Forays of the imagination: This year's Foley poetry contest

By the time of March Madness, entries were pouring in for the Foley poetry contest, with its $1,000 prize. We heard from Ljubljana, Slovenia; Alicante, Spain; Lagos, Nigeria; and Vatican City; plus Dijon, Edmonton, Queensland and Kerala State.

Forty entries came to us from the seventh grade at Lakeside Junior High in Ashtabula, Ohio. In “Lovely Lass,” Nicholas Enos says, “My heart never beat/ Without a piece to complete/ Life’s most challenging puzzle.” Starting early! A number of the students dealt with bullying, the nagging concern of today. Thanks to their teachers, Mrs. Marple and Miss Neely.

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About 60 entries arrived from women religious. Those in retirement like to contemplate the seasons, the outdoor works of the Lord. In her poem “Wake Up,” Sister Phyllis Tousignant writes: “Artist is at work!/ Sky is on fire!/ Crimson red covers the blue.” “Seek the Mother of the Desert if you are searching for God,” says Maria Vera del Grande, O.S.J. On another note, Joan Mitchell, C.S.J., laments “the new inquisition,” reminding those who “jab at reformation” of women religious that “the world is round now.” “Alpha to Omega,” by Maris Stella Leonard, P.B.V.M., deceased at 96, was sent in “post-humorously.” We hope she can savor that.

As poetry editor, tempted to read quickly over poems more soulful than artful, I have often had to pause and think: “That’s beautiful! Too bad I can’t give the writer some feedback.” In one nice touch, the members of a writing workshop in Cocoa Beach, Fla., sent in “Firefly,” by Russell Jennings, a member just deceased. Jennings tells how a firefly is caught in one’s “cupped hand” and says, “My time is now a light/ I carry carefully,/ Like a child’s gift.” That’s the poetic spark! W. F. Lantry writes of a mournful all-night watch at a deathbed. Near dawn a woman enters, bringing daylight. “She crossed herself and then began to sing” (“Music Vigil”).

We value poetry as a foray of the imagination into the prosaic. I myself value it as the incursion of music into prose, however elusive that music may be. Take these few lines about the true face of Ireland by Marian O’Shea Wernicke, from “Cycling on Inishmore,” the largest of the Aran Islands:

The waves of history beat against you,

erosion of time and sorrow,

yet your bluegreen luminous gaze

lights up the storm dark western sky of
the world.

The lines are palpable music. A half dozen villanelles arrived, with more complex music. They reminded me how devilishly hard that form is to do well. As for making music amid cacophony, a sprinkling of poems came from the incarcerated and were very welcome.

Once again we are proud of this year’s winning poem, “Citrus Paradisi,” by Chelsea Wagenaar. The comparison she makes is so inventive, the wording so exact and the couplets so well formed that it stood out. Our three runners-up will appear later in the year: “Pomp,” by Muriel Nelson; “Missile Silos, North Dakota,” by Kathleen Spivack; and “Ignored Woodwork in Old Churches,” by John Poch. My fellow judges again this year are William Rewak, S.J., chancellor of Santa Clara University, and Claudia MonPere McIsaac, professor of English at Santa Clara.

Since I am retiring as poetry editor on July 1 to allow for a much younger replacement, Joseph Hoover, S.J., this essay is my swan song in that role. Poetry will continue to be my life’s blood, but it will be a relief not to have to say no so often to aspiring writers, and sometimes to very accomplished ones. I have tried to add notes of encouragement to my form letter, but that is a far remove from acceptance.

In the course of reading regular submissions, I have enjoyed picking out poems that have some clear merit but also noticeable flaws and pointing out the flaws so that the poem sooner or later can dare show itself in print. If this sounds a bit like a poetry workshop, the old teacher in me is behind it. 

For the good of future submissions, I encourage the wider reading and study of poetry by those who are moved to write it. Poetry is an art. We need examples of what the best looks like so as to widen our choice of poetic forms, sharpen our wording and stimulate our imagination. And dear poets, attend a little more to the music of your words (that does not necessarily mean rhyming).

May the appreciative reader more and more turn to America for poems of quality and substance—to be found weekly, please God. Of course may those who submit poems outside the structure of the Foley Contest always remember to include the stamped, self-addressed envelope! And God bless Dr. Foley, whose generosity has underwritten the contest I have been privileged to oversee.

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