1st Place, “The Séance” – Cynthia Boersma

2nd Place, “Invitation” – Richard Robbins

3rd Place, “Star Signals” – Jessica Kolman

1st HM, “Riffing on William Stafford” – Michael Lasater

2nd HM, “Inflamed” – Sherri Levine

3rd HM, “Mars Ain’t the Kind of Place to Raise Your Kids” – David J.S. Pickering

Judge’s Comments:

First I wish to say how grateful I am for the privilege of spending time with the poems of this year’s entries, nearly all of which brought to bear a richness of spirit and lived experience in the work. Poetry is greater for your voice, regardless of which poems, this time, are selected. In the end a poem must survive on its own, without context, without the supportive audience of friends and family, and must find a way to speak both to the living and the dead who have written before us. At a point, unmediated, a poem is asked: do you contain both algebra and fire (Borges), story and song (Koch)? Like any grown thing, do you possess a life your own. To those whose work isn’t mentioned here, or who may be considering submitting next year, my encouragement would be: know the fact of your writing is what is most important—and continue seeking in it something more precious than recognition. 

First place, “The Séance”

As a form, the séance is a confession involving more than one world. In “The Séance” the message that arrives from the adjacent world isn’t “forgive us” but “you will learn to heal on your own.” I’m astonished by the speed at which this poem transports us through absolution—via family trauma and illness—finally to what Anne Carson calls metaphysical silence: that which exists between languages, in this case between that of dead relatives and those who survive. During the séance we are visited by voices: a father’s practical advice on which road is safest, a mother’s confession (part-secret, part-empty revelation) on how an abusive brother’s “neck was pinched at birth…. Your  brother / did not get enough   born”. For me the poem begins in the second section: “That morning there were birds I could almost hear.” Often the parentheticals open the poem to simultaneous readings, each of which felt true. “The Séance” is a poem of healing that bids an epileptic wisdom: “unswallow yourself.”

Second place, “Invitation”

“Invitation” begins with a remarkably disarming, supple beckoning: “Come to it when you are beginning / to grow old.” The it being, among other things, Flathead Lake—a Lake Avernus, at whose bottom lies an entrance to the underworld—and more. The first half of this poem moves with a remarkable lyric control of line, sound, and image reminiscent of James Wright at his very best—as we arrive at the end, where the quatrains are scuttled and we learn it is a sonnet, resonant, locating its volta.

Third place, “Star Signals”

Astronomy, anatomy, electricity, and David Byrne lyrics form part of the potent mixture of “Star Signals,” a beautiful love letter to the mortality of those we allow into our lives, because of (not despite) their temporality, and the learned science of grief: “You will not unfeel this shock.” There’s so much to admire about this poem’s curiosity and synapses, but its final moment of naked surrender is among its most charming and instructive: “I am here to love the living world without impedance.”

First HM, “Riffing on William Stafford”

“Riffing on William Stafford” employs fragments to convey a nostalgia often brilliant in concrete detail. The feeling of the poem is that there is more yet to be written to complete the constellation. Where the poet’s mind alights the effect can be mesmerizing: “But already the daylilies and coneflowers are / discussing how things will be different. / Messages have been sent. / Word is getting around.”

Second HM, “Inflamed”

A poem characterized by arresting directness and economy of line—I’m struck by how carefully the first half of the poem builds to a single, cumulative sensory image (and barbeque recipe) and also its carefully and measured final word: “You…. / push me away / with your one good fist.”

Third HM, “Mars Ain’t the Kind of Place to Raise Your Kids”

A poem characterized by its deft ear and surprise internal and end rhymes, there is also the pleasure of a surprising and nearly unwieldy comparison between the red planet and high school locker rooms, where we encounter the nearly universal experience of “hurt conferred”: “Here it’s always a cosmic bluehour”


The Seance – 1st Place, Cynthia Boersma


Then it was time to turn around

to face the sour mouth of silence

and halitosis chemo ache.

I placed my head on tongue and teeth

and waited.

It came swiftly, thick with the humming of lights that don’t turn off.


Before I left, I consulted a Medium.

That morning there were birds I could almost hear

instead of pretending to hear.

They sang only to themselves,

calling to and from,

yet whatever wells up from within

welled up from within.


I asked for my father.  His few words

feathered a hollow-boned practicality

upon which I struggled to affix wings.

He told me to go home by the southern route.

My mother (where did she come from?) said your brother

            (he was always already there)

            (already bruising, punching, choking, kicking, biting)

Your brother’s neck was pinched at birth.

Your brother (my mother)

did not get enough blood. He did not get enough

(my pulsing blood)

air (where birds sing without swallowing).

Your brother (hungry shadow raging)

did not get enough (of me choking) born.

Unswallow yourself

We sent you away for light and air.

Devour it.

            (but the shadow rage-starved)


Adding a thousand miles to thousands of miles

I took the southern route

missing the early snow in the mountain passes.

I took the southern route, missing

(everything and nothing and only)

my father, my mother,

the letter from my brother

that said please don’t write anymore once is enough

I took the southern route.  So far south,

the shadow shadeless burned away.

(Who is the sister of not born enough?)


Then northward.

The old silver car released me (where?)

shimmerless, night orphan

(and here) the small owl

calling and calling

swallowed whole

by the dark unrelenting,

swallowed whole

by the dark devouring

swallowed whole

(its calling and calling)

swallowed whole by the dark

and its withholding silence.

Cynthia Boersma was born on a submarine base in New London, CT and for an embarrassingly long time thought this meant she had been born underwater. Her grandfather once yanked a volume of ee cummings poems from her hands, accusing them of lacking proper grammar or punctuation. She practices as a psychotherapist after decades practicing as a civil rights lawyer. She lives in the mountains of Southern Oregon.


Invitation – 2nd Place, Richard Robbins

            —Flathead Lake

Come to it when you are beginning

to grow old. Come to it for the word

kokanee or grass, pictograph or loss.

Make of those hands the industry of

belief, cubing onions, potatoes,

simmering these bones for a rich broth.

Come to it without nostalgia, without

a settled way of song. Years ago

it laid a quiet map across your heart.

You drown gloriously, moment by

moment, in its waters. Whatever sails

by hand or mouth to feed the ruined

world comes first from that place, without rust,

never not alone, fiercely new, shining.

Richard Robbins was raised in California and Montana, taught for many years in Minnesota, and recently moved back west to Oregon. The Oratory of All Souls was published by Lynx House Press in January 2023. His website is


Star Signals  — 3rd Place, Jessica Kolman

It’s occurred to me that my next cat will be named Electra.

I’m a sucker for stars but Bellatrix would inevitably

diminish to Bella: so done to death.

Astrid or Stella: cute but vague.

But Electra, she is a Pleiad,

resident of the most charismatic asterism.

And, to paraphrase a pop song,

she’s a real live wire.

The FDA has approved an implant to stimulate the vagus

nerve with small electrical signals for the treatment of depression.

The vagus nerve starts in the brain, parallels

the throat, and wends circuitously by the heart.

When you love anyone reasonably fiercely,

this nerve is why you sometimes tingle

and your throat seems to tighten and your chest to swell.

These are not small signals.

When a heatwave brings down the power grid,

it’s because the transformer’s hot metal builds impedance.

Yet electrons, as they must, persist,

searing the system made for light into flame.

When your loved one draws a final breath,

the transformation from here to gone

touches a wire to you, the resistant bystander,

scorching your circuits, and they will flicker forever.

Whose breath sparked it is of trivial difference.

A cat you found roadside and knew less than a day,

or one you lived with for seven thousand twenty-one days.

Your best friend or your mother, or one and the same.

Kilowatts, megawatts, gigawatts.

You will not unfeel this shock.

My Electra doesn’t exist yet, or if she does, I haven’t met her.

She will be my little live wire.

She won’t live long enough, and oh

how my chest will burst for her.

I am here to love the living world without impedance.

Jess Kolman got around to writing poetry just before turning 50 and not long before the pandemic. She is now writing with renewed vigor and the hope of sharing in the joy, pain, and wonder of being a conscious creature in our almost unspeakable world. She lives in Salem, Oregon.


Brian Sneeden is a poet, literary translator, and editor. He is the author of Last City (Carnegie Mellon, 2018) and his poetry has received the Iowa Review Award in Poetry, the Indiana Review 1/2K Prize, and other recognitions, and has appeared in journals such as Harvard Review, Poetry Daily, and Virginia Quarterly Review. His poetry translations have received an NEA Literature Translation Fellowship, the World Literature Today Translation Award for Poetry, the Constantinides Memorial Translation Prize, a PEN/Heim Translation Grant, and other recognitions. He is a lecturer in creative writing and publishing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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