Winning poems from the WNC Regional Poetry Competition

 

 

 This competition was made possible through the generosity of Blue Ridge Energy.

 

Seventy-nine poets submitted a total of 145 poems for this inaugural competition! All poems were reviewed by preliminary judge David B. Prather of Parkersburg, West Virginia, and award selections were made by Kari Gunter-Seymour, Poet Laureate of Ohio. Poems are printed with permission below. The five placed award-winning poems are immediately followed by comments from final judge Kari Gunter-Seymour.

 

When you tell me I’m being racist
Catherine Carter, Cullowhee, NC
(First Place)
 
Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. –Romans 12:20, KJV
 
When you tell me I’m being racist,
it’s a strange gift. Dangerous.
Eerie, too, as you pry at your chest,
scoop aside hard white
ribs, dark blood, and offer
what you wrench free—a hot cinder
split, riven, glazed gloss-black
though at the draft’s touch a flash
flushes through it, glows
clear vermillion then sinks back
to its wary smolder, burn
you’ve borne forever
but which I’m afraid to take
in my bare hand, ashamed
not to: fire which can wake
cold votives into yellow stars
in a house without power, kindle
a stove into warmth to cook
coffee or chili or cornbread,
flare into flame to light
a whole world, light
by which I must see you
anew, and this world, also
myself, knowing it’s going to hurt.
You can’t trust me to see
the gift’s grace, receive
let alone embrace the burning
wafer. Yet you still stand,
chest-cleft folding slowly together
as we wait to see whether
I will, as you go on holding
out your lifted palm, coal pulsing
redder, skin beginning to smoke.
 
These are well-crafted, carefully chosen words, here, so amazingly poignant. I admire the poet's ability to "tightwire" the subject matter, as we are all struggling to come to a clearer understanding, to walk in each other's shoes, to grow as human beings. My own words fall short in praise of this poem. It has within it praise and glory all its own.
 
Such beautiful language! "you pry at your chest, scoop aside hard white/ ribs, dark blood, and offer/ what you wrench free..." and the "hot cinder" that, "glows clear vermillion then sinks back to its wary smolder, burn/ you've borne forever/ but which I'm afraid to take/ in my bare hand, ashamed/ not to..."
 
and
 
"fire which can wake/ cold votives into yellow stars/ in a house without power, kindle a stove into warmth to cook/ coffee or chili or cornbread,/ flare into flame to light/ a whole world/ and this world, also/ myself, knowing it's going to hurt..."
 
Yes, yes, yes! - Kari Gunter-Seymour
 
Catherine Carter's collections of poetry include Larvae of the nearest Stars, The Swamp Monster at Home, The Memory of Gills, all with LSU Press, and Marks of the Witch (Jacar Press, 2014). Her work has also appeared in Best American Poetry 2009, Orion, Poetry, and Ploughshares, among others.
 
 
 
The Ottoman Empire
For Selma, my Sitti
Elizabeth Harris Brandes, Hickory, NC
(Second Place)
 
I.
At eight, you sit atop a camel
In tattered wrap,
Bread pouch laced with sand,
Waiting, wondering if the camel
Likes the bells you are ringing in its ears.
You can see the world from here,
Mount Sannine in secret shadows,
Uncle packing mud into molds,
Matted hair and heads of man sweat,
Slats and flats and stone.
Flies buzz a crown on your head,
Anoint you with grit.
The saddle-split leather cools your legs to your toes,
You move to music only you can hear.
 
II.
At eight plus nine, you sit on your leather suitcase
Pushed flush against the door,
Clutching your hat flat as a pita
That Mr. Khoury bought you on the boat.
You reek of antiseptic,
The coat they sprayed
before you could enter
The land of the free,
Where you were nameless,
Only an X.
 
Bodies bang down the hall,
Sirens spin up the stairs,
Your mother’s voice unfolds
In your pierced ears.
Habib Albi—You are my heart.
You now sit like a Sphinx,
Stone arms in your lap
Cradling your Arabic Bible
And train ticket.
Unmovable and moving.
 
III.
Atop the high dome
Your soul is carving stone.
He sits midst the spires of New Orleans
That remind him of turrets and tapestries of home,
But the scaffolding does not hold his empire,
Or yours,
As he falls to his death
Leaving you pregnant with grief.
 
IV.
I sit and watch you.
Cinnamon, raisins and butter in the morning,
Patting all sweetness into rolls of love.
When you chop me into greenness
With parsley and lemon, I crack wheat and spark mint.
I am your little tabouleh.
You pan-slide me across the table,
Flip me in the air like flatbread.
In afternoon heat, we spin with scarves to the Arab beat,
Savor sounds through kitchen haze
While you work your phyllo, mica-thin,
And anoint me with orange blossom water
As you layer baklava, triangles of treasure
From the Ottoman Empire.
 
V.
You now rest on the ottoman,
It cradles your feet.
Your veins bulge as blue rivers
Coursing with sinew and sadness.
They connect disparate parts of the world,
And scatter into lightning that spans the ocean,
Electric but not haphazard.
Your current runs deep.
 
VI
You pull the ottoman
To the center of the room.
With our sprawling stick-legs and flip flops,
Mosquito bites and toenail polish
We circle you in exotic anticipation.
The game is War and you are in command,
Dealing blue-black cards with spiral speed,
Face down. Slap-up. Conquest.
 
VII
The day I taught you to write our name
I was eight and you were 8 X 7,
Like my multiplication table.
You held the pen under my hand
Ready to write right not left
And sloped your line high for the ‘S’ of safe passage.
You gently tucked the ‘e’ between the lift to ‘l’
Then wove us together in ‘m’,
On ‘a’ you finally breathed and curled a smile up at me.
We both knew you were more than an X.
 
A mentor once told me, if I was going to be bold enough to break a poem into numbered sections, then I had better be certain that each section was an exquisite, complete poem unto itself. This is exactly what the poet has provided in The Ottoman Empire.

Each section offers an engaging opening line:
“At eight, you sit atop a camel,” “Bodies bang down the hall,”
“Atop the high dome/ Your soul is carving stone”
 

and equally amazing last lines:
“You move to music only you can hear”
“As he falls to his death / Leaving you pregnant with grief ”

“Electric but not haphazard. /Your current runs deep”

and in between each, an array of astounding visuals, tastes, sounds, smells; so many well-conceived thoughts and language choices! The cultural experience within this poem is not one I am familiar with, but by the end of the poem I feel as though I have learned many things about the culture, the bond between these two generations and the enduring strength of each character. Every carefully crafted section, read as whole, provides a beautifully written story – one of perseverance, resilience and pride of heritage. - Kari Gunter-Seymour

After a career in social work, Beth Brandes combines her love of writing with exploration of her family history. A strong supporter of the arts and community, Beth has served on several boards including the Hickory Choral Society, Adult Children of Aging Parents, Exodus and the National Children’s Alliance. She is co-author of GET REAL: A Guide to Adolescent Groups.
 
 
 
The River at World’s End
(Third Place)
Benjamin Cutler, Whittier, NC
 
                                              does not flow over the edge 
but from it—the headwaters beyond the first silver 
shimmers of star-shine, where the lake of our oldest 
light laps at the shores of every mystery, and wave-
song is the pulse of our blood’s oldest hymn: a voiceless 
lay we have always known, since before love ever needed 
language to sustain it. 
                                    That wordless psalm never begs, 
but sings a question composed only for you—a call-
and-response as ancient as water, each note a tributary 
swelling the chorus—and you will 
                                                         answer: become a new-
scaled creature and swim upstream. No river, not even this first 
and last river, promises arrival—only passage, both patient 
and perilous. Beware 
 
*
                                    the watchful osprey perched riverside 
and high on a leafless branch; the lean, pale heron wading 
and wandering in the riffles; the dark, quick-pawed otter flirting 
with the river’s shadows. They know no song but their own 
hunger—an endless refrain in which you are nothing 
but a single red note. Beware 
                                                the barefoot boys who fish 
from the banks and shin-deep eddies. Their faces are yours, 
and with the practiced patterns of your life’s measured seconds, 
they cast bright flies tied 
                                         in the image of every fond memory 
(and every shame, too)—dry parachutes that never sink but dance 
darkly on the gold-rippled surface. 
 
*
                                                          But should you rise 
from your safe channel or secret pool—should you bite—
these gentle boys, after the rod-bending bout, will pull 
the perfect hook from your gasping mouth and return you, 
lip-bloodied and spent, to your sun-veined stream. 
Your panicked heart will slow—
                                                     return again—to the timeless 
meter of that old verse that echoes from every watershed. 
With the rhythm of each fin’s flex keeping steady time, 
swim on. Follow that call. 
                                           You can hear it beating even now.
 
As does a river, this poem ebbs and flows, sings and dances. I hear the music in the language: “the headwaters beyond the first silver/ shimmers of star-shine…” “the lean, pale heron wading and wandering in the riffles…” I am invited into the poem: “That wordless psalm never begs,/ but sings a question composed only for you …,” and further still: “Beware/ the barefoot boys who fish/ from the banks and shin-deep eddies. Their faces are yours…” I swim, glide, wade, wander, flirt with shadows, measure seconds, return again and again to “the pulse of our blood’s oldest hymn.” -- Kari Gunter-Seymour
 
Benjamin Cutler is an award-winning poet and high school English teacher in the mountains of Western NC where he lives with his family and plays on the local rivers and trails. His poems have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, The Lascaux Review, and EcoTheo Review, among many others, and he is the author of the full-length collection, The Geese Who Might be Gods (Main Street Rag, 2019).
 
 
 
 
Lessons from the Field
Anne Maren-Hogan, Burnsville, NC
(Fourth Place)
 
Walking from the mailbox, facing the field,
I catch a glimpse of a woman kneeling in long grass.
Lifting the head of a fawn colored calf,
she blows into soft nostrils. His head falls
back to her lap, she pauses. The calf struggles.
Massaging the long flank, she talks to him
non-stop, coaxing his freshly licked body to stay.
 
Bellowing, angus mother shatters
the serene evening with agony. Anguished
bawls ring, echo off the hills. Side by side
with her last year’s calf, she patrols
her newborn and the woman. Her black body
rushes back, nudges the calf, charges older cows.
 
Poplars with frost-blackened leaves send
out long shadows as dusk creeps. Ripe
May grasses perfume, high clouds
sail above, as birth and death dare
each other.
 
Bellows ring like the tolling of church bells.
 
Refreshing in its clear concise language, its economy of words, this little poem kicks up a plethora of emotion, “Bellowing, Angus mother shatters/ the serene evening with agony…” I picture myself there, beside the mailbox, a witness to this well-crafted scene, in which life and death hang so precariously balanced. I feel the anxiety, smell the “Ripe May grasses perfume ….,” see the calf limp and Angus mother nudging. By the end of this poem, I, too, am “kneeling in long grass…,” hear the “Bellows ring like the tolling of church bells.” - Kari Gunter-Seymour
 
Anne Maren-Hogan writes and gardens in one of the oldest intentional communities in the country, dedicated to simplicity, sustainability, and consensus decision-making. Her childhood on an Iowa farm, which her family still farms, provides material for her poetry, as deep and rich as the black earth from which she comes. Anne began writing poetry after raising children and gives credit to her writing group for their edits and insight. Her first chapbook, The Farmer’s Wake, was published by Finishing Line Press. Her second chapbook, Laying the Past in the Light, published by Longleaf Press, looks at the mystery of death and resurgent power of landscape. Last summer her manuscript, Vernacular, was chosen as Honorable Mention by NC Poetry Society.
 
 
 
Figs
Joyce Compton Brown, Troutman, NC
(Fifth Place)
 
After the neighbors died
we trespassed their holy grounds,
hovered among the fig trees
near an empty bedroom window.
We peered through glass at iron beds
and danced among the figs,
pulling nimble branches closer,
like partners in a waltz, reaching
toward rich dark fruit we plucked
free from green stems. Wrapped
within the ancient scroll of time,
we cradled them in our laps
like Cato, who caught fat figs
within his gown so that
the Senate might take notice.
The leaves, palmate, fuzz-tinged,
brushed soft against our tender skin.
We ate like Aesop’s wicked servants
prepared to deny our sick-sweet feast.
 
We knew only the fat brown turkey figs,
not Pliny’s twenty-nine varieties
from Cyprus and Mount Ida,
Lydia, and African shores, those
warm and azure lands where
even the slaves could feast,
eat their fill, then lay ripe fruit
in the sun for winter in numbers
nearly beyond measure,
where gladiators stuffed sweet
pink innards down their throats
between final performances.
We did battle with sticky wasps,
gorging on moments of plenty,
 
These days we’re lucky if the tree is spared
by winter freeze, that bone-chill wind
that leaves limbs frozen and brittle,
deadened to spring harvest.
But this is a bountiful year, tree drips
with drooping fruit, the feel is royal.
Fig’s lush leavings brush my arms,
nimble limbs move to my touch,
warm fuzzy leaves hold
pleasure like tender hands,
offer the globular fruit, purple skin,
rosy lush tinge of sweet taste.
 
I come with sugar and syrup and knife
slice away myth and mystery, slave
of my own compulsion—
spoon oval disks floating into jars,
their rose-wrinkled petals
pressed against the glass,
syrup-sweet and pink,
joy-rich nectar, denying
the paucity of last year’s harvest.
 
The title of this poem could be easily overlooked, but the first two lines cannot, “After the neighbors died/ we trespassed their holy grounds…” I must read more! Chock full of fig-filled color, metaphor, “warm fuzzy leaves hold/ pleasure like tender hands…” touch, sound and yes, eventually taste: “globular fruit, purple skin, rosy lush tinge of sweet taste.” We dance among figs, “pulling nimble branches closer, like partners in a waltz,” travel through time and to foreign soil “those/ warm and azure lands where/ even the slaves could feast,/ eat their fill, then lay ripe fruit/ in the sun for winter… .” Each carefully chosen word culminates in “a moment” at the close of the poem when the poet comes to “spoon oval disks floating into jars, their rose-wrinkled petals/ pressed against the glass…/ joy-rich nectar...” - Kari Gunter-Seymour
 
While teaching English, Joyce Compton Brown studied Appalachian culture, literature, and writing at Berea College and Hindman Settlement School. She has published in journals, including Blue Mountain Review and Broadkill Review. Her chapbooks are Bequest (2015, Finishing Line) and Singing with Jarred Edges (2018, Main Street Rag). She won the 2020 Poet Laureate Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society.
 
 
 
Nocturnal Howl Before Compline
Jenny Bates, Germanton, NC
(Honorable Mention)
 
            When all therefore, are gathered together, let them say Compline; and when they come out from Compline, no one shall be allowed to say anything, from that time on. ~ from the rule of St. Benedict.
 
What gives lipless multitudes purpose in a world whose virtue is setback, set aside,
unused as seasonal pillow or blanket?
 
Swamp obsessed, with smoke rising from autumn fires. Maybe this buttercup yellow insect with wings as dull as an oak barrel, has a voice with the shouting fall of tree limb sinking in ebony pools.
 
Goldenrod forms, mountain rue locks itself in tall stem, imprisoned breath. In a long wait,
until free.
 
The life I love most is going on unchanged, undeterred. Just as it always has.
 
Foxes sun themselves whether I’m there to see or not. Crows observe through windows.
Light and shadow pattern silently on cliff face.
 
That’s all I need to know.
 
Jenny Bates is a member of Winston-Salem Writers, NC Poetry Society, and NC Writers Network. Published books include Opening Doors: an equilog of poetry about Donkeys (Lulu Publishing, NC 2010); Coyote with Coffee (Catbird on the Yadkin Press, NC 2014); Visitations, Hermit Feathers Press, NC 2019); and Slip, a new collection (Hermit Feathers Press, NC 2020).
 
 
 
Old Barn
Les Brown, Troutman, NC
(Honorable Mention)
 
The tin roof rusts blood
that runs, stains the ashen
gray walls. Square nails lift
from split boards which spring
from skeletal beams, to fall,
returning the wood to earth,
Lean-to sheds flanking the barn
wilt like weary wooden wings.
 
Spirits in overalls brush by
as I climb the foot-worn ladder
into the loft. The scent of hay
and bourbon lingers, mingles
with voices of men shucking corn.
Wide chestnut boards creak
as dusty children run among shucks
lie down in soft, dry straw. Shadows
from lantern light play on the walls
until they slump in slumber.
 
The dead drift. They warm the winter,
chill the summer, continue the tasks
that will never end: sowing, reaping
harvesting, hauling. Their wagon is still  
in the wide alley flanked by rows
of stalls sheltering tired wraith mule,
horse, and lean cows that stand still
as blue-white milk pulled from swollen
udders fills hammered tin pails
where cat meows fill the gloom.
 
Les Brown spent his childhood in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. He has poetry and short stories published or forthcoming in journals such as Pinesong, Kakalak, and Main Street Rag. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee. His art has been featured in journals such as Moonshine Review and Broad River Review.
 
 
 
Bluegills take part in the creation of the world
Catherine Carter, Cullowhee, NC
(Honorable Mention)
 
You couldn’t say bluegills create the stream.
Torn from the stream, they choke
on blazing air. And yet. Those nests,
those few dozen shallow divots together
pocking the creek bottom in dimples
rich with sunfish generations: changing
creekbed, reshaping foundation.
That steady fan-flow of air-
bearing water over eggs settled among
the pebbles, ever so slightly changing
the river’s braiding and unbraiding. That labor
of life: the work to work
with the current as it is and yet
to change it just enough, to manifest
a place a little better for bluegills, co-creating
the world in concert with oxygen exchange,
tectonic motion, that smashed and gash-
edged hubcap pinning down an immortal
plastic bag, the gravity of the moon, whirligig
beetles inscribing creek-skin with runes
written in water, whatever God you say. Flood 
of protestors in the street’s torrent, choking
on blazing air. A woman stirring cut
onions over heat, changing them just enough
to turn their burning tears to something
a little more sweet. Fingers moving the pen, the keys,
the lever, and the air and ground
of our lives ever so slightly shifting
in response, recreated (ever so slightly) anew.
The fearful fact: it matters what you do. 
 
Catherine Carter's collections of poetry include Larvae of the nearest Stars, The Swamp Monster at Home, The Memory of Gills, all with LSU Press, and Marks of the Witch (Jacar Press, 2014). Her work has also appeared in Best American Poetry 2009, Orion, Poetry, and Ploughshares, among others.
 
 
 
Prayer for a New Trail
Bill Griffin, Elkin, NC
(Honorable Mention)
 
I pray with my body which speaks
                        before my voice can open
 
Swing the ten-pound mattock which bites earth
            bites roots raises sparks
                        from hidden stone
which knows to thank the shade beneath the hickory
            for letting it cut
                        for letting it open a way
where others may follow
 
I pray with my body which feels
                        before my heart can open
 
From the red bandanna wring sweat
            that soaks my back
                        that fills my eyes
that becomes tears of gratefulness
            for a bottle of water
            for the next cool breeze
                        for the open breath of day
 
I pray with my body which knows
                        before my mind can open
 
Look behind where my friend smooths the path
            I have started
Look ahead where my friend
                        marks the way forward
Look up where sky opens
            to spark to tease between the restless leaves
 
I look down and return to the work of prayer
 
Bill Griffin is a family doctor in a small town in western North Carolina. Poetry may not have saved his patients (although some have been preserved in verse) but poetry has certainly saved him. Bill’s poems have appeared widely including Tar River Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, and NC Literary Review. His most recent collection is RIVERSTORY : TREESTORY (The Orchard Street Press, 2018)
 
 
 
September Sunset
Benjamin Cutler, Whittier, NC
(Honorable Mention)
 
The golden field’s waning 
edge: a broken wing of light 
 
where you and I rest 
as two fallen feathers 
in the tall and weary grass. 
 
Is it the day’s heat you need
or the cool and gray gloaming?
 
It is not yet dim—but soon,
soon, and soon. Until then, 
wait with me; I will lie with you 
 
under this folding sky, our 
bodies against the mountain’s 
 
shadow—against the falling
and bleeding sun. Watch: 
the clear night will bring cold,
 
blazing suns aplenty; choose a star,
any unbroken light far from ours.
 
Benjamin Cutler is an award-winning poet and high school English teacher in the mountains of Western NC where he lives with his family and plays on the local rivers and trails. His poems have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, The Lascaux Review, and EcoTheo Review, among many others, and he is the author of the full-length collection, The Geese Who Might be Gods (Main Street Rag, 2019).