Fall 2021 Adult Contest Winning Poems for the Traditional Category/Sestina
Judge: Marilyn Johnston
Judge’s Biography: Marilyn Johnston is a recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship for Writers, the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and a Fishtrap Fellowship. She won the Donna J. Stone National Literary Award for Poetry, a Robert Penn Warren Award, and was selected as a finalist for the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize and The Poetry Box 2020 Chapbook Prize. Her work is published in such journals as: CALYX, Natural Bridge, The Poeming Pigeon, and The Courtship of Winds Literary Magazine, and she is the author of RED DUST RISING (the habit of rainy nights Press), and BEFORE IGNITING (2020, Rippling Brook Press).
Overall comments for the Sestina Category: I have to begin with commending all of the poets who had the fortitude to enter this category. I was amazed by both the numbers of entries and the high caliber of submissions. It’s a tall order for anyone submitting to a state poetry contest, but Traditional Form categories such as the sestina require employing the formulaic format—39 lines total, with six words repeated in a pattern at the end of 6 six-line stanzas, including a tercet at the end—all while writing great content, reoccurring imagery, and enjambment to move the lines and iambic pentameter to have them flow. That is a tall order for any writer! I had to make some tough choices while judging, ensuring that the pattern held true, that the content suited, and was even enhanced, by the form, and that the tercet at the end (known as an envoi) did what it is supposed to do—take the poem to a fine landing place, a well-crafted extension. In the end, I picked poems that followed the strictly-patterned rules of sestina and did it with panache, plus had something important to tell us.
First Place: “At the Old School” by Brad Maxfield
In the faculty lounge at the little old school,
on top of a dusty fridge a dismissed anomaly sits.
A stuffed yellow chick in a pink leotard covered
in silver sequins spreads its tiny wings as if
to sing, or cry out, “Help me, please,” it seems
to say. Or maybe it is belting out a painful song
about a mother flying away as in an old song
by Al Jolson in black-face about a world no school
teaches anyone about. Lost between what seems
unbelievable and what the eyes lie about sits
the fact that everything is failing to make sense. If
outside, where a ladder leans against the wall covered
with moss, a painter might decide she wanted it covered
black, a cartoon window, where she’d peer in, to hear a song
of happy children at play in the shade of an oak as if
they’d forget it was there their music teacher at school
hung herself last week with her lover’s sash. Pain sits
in the back of the class as they practice a tune that seems
all wrong, “The Happy Farmer Goes to Town.” It seems
those plastic recorders could make the song better-covered
as a “Scherzo for Tears in B Minor.” Farther off, the sun sits
in the notch of the hills, where it sizzles and fades in a song
of cinematic oblivion. Smoke from campers’ fires school
us all about hope and redemption after the next apocalypse if
things go as planned for cold nights and winters, when and if
the slow death of language and the imagination to follow seems
desired—about damn time. The painted windows of schools
do not lie, nor do the ladders leaning against the walls covered
in fresh black paint like resistance to fact. So far, there is no song
about the town’s water tower and the poison inside. It sits
in town center and has to matter. Like a white picket fences that sits
knee-high around acres of graves. And regarding the little chick, if
anyone cared, there could still be, about sequined leotards, a song
built from lies about lies, and the random fear that only seems
cruel like the dumb muscle that is the heart whose failure is covered
daily in the news, or what passes for it, in our nostalgic little schools.
On a fridge, the stuffed chick sits, a beautiful, ugly fact, that seems
best ignored if not wholly dismissed, like the stupor rarely covered
in a fight song, or even in the dark classes, of the little old school.
Judge’s Comment: This poem was the combination of great use of the form along with incorporating an important and contemporary theme—about race, about all we, perhaps, did not know that literally and metaphorically resided within a place where we grew up—all the memories that a small, left-behind object brought back. I liked, particularly, how the poet unfolded the specifics, and how the reader has to keep running alongside of the poem to catch all the rich details it has to offer. There is such power in the story. And the envoi (the tercet at the end) did just what was intended, taking the poem full circle, as if seeing the place for what it was, in the rearview mirror.
Poet’s Bio: Brad Maxfield — U of O MFA. One published book, For All We Know, and various journal publications. I am semi retired, living in eastern Oregon; I teach English Composition through the College of Southern Idaho.
Second Place: “Far From the Tree” by Linda Ferguson
The story starts under the disguise of night,
where nude Eve (an ordinary woman –
both foolish and false), accepts a forbidden offer
masquerading as a fresh-faced apple.
Poor Adam! Ensnared by the florid shadows
of her erring ways, he too must guzzle shame.
They say that as a woman she was ordained to live shame-
lessly, what with her unseemly desire slinking through the night
and her disobedience that trampled the garden’s crocheted shadows.
(Isn’t it sad that every girl must become a woman?
That they all start playing hopscotch and making apple
pies then later burden men with their feather brains and foul offers?)
Even if she’d obeyed her master and refused the serpent’s offer,
she was, of course, born to mate with shame –
what with those breasts hanging like two white apples
glowing in the garden between tendrils of night-
shade. So man’s natural innocence was strangled by a woman
who was supposed to be his helpmate, his pale shadow.
Now she’s home alone kicking at a dusty town’s sad shadows,
when another man stands at the door with a juicy offer.
Of course the fool/slut, stays true to her nature as a woman.
With eyes wide open, she casually tosses her shame
to the floor, then later claims she was hoodwinked that night.
“After all, it’s god,” she equivocates, “who created snakes and apples.”
She moans that she, who was once the prize, the glowing apple
of her father’s eye, the flower of his fragrant garden, is now a shadow
of her former self, dressed in passionless flannel every night.
Of course she can’t win: Whether she refuses every ripe offer
or opens her legs (or god forbid her mouth), she reeks of shame.
Still she cries, “I never asked to be either wife or woman.”
“What if I had been born a man instead of a woman?”
she complains. Could she have eaten bushels of apples
and been praised instead of being branded with shame
and spending eternity in her husband’s long, tepid shadow?
Would god or whoever have conceived of a better offer
to make Eve President or Prince of the Night?
Funny that at my age, I still blush to say the words ‘night’ and ‘woman,’
and whenever I reach for a pregnant branch offering a sweet apple,
in my feminine brain’s shadows I embrace my birthright: shame.
Judge’s Comment: This poem is a provocative women’s history course, told in 39 lines through a sestina. No small feat, it incorporates clever uses of words, all while keeping the meter flowing and challenging the reader throughout, with its unabashed thrashing. Even at the end, with its “…I embrace my birthright: shame”…this poem leaves no doubt that this narrator is no fool. It’s a solid contemporary tale for our times.
Poet’s Bio: A four-time Pushcart nominee, Linda Ferguson is a writer of poetry, fiction and essays. She has two chapbooks forthcoming in 2022: Of the Forest, from The Poetry Box, and Not Me: Poems About Other Women, from Finishing Line Press. She is also author of the chapbook Baila Conmigo. As a writing teacher, she has a passion for helping students find their voice and explore new territory. https://bylindaferguson.blogspot.com/
Third Place: “White-crown Sparrow/Sestina (Zonotrichia leucóphyrys)” by Amelia Díaz Ettinger
I fantasize about a White-crown sparrow. She lands softly on my palm
a fat brown scoundrel with prison lines on her head, full of mischief, at play
in and out of hedgerows in groups of twenty, or just one, she creates a current
with her feathers and jumbled whistles—a celebration away from smoke where the bark
is clean and glistening with the moisture of memories of healthy towns where the tie-
strings are between friends—where this bird flies without the fear of fire to break
this new reality of a world alight in flames, where to gather is dangerous. Maybe we can break
the runaway train of climate change or viruses that plague the very core that palm
obscure, like robbers, slurping the joy of bird song and the child who gathers rope to tie
a noose around the boundless energy of life. Yes. A sparrow to remind us of our play
when smoke, heat, and Gaia were serene. How it was to calmly rest on the smooth bark
of a sycamore, surrounded by family, listening to the sound of rain instead of the current
of bad news and ugly rhetoric. With sparrow in hand, we could preen out of this current
dictating lies broadcasted in contradicting jargon and half-truths. A sparrow to break
this sordid state. Imagine the warmth of her scaly legs, her inquisitive eyes, her beak a bark,
a small song of spring and future with bountiful blessings. A White-crown sparrow on the palm-
tree of childhood. She flies unencumbered in clean skies without a red sun from fires that play
pandemonium and consume acres of trees, flesh, and ambition. Where children no longer tie
long streamers for their kites, where they run with spiraling legs, each leap to tie
the best score in their game. A sparrow in hand could take them, to watch the current
of Pachamama’s power, the health of a small blue planet where there is no hesitation of a play
on a stage where neighbor can touch a stranger without the need of a mask to break
the power of a smile beneath eyes that clamor affinity. I want this White-crown on the palm
of every child, so she could see a sky free of smog, stars at night, and catch caterpillars on bark
salubrious with her gaiety, prospering forward, driven by the uproarious bark
of her community’s encouragement to chase clouds, earthworms, and wishes that tie
fishing poles, that catch mercury-free fish, slippery, and solvent, but easy to palm
gently, whose scales released into waters rich with the fulfillment of dreams and a current
of satisfaction from healing her planet, so that she can raise her own without having to break
in search of a new place to feed her children. A White-crown sparrow her kindred could play
in this hopeful world. Gifted to her from hard work, cooperation, and science at play
with her in mind— not the needs of corporations. Here in this sparrow-world, she sails in a bark
propelled by sails and oars of her own making. Fulfilling her days at peace so that at day’s break
she can glory with the White-crown sparrow in her hand, a small reminder that to tie
equal notes of affection and health she needs to plant the seeds that can give a current
of salvation for her children, and her children’s children, to hold palm in palm.
Now, imagine this, see her play free in clean soil without pollutants, without the bark
of doomsday at her ankles, enjoying a tie of cool breeze and sunny skies free from the current
that announces the impending break. Instead, she holds a White-crown sparrow in her palm.
Judge’s Comment: I was so impressed with the use of the form to write this environmental-themed poem, with its use of long, adeptly-metered lines to carry a discussion about our climate and all that threatens it. The envoi brought it back around to both the narrator and us, the reader, asking us all to imagine a non-polluted world that will continue to allow the White-crown sparrow to sit tenderly in all our palms.
Poet’s Bio: Amelia Díaz Ettinger is a Latinex BIPOC poet and writer. Her published books include, Learning to Love a Western Sky by Airlie Press, Speaking at a Time /Hablando a la Vez by Redbat Press. and a chapbook, Fossils in a Red Flag by Finishing Line Press. She resides in Eastern Oregon.