Music Is Life and Life Is Poetry

The 2017 winner of the Foley Poetry Contest is "Rio Grande (South)" by John Poch. Photo: Bob Palin. The 2017 winner of the Foley Poetry Contest is "Rio Grande (South)" by John Poch. Photo: Bob Palin.

Entries to this year’s Foley Poetry Contest came in from students, professors, prisoners, mothers, musicians, ex-farmers, biologists, Irishmen, doctors, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, several nuns and a dentist. They were sent from Montenegro, Pakistan, Zambia, Canada, India, Nigeria, Kenya, the Bronx, the United Kingdom, the Sultanate of Oman, Australia, Brazil, Romania, Morocco and Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

In all, about 850 poems were sent to America between Jan. 1 and March 31 (148 were mailed in, more than a few of those handwritten, for which I continue to be grateful). One was from a former student of Joseph Ratzinger’s at Tübingen. He wrote about sunlight. In “The Convert’s Heart is Good to Eat,” Melody Gee writes, with startling truth, “But a heart is ever on display,/ swollen with light, ripened to sweetest grief,/ ever thirst and appetite and answer.” Sister Diane Reed, with no attempt, I am certain, to dress up her poem and sway the editors, drew a purple and orange flower on her entry.

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Some poems are compelling simply in the way the words run. “Theotokos,” by Kathleen Kilcup, begins, “Ash-marked, she/ swallows salt and brightly yokes/ each cell/ to the burning/ one, the fawn,/ the furious he.” The poem is not easy to fathom, but you can feel it, and sometimes that is enough.

The poem is not easy to fathom, but you can feel it, and sometimes that is enough.

Similarly, Jennifer Key’s “Ghost Psalm”: “You will never come back/ though my blood sings your name,/ and the heart, ghost of a continent,/ sounds the syllables sewn to its own./ I will stand in the field clothed in silence./ Tell me, Father, where should I look/ when not even the rain can find you?”

Occasionally the authors’ cover letters or bios are as striking as what they are attempting in their actual poems. At the bottom of a devastating piece about a string of deaths in her life, one poet writes: “Been over 17 years and my baby brother doesn’t have a marker to his grave. Being poor, the rich look down on you. Music is Life and Life is Poetry.”

Another entrant tells us, elegantly, that she “is a gender non-conforming person, aglow in genders.” The poet goes on, “They grew up in an Ultra-Orthodox Community. A former Rabbi’s daughter and current queer outlaw, they write on their experience of gender isolationism in their Orthodox community to which they still belong.”

The vast majority of the poems were about spirituality and religion. The first lines of “Reality,” by Terry Marshall Campie, a prison inmate in Rochester, Minn., cut things down to the basic, frightening and hopeful truth: “My life is Christ’s/ He is in control and all-powerful.”

This year’s winner (recipient of the $1,000 prize), selected with the aid of two other America staff members—Associate Editor Olga Segura and an O’Hare fellow, Teresa Donnellan—is the lovely poem “The Rio Grande (South),” by John Poch. The three runners-up, to be published in subsequent issues, are: “I would be remiss if I didn’t consider the possibility of gratitude,” by William O’Leary, “Praise,” by Renny Golden and “Jerusalem Slim,” by Michael Topa. Go to our twitter feed, @americaliterary, for more on these and other poems.

Surprisingly few of the poems submitted this year were about politics. Maybe everyone is exhausted. One exception was “The Race,” by the ninth-grader Owen Pallenberg. It begins: “A man and a woman were running a race./ The man dressed in red with a very orange face./ And the woman dressed in blue with a pantsuit and a briefcase.”

The whole disaster is rendered as a kind of children’s book: simple declarative sentences, vivid primary colors, an actual rhyme scheme. Someday, all this will be distant, something we can comprehend, horrified or amused, read to a six-year old in simple breathy sentences under a Batman lamp.

It is what a poem uniquely does, what all the Foley entries did in one way or another. They let you see things in a new way. They maybe even help you deal with those things when you never thought you could. Thank you, Owen, and everyone who shared their truth with us.

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John Savage
5 months 3 weeks ago

It's nice to see Kathleen Kilcup considered here. I've recently discovered her through an older Salon article related to her U.S. Army service. I love her writing style and find her poetry very interesting, indeed. I understand she is working on a book of poetry, though I've not seen it available yet. I'll be happy to buy it when I find it.

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