Honoring Bruce Lader and Introducing Kristina Erny

Our poetry of witness award is newly sponsored by Doug Stuber and has been renamed to honor Bruce Lader.

Of Bruce, Doug writes, “Bruce Lader wrote a wide variety of poems of witness that addressed many issues of our day. By applying his philosophy in wry verse he helped us nervously laugh about the foibles of those in charge of government and the armed services.”

Click this link to read one of Bruce’s poems, from the June 1994 issue of Poetry magazine: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=38967

The Bruce Lader Poetry of Witness Award for 2021 will be judged by Kristina Erny.

Kristina is a third culture poet who grew up in South Korea. Her poetry has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Yemassee, Bluestem, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the University of Arizona, and her work has been the recipient of the Tupelo Quarterly Inaugural Poetry Open Prize and the Ruskin Art Club Poetry Award. Her manuscript Wax of What’s Left was a finalist for Tupelo Press’s Dorset Prize, Ahsahta Sawtooth Poetry award, and the Colorado Prize for Poetry. After many years of teaching internationally, she currently teaches creative writing at Asbury University and lives in Kentucky with her husband, sons, and daughter.

Of the role of the poet, she says:

“Rick Barot has a brilliant sequence of poems entitled ‘During the Pandemic.’ In Number 30, he writes ‘And there were days when I remembered the teacher who made us memorize a poem each week, and when we asked why, she said we might one day find ourselves in a wreck at the side of the road and we would recite these poems to stay alive.’

This summer I participated in a Writing Lab facilitated by Sarabande Books taught by Louisville poet Joy Priest. This was what got me through after months of quarantine, after marching, after watching my state of Kentucky and a city very close to where I live join the national stage in protest to American police brutality and injustice. Our little band of writers met on zoom for three weeks. We were writing into the wind, attempting to shout our own stories, our own visions, our own dreams, imagining a future for human survival and thriving. The poet’s role is to be alive, their mind an antennae to human experience. The poet’s role is one of truth-telling, bearing witness. This is necessary, essential: water, breath, light. Poetry’s mask demands speaking, not staying silent.

How did we survive 2020? The challenges of 2020 have underlined, bolded, and italicized the necessity of poetry to our survival as a species. Not only does poetry make space for the imaginative work which will ultimately shape our future, I believe that poetry has a unique capacity to engage human empathy and understanding. Maybe it’s the ability of poetry, as Naomi Shihab Nye has said, to hold space for the ‘other’. To place it’s hand around a frame and say, look at this. Be tender. Let your heart be changed. You are not alone. We are not alone.”

Kristina shares this poem with us:

The Mother Brushes Her Son’s Hair 

He’s tender-headed. She’s annoyed at his flinching, his calling out. This ritual 
cost of his long hair, longer than hers though hers isn’t long by any means. 

He made her a mother young, and there are days, like this one, 
she can hardly believe the same bald-headed baby thrust into her arms 

is this boy, as if this one sprang up fully formed out of a cactus flower,
just arrived this morning, to have her comb his hair. His jeans are rolled up, 

his bony elbows recently skinned. Between shudders, he looks himself in the eye.  
At his age, she’d sprawled on a red cushion, her hands a tripod beneath her chin, 

all her lenses aimed toward her teacher’s voice and the story of an unlikely sailor, 
a young girl who’d dressed as a boy, cut her own hair, and sailed into a cliffhanger 

at the end of each chapter. Her boy could be Charlotte, gentry turned sea-dog, 
arms muscled into tight strips of licorice, reaching for the next rigging, hair in his eyes. 

Last year she’d watched as he sat on a bench while two gangly short-shorn older 
boys pointed fingers long as levels at him are you a girl? 

They’d moved their accusatory palms to their mouths, eating giggles, 
and she’d watched. Her boy slumped downward, looked at his shoes. 

Now here he is in front of her. Hair almost to his waist. She sets down the brush 
and hugs her body into his shoulders. He allows her this. He runs out the bathroom door. 

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