or has been, gripped by a secret; shaped and crushed by a secret. "A Word Like Rat" begs for turnaround: for secrets we can hold, shape, crush, and a word that compresses them further, till they're manageable. This dexterous poem ambushed me. First, I was meeting Aunt Sandra—a commanding woman, even in her housecoat—as though the speaker and I were childhood friends. In the space of a few lines, years went by. And I found myself face to face with the speaker again, sipping coffee. Concerned. But my experience of the poem didn't end in that cafe. Nor in this one, where I compose my remarks. For this poem is a blank, a puddle. As much as it contains the dirt—the speaker's distress in the wake of her father's solitary death—it also reflects the sky, and within that sky all our rising prayers for control over the uncontrollable.
"From the Mouth of Kitsee's Inlet" by A.T. Hincapie
Margaret Reid Prize for verse that rhymes or has a traditional style
This loose corona of American sonnets is no outdated artifact. "From the Mouth of Kitsee's Inlet" is as bold and modern a crown as any you might admire on a drag queen strutting the stage. Expertly forged from convention and rebellion, burnished to perfection through exacting revision, it stands up to scrutiny. If each individual poem in this crown of sonnets is autonomous, so, too, are the precise monostichs, couplets and tercets—every image, every argument and observation, every thematic concern bearing the glint of brilliance. A young nephew buries fish bones at the mouth of the empty inlet, "for next year's fish". An elderly mother hoards barrels of five-minute greenhouse gutter floods "for next year's food". We gather our obsessions, petal by petal, into our hungry mouths. "Now becomes nonverbal" so that we do not converse with these poems, but graze against them; run a finger along the crown's cool surface, circling smoothly from the first poem's opening word to the last poem's final word: "Look."
While this poem overturns multiple conventions, it pays strict homage to others. Traditional elements span both form and content: for example, each sonnet's closing couplets deliver a volta—or "turn"—whereby the argument or mood of the poem pivots, displaying the complexity of timeless issues such as mortality, obsession, and the unassailable passage of time (both seasonal and personal). To add flavor to this thematic profundity, the poet sprinkles in time-honored ingredients including laments, philosophical musings and explicit, time-honored references—e.g., to the tale of Icarus.
The most notable tradition upheld by "Kitsee's Inlet", though, may be the formal repetition that melds these artful sonnets into a crown. In a traditional corona of sonnets, the final line of the preceding poem is repeated as the first line of the succeeding poem: here, echoing words link each poem's last line with the first line of the poem that follows. Moreover, in a traditional corona, the first line of the first poem serves as the final line of the last poem—and here, lines hinging upon the word "look" both open and close the entire sequence.
But these repeated bits are only words, and not entire lines, a stickler might argue. As mastery increases, I would respond, so too does the poet's understanding of how to spin tradition and manipulate form. Consider the Elizabethan poets' 12-line sonnets; George Meredith's 16-line sonnets; Rainer Maria Rilke's love sonnets (written, in colloquial language, not about the dark lady or the innocent girl—but about dogs and mirrors and the beloved act of breathing itself); Wanda Coleman's explosive American sonnets. These revolutionary responses to poetic predecessors represent what some consider the apotheosis of the sonnet form: classics made modern, thereby keeping the form alive.
Honorable Mentions: Tom Howard Prize
"Water" by Sylvia Adams
This poem is full of deep imagery linking the physical and spiritual realms. As the living are rescued, panicked, from the trees and rooftops they cling to, the dead find respite in "Water". The living are saddened by the sight of homes lifted from their very foundations, contents spilled. Yet the dead discover comfort in the sensation of being unmoored. Even as the living attempt to dredge the depths—always keeping an eye on the forecast, in fear of another storm—the dead find quietude. And as material objects tangle and catch, rendered useless, the dead hum while they float. They are caressed and recognized. Respected. Not quite gone for good.
"Shorn" by Katie Bickham
Rhythmic and emotional as a hymn, but stripped of its faith and adornment, this poem stands before us naked, pleading, incriminating. "Shorn", a truly meticulous rant, embodies the unique quality that Wordsworth used to define poetry: it "...takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." It seethes. It envisions. It assesses. It alludes. And in the end, this poem doesn't even let God off the hook.
"My Brother In Law Leaves the World" by Richard Brook
The word "meaning" stems most recently from an Old English verb. Mænan is to mean: to intend or signify. But it is also to tell—to lament. And "My Brother In Law Leaves the World" is an elegiac poem, but also a meticulous piece of carpentry that turns meaning into a hinge, metaphor into a joist. The precision of its language is unequivocal, the cohesion of its imagery breathtaking. A man tracks the histories, the legacies of words from East to West. Afternoon sunlight whitens a desk. And finally a dictionary lies open, wings spread, as birds lose their names and the spirit itself prepares to fly.
"Celestial Bodies" by Rata Gordon
This poem is an ultra-compact galaxy of facts, impressions, and images bound by gravitational attraction. Each word, stanza, section that comprises it is both whole and part—and occasionally its center (the magnetic relationship between "me" and "you") generates vivid flares: "I don't like it / when you fall asleep / on top of me." Perhaps, like our own galaxy, "Celestial Bodies" is on a collision course.
"Belonging" by Atoosa Grey
How is it that, not knowing the name of the city in "Belonging", I'm certain I've been there? How is it I've seen its orange light bending like a whale; felt its wind following my running form? How is it that I have been both the daughter and the mother in this exquisite poem, which holds the reader close—breathing when we breathe, turning when we turn, sighing as we sigh too?
"A Short Bibliography of Secrets" by Mary O'Melveny
O'Melveny makes intimate reference to the stories shaping three generations' lives—identifying each subject and period; giving credit, sought or unsought, to the authors of major incidents. Like any bibliography worth consulting, this structured record provides critical notes leading to more: discoveries of misplaced faith and kindness; traumas rising from the depths of memory; reflections on the cowardice and wisdom of running away; and stupefying realizations like the fact that people leave, sometimes, without leaving, or that our lives are both larger and smaller than we know.
"Seeing Through Glass" by Michelle Tibbetts
This is one of the most unique poems I've read this year. Deceptively straightforward, it offers a literary lens for viewing the parent-child relationship. What merits a child's selfish love but the assurance of being seen, valued, saved? And what is the reward of bearing offspring if not perceiving the world anew? In fascinating symbolic imagery, the poet answers these questions and others.
Honorable Mentions: Margaret Reid Prize
"Aletha" by Trent Busch
"Aletha" was the first contest entry to haunt me. I moved past it, then circled back, as the poem inevitably circles back to memories of demure Aletha: etymologically, and in urban parlance, a powerful speaker of truth. Throughout many long nights of reading, I never quite shook this poem. Instead, its loose ballad rhythm and dark pastoral imagery shook me. Is it Time, or another speaker, whose advances Aletha chastened? No matter: both will be finished in the gloaming.
"Estate Sale" by Teri Foltz
The sestina is a complicated, unforgiving form. Appropriate, then, that "Estate Sale"—a complex, unflinching poem—should adopt this structure. Here, the living brush aside or cannibalize the dead. Here, intentions fray and tradition tires. Nobody will read the obituary. Nobody—not even the earth—will make drastic accommodations. The entire world is frozen solid, but for the scalding words that recur from opening to envoi, changing forms so nimbly that one barely recalls having met them in their former incarnations.
"Sonnet for the Driveways of Our Childish Years" by Curtis LeBlanc
Missed/violence. Lawn/down. Dishing/eclipsing. Mothers/other. Forced/outdoors. Palms/alone. Read this sonnet aloud, and you'll find that its near-rhyme reveals its true rhythm, which is as natural as the shhhh of your breath; the pound of your pulse. American as basketball, universal as growing up, "Sonnet for the Driveways of Our Childish Years" reflects a narrow slice of history but, in doing so, divines an expansive swath of our national consciousness.
"The Vultures of Mumbai" by Jeanne-Marie Osterman
This poem derives its hypnotic strength from a blend of formal structural elements—including couplets, rhyme, a cadenced refrain and other elements of the ghazal. Like a traditional ghazal, too, "The Vultures of Mumbai" evokes metaphysical questions and melancholic, symbolic visions. But unlike a ghazal (a form with seventh-century Arabian roots that have branched to take hold worldwide, thanks to literary heavyweights including Rumi, Hafiz, Goethe and García Lorca, as well as popular singers like Jagjit Singh and Begum Akhtar), this poem employs its own unique architecture. It disrupts the ghazal's time-honored rhyme-refrain scheme, just as modern advancements disrupt sacred traditions. Its surging cell towers and luxury towers expose and indict the living, even as the Towers of Silence ritually expose the dead.
"The Following Shadow" by Kathleen Spivack
The French Canadian sonnet's volta, or turning point, occurs in its rhymed ninth and tenth lines. Yet "The Following Shadow" takes subtle turns throughout: birds conjugate the original Latin love song as clouds dream and the sobs of somebody far away ring out with the rhythm of the waves. It is only fitting, then, that the poem ends with a clever homonym, sketching an elliptical moon directly above us—a faint, abstruse oval that will flutter from sight even as we crane our necks to track it.
"The Insurgent" by Eliot Khalil Wilson
There is a curving river in Ghana that was named The Volta by Portuguese gold traders, as its waters were where they reversed course and headed home. Like the river, the poetic volta (or "turn") in the final couplet of this modern Shakespearean sonnet represents a shift in direction: a devastatingly final current that turns us around and brings us swiftly home to the poem's central truth. But first, in fluid iambic pentameter with just enough metrical variation, we travel. We explore. For the quatrains of "The Insurgent" carry us nimbly over expansive terrain, past barriers that are no obstacle, into war and dreams of war, to witness protocols that fail and precautions that kill.
Soma Mei Sheng Frazier
Soma Mei Sheng Frazier is the final judge of the Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest. Soma's third prose chapbook, Don't Give Up on Alan Greenspan, was selected as the winner of CutBank's 2018 contest and released in 2019. Her previous fiction chapbooks—Salve (Nomadic Press) and Collateral Damage: A Triptych (RopeWalk Press)—earned praise from Nikki Giovanni, Antonya Nelson, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Molly Giles, Michelle Tea, and others. In 2015 she founded COG, a multimedia literary publication that she ran with her undergraduate students at Cogswell, which has featured Dave Eggers, Opal Palmer Adisa, Gish Jen, Denise Duhamel, and many more. Read this selection of poems and listen to her read with other Nomadic Press authors on KPFA 94.1 FM. Read Soma's brief Glimmer Train essay on literary craft.
Soma is currently between homes, relocating from California—where she's served as a San Francisco Library Laureate—to New York, for a professorship at SUNY Oswego. Her sweet tooth demands sugar in everything but literature. She is now busy revising a novel.