2019 sestina award winner

Barbara Blanks won first prize in The Ruth Morris Moose Sestina Award for 2019. She is the author of five poetry books, a non-fiction cancer journey book, and co-author of a young adult novel.

She sent along a short poem from one of her books and chose to answer four of my inquiries. Here it all is, in her own words:

The first poem I fell in love with was probably one of my mom’s—“My Smile Is Different Now.” She wrote kids’ poems for a variety of publications, and—back then—was often paid in postage stamps. But I also remember my grade-school teacher comparing me to Edward Lear when we had to write limericks. (I had no idea who he was). I also liked Ogden Nash’s short poems. Then again, I wrote a riposte to a children’s song about a little brown bug when I was very young, so maybe that was my favorite!

I don’t have an ideal writing day. No schedule, no goals—except contest deadlines. I look for ways to avoid writing—like doing this interview for Craig’s blog. In juxtaposition with that, I don’t believe in writer’s block. There is always something to write about. One reason I like to enter contests is they might challenge me to write about something I’ve never written about before—or even thought about. Just recently a category topic was “bipartisanship.” I thought, Ugh, I’m not going to write about that. But then I did a bit of research, read something that surprised me, and there was the basis for my poem.

Oh gosh, fulfilling achievements. Of course I love when I win in a contest, especially first place. And it is totally satisfying when I’ve been struggling with a poem and it finally comes together. But what is truly fulfilling is when I hear from somehow about how one of my poems affected them. Nothing beats that feeling.

My favorite poet has always been Edna St. Vincent Millay, with e.e. cummings coming in a close second. I first read Edna back when I was full of pre-teen angst. Her poems about death resonated with me (“To what purpose, April, do you return again?”) I even have “Renascence” memorized—along with a bunch of other poems by other poets. I rarely read one of my poems at an open mic. I’d rather launch into “Kubla Khan” (Coleridge), or “The Labyrinth” (Auden), or “The Tom Cat” (Marquis), or “sweet spring” (cummings), or “Lament” (Millay), or “Dog in Bed” (Sidman), or –who knows!

Here is a short poem from my book, Traveling Sideways.

Canvas of Winter

full moon pearls the snow,
turns night inside out

on black branches, white
perches like frosted birds

blue shadows gossip with gray wind,
secrets spill in silver susurration

poetry of love judge

Our judge for the Carol Bessent Hayman Poetry of Love Award is Dr. Marcia L. Hurlow, a professor at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, since 1983. Her poems, short stories and creative non-fiction have been published in more than 300 literary journals. She has won national and state-wide fellowships in poetry, including the Kentucky Al Smith Fellowship, twice.

She shares this story about the first poem she ever fell in love with:

“In my little hometown, if you had to stay after school for an activity, you needed to walk home or have your parents come get you. The high school locked its doors at 5 p.m. My family lived out in the country, and my dad had complicated work hours, so after orchestra practice, I walked to the local public library to do homework until someone could pick me up. One evening they were particularly late, so after I finished my homework, I headed to the poetry section to look for something I hadn’t read before. Theodore Roethke? Nothing by him in my textbooks. I sat down and started reading his Collected Poems, starting with his juvenalia. Such musicality and imagery! I read on, amazed by the beauty he portrayed in nature. And then…I had just turned sixteen…I read “I Knew a Woman”. It was perfect–vivid and musical (I found myself swaying as I read it!) and sensual. I didn’t know a poem could be so sensual! Maybe that was why it wasn’t in my English textbook. I read it again and again, with new thoughts every time. One strong thought was “How can I get my boyfriend to write me a poem like this?” Now, decades later, I look at that poem with all kinds of emotion and a bit of envy. Some day I would love to write such a beautiful poem.”

And here is how she describes her ideal writing day:

“My ideal writing day is really my ideal writing morning. A nice breakfast and a long walk with my dog in the woods, then home to my husband and office upstairs. After spending time reading literary magazines or books of poems, I take a look at recent poems and tinker with them, then I read a bit more and with everything going well, if I haven’t written a new poem by 11:30, I give myself a prompt of some sort–a form or an imitation, usually–and tell myself I can’t have lunch until it’s done. Usually, what I think is “done” that morning is just a draft of a beginning, but that gives me something to work on another day.”

On the theme of romance, she sent this poem to share:


I know every choice I make
limits the next possibility.
Every choice of yours, my love,
spins mine around like a wheel
in Las Vegas. Compatible:
we always roll the dice the same

direction on the green felt
of the future, we agree
on the flick of the wrist, order
of fries, hang-gliding vacation,
application for tenure
and sloe-eyed rescue from the pound.

“Compatible” makes the first choice,
the rest, a comet tail of chance.

inspiration and edification

While making preparations for the Pinesong Awards, I’ve been contemplating what the contests have to offer. The opportunity to have some world-class poets read your work. The incentive to explore different themes and forms. The chance that your work will win an award and be published.

Then I asked myself, can we expand on that? Offer something a little more personal?

Perhaps insights into the minds of contest judges, and the opportunity to read work that they want to share? Or the chance to be inspired and advised by poets who have succeeded here in the past?

So I’ve reached out to our judges and to the poets who won first prizes in 2019. I asked them to share one of their poems and to respond to one of the following inquiries:

  • What do you remember about the first poem that you fell in love with?
  • Describe your ideal writing day.
  • Which of your achievements has been the most fulfilling?
  • Who is your favorite poet, and why?
  • How do you refill the well of your creativity when it seems to have run dry?

Over the next few weeks I’ll share their responses here. My hope is that this will offer something of value to you. Something that a typical contest may not offer.

A Little History

In 1932 a small group of devotees met in Charlotte and formed the North Carolina Poetry Society.

Since its beginning, the society has fostered the writing of poetry and contests, for adults and children, have been integral to that effort.

In 1965 the society launched Award Winning Poems, a publication that showcased the winners of six adult contests and one student contest. Over the next several decades the number of contests expanded and the awards anthology became more sophisticated. In 2002 Award Winning Poems transformed into Pinesong.

2020 will see the 56th volume of this anthology. Now the North Carolina Poetry Society’s Pinesong Awards comprises eleven adult contests and four student contests.

A major benefit of membership in the society is the opportunity to submit poetry to 10 of these contests at no charge. Members also receive a free copy of Pinesong each year.

“Awards can give you a tremendous amount of encouragement to keep getting better, no matter how young or old you are.”

Alan Alda

summer 2019

at first it was just chaos in my head

I was asked to take on the job of directing adult contests at the North Carolina Poetry Society’s March meeting. It seemed the thing to do, considering that I have arts administration experience, and I was a new member looking to establish myself.

Sam Barbee, who was president at the time and a heck-of-a-nice guy, asked me. His timing was good, because I was swept up in the inspiring atmosphere of the Weymouth Center, which is the classy former home of James Boyd. It was my first meeting, and it felt good to hang out with so many writers. I wanted to do my part.

After a while I realized how big of a part it is. Eleven contests that need well-established judges from out of state, a ten week entry period, about 50 awardees, all culminating in a printed award anthology and live award ceremony with readings. Daunting.

But, as I moved through July plans started solidifying, poets responded to my invitations to judge, and the society’s leadership supported me with encouragement and information.

I’m excited to get this thing started, and I have plans to share that excitement with all involved. Stay tuned!