What makes a winner
Published: April 29, 2005
|Congratulations to the winners of the New Discovery Poetry Contest, sponsored by The Writer and Rosebud magazines. Robert Russell won first place for "How Time Works," second place went to Sandra Dorr for "Lilly Makes an A," and F.J. Bergmann took third place for "Dissolution." |
Rosebud founder John Lehman meticulously went through nearly 2,000 entries to select the final 31 poems, which he sent on to me. I was impressed by the quality of the final group.
Let me share with you my judging process. In the reject pile-and remember these were poems good enough to have made the first cut-I put poems that were less original or too mundane, or needed more tightening or editing. In my maybe pile went poems that seemed good but were just a little ordinary, lacked intensity or had technical problems, such as poor editing.
I read and reread the poems, looking for originality, fresh use of language and technical skill. Then, I reread the poems in my finalists pile before ranking them. The winners stood out for their craftsmanship and emotional intensity. They moved me to another level of understanding. The poems that didn't make this final cut were fine poems but stayed on a simpler level of revelation, not taking the reader to philosophical place, beyond the speaker of the poem.
In "How Time Works," Russell's speaker uses a memory from childhood to suggest a path he took toward understanding the world. The speaker is literal but also projects the reader into the realm of the conceptual imagination as he moves from the details of his adult world to childhood images, such as:
The smell of first grade-Crayolas,
school lunch milk, pencil shavings,
and the corridor with the fire drill buzzer on
settles like a hen over the entire yard...
For me, the mystery of the poem lies in the literal expression of a child's sense of centrality in the world and the metaphorical expression of time passing. All the propositions of the poem-such as what really happened and what is a trick of memory-finally become the spinning image of time and our distorted perception of it.
The poem is so focused that each statement becomes a metaphorical pronouncement about the world-pithy but unpretentious. Not only does this poem offer the emotional intensity and gratifying revelation of the poet's experience, it takes the reader to another level of understanding that is not just emotional or spiritual, but also intellectual.
"Lilly Makes an A" is a present-tense narrative of a domestic experience. The parent in the poem's kitchen watches her daughter learn to make the alphabet and graphically remembers her own experiences as a school girl. She invokes a child's sense of excitement when first learning to write letters. The poet plays with language in the title. "Making an A" is meant literally and as a metaphor for accomplishment. The poem is a multilayered vision about language and learning language.
"Dissolution" struck me with its imaginative trope. The poet begins with the line "When I lost my soul." Then, the poet's powers of description pull the reader in, culminating with the lines "an iridescence on the wings / of a bird that seems to remember my name." The soul here is not just a bird, but the author in some state of semiremembrance. One soul and all souls. We have no idea what happened to the poet to make her think she lost her soul, but unexpectedly the metaphorical description becomes magical in its beauty.
I chose "How Time Works" for its ambiguity, which leaves the reader both knowing and wondering; "Lilly Makes an A" for its word play and sensuous description of how we come to make language; and "Dissolution" for its imaginative way of presenting essence or being.
--Posted April 29, 2005