OPA 2017 Spring Contest Winners

Poet’s Choice

Screener, Carolyne Wright ; Final Judge, Ellen Bass

First place winner: “Calling the Wolves of Chernobyl”  — Charlotte Abernathy – Ashland, Oregon

Judge’s Comment: This is an ambitious poem. The poet uses scale especially well, showing us the great devastation of Chernobyl, the particular suffering of the wolves, and her/himself in a little den (great use of that word), as we, the readers, are. I admire the detail, the specificity, the restraint of the poem and its final emotional impact.

Second place winner: “My Mother’s Cold War” Kathleen McClung San Francisco, California

Judge’s Comment: I admire the complexity of this poem. The poet understands the way in which personal, domestic events are always in a political, social context, cultural context. The poem is rich in detail and manages the sestina capably.

Third Place winner:  “Reading Donna Haraway in Avery Park” — Athena Lathos – Corvallis, Oregon

Judge’s  Comment:  This poem has a strong sense of mystery and the power of contraries. I especially appreciate the way it surprises me in every stanza and rewards me in its beautiful, final image.

Honorable Mention: “Putting Red Down” — Carol Lantz – Corvallis, Oregon

Judge’s Comment: “This clear-eyed poem is both ode and elegy to a great horse. It invites us to know him and share the poet’s love, admiration, and impending loss. The use of rhyme helps to enact the rhythm of a horse and is satisfying, but not intrusive.”


Literary Ballad

Judge — Barbara Drake

Judge’s General Comments

In judging the literary ballad I looked for traditional elements such as a good story, a fresh treatment of the tradition (such as giving the ballad a modern turn), dramatic themes such as love, jealousy, betrayal, revenge, and skillful use of the ballad form (rhyme, rhythm, stanza development, overall structure).  It was a close call between the three winners but I did my best to rank them according to the fluidity and skill with which each author polished the form, avoiding forced rhymes and awkward spots in the rhythms. Someone else might have given a different ranking but I definitely feel that these three stand out.

1st Prize “Heart of the Matter” by Barbara Blanks – Garland, Texas

Judge’s comment: “Heart of the Matter” demonstrated traditional qualities while also placing the story in the interesting modern context of a hospital surgery, a surprising and darkly comic twist.  The author also did a good job of using rhyme, meter, and overall ballad form.  This is one you won’t forget.

2nd Prize “The Princess of Babylon Beach” — Charles Castle – Eugene, Oregon

Judge’s comment:  ‘The Princess of Babylon Beach” is a fun, freewheeling ballad about a wild young woman and the various phases she goes through in her life, from rebellion and high living to becoming a spiritual teacher on Orcas Island.  The irony as she moves from one recognizable but very different role to another is a strong quality in the poem. For the most part the rhymes and rhythms are handled well, though sometimes a rhyme or rhythm feels forced.”

3rd Prize “Comfort Tree” – Susanne Twight-Alexander – Eugene, Oregon

Judge’s comment: “Comfort Tree” has a sweet traditional sound but also incorporates a modern element with contemporary political references.  I liked that and I liked the poignant repeated line, “and in my heart was mine.” Sometimes a small adjustment would make the rhythm more musical though small adjustments can be a matter of personal judgment of course. Overall the author did a good job.

Honorable mentions: 

First : “Ballad of the Ghost of Lock 39” – Mary Winslow—Lake Oswego, Oregon

 Second: “Ballad of the Wind.” – John McPherson – Portland, Oregon

Judge’s comments on Honorable Mentions:

Honorable Mentions:“Ballad of the Ghost of Lock 39” and “Ballad of the Wind.” Although I think the stories in these two ballads could be sharpened and sometimes the sounds seem a bit forced, both poems capture the mournful music of traditional ballads.

Members Only

Judge — Barbara LaMorticella
1st Prize “loveliest of what I leave behind” by Toni Hanner – Eugene, Oregon

Judge’s comment: This poem boldly claims mythological energies.  I like its variation in scale from the grand releasing of sunlight and clouds to the observation of disappearing dew and a busy spider under a lamp. The moonglow being released from the bones into the sky is magical, and perhaps (I think this because of the time we’re in) carries a suggestion of some kind of radiation.  The stark ending is very effective.
2nd Prize “The Unbinding of Isaac” by Dan Kaufman – Central Point, Oregon

Judge’s comment: This poem steps out of the old testament framework into a new story,  where Isaac the son simply refuses to go along with the demands of Abraham,  the patriarch.  Does Isaac have a premonition of  nuclear war in the Mid-East if he follows his father’s command?  And is the ‘intact indifference of the sky’ terrible or reassuring? This poem comes from and reflects the time we’re in when the old  verities no longer seem veritable.

3rd Prize “Season of Rain” – Sherry Wellborn – Eugene, Oregon

Judge’s Comment: This poem nicely evokes a rainy northwest cityscape, the mention of prayers appropriate in the context of the winter we just went through.  I like the details, the cottonwoods pulling close, the puddles that turn into lakes.

First Runner Up “All I Am” by Tricia Knoll – Portland, Oregon

Judge’s comment: A summation by the poet at the time in life when necessary clarity can be painful.  The fourth stanza is stunning, (and maybe should be the last stanza), the last stanza sadly self-deprecating.   But n the middle of the poem,  amidst the rot and breakage,  is one stanza which isn’t a claim about being,  but a claim about action: learning.  And this is the ultimate hopefulness of the poem, because to learn the point of the circle is to learn something about wholeness.

Tied for Second Runner Up “All These Lakes Gone Dry” by Charles Castle – Eugene, Oregon

An elegantly shaped poem.  The poet is looking back to a lost time, a prelapsarian time when a small boy and a dark water trout swam together in knee-deep water.  But there’s an ambiguity about the uncaught dream swimming in that time, for it was big and cruised beneath the surface,  waiting to feed.

Tied for Second Runner Up  “Sharing” by Phil McCorkle – Salem, Oregon

A disarming way to speak some home truths in a childlike rhyme and rhythm.

Third Runner Up “To Dr. Seuss” by Carol Lantz – Corvallis, Oregon

Because sometimes it’s a delight to just have fun in a poem!


Oregon /  Pacific Northwest

Judge– Charles Goodrich

First Place: “Effigy of a Man” — Nancy Christopherson – Baker City, Oregon

Judge‘s comment: “Thoughts like seagulls” is promising; “thoughts chasing fish entrails” is exceptional. (How humbling to acknowledge our thoughts are carrion eaters.) From there, the playful / serious working out of the hypothesis is intriguing. And, given that the poem is supposed to be a “Pacific Northwest” poem, I like how it quickly flings the geography into the larger realm of imagination. (Aside: ornithologists quarrel with the term “seagull” since there are several gull species that frequent the seashores, and many of them are just as happy far inland.)

Second place: “Writing on Rivers” – Steve Jones – Corvallis, Oregon

Judge’s comment: I admire the many ways the writing here mimics the rushing, pool-and-drop of a river. Each clause is a tumbling cascade followed by a full stop/question mark, and a slack water pause.  The author smuggles in a lot of insights about human-river relationships, too. And the neologism “rickling” fits.

Third Place:  Friday Afternoon – Michael Hanner – Eugene, Oregon

Judge’s comment: I like the artful topsy-turvying of both physical and psychical space here, the interweaving of indoor and outdoor landscape, the playful reflections of humans and birds, sky and earth. A lovely derangement of the senses.

Honorable mentions

  1. “What to Love” – Sherry Wellborn — Eugene, Oregon
  2. “We only had fourteen days of summer in 2002” — Charlotte Van Werven – Salem, Oregon
  3. “How to Care for Roses” – Toni Hanner – Eugene, Oregon


Open Form

Judge– Mike Maggio

First Place: “Moose Heaven” Dr. Emory D. Jones – Iuka, Mississippi

Judge comments: This poem is as rich with nature as it is with language.  It is a poem of spring, of birth and rebirth, evoking a scene of harmony in a world that is not otherwise quite harmonious.  Even the speaker of the poem, confronted with the mother bear tending her young, is spared as if all of nature is captivate with life itself.

Second Place: “Windy Night” Charlotte Abernathy – Ashland, Oregon

 Judge  comments: “Windy Night” is an example of open form making use of more formal elements of poetry. This poem is arranged in sestets, each consisting of 3 lines flush against the margin and three slightly indented. The language is free-flowing, yet rhythmic and there is a nice strain of assonance that flows through the poem like a gentle breeze.

Third Place:  “Thank You, Robert”   Madelyn Eastlund – Beverly Hills, Florida

Judge comments: “This is a poem about aging – about what it means to be old – about all of those memories that make up one’s life. And it contrasts with the young child and his gift – a gift of “eau de parfum” – a fragrance that restores the memories of youth for an (old?) grandmother, “a women who is still young.”

Honorable Mention: “The Party Guest Considers the Sky”     Kathleen McClung – San Francisco, California

Judge comments: “This subtitle of the poem indicates that it is a Cento. While the individual lines do not point to any particular poems as far as I could tell,  the open line evokes T.S. Elliot  and the poem is rich in imagery and curious phrases such as “the bones of the language.”


Themed Narrative

Judge: Robert Hill Long

Judge’s Rationale:

That the narrative concepts of poets occasionally coincide with the concepts of a narrative poem judge is worth a small hallelujah. Many poets—saturated to eyes and ears in the rhapsodical mannerisms of the first-person lyric—conceive narrative as something other than what, in its most radical sense, it has always been: story in the beginning, the middle, and the end. It’s easier to say what it is not: it isn’t a lyric with anecdotal drapery; it does not require a narrator’s self-portrayal (it usually works best with an invisible narrator); it isn’t a snapshot from a grocery-store encounter inflated to allegory or symbolism; it does not want to win the prize for MSI (metaphors per square inch); it doesn’t fetishize word-music or elliptic associations; it isn’t a plain white bowl for word salad, and so on.  Nothing wrong with lyric poems—they’re meant to be brief outbursts of song, prayer, mockery, or the elliptical ooze of dreams and reverie. What they aren’t is story first, last, and in between.

To be fair, contests that limit the number of a lines a narrative may have would disqualify the greatest practitioners; too bad for us, though this doesn’t lessen the achievements of Mark Jarman in Iris or Brooks Haxton in Dead Reckoning, to name a couple of  book-length American poems. The 40-line limit tends to invite the overblown anecdote (which Donald Hall in another context skewered as The McPoem). In narrative poetry, story is bone, muscle, nerve, organ, very nearly the whole being: differences between narrative poets are superficial, like gender, skin color, body shape, vocal range.

This underlies my choices as a judge and my principles as a sometime narrative poet. It isn’t meant to discourage anyone from writing narrative; on the contrary, I hope it helps lyric poets stick to their strengths, poetry organizations grow realistic about limiting line-counts  (what about a 200-line minimum, for instance, and no maximum?) and above all strengthen the resolve of poets who may have been self-limiting for no good reason to abandon themselves, for once, to the stricter discipline and wider freedom of a story not about them.

Thanks for the opportunity to read and think about these entries.

First Place – “The Beachcomber” —  David Pickering – The Dalles,  Oregon

Judge’s comment: The unapologetic, unsparing portrayal of a life in bar-work culture, acknowledging its elder survivors and its dead-endingness. Most of the poem is like describing the claustrophobia of a chrysalis being formed; the end hints at a next stage of life that may or may not come.

Second Place – “”Race as a Secret—Kate Marsh – Burns, Oregon

Judge’s comment: Later-life testimony by a grown (child) that personalizes a shameful period in American history, describing means of evasion, hiding, disappearing, being found out. A quiet family story/children’s story of fear, of life in the xenophobia of wartime and, more fundamentally, in the ordinary xenophobia of neighbors and in-laws that can make it hard for different sorts of immigrants to live together in peace or marriage.

Third Place – “The Mist Cove Leaves Juneau’s Harbor to Steam Through Stephen’s Passage to Endicott Arms” – Tricia Knoll – Portland, Oregon

Judge’s comment: A poem that has the good sense to use the title for exposition (like “History of Art…” {mentioned} below), so it can plunge into in the middle of a friendship that mortality is ending just as the narrator commences a different sort of sea journey with her husband, incommunicado from her dying friend. The extended image of silver is well-managed, but the opening of the poem far more subtly suggests the situation all sojourners will find themselves facing at last.

Honorable mentions:

Sấu Riêng – John McPherson – Portland, Oregon

History of Art – Amanda Powell – Eugene, Oregon

Wall Bed – Steve Jones – Corvallis, Oregon


New Poets

Judge – Sheila Black

1st Prize “Defining Moments” by Lynn Robertson – Pendleton, Oregon

Judge’s comment:  I found this poem memorable because of the specific sensations and images it traces around the notion of crisp, and then how the poem opens out wonderfully in the third stanza, and we understand that the meditation on crisp is being placed at the service of tracing a long-term relationship—that map gone soft, and how this changes the whole meditation on the word into something quite other.  A subtle and moving poem.

“2nd Prize “Pale Touch-Me-Not” by Mary Winslow – Lake Oswego, Oregon

Judge’s Comment:  The language in this poem is so well-handled—the descriptions are precise but surprising at every turn.  I love how the poem gains energy with the line “The green pod dives off when you stand so close,” and how the plant becomes so real to us without ever being quite personified or at least not in any predictable way. This poem is very well shaped, and shows the power of what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “inscape” in which by close observation the poet seeks to uncover the essential nature or being of a person or thing.

 3rd Prize “Sutton” by Tim Raphael – Portland, Oregon

Judge’s Comment:This poem conveys so much life in its simple economical lines—and who could not love a poem with the line “have you yet learned the world will dent you like a can of string beans.”  I like how this poet controls the tone and language so well—playing off the ordinary against the faintly miraculous–”I woke a hundred blades of grass,”–what a line! And I like how the poem finally comes around to being an argument for continuing even in face of loneliness or heartbreak.

1st Honorable Mention: “Will It Delight”– Nancy Christopherson

 Judge’s comment:  I wished I could give this poem more than honorable mention—was tempted to give it a tie for third place if this were possible.  What I like here is how well controlled the sounds and images are—the sounds allow us to traverse a great deal of space and “see” a wide range of scenes with great clarity and movement. For instance, notice the skill with which the poet describes children waving wands—touching down here and there, and how this, in turn, becomes another way of evoking the movement of light. A very skilled and deeply lyric poem—at times dense, but the last lines really bring it home.

 2nd Honorable Mention “Mum” —  Phil McCorkle – Salem, Oregon

Judge’s comment:  This poem has a lovely economy and a great use of angular tone—a slight tartness that gives it charm and interest.  This poet is a child of Dickenson, with something of her antic wit and sense of the darker deeper things in the world.  It was a real pleasure reading this one!

 3rd Honorable Mention “This Old Trusting Soul” – Mike Klein – Klamath Falls, Oregon

Judge’s comment: What I really admire in this poem is the verve and inventiveness of the conceit, the old house and what it needs,  A charming notion that is well handled here.

2 thoughts on “OPA 2017 Spring Contest Winners”

  1. Thanks to all the judges, and especially thank you for their comments. It’s good to see what judges look for, what their thinking is, how they decide between one poem and another. I learn a lot from reading what they have to say.

  2. I agree, it is nice the judges leave their comments. It makes for an interesting read. I was hoping however that we could read the poems. Perhaps something to think of for the future?? Or maybe they are posted and I just don’t see them??

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