2019 bloodroot haiku winner

Crystal Simone Smith won first place in 2019’s Bloodroot Haiku Award. She is the author of Wildflowers: Haiku, Senryu, and Haibun (2016). Her work has appeared in numerous journals including: Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Haibun Today, and Wishbone Moon Anthology. Her co-authored book, One Window’s Light: A Collection of Haiku with Lenard D. Moore, Teresa Church, Gideon Young, and Sheila Smith McKoy, was the winner of the 2018 Haiku Society of America’s Merit Book Award for best haiku anthology.

She opted to answer all my inquiries.

What do you remember about the first poem that you fell in love with?

In college, many moons ago, I attended a program in which a professor recited the poem “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou. I hadn’t read it so it was the joy of experiencing it that I loved. In fact, I hadn’t read very much poetry at all but, when I began writing poetry I wrote lyrically. I’m all but certain I can attribute the gift of lyric to that moment.

Describe your ideal writing day.

I love fall or spring when the weather is pleasant. If I can dedicate a day to writing, I prefer to do it away from the chores of home. Saxapahaw is a quaint little town with a river literally running through it. I like to escape there and write on the patio overlooking the river run when possible.

Which of your achievements has been the most fulfilling?

By far it was my first acceptance into a recognized journal (African American Review). It was the first time I considered being a writer. Without it, I may have never made the leap from poetry as a hobby to poetry author.

Who is your favorite poet, and why?

Lucille Clifton was a tremendous poet. Her writing was accessible, yet powerful. She wrote of life’s horrors and triumphs in a most unique way. I was immediately drawn to her as a young poet because of her style but more importantly, her consistent theme of survival celebrated.

How do you refill the well of your creativity when it seems to have run dry?

I seek inspiration anywhere I can and as a haiku poet I am very present in my surroundings. I try to stay aware so I don’t miss small, yet significant moments. Inspiration is omnipresent if we pay attention. Yesterday a kind couple let me stare at their newborn for ten whole seconds and I was so appreciative. (lol)!

She shares the following poem, which is forthcoming in “Down to Earth” by Jacar Press, 2020.


You know the clear-water creek is secreted
and runs through the pines behind
the Penns’ condemned red house.
It is evening and morning chores
of the unspoiled who fill jugs to ferry back.
You’re a summer chum and make added hands.
The Penns are landowners on welfare
with a no plumbing and no well—
neighbors your saved grandparents loathe
for all they lack. You adore the summon to help
fetch the water we siphon and secure in jugs
then wade in the ripples of our silhouettes.
One brags she prays away the contaminants.
You know nothing of deficiency or privilege,
who God loves least, or what winter means.

2019 light verse award winner

First Place for the 2019 Katherine Kennedy McIntyre Light Verse Award went to Don Ball. Originally from Durham, NC, Don now lives in Raleigh. He attended The College of William and Mary and is a former high school English teacher, tennis coach, lecturer at NC State, and English Professor from Wake Techinical Community College. He is most recently published in Pinesong, Kakalak, and Tar River Poetry.

Don opted to answer all the questions I posed. So here are his thoughts on the first poem he ever loved, his ideal writing day, his most fulfilling achievments, favorite poet, and dealing with a dried up creativity well:

The first poem I can remember running into as a kid was Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous “Charge of the Light Brigade.” I was about nine or ten and I liked the galloping repetition and pace so much that I memorized it and used to recite it at night when my little brother and I were supposed to be asleep in our room. For some reason, my brother Ben would get annoyed and lob pillows, shoes, and other articles at my bed to get me to shut up. A disappointing audience.

I like to write in the mornings when I can. Handwriting first drafts is better for me. A perfect writing day will involve several hours of reading my poems and other poets’ work, starting a poem, and rewriting drafts I’ve started. I’m also inspired by reading fiction and listening to music. At night when I walk, sometimes I try to memorize poems by my favorite poets. T. S. Eliot argues that one must have the tradition of poetry in your bones in order to write originally.

In the last two years, I’ve started entering poems in the NC Poetry Society’s annual competition and have gotten recognition for several. It’s really fun to go the Awards Meeting in May, talk with all the poets, and get to introduce and read my poems.

My favorite poet is the latest one I discover or rediscover online from friends or from The Poetry Foundation. There are lots of good poets who have produced great poems, of course. I’ve met and spoken with Phillip Levine and Richard Wilbur. Donald Justice was my dissertation director at Florida. I corresponded extensively with William Stafford and heard Seamus Heany read in Greensboro. My other favorites include Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Frost, Bishop, Roethke, Collins, Yeats, Rilke, Neruda, Milton, Shakespeare, etc. etc. It’s important to read the world.

I read prose, poetry, and history to recharge and it’s important that I have enough nascent ideas in my records to go back to them and tease them out. My current writing group The Poet Fools are all published poets, and we meet twice a month. It’s been great to have that meeting as a deadline for poems. The meeting itself is also recharging–writing’s a solitary enterprise and we need other people.

Don shares this poem, which is from his writing group’s anthology chapbook, published last year:


I confess to my parents that I have never
always obeyed the impulse to excel and have courted disaster and gross uncleanliness
and have kissed both full on the mouth
(not the parents, but the . . . ) you understand–
you always understand.

And as for my grandparents, I confess
that I have certainly been unfaithful to their petty bigotries
and their dangerous tendencies to like me
whatever I have done or not completed, and to their memory
and our history, and to the family and of everybody
and everything . . .

I confess also that I am not naturally kind,
and am, in fact, as vindictive as a Sicilian peasant,
hating those who seem to be level-headed, creative,
coping well with trauma, earnest, disciplined–
above all disciplined—and earnest and organized–
people who write thank you notes, and mail them,
with stamps—and keep up with their friends
and have friends, whosoever, whomsoever . . .

And I personally confess to you, my darling,
that I have kept many secrets from you,
have hid a thousand perversions down in my heart.
I hide them until you are sleeping
and then take them out like the happy,
demented miser that I am,
counting the golden coins, biting each bitter edge.

2019 poet laureate award winner

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.

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.

2019 poetry of courage award winner

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:

2019 Alice Osborn award winner

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.

2019 American heritage and McDill award winner

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.

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