2019 poetry of witness and poetry of love winner

Benjamin Cutler won first place in both our Poetry of Witness and Carol Bessent Hayman Poetry of Love Awards for 2019, and he is the 2019 recipient of the Susan Laughter Meyers Poetry Fellowship from the North Carolina Poetry Society. He is a poet and high school English and creative writing teacher in the mountains of western North Carolina. His poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net and has appeared in Cold Mountain Review, Pembroke Magazine, Cumberland River Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Lascaux Review, among many others. When he’s not reading, writing, or playing with his children, Benjamin can be found on the creeks and trails of his mountain home. His debut book of poetry, The Geese Who Might be Gods, is available from Main Street Rag (2019).

Asked about his favorite poet, he has this to say:

Questions regarding favorites—favorite book, poem, poet, etc.—are always my least favorite questions, primarily because they are my favorite and the asker is rarely prepared to spend the time with me necessary to have those conversations. It’s the kind of question that shouldn’t be asked unless you have an hour or two for a sit, a cup of tea, and maybe to read a few poems together. And who can choose only one, anyway? Right now, the poets who really sing for me are Dorianne Laux and Ada Limón.

Laux and Limón write poems that are so achingly good that they cause me to simultaneously want to give up my poetry aspirations out of an awareness of my own inferiority and to pick up my pen and never stop writing out of a gratitude for poetry. It’s this quality for which I’m always looking as I read—a poem that can both halt and move me. To read Laux’s and Limon’s collections is to encounter that kind of wonder over and over again. Their poetry feels like an invitation—an invitation to language, memory, reverence, celebration, and earnest longing.

I recommend spending some time with both of Ada Limón’s collections: Bright Dead Things (finalist for the National Book Award) and her most recent book The Carrying. There are many places to begin with Dorianne Laux, but I have recently enjoyed her newest book Only as the Day is Long: New and Selected Poems—an incredible distillation of her best work. I’ve dog-eared more pages than not in this one.

I could cite many poets to whom I often return: Ted Kooser, Jack Gilbert, Jim Harrison, Ilya Kaminsky, Tracy K. Smith, W.S. Merwin, Faith Shearin (whose poems I credit with inviting me to write poetry and to take myself seriously as a poet), and more. There are so many, and I’m always hopeful for the next to come along and, as Seamus Heaney would say, blow my heart open. Should we have the occasion to do so, I’d love to share a cup of tea with you sometime and chat all about it.

He shares the following poem, which is included in his book The Geese Who Might be Gods (Main Street Rag 2019):

To the Whitetail Deer Who Fled the Field

I was sorry to have frightened you
this morning as you fed on the fall-
yellowed grass, but was thrilled
by the sight, even in your departure—

white tail flashing with each bound
like a parting benediction or curse.
I paused as you crossed my path,
as you flexed and heaved

up the aster-bedded embankment,
and I did not move until your dawn-
darkened form finished its climb
and found the woods beyond—

too leaf-bare to hide you entirely
from the low, late-autumn sun.
Please, return to your field—
when I am gone, when I cannot see,

when I can only imagine
your Titian brow bowed low
in cautious taking. Please, taste
this field often—and soon—

before the nights grow too long
and flavor gives way to frost.

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