I have been honored to judge poetry contests these recent years, and I posted comments already on judging--now in the archives. I would compare poetry to tennis: mastering the basic strokes is key. I see much well crafted work that misses very basic issues, like who is the audience? Why is this poem written? How does the language engage the reader?
Here are my recent remarks to the editors of Mikrokosmos of the Wichita State University writing program (of which I am an alumna!). I also post, with permission, the winning entry by Craig Blais and his biography. These will be published in the next issue of Mikrokosmos. Do consider subscribing!
"When judging contests, I like to start with a first read through all the entries. This gives me a sense of the peer group, including the range of skills. Then I sort the poems into definite no-s and maybe-s. I can say that this time I had to put virtually every poem into the maybe pile. I can see good editing is going on, as all entries have a sense of voice; a sense of controlled diction; and topical focus.
"The next several readings I read more deeply into the poems, opening my imagination and looking for rhythm of language—since ultimately poetry, unlike prose, is about line breaks. And that rhythm, if joined with a congruous topic, can propel me through the poem. I once heard a good poem described as a locomotive that screams by and takes you with it and never once lets up. Since my father worked on the railroad, some of my earliest memories are those of watching a train arrive and transform rails and concrete into an overwhelming, shuddering energy. That is the kind of propulsion I look for.
Several of these poems achieve this sustained drive: first “Ode to Memory: Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers.” This three-part poem uses dialogue to create tension and form. The poet also makes good use of Chagall’s own dialogic works that move between inner and outer landscapes. The three parts all have unique tropes—seven fingers, dust particles, solar system—and all three work together to allude to the great painter’s ideas and also to recast them in this new package.
"Also impressive, and honorable mentions go to them, were “Lulled from our mother’s slick womb” and “At the Bike Track.” “Lulled” uses sense imagery well and interests me as a reader with originality. “At the Bike Track” has compelling drive and narrative. Congratulations to the winners and all the poets."
ODE TO MEMORY: SELF-PORTRAIT WITH SEVEN FINGERS I
by Craig Blais
For me a painting is a surface covered with objects depicted in a certain order. For example, the headless woman, who, with a milk pail, figures on this canvas—if I had the idea of separating her head from her body it was because I needed a space just at that spot. –Marc Chagall
I struggle to make room for you, Chagall, to let your childhood meld with mine, to imagine,
As I would have as a child, that your work steps outside of time
And is like any other fairytale, any other nightgown brushing against the peak
Of wine-drenched rooftops in the borderless villages of my dreams: easy to believe.
No milkmaids, angels, or yellow-vested painters in my childhood, Chagall. Chagall, Chagall … an empty easel chair.
We descend together into a rainstorm at so-many-thousand feet,
And the Eiffel Tower tears at the belly of the plane
Because it needs to be there. Landing gear, luggage, plastic cabinets fall in order as we float away
Over my neighbor’s side-lot—its triangular shape safeguarding the presence of frozen cats and fruit trees.
It’s good to see it again. It’s good to see it differently.
Chagall, push over, make room for me. I have seven fingers too,
Each wrapped tightly around the crabapple melting in my palm.
ODE TO MEMORY: SELF-PORTRAIT WITH SEVEN FINGERS II
The first thing I ever saw was a trough. Simple, square, half hollow, half oval. A market trough.
And the first thing I remember, Chagall, was daylight.
In fact, dust. Particles of dust swirling in the daylight coming through the bedroom
The light was still because the dust was dancing in it.
I could still look at it in wonder, too dumb to doubt its charity
Like the promise of air holding the parachute silk high above the children’s heads in the park,
Or water overflowing, pushing out the ripples, becoming like glass, before it falls.
We are like this, you and I, the trough, and the light and dust inside.
ODE TO MEMORY: SELF-PORTRAIT WITH SEVEN FINGERS III
While in France I took part in this unique revolution of artistic technique, in my thoughts—I might even say, in my soul—I returned to my own land. I lived with my back toward what lay before me. –Marc Chagall
Planet, Chagall, in Greek means Wanderer.
Whenever we turn from home, like the earth turning from the sun, we begin our way towards it again.
The window open over your shoulder, for instance, might reveal
A field of wheat, a steeple, and a rusted train rumbling towards
Heaps of scrap metal on the horizon.
To chart the passage, compass and wind rose alone will not do.
Some landmasses must be stretched and some memories distorted
To make drunk the course leading to our respective points of origin.
Not every celestial body needs to clumsily orbit
A sun that turns blood red
and kilns the solar system before turning to dust inside.
And in the next life, Chagall, we will neither reflect nor emit light.
We will travel like dark matter, and move in all directions at once.
Craig Blais writes of himself:
“Born and raised in Western Massachusetts, I lived in San Francisco and South Korea before moving to Kansas to pursue my MFA in Creative Writing from Wichita State University, where I'm the 2006-07 Poetry Fellow. I've published in Flint Hills Review, Eclipse, The Pinch (the Memphis lit mag formerly known as River City) and Good Foot: A Poetry Journal. The best thing about studying at WSU is the time. I have time to read and write and develop my craft in an environment where I don't feel pressured to conform to an aesthetic that doesn't truly move me.”