light verse judge

Jeff Worley is the judge for our Kennedy McIntyre Light Verse Award. He sent this poem to share:

Playing Possum

Something was gnawing at my dream
and, awake now, I hear one of our cats
loudly crunching at his bowl in the kitchen.
But here in bed I make out the shapes
of all three cats, a triumvirate
around my wife and me. I leap up
through the question of Something wrong,
Honey? And stumble toward the mad
chewing. I flick on the light. There,
in the corner, pink as a piglet, a baby
possum startles from the bowl of Kitten
Kaboodle, crumbs flaking around its tiny
gash of mouth. And here’s Linda,
fully awake now, too, with not only a broom
for her, but one for me. She flings me mine
like Ricky Nelson tossing John Wayne
his loop-handled carbine in Rio Bravo.
And we’re shutting doors behind us
and opening doors to the outside world,
which clearly terrifies this arboreal
rodent who’s little more than whiplash
tail and provisional hiss. He scampers
under the German Schrank. I take a couple
swipes underneath and tease out a dust-
covered catnip toy, a disposable Bic,
and half of what looks to be a slice
of Donato’s (pepperoni). The possum
folds into itself like a fist. But Linda
is choking up and waving her broom, ready,
so I thwack the thing broadside. It skids out
like a top-ended puck to my wife, who swings—
her breasts lovely in the sudden light
(did I mention we’re both bone naked?)—
and I’m skating toward the wide-open front door,
this 2 a.m. game of Possum Broomball
almost fun now, and whoosh the critter so hard
it cartwheels like a cartoon possum through
a racket of katydids and other night fiddlers
and lands like a wad of flubber on the lawn.
As it scampers off, Linda and I stand
on the front porch, victorious, holding
our brooms in the manner of American
Gothic. Our next-door neighbor, Jaime,
home from the late shift, turns her blue
Toyota into the drive, fixing us
with headlights. It’s scary how seriously
these Worleys take their housecleaning,
she may be saying to herself, at which point
there’s nothing left for us to do, but wave.

from Happy Hour at the Two Keys Tavern, 2006

Jeff is a Wichita, Kansas native and Kentucky’s current Poet Laureate. He has written six book-length poetry collections, including Happy Hour at Two Keys Tavern, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

He has generously chosen to answer all of the questions I posed.

Here’s what he remembers about the first poem he fell in love with:

In the first poetry writing class I ever took (1969), the anthology we used was Naked Poetry, edited by Stephen Berg and Robert Mezey. James Wright was one of the poets in this collection, and I absolutely loved (at first sight) his “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” I realized a poem could be made using conversational, plain speech imagery; the importance of clear observation; and the crucial importance of a surprising and apt ending line (“I have wasted my life”).

This is his ideal writing day:

Sitting on the back porch of our Cave Run Lake cabin 11 miles into the Daniel Boone National Forest. Reading & writing on and off all day. Perfect.

Of his most fulfilling achievement, he says:

Getting out of bed in the morning and realizing I’m not dead yet.

And his favorite poet:

Stephen Dunn, Pulitzer-Prize winner, for his 45 years of writing accessible and surprising poems, many of which seemed to speak directly to my interests and concerns.

Finally, how he refills his creativity well:

I follow William Stafford’s advice to “just start anywhere.” Get a line—anything—on the blank page (“As I type a response to Craig Kittner, I see a squirrel doing a high-wire act on the electric cable”), and see where it seems to want to take me. Follow that path until it no longer interests me, then move somewhere else (if a poem doesn’t move, how can we call it ‘moving’?)

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