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Joe Hoover, S.J.May 16, 2024
"Thought Catalog" for iStock

The only unfortunate thing about the winner of this year’s Foley Poetry Contest, “The Patron Saint of Sliding Glass Doors,” is that when I read the title, I immediately thought of the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow romantic comedy (which I’ve actually never seen) called “Sliding Doors.”

Whatever the merits of the film, the poem by James Davis May about sliding doors is that superb piece of writing that does a lot of labor but does not feel labored. It dives into what is tiny and four-legged and amphibious—a tree frog, of all things!—and pans out to what is universal and bipedal: human envy, the hunger for prayer. Out of this tiny frog the poet weaves a tiny charged theology of the world. This bit of writing is worth your while, worth even a few reads as you go deeper and deeper into its beauty.

To select the Foley winner, we whittled 500-plus poems down to our top 30 strongest poems. We then brought the 30 down to 27 when we realized that three poets had disqualified themselves by going far above the 45-line limit. (A kindly reminder from one writer to another: Read those guidelines.)

Not every one of the final 27 poems works as a whole, but lines catch you; they work as a world unto themselves:

* “My mother loves to retell plots—mystery, romance, Seinfeld—and she expects that you’ll be moved.”

* “For years I was convinced oafish was/ a type of fish....”

* From a poem in which a family moves from the northern climes down to New Orleans:“Within the week I awoke to snow,/ like I’d brought an old friend with me from Minnesota.”

* An utterly sad poem based on Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma,about piglets living in unspeakably miserable quarters, states: “Premature weaning leaves a lifelong craving/ to suck, chew—a need piglets gratify/ in confinement, biting the tail of the animal/ in front of them.”

* “Your ashes grazed the treetops/ and everybody smiled./ I shook twenty hands,// watched the cars go,/then knelt/ by racks of thorns....”

* “We often underestimate/ The teeth of water.... The only thing that cuts mountains/ Is stream....”

* A sparrow takes grubs from the skull of a deer:“Take, eat my memory// of the woods, Swallow my swift/ witness of this earth.”

My co-judges for the 2024 contest—last year’s winner, Laurinda Lind, and an America O’Hare fellow, Christine Lenahan—went back and forth over a poem called “Gaza,” by Kirby Wright, and whether it should be one of the runners-up. Is it too one-sided? Anytime you write about the horrors taking place in Gaza, do you have to name what Hamas did in Israel? Does a poem have to be perfectly “fair”? Can there be anything “perfectly fair” said about that war? Is it a genocide? If its people are being massacred, shouldn’t Hamas just give up, to stop the massacre? All this spurred by a 10-line poem.

We eventually settled on “Gaza” (well, two of us did) as one of our three runners-up, along with “Animals,” by Hannah Ahn, and “01100111 01101111 01100100 01100100 01100101 01110011 01110011,” by Jon Saviours. (Yes, that is its title.) These poems will be published in our July/August issue.

It was a pleasure to sit down and give a close read to our 27 finalists and in pinpoint detail discuss with Laurinda and Christine each phrase, each idea, what they mean, how they work or do not work. Words matter, space matters, commas, ellipses, breaths in the line, broken rhythm, dynamic range; every little eyelash matters in a good poem, so tightly constructed does it need to be.

We are grateful for everyone who shared with us all of these details, large or small, whether veteran poets or beginners—those who dared open themselves to the impossible and frankly ridiculous thing of being named “winner.”

I don’t know that you can actually “rank” art, but you can declare what poem works, what really works. You can notice and signal to the world which poem does something. Like an edgy tech start-up, it “disrupts” you; it lingers in your mind, pierces the mist of human generality and lashes you to what is vital, particular and beautiful. Poems like these at the very least deserve more eyes on them, and we are more than happy to make that happen.

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