Maureen Sherbondy won the 2019 Poet Laureate Award with her poem Gretel. Maureen lives in Durham, NC. She teaches English at Alamance Community College. Her forthcoming book is Dancing with Dali (FutureCycle Press, 2020). Her work has been published in Prelude, Calyx, Feminist Studies, Southeast Review, and other places.
Asked about the first poem she ever loved, she says:
When I was young, my mother bought me a poetry anthology called Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle…And Other Modern Verse.
I memorized several of the poems in that book. My favorite poems in the collection were “Husbands and Wives” by Miriam Hershenson, “Ancient History” by Arthur Guiterman, “Rebecca” by Hilaire Belloc, and “Why Nobody Pets the Lion at the Zoo” by John Ciardi.
I really fell in love with all of these poems, but the one I repeated again and again was the the poem about lions by Ciardi. John Ciardi lived in my small town of Metuchen. I recall passing by his house on the way to school. Back then (and today) poets were my movie stars, so you can imagine how exciting it was for me to pass by the house of John Ciardi. The poem still delights me.
Maureen shares this poem, Published by Connotation Press in March, 2015:
Cousins I Never Met
Fire burns down the entire forest
but still one flower thrives. The moon’s
silhouette against the sky reminds me
yes, we are still alive. We ran and walked
through yesterday’s parade. You thought
the kite you ran with on the sand could
fly up to the night-imprisoned moon. My cousins, too,
(all gone too soon) watched this same light
in Germany as night-time, day-time prisoners in
rooms fit for two or three, not fifty.
Two years ago we let go of white balloons
at the newborn’s funeral. Five days
he lived. Son, nephew, brother. Five days. We looked up
until white globes blurred into white clouds.
Devoured. We throw rocks at death both now
and then. Still death stays with you and me hours,
months, through years of lingering. Remember
Painting the German Shepherd thick
with tomato juice to release the stink,
oh, that stink, it lingers. Oh, this scent
of death too. Stink of burning flesh
I have heard about it, read about it.
Lamp shade flesh they whisper in the halls.
Now walk with me inside
the burned down forest, take in the sweet
perfume of one flower reaching up
to the sun and moon. My relatives made it
through until the final hours and then
and then. Auschwitz, final hour. The end
when release could be tasted, sulphur burning
on His defeated tongue. Fuhrer fury. The end arrived
when release could be swallowed from the air
so close, and yet. Their blood, our blood waters
burnt soil. We plant new seeds. We march forward.
In honor of this, I’ll be posting three entries this weekend featuring the Poet Laureate Award. We’ll hear from the 2019 winner of the award and our preliminary judge and our North Carolina Poet Laureate.
I wish you all happy and productive days of writing!
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.
Our 2019 Poetry of Courage winner is Pam Baggett, who has just received a North Carolina Artist Fellowship Award from the North Carolina Arts Council. Pam is the author of Wild Horses (Main Street Rag, 2018), co-hosts the poetry series at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, and teaches free writing workshops at the Orange County Library in Hillsborough, NC.
Here are her thoughts on the perfect writing day:
I can think of several different versions of an ideal writing day. In the first, I wake up and go for a walk, and while I’m walking a nearly finished poem comes to me, which I jot down or speak into my recorder. Needless to say, poems that arrive in nearly finished form are gifts of the muse, and mine seems to oversleep a lot and to knock off early. So another version of an ideal writing day is one in which I get a good idea, a few lines that feel like keepers, a rough draft with just enough sweetness and sting to make me feel like working on it. Then, another ideal day is one in which revision is going well, or if it isn’t, I remember what William Stafford said about lowering your standards.
She shares this poem, which was first published in Kentucky Review:
First prize for the 2019 Alice Osborn Award (poems by adults for children) went to Jane Shlensky. Jane, a teacher and musician, has recent poetry and fiction in Writer’s Digest, Pinesong, Kakalak, moonShine review, and Nostos. The North Carolina Poetry Society has twice nominated her poems for a Pushcart, and her short fiction and nonfiction were finalists in Press 53, James Applewhite, Doris Betts, Rose Post, and Thomas Wolfe contests. Jane’s chapbook is Barefoot on Gravel (2016).
Jane has this to say about her creative well:
My well of creativity never runs dry, it just flows along different tributaries, if you will. When my poetry gets stale, using sundry poetic forms helps me rethink wording and puzzle my way through a piece. When that fails, I write prose, fiction or creative non-fiction or flash or songs. I play an instrument and read. A writer that refuses to read is a sad and selfish thing. I am often uplifted and inspired by others’ insights and unique wording. Rather than spin my wheels waiting for the perfect phrase, I give myself a break from words for a while. I go for a swim and talk to people. I bake and plant and paint. There are so many ways to be creative, I never feel as if I’m stranded without recourse. If anything, I have too many ways to be creative. Now laziness is another issue. Sometimes I just don’t have a thing I wish to say in any form to anyone on a given day, days when silence and wordlessness are the most healing things I know. You know what that means? Excessive cat petting and, yes, nap time! Vivid dreams are like wild animals who only feed from our hands when we give up control. Meditating and dreaming are excellent ways to unleash creativity (keep a dream journal). One last thing: I’ve found that when a poem just refuses to work, perhaps it wants to be prose. One poem I liked just went nowhere with editors. When I wrote the piece as a short story, it came in second in the Thomas Wolfe fiction contest. That was a great lesson for me to pay attention to the needs of what is being created. What if a creative impulse is a painting or a song, not a poem?
She shares with us the following poem:
Some days my memories with you fog, and I cannot imagine your voice or mine, as we were when you were most yourself. Still, my hands are yours, worn and busy, stained with foliage, and my hair, white long before its time, traces a gene back to your mother.
I carry you in me, as I concentrate on opening earth to seedlings, trying to sense seasons’ change, smelling soil and new buds, spring rains and twilight, checking old growth bark for new life— all learned from you.
I gather words together, arranging them like posies, pruning and shaping just as you taught me, a poem helping us share a moment of observance, a recognition of overlooked wonders in need of second chances:
the first crocus, a jay’s feather, a gnarled twig like a cross, a stone laced with red veins pulsing the heart of the earth, a dead hummingbird curled like a small fist, lying still and iridescent among wild flowers.
I know when you became uprooted from yourself, you longed for death, but I could not wish you gone, even knowing all I’d learned of pain and loss, that death is not the worst thing, still I could not imagine a world depleted of you.
I cannot now say “never” in a line that has you in it. You are ever. As long as I have breath, I will feel you alive in me and take every spring’s resurrection as a chance to hold you again.
I wrote this after my mother’s death in 2003. She was a poet as well and taught me to love words and to treat them with respect. This was published the first time in Beyond the Dark Room: An International Collection of Transformative Poetry in 2012.
Les Brown took first place in the both The Mary Ruffin Poole American Heritage Award and the Thomas H. McDill Award for 2019. He is Professor Emeritus of Biology, a graduate of Appalachian State University and the University of Southern Mississippi. Les’s poetry and prose has appeared in such journals as Pinesong, Kakalak and Pine Mountain Sand and Gravel. He is also a visual artist, focusing in photography, which has appeared in regional journals including, Moon Shine Review and Broad River Review.
He shares this poem with us, published in Kakalak, 2019:
Nights at the Farmhouse
The rough-hewn plank door to the Cat Room above Grandfather’s study with its iron latch, stayed closed, unlike others, polished satin brown with white porcelain knobs and raised panels. They warned us, never go through that door, Rawhead and Bloodybones lived inside, waiting for us.
We passed it every night, creeping to our feather beds across the long upstairs hall where we covered our heads, listening under nine-patch and Dutch Doll quilts stitched on a frame hanging under the porch ceiling. Now, the door stands wide open, I hear their skeletons clattering, laughing, among the debris inside.
On dealing with a dried up well of creativity, Les offers these thoughts:
Certainly, one of the most effective methods of awakening the writing muse for me is to attend workshops and critiquing sessions. We only have to look at many of the great poets, musicians and artists who emerged from collectives of like-minded people. There is nothing like being with others of like interests to stimulate creativity and generate new ideas for writing. At times, however, I can’t find that community, or a place where writing feels natural. I am fortunate to have many interests including painting, drawing, photography and pottery that I can turn to as outlets for creativity. I am deeply connected to nature, being born and raised in the North Carolina Mountains where my wife, Joyce, and I still have a retreat on my family’s land. I love walks in the woods, watching and photographing wildlife, mostly birds. I turn to nature to put everything in perspective and re-mesh the grating gears of my mind.
Kentuckian Sarah McCartt-Jackson is the judge for our M. R. Poole American Heritage Award. A poet, naturalist, folklorist, and educator, she has received an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council and has been twice nominated for a Puschart Prize.
Of dealing with a dried well of creativity, she has this to say:
When my well of creativity seems to run dry, I know I need to make more time and space for myself. Because I am a poet with a full-time job, I have to take extra steps to make sure I am saving space for myself. We all know that life creeps in like a swift vine; if you don’t pull it soon, it will take over your poetry house. No one is going to make the space or time for you. Unfortunately, I don’t have a secretary, so I have to set aside that time for myself. Mostly I do this through writing residencies and retreats. I have had the great fortune of serving as artist-in-residence for two National Parks. These were month-long residencies where I lived in the park and led one public workshop and reading. The rest of the time, I was able to explore, hike, read, and write without the pressures of everyday life. I love my family and my job, but time and space are necessary and precious for me as a writer. Even if I can only get away for a weekend at a retreat (even a self-created retreat at a hotel or campground), it can reignite my creative flame.
She shares this poem, which appears in her book Stonelight published by Airlie Press, 2018.
The judge for our Thomas H. McDill Award (any subject, any form, up to 70 lines long) is Adam Day. He directs The Baltic Writing Residency in Sweden, Scotland, and the Blackacre Nature Preserve, as well as the Stormé DeLarverie residency for underrepresented writers in Louisville, KY, and Boone, NC.
He shares the following poem from Left-Handed Wolf, which will be published by Louisiana State University Press in 2020:
Sex in public, eyeing the mountains
behind the mountains, like boy Scouts
rubbing sticks together in the dark.
Here is what he has to say about his favorite poet:
The answer to this question is ever changing, but at this moment, Fred Moten is especially compelling to me. Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award, a surprise only insofar as its publisher, Letter Machine Editions, is fairly tiny, and insofar as NBA finalists are more often than not more widely known and perhaps as often authors of predictable to underwhelming verse. Many poets I know had either never heard of Moten (who is also a critical theorist), or had heard of him but were not familiar with his surprising and linguistically and intellectually exciting poems. The Feel Trio is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding books of poetry I’ve read in years. I believe that Moten should have won the award.
Influenced by one of Cecil Taylor’s phenomenal avant-garde jazz trios, The Feel Trio has its own free form style, utilizing stream of consciousness and collage, working in various registers, voices, dialects, and dictions, the three sequences that compose the book resonating with, and at times against, one another. The spontaneous is only possible in any meaningful way because of the skill that produces it. One doesn’t plan out his next sentence when talking; it simply occurs, but only because of the skill he possesses to craft it, and that skill will dictate its shape and complexity. Moten writes, “Performers feel each other differently, / as material things that never happen //… in thrownness, begins the world where we are fallen, / falling down together in an accident we dream.” So the poems of The Feel Trio suggest that the line between reason and intuition, between intellect and the heart, between the philosophical and the demotic—a distinction embedded in the very bedrock of Western thought, and inextricably linked to colonialism and racism—is specious: “… sugar and spice / is some country-ass shit in the middle of this shit. I know I’m not / supposed to say it like that, but what about the rock fights and / random blades when language lays out? there’s no language for the / too sweet object of everybody’s third thoughts any muhfuckin way.”
The Feel Trio is in keeping with the intellectual focus and concerns of Moten’s earlier collection, Hughson’s Tavern, named for a tavern in eighteenth-century New York City where slaves, indentured servants, poor whites, free blacks, and soldiers gathered to trade stolen goods. A foundation point of insurrection, the tavern unified lower class citizens, regardless of race. Both books are deeply concerned with the body and the individual’s freedom (of movement) within the administered world in certain historical epochs, and equally concerned with the possibility, or lack thereof, of amelioration of the human condition. Indeed, the lyrical dexterity, the performativity of the language, the lack of titles or capitalization, the gestural, primal nature of the poetry enact a kind of freedom. And the power of the enactment registers in the discomfort such liberty of form and language might engender in the reader; the reader cannot always find her place among the imagistic, narrative, and intellectual folds of Moten’s verse, yet she cannot help but identify, perhaps deeply, with much that’s found here. The Feel Trio is not a passively enjoyed reading experience, nor is it ever willfully or needlessly dense. Rather, it gratifies a curiosity fed by confoundedness and discoveries, both practical and intuitive, as it creates a cycle of nuanced engagement and stimulation. This kind of experience is too rare in our poetry.
Progressive politics and Pan-African or black culture fuel much of The Feel Trio, and it is resistive in its depth of historical concerns. When Moten draws in Carl Dix; Dennis Morris; John Akomfrah; “Burningham;” Ronnie Boykins; Brixton, England; Juan Williams; Marvis Frazier; and Gary, Indiania, he does so without nostalgia, but in an act of cultural-historical revivification, and without rehearsing the stories and histories everyone has already rehearsed. Moten does not let his readers forget these figures and places that were crucial to the evolution of black life and liveliness, and that were seminal in his own artistic, political and intellectual formation.
Moten writes both within and beyond race, implying that he is both more than his racial identity yet inextricably connected to, and in love with, the treasures and tribulations of black life. Indeed, the speaker of this poem recognizes the richness of nuance born of the complexity and difficulty of life as a person of color in America, whatever the historical moment—particularly in our current American moment, where
Embedded here are inter- and intra-communal relations, where dependence and resentment are hard to separate, where social assistance and injustice exist side by side, and where self-mastery vies with mastery by others. The very character of The Feel Trio is to indicate that dichotomies separate the inseparable, that art, life, history, and humans are far more complex than the categories used to make sense of them, so that, old hat as it may sound, the personal and the political are not only viscerally connected, but indivisible. And Moten gets you digging: you want to know his references rather than feel alienated or annoyed by them. And though the poems may frustrate our search for knowledge, nothing of the enjoyment of reading them is lost for it.
Poetry is too often judged in certain circles primarily on whether it is understandable and manageable rather than on its resistance to understanding and management. As a young poet I was to told of Ashbery’s work, “You have to learn to read Ashbery; Ashbery teaches you to read Ashbery.” And my experience would come to bear that out. The Feel Trio is much the same way: it teaches you how to read it. The training itself is part of the experience. Very often the world makes only some or little sense, so we should not expect poetry to easily make sense, either in its language or its content: “unfurled in tongues that won’t belong in / anybody’s mouth, mass swerving from the law of tongues.” If the goal of the poem of catharsis or revelation is to grant us, well, catharsis or revelation, it usually only tells us what we already know. It’s far more likely that the poem we don’t entirely understand, the poem that puzzles, might in fact lead us to a genuine realization, a deeper awareness of the worlds we inhabit.
Pamela Johnson Parker is our judge for the Joanna Catherine Scott Award for sonnets and other traditional forms. Her poems and lyric essays have appeared in journals such as Iron Horse Literary Review, Gamut, Spaces, and Muscadine Lines: A Journal of the South. She serves as an editor of the literary magazine, Alligator Juniper.
She’s sent us the first poem in her new manuscript:
(originally published in Blue Fifth Review)
Pamela has opted to answer all five of my inquiries. Regarding the first poem she ever fell in love with, she says:
I’m pretty monogamous—the first poem I fell in love with is still a poem I love. I was eight years old, sitting in a window seat in front of a mullioned window at the Goodnight Memorial Library, when I discovered “maggie and milly and molly and may” by E. E. Cummings. Suddenly, those four little girls at the beach were me, and I was each of them. I’d never seen the ocean, but I was chased by a crab, sung to by a shell, and carried a stone home that day. It’s still an amazing poem. I’ve wanted to write poetry ever since.
This is how she describes her ideal writing day:
A fine-point pen, a sharp pencil, my journal, a never-ending cup of coffee, and my cats bookending me on the loveseat. No phone, no tv, and no computer. Bliss.
Her most fulfilling achievement:
I was awarded an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship by the Kentucky Arts Council in 2018. That gave me more time to write.
And her favorite poet:
I love the work of Judy Jordan, for its musicality and lyricism, for its shapeliness in the way the lines turn and return on the page, and also for its subject matter. Her concern with poverty, hunger, violence, and class as part of the American experience is unparalleled in poets who are writing now. Also, her descriptions of the natural world are stellar. I could go on and on, but read her work for yourself.
Finally, how she refills the well of her creativity:
There’s a four-letter word that works for me: READ. I also combine it with a pair of two-letter words: NO TV. Eventually I’ll get bored and start writing again. I also think that it’s normal to have fallow periods, when work is gestating. I also write prose, so when I’m stuck there, I’ll read poems. When the poems aren’t coming, I’ll read essays. This has worked for me since 2009, when I finished my MFA and couldn’t write poetry for a year.
The judge for our Ruth Morris Moose Sestina Award is Julia Beach Anderson from Massachusetts. She received a Master of Fine Arts from the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Occulum, Barren Magazine, and Flypaper Lit.
She has a unique take on how to deal with a dried up well of creativity:
“You’re going to need a bigger boat.” – Roy Scheider (as Sheriff Brody), Jaws
There are two things I strongly believe:
imagination is fueled by dissatisfaction with what it sees in the world
dissatisfaction springs eternal; therefore, the creative well never runs dry
I also believe, however, that a well-used bucket will eventually spring a leak. It’s tempting to say the well is dry, but what works for me is switching buckets for a time, and while it may seem counter-intuitive, I go for a bigger bucket. When I feel down in the imagination, instead of trying to get to the heart of poetry by writing a poem, I read craft essays by writers I admire. If that doesn’t work, I read reviews of collections I’ve already read and love. These are things I do anyway, but I tend to do it more when I’m not writing. Whatever I do, I do not increase the amount of poetry I read. That only increases my poem envy and gives me even more anxiety. Interviews and notes from the editor in my favorite poetry journals are also excellent places to find new buckets.
There are few things better than watching or listening to someone geek out over something they love. It’s impossible to remain jaded or empty in the presence of someone who is genuinely excited by what they’re experiencing or what they’re seeing, and it’s even better when they make you see it, too, or tap into something you already feel. I don’t want to just start throwing things in well to see if I can fill it up again: I want to get closer to the source that feeds the heart of the well and sometimes that means I have to change the way I get to the heart of it.
Sheriff Brody didn’t need a bigger ocean to make the beach safe. He needed a bigger boat to get closer to the thing that was keeping him out of the water.
A few of my favorite books. essays, and podcasts on the craft of writing:
Radiant Lyre, edited by David Baker and Ann Townsend (Graywolf Press, 2007)
Personism: A Manifesto, Frank O’Hara
The Art of Recklessness, Dean Young (Graywolf Press, 2010)
Lit from the Basement, a podcast hosted by Danielle Cadena Deulen & her husband, Max
VS, Poetry Foundation’s podcast hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi
Check out the poem she’s shared with us:
Autopsy of A Bird’s Nest
When they opened Frankenstein’s monster after they wound the key on his back
after pulling him from the ice and after carrying his body on a sled
built by the son of the town’s apprentice using leftover firewood from the orphanage
where all the boys except one died last year of a fever that bloomed under their beds
including the one that was already empty
and after sending for the executioner and his chopping block after summoning the priest and his rosary axe handle
after the key unlocked the torso and after the rib cage opened
like a flower they found where the heart should be
a bird’s nest recently abandoned
the undertaker, in slippery sunlight, dug a grave and called it a defense wound.
*originally published in Barren Magazine, Issue No. 9 (2019)