2021 JMRL-WriterHouse Poetry Contest

2021 JMRL-WriterHouse Poetry Contest

The challenges surrounding the current pandemic may have continued into 2021, but JMRL and WriterHouse were very happy to once again offer the annual Poetry Contest for Adults this past March, which took place for the sixth time this year.  

A team of judges selected finalists from all the entries, which were then judged by the esteemed Luisa Igloria, Poet Laureate of Virginia and Professor of Creative Writing and English at Old Dominion University. We are pleased to announce the winner and runner-up here and share their words for others to enjoy.

The winning entry was “Carolina Wrens,” written by poet Mary McCue, who will receive the prize of a $200 Visa gift card. Poet Laura Wallace was chosen as the runner-up, for her work “Aphasia”; she receives the prize of a $100 Visa gift card. Luisa Igloria had the following to say about the selections:

“Carolina Wrens”

The poet observes such a careful economy of language and image in this poem, yet doesn’t sacrifice any generosity of attention. Birds call through the branches with “voices so clear and bright” as if to illustrate the promise of persistence. But the season might have arrived too early for nesting, for “song and intent.” At the end of the day, there are only “feathers and chips of bone” on the porch. “Living alone, one can believe anything,” says the speaker; but though the world might not exactly last, at least there are these small returns. 

“Aphasia”

What would we do with no access to even the most ordinary of words, without the ability to communicate in speech? In “Aphasia,” the poet captures a beloved’s struggle with a disorder which has damaged their ability to process language. Though the faltering brain can still “illuminate a scan,” there is such ache and yearning here along with the hope that “you will remember … one morning/ just in time.”   

Please consider these comments as you read the poems below (note: formatting attempts were made to be as close to the original as possible):

“Carolina Wrens” by Mary McCue,
Winner

What they are saying this morning
of dew fresh grass
I do not know,

but I understand happiness
as the pair flutters 
in and out of Stewartia branches—

voices so clear and bright
I’d swear the tiny white petals
opened a month early.

Hidden in a fork of the tree,
a thatched pagoda-like house,
leaves, twigs and milkweed silk
spilling from its lip.

For weeks I’ve admired the diligence
of these shy birds hopping from bush pile
to nest and felt blessed
by song and intent.

Living alone, one can believe anything.
I believed they belonged forever
like the morning glories
of blue, dark blue and rose,

those delicate climbers
that appear every spring
wrap themselves around
a reed, a pole.

But hours later, on a porch step,
only feathers and chips of bone.

“Aphasia” by Laura Wallace,
Runner-Up

One morning a ragged fingernail scratches 
deep within the brain a soft and lonely itch. 

A yearning not to speak, not to need so strongly 
to be heard or to divine the word that will relieve all 
hunger, quell all war and cruelty, slake a planet’s 
thirst for peace and oxygen, oxygen and peace. 

This changes to desire for tea, just tea, it’s what you always do 
but you can’t recall what tea is called, its early-morning sound or 
meaning, in which disorderly cabinet it waits or how it’s made. 
Instead you head again to bed and start to write until you read 
what you have typed and it 
is gibberish. 

The smart and urgent residents prick and quiz religiously until you 
finally reply in ways that mean as much to them as once had meant 
to you: the will-yous, won’t-yous, can-yous, can’t-yous collected 
over time before you learned this day that all a human needs when 
questions come is yes or no. DNR? Okay? 

They let you sleep or make you sleep and later on illuminate a scan. 
A white spot sends out a beam from the sly cupboard where tea lives, 
where words are stored in wild and looping canyons full of tiny jars 
with golden lids and colors fragrant as continents of flowers. 

You’d had no idea, really none, how a pilot might require 
such skill and concentration. 

You find no secret speech on peace or Paris or the planet but 
when they say the stroke was small you can still go, joy roars 
in your chest as loudly as the engines making snaking, filthy 
trails that fall away below your feet. And though you know 
there might be a word like love you’ve overlooked, you hope 
you will remember it one morning 
just in time.

Thank you to all the entrants for participating in the contest, and congratulations once again to the winners!

“Why feel bad about what you couldn’t change? Why not embrace it?”

On Thursday, April 1, JMRL’s Books on Tap discussed on Zoom Stephen King’s 2018 novel Elevation. Just 146 pages, this was a surprising change from the “typical” King book. 

Set in small town Maine, the main character, Scott, is mysteriously losing weight at a rapid rate, but yet looks the same and his clothes still fit.  He also is experiencing more energy and athletic ability as the pull of gravity lessens day by day.  He shares his physical changes with his retired doctor friend, but is resolved to let the situation run its course.  A subplot of the story is the town’s treatment of a married lesbian couple (Scott’s neighbors) who run a local restaurant. Initially Scott and the neighbor couple have a contentious relationship, but Scott resolves to win their friendship and help the town overcome its bigotry.  Suspense builds over the span of a few months, as Scott realizes that his weight will drop to zero; at which point he’ll “run out of weight.” With his small circle of friends, he plans his exit strategy. 

Two attendees recommended listening to the book, read by King, and the audio version includes a bonus short story “Laurie” that is not in the physical edition of the book.  For a few members, this was the first Stephen King book they had ever read.  We were fortunate to have two avid Stephen King fans who could provide more context on his huge catalog of works and make recommendations for those wanting to try some more of his titles.

Some attendees felt King over-simplified stereotypes, that the novella was plot driven, and that the characters were not fully developed. Yet other readers thought the characters evolved significantly in a short period of time.

Themes include: love your neighbor as yourself; it’s never too late to change; what matters most?; and, what do you fight for when you realize your mortality/time is limited?

Other books/films mentioned:

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Stand By Me (DVD) Stephen King film adaptation

Thinner by Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

Up! (DVD) Disney/Pixar

Under the Dome: A Novel by Stephen King 

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

Playing for Pizza by John Grisham

Books on Tap will meet again on Thursday, May 6 at 7 pm on Zoom to discuss News of the World by Paulette Jiles. For the link to participate, please contact Krista Farrell (kfarrell@jmrl.org). 

Our upcoming titles: 

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez – June 3      

The Library Book by Susan Orlean – July 1    

Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – August 5    

“Man, you know how it goes. One day chicken. Next day bone.”

This month, two Central library book groups met virtually to discuss Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, our JMRL Same Page author of 2021. Books on Tap met March 4, and Brown Baggers met March 11. This post examines some of the similarities and differences of those conversations, as well as information and revelations from the author. JMRL was fortunate enough to host Jacqueline Woodson for a Same Page discussion event on March 16. 

Red at the Bone immerses readers into the minds and bodies of a large cast of characters that span three generations. Woodson brings memory, history, and generational trauma and inheritance to life through her rich, poetic language. Readers can expect a nonlinear, layered narrative told through a collage of senses, presented in a taut, spare work. Plot-wise, Woodson writes with honesty, heartbreak, and immediacy about her characters (teenage Melody, her mom Iris and dad Aubrey, her grandparents Sabe, Po Boy, and CathyMarie) as they face sex, pregnancy, parenthood, education, poverty, wealth, and racial trauma and healing. Both our book groups noted that, though the work is fiction, they learned a lot from the book, especially about the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. Both groups were struck by the similarities between the Tulsa Massacre, which destroyed 35 square blocks of businesses known at the time as “Black Wall Street” and the razing of Charlottesville’s Vinegar Hill neighborhood. 

Books on Tap spent time discussing the title, identifying moments in the book when it was mentioned explicitly or alluded to. To be “red at the bone” may mean the person or situation is not quite complete — still in progress — like the bits of chicken close to the bone, that don’t quite get cooked. The words “red” and “bone” in close proximity made others think of emotional rawness and vulnerability, a person’s core truth and essence. One reader pointed out that the book deals with race and class, and how people are different, but also similar; when we get beneath our own skin, we’re all “red at the bone.” 

Brown Baggers focused on characters, especially Iris. Many identified her as the “main character” as she was the natural link between the generations (Sabe’s daughter, Melody’s mother). Some felt they’d had enough of Iris, but others wanted more of her, as she was one of the more complex characters of the story. Readers found the issue of Iris’ maternal nature (or lack thereof) worthy of discussion. Like other threads, Iris going to college was a gray matter — was she abandoning her daughter, or advancing herself? Woodson says, wholeheartedly, that Iris was not abandoning her daughter; she has the resources to make other decisions. 

In her discussion of Iris, Jacqueline said this: “You may not like her but you will never forget her. I couldn’t come to any of my characters with judgement, including Iris.” In fact, there is some Iris in all of us, namely, the hunger we see in her. We all have that hunger, and we either bottle it up, which may come back to haunt us as we inadvertently pass it on to our children, or we go out and, essentially, satiate that hunger. Woodson continued by saying: it’s time to look at our own dreams, what societal norms are at play, and how we’re responding. In reflecting, it seems that “hunger” may be an underlying feeling woven throughout the work (connect back to the title discussions, for example, which came largely from a discussion of food and appetite). Two chapters before the close of the book, we read Melody’s account of the day she was born: “And I remember when they finally placed me at her breast, how I latched on so tight and hard, there was fear in her eyes. How absolutely hungry I was once. For her. For her. For her.” (p.186). 

Moving out from Iris, readers considered Iris’ parents, Melody’s grandparents. Books on Tap questioned if it was right of Iris’ parents to support her, and even fight for her ability to be so separate from her daughter? We realized Iris’ parents didn’t push her to be maternal, they gave her an “out” — whether that be good, bad, or negligible. The Brown Baggers considered how Iris created expectations for Melody in her absence. As Melody was raised by her father and grandparents, we wondered if the expectation to be different — to not get pregnant — would result in Melody feeling pressure to not repeat history, or in resentment toward Iris. Once again, Woodson was having the same discussion. When an audience question came in asking if Melody was a “surrogate” for Iris (i.e. a do-over, as the Brown Baggers questioned/theorized), Woodson said no, Melody was her own person, not a stand-in for Iris, or anyone else. That being said, Melody is participating in the narrative, which is heavily saturated with ideas of legacy and inheritance, interconnectedness of family members, and tradition. Melody’s story — both her uniqueness and the way in which she carries the stories of others — continues the family line. Jacqueline also noted that in this novel, she was interested in shifting the idea of what family actually “is.” Jacqueline questioned: what is a broken home? and then noted, I’ve never seen a broken home; Woodson is challenging the assumption that single parent households and non-nuclear family structures are “broken.” 

Clearly, Red at the Bone offered plenty of fodder for discussion, from its energy, to its structure and format, to the characters, and the sweeping, consequential time period covered. 

Books on Tap will meet again virtually on Thursday, April 1 at 7 pm to discuss Elevation by Stephen King. The Brown Baggers will meet again virtually on Thursday, April 15 at noon to discuss Go Down the Mountain by Meredith Battle. Please email kfarrell@jmrl.org for details on how to participate from your computer or phone.

Books Mentioned:

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Urban Renewal and the End of Black Culture in Charlottesville, Virginia: An Oral History of Vinegar Hill by James Robert Saunders and Renae Nadine Shackelford

Movies Mentioned: 

That World is Gone: Race and Displacement in a Southern Virginia Town (2010)

Links:

1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Digital Exhibit

Oklahoma News 4 – Search for victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre expected to continue this summer

Zinn Project – May 31, 1921: Tulsa Massacre