About the poems from judge Jessica Mehta:
It was an honor, and humbling, to serve as judge for this year’s “Poet’s Choice” category. However, it is not a position I find organic. After all, who am I to … well, you know. What we do as a “judge” is favor what we like and, as we are human/animals, that may change minute to minute. That’s why I returned to all submitted poems again and again. There is skill in poetry, absolutely, but at its heart it is storytelling and as such we are drawn towards what wriggles into our core and demands to be remembered. As such, this is different for us all. As the universe would have it, three fabulous poems stood out to me, and then I was tasked with placing a number beside them. The fact that there were three—the same number I was tasked to choose—was sheer luck and I am grateful for how these stars aligned. I loved them as parents love their children: equally, but when given a Sophie’s choice, I still had to choose. This does not, in actuality, make one “better” than the other, in my eyes or anyone else’s (apologies of sorts to my two “Jans”).
I will be honest (as poets are wont to be, at least in part)—I consider all of these winning poems “winners.” That is a cliché, I know (poets are sensitive to such things). Let us remember that the desire to judge and rank is a colonial one and, as such, is always a bit feral and foreign to me. Each one made me slow down. Start digging. I saw myself in each of them. I appreciate “DREAM JOURNAL” exposing what is not and, in turn, what is. The unusual anecdotes or noticings. The dippings into fairytales before whisking me back out. I see my mother and, naturally, myself in “Pruning the Roses.” I adore the word “lopping.” It should be used more often, resurrected. It reminds me of Plathian language, though I cannot say for certain whether she used that term or not … regardless, lopping is exactly what we do to buds of all types. “Morning People” ushers readers across decades of a so-called “normal” life, with all its perceived ups and downs, only to bring us back to our core and remind us of the fragility and vulnerability of life and who we are. I must admit, the turtle and tortoise are sacred to Aniyunwiyas, though I am certain that was not a primary factor in my choice.
Now, as for the honorable mentions. Some readers will see that I selected only one. I was “supposed” to choose three. Let me explain. I do not think it right to (somewhat) arbitrarily choose three just because those are the lonesome, hungry number of slots. Or because of tradition. Accolades can be problematic anyway, and when I am charged with administering them I do not want to do so “just because.” They should be earned and found deserving in the eyes of the one overseeing them. I asked myself if I would feel right publishing these poems as-is, either in a collection or journal. That was one of my internal bars. Excepting those I selected as winners, I found just one additional one that I would consider ready to publish: “The Fourth Generation.” However, I wish there was more of it. Perhaps I want to will it into more of a form. A pantoum perhaps. It leaves me, as a reader, wanting. Still, it stuck in my brain. The haves, the have-nots, and the constant in-between we find ourselves. I would like to challenge/ask/request this writer to take it further. I do apologize to those who wished there were two more honorables, but I followed my poet-gut here. Perhaps this is a mistake, but I tried to do what was just.
I am often asked what advice I would give fellow writers, and it is simple: read great poetry. That’s it. We tend to write like what we read, so read greatness—whatever that means to you. The fantastic thing about poetry is that a lot of it can be consumed no matter how busy your schedule. Pick up a collection of a favorite poet, or an anthology of best poetry of XYZ year. Read a poem a day. Skip a poem and go on to another if it turns out to be an epic and you’ve already stayed in bed too late and now the baby has crapped himself three times in 20 minutes and you’re starting to hate yourself because you just won’t be able to read a poem today. It’s okay. There are much more pressing reasons to hate ourselves (“kidding” in poet). There are plenty of poems that will fit no matter what your puzzle looks like today and missing one here and there isn’t going to be what kills you. Here are a few: “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams. “What Women Want” by Kim Addonizio. “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath. Greatness breeds greatness. It will sink in, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Be kind to yourself. Be gentle. Remember: self-love can look like poetry.
First Prize: “DREAM JOURNAL” – Nellie Papsdorf
Second Prize: “Pruning the Roses” – Lucinda Huffine
Third Prize: “Morning People” – R.J. Lambert
“The Fourth Generation” – Gigi Cooper
Jessica (Tyner) Mehta, PhD, and Fulbright Senior Scholar, is a multi-award-winning Aniyunwiya, Two-Spirit, queer, interdisciplinary poet and artist. As a native of the occupied land of what is often referred to today as Oregon and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, space, place, and de-colonization are the driving forces behind her work creatively, professionally, and personally. She is currently preparing for her Fulbright Senior Scholar award and her post-doctoral fellowship as the 2022 Forecast Change Lab fellow. Jessica is currently serving as the post-graduate research representative at the Centre for Victorian Studies in Exeter, England and as a Rethink Outside fellow. Her book of experimental poems Antipodes by New Rivers Press released in January 2022 and her picture book One of Kokum’s Kids received the 2022 Lee & Low publication award. Two visual art group installations opened in January 2022 including “Strong FoundNations” at the Maddox Building in Portland as part of the GLEAN show and “Beguiled” at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Her book We Talk of Stolen Sisters: New and Revised Poems has been chosen as a finalist for the 2022 Oregon Book Award. Learn more at www.thischerokeerose.com.
Nellie Papsdorf, “DREAM JOURNAL” – Poet’s Choice, 1st Place
In this dream, I do fly.
I do not walk around my empty childhood home.
I do not suddenly know I am pregnant.
When I make eye contact on the street,
or in the pasta aisle, I am not left
wondering if it was weird that I looked so long.
I do not sit up in bed and see shadow creatures.
I save me and my brother from the wicked witch
by being nice to her and fixing her.
She was our sad old great-great-grandma all along.
In this dream, campions and ghost orchids
grow everywhere, in basements and out of the sidewalks
and they do it all the time,
always blooming, screaming in color.
In this dream, I have never filled a gas can
for a stranded stranger.
I have never learned fondness
for fluoride stains, a crowded jaw, a good gap.
Nellie Papsdorf is a poet and caseworker from Portland, Oregon. Her poetry has been published in SUSAN / The Journal, HASH Journal, Witch Craft Magazine, and Gold Man Review.
Lucinda Huffine, “Pruning the Roses” – Poet’s Choice, 2nd Place
Pruning the Roses
It’s late February, so today I decided to prune the roses.
I got out my old shears and started lopping. Thorns grabbed me as I leaned in,
and did not let go easily.
My grandmother from Tennessee tried and failed to grow roses
in the north. She liked to talk about them, though.
To this day, when I hear “Chrysler Imperial” I don’t think of a car
but of a red, red rose.
I never prune very hard, really hack them down like you’re
In 1978 I was able to fit all my belongings in a Volkswagen Beetle.
That suited me, because I wanted to travel out west and find a new home.
That same summer my friend Kitty shaved her head because, she said,
it felt lighter and cooler that way.
Much later, I would leave a home of twenty years, and it was hard.
Being older, I was more dug in to my life. Harder
to tear loose.
So many branches broke and came down in last week’s ice storm
that I imagine it will take a long while to clean them up. I lost
almost half of an old crabapple tree in my front yard.
It self-pruned itself, my neighbor said. I hope
to see it bloom in April.
To see those pink blossoms against a blue sky
and the bees humming in and out of them –-
that feels like all I need of happiness now.
Lucinda Huffine is a poet living in McMinnville, Oregon.
R.J. Lambert, “Morning People” – Poet’s Choice, 3rd Place
My mother wants the sun to cool—
can it crack?—can it buckle
in the fissures of its former heat?
When my brother & I were young,
she woke us early & drove the interstate
south through desert for box turtles
whole in their shells, finding only one.
There’d been many cars. So many boxes
between apartments. Off to college,
into marriage, from divorce.
Like turtle searches, there’s skill in finding
oneself at school. There’s skill in getting
hitched. There’s skill, also, in the keeping.
Pet books call this husbandry.
A bit paternalistic, but, at times, we could all use
a little looking after. A little after looking,
the sun like a curved palm cupped our other cheeks
returning home, an indrawn pet brought back
to wash & feed. Same time of day, now,
mom skips coffee, checks in at dawn.
Surgeons do some work in her
& alter little else. The light outweighs
her lids along the drive. Her voice still strains.
She has known two sons, but still pictures
the roadside sand, a wide blue horizon
where mountains blend into a child’s face.
So long, it seems, the morning drive. So soft under the shell.
R.J. Lambert (he, him, his) is an award-winning queer writer with recent poems in Denver Quarterly, New Letters, Superstition Review, and Yalobusha Review. His debut collection, Mind Lit in Neon, is newly available from Finishing Line Press. R.J. teaches writing at the Medical University of South Carolina and is online at rj-lambert.com or @SoyRJ.