poetry of witness judge

Our Poetry of Witness judge, Brendan Walsh, has lived and taught in South Korea, Laos, and South Florida. His work has recently appeared in Glass Poetry, Indianapolis Review, Wisconsin Review, Baltimore Review, and other journals. In 2019 he launched Living Things: The Great American Poetry Crawl, sponsored by Sutra Press, which harnessed the fellowship of writing by connecting to independent literary communities up and down the East Coast.

Here’s what he has to say about his ideal writing day:

This is so difficult for me, because I feel like my best writing is often done through my best living. In other words, when I’m truly inside my body and in love with the world, I’m creating–though I might not be doing much writing. The fuel is what most interests me: I’m a narrative poet, so although there’s a necessary element of creation, my imagination doesn’t always do justice to the incredible experience of being. I guess what I’m failing to say is that my ideal writing day may not involve writing anything at all. Without the fuel that is the sensual ecstasy of this moment, right now, I’ve got nothing to write about (or write for). That being said, my ideal writing days are more rare than they used to be. When I was studying for my MFA (shout out Southern CT State University!), I had ideal days stacked upon ideal days. They always looked like this:

wake at 4:30: enough espresso to wake the dead
write one short poem: usually something with strict syllabics, like a sonnet or haiku, some restrictive form. This forces me to think economically.
lift weights for an hour: being in the body, and feeling pain, are sometimes the only things that remind us to live. I’ve had many great lines come from heavy deadlifts or picking up an Atlas stone.
focus on other cognitive tasks until late morning: this could be my “job”, whatever that is. The mental transition is important for me.
write another poem or edit/revise from the morning: this all depends on how much I like the morning poem. If it’s in a form that doesn’t work, I’ll extract what’s great from the form and make it something else.
read a collection of poems: between work and class, I would read an entire collection of poems in the library. I made my way through so many amazing writers–this was essential, and I can’t recommend it enough.
workshop with other poets: no ideal writing day is complete without a workshop. My favorite workshop format was a small group rotation that my professor, Jeff Mock, used. Every person would have their weekly poem/s intimately discussed by groups of three-four. So much laughter and infinite breakthroughs in this space. There is nothing more conducive to good writing than a great community of writers/readers.
have a beer: why not? you’ve earned it.

It’s simple. Routine is essential for composition, but in between routines I have to do a lot of living. I have to know what it’s like to be alive before I can even try to make it language.

He shares the following poem, originally published in American Literary Review:

we are great apes

we are great apes; we are great sometimes; we are not kings of any jungle; we used to tie our feet with leather we used to eat whatever we killed or found; i’ve only killed bugs, i’ve only eaten bugs i haven’t killed; at a bushmeat stall in Laos i saw monkey carcasses draped over a plastic table; we aren’t very great but not so long ago we kindled pockets of sun from rocks and sticks; my students call orangutans ‘monkeys’ to make me mad and it works every time; we are great apes; i watch a video of an orangutan washing herself with soap, a video of kanzi the bonobo using a lighter and toasting marshmallows; my second memory is flinging a burnt marshmallow like a fist of napalm; chimps hunt in packs and tear a colobus monkey apart like a body of wishbones; i watch clips of silverbacks drumming their chests and bellowing into primeval forests; we howled with conch shells and microphones and blunderbusses; i’ve seen koko the gorilla and robin williams tickle one another, their hands like siblings; i drum my chest and holler into my apartment; ooooh ooooh ooooh oooooooh; not long ago we lived in the cradle of acacia trees; my first memory is falling from the lowest branch of a maple; ooooh ooooh ooooh oooooooh

Alice Osborn Award judge

Our judge for the Alice Osborn Award (poems written by adults for children) is Carolyn Guinzio, from Arkansas. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Agni, Harvard Review, Boston Review, Bomb, and many other journals. She served as text editor for the online project YEW: A Journal of Innovative Writing & Images By Women.

Asked about what she does when her well of creativity runs dry, she offers this:

To cure a well run dry, or writer’s block, I always think it’s best simply to enjoy a period of not writing, to look up at something else, and to wait. Spend your writing time outside if you can. Spend it reading. Get enough sleep, and try not to worry. A bit of pushing through it doesn’t hurt: If you want to be writing, or you need to be writing, just write something down without worrying if it progresses a particular project. Keep up the habit of writing, even it it’s little more than a physical act.

She shares the following poem with us:

Swedish Fish

I ran over a shadow,
and the car went bump.
In the back, the kid
was worrying his sweet
tooth with the tip
of his tongue.
What he wanted
was to catch me
in a generous mood.
He saw all the signs:
“Vote Yes,” “Speed Table,”
“No Exit,” and he mumbled
with disgruntled syncopation,
as in sazzifrazzin laws
and laws, the dark
graphics standing
between us and the wildness
we shed to get through.
What he wanted
was to stay
in the shadow of the fish
crow, hooking
left where they let
down the guard-
rail, to crash
through the sage-
brush and angry
old trees that wait
to be thrown
into relief.
Oh, there are Great
rules I want
him to keep,
so I broke the little
red fish into halves
and sent them flying
into the back
when he opened his mouth
to speak.

poetry of courage judge

Amelia Martens is our Poetry of Courage judge. She is the recipient of a 2019 Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council; her work has also been supported by a Sustainable Arts Foundation fellowship to Rivendell Writers’ Colony and by the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is the co-creator of the Rivertown Reading Series and Exit 7: A Journal of Literature and Art.

Here’s how she deals when creativity runs dry:

In those times where I am struggling with my own writing, I turn to other writers and I read, read, read. Sometimes this means I’m returning to poets I love and sometimes it means reading outside of poetry: creative non-fiction, sci-fi, or a short story collection. Reading reminds me that someone wrote all of these beautiful important books, and likely those writers also felt themselves running dry at different points. And yet, here in my hands are their books! I also carry a little Nancy Drew sized notebook and I make a conscious effort to note anything I hear or that comes through my brain that could be a poem start or seed. I listen the NPR in my car instead of replaying my favorite CD; the news provides plenty of disaster and wonder—people are so strange and we engage in surreal experience every day. That helps me. I also go outside; I garden (and am amazed every time I dig a hole in the earth, that I am on a planet spinning through space and digging a hole!), I play with my daughters (who are excellent sources for poems), I cook. Mostly, I try to do things that involve creativity, but in a different sort of way. I try to turn all of my senses up, to heighten my awareness to the world, because I know the poems are out there—all around me, and this lull in my writing will pass as it has before.

She shares the following poem, originally published by Hunger Mountain in their Silence + Power issue (in 2018):

Morning Walk: September 11, 2018

Because you are five, I say airplanes crashed
and you say where is our flag and I say look

at those roses, breaking open—little mouths
on our walk to school. You scuff and work

out the equation: if airplanes crashed
on a surface like this—you drag the concrete,

then there would be fire. Yes, and now
I walk through a curtain of printer paper

a flock of fallen paper people, arms spread.
Yes, I say—there was fire and I mean is.

Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green

Jaki Shelton Green is North Carolina’s current Poet Laureate. She will be selecting the winning poem for our Poet Laureate Award from the ten finalists chosen by Michael Rothenberg.

She shares the following words and poem:

“My consistent commitment to community engagement with NC citizens and writers across all the real and imagined boundaries that polarize our humanity is the fuel that fosters my readiness and availability to foster and expand a deeper appreciation of the literary arts. Witnessing the power of story and the medicine of creativity create deeper community connections is significantly fulfilling.”

poet laureate preliminary judge

Our preliminary judge for the Poet Laureate Award is Michael Rothenberg, the Florida State University Libraries Poet in Residence. He is editor and publisher of the online literary magazine BigBridge.org, co-founder of 100 Thousand Poets for Change, and and co-founder of Poets In Need, a non-profit 501(c)3, assisting poets in crisis. His most recent books of poetry include Drawing The Shade (Dos Madres Press), Wake Up and Dream (MadHat Press), and a bi-lingual edition of Indefinite Detention: A Dog Story (Varasek Ediciones, Madrid, Spain).

Asked who his favorite poet is, he answers:

I think of Philip Whalen, Joanne Kyger, John Keats, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Anna Akmatova, Emily Dickinson, Paul Valéry, Appolinaire, Walt Whitman, Michael McClure, Tu Fu, Ed Dorn, Denise Levertov, William Blake, Garcia Lorca, Wang Wei, Allen Ginsberg, Antonio Machado, Mahmoud Darwish, Bob Kaufman, Marina Tsvetaeva, and the impossibility of choosing favorites. I hear a thousand voices, and each of them soothe, excite, and inspire me. They give me permission to find my own way.

He shares the following poem:

american heritage award judge

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.

Thomas H. McDill Award judge

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:

Chakgya

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.

sonnet and traditional forms judge

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.

sestina award judge

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)

bloodroot haiku judge

Julie Warther, our judge for the Bloodroot Haiku Award, serves as Midwest Coordinator for the Haiku Society of America and is an associate editor at The Heron’s Nest. She was instrumental in establishing both The Forest Haiku Walk in Millersburg, Ohio, and the Seasons of Haiku Trail at The Holden Arboretum in Kirtland, Ohio.

Of refilling the well of her creativity, she writes:

Basho said “go to the pine to learn of the pine”, so I head outdoors. For me, this means a wooded walk with my dogs or kayaking on the Tuscarawas River near my home. Sometimes, it’s as simple as sitting at my patio table with nothing but a notepad and my favorite Pilot G-2 pen. Conspicuously absent is my phone or anything else that might serve as a distraction. I seek silence and solitude. There is usually deep breathing involved – the kind I forget to do unless I am specifically attempting to be mindful. Once I can clear my mind of the “clutter”, the beauty of small things becomes apparent.

She sent this haiku to share. It was originally published in The Heron’s Nest XVI:1

sun-soaked chrysalis
the effort
no one sees