2020 Poetry Contest Winners

Judge Neil Aitken selected the winners of this year’s SFPA Poetry Contest. Prizes were offered in three divisions: Dwarf (≤10 lines), Short, and Long (50+ lines).

Neil Aitken is the author of two books of poetry, Babbage’s Dream (Sundress 2017) and The Lost Country of Sight (Anhinga 2008), which won the Philip Levine Prize. His poetry chapbook Leviathan (Hyacinth Girl Press 2016) won the Elgin Award. Individual poems have appeared in The Adroit Journal, American Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, Ninth Letter, Radar Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, and many other literary journals. He is the founding editor of Boxcar Poetry Review, curator of Have Book Will Travel, podcast host of The Lit Fantastic, and co-director of De-Canon: A Visibility Project, He also hosts Fantastic Descriptions, a YouTube channel that explores narrative storytelling and description in roleplaying games. He currently lives in Canada where he continues to work as a creative writing coach and manuscript editor. neil-aitken.com

Contest chair John Reinhart received 391 entries (133 dwarf-length, 197 short, and 61 long poems) from around the world.


Dwarf Form winning poem:

Where Do We Go From Here?

by Ojo Taiye

for Donald

ghosts are real. there is no other way to say it—
we aren't safe anymore. the day commences its eyeliner
& there are sparrows flying slowly high above the wide
vacant where home used to be. this is how it is about this place—
each day is a bad day. through the stippled glass i watch the neighbors
sit on their fears & when the night comes they hide the dead bolt
beneath their bedroom floor. there are no windows from which i do
not see the world crumbling. i mean each sneeze, each bang—
a kind of hurt that separates me from ordinary cheer.


Judge’s comments:

Fear and hurt in this poem are not produced with overblown gore and jump scares, but instead rendered in small purposeful details that create a type of ghostly elegance. A haunting that lingers image after image. Impression after impression.

Ojo Taiye is a young Nigerian poet who uses poetry as a handy tool to hide his frustration with the society. He also makes uses of collage & sampling techniques.

Dwarf Form Second Place:

the last whisper

by Deborah P Kolodji

the last whisper
from her spacesuit
lost moon


Judge’s comments:

Every word, image, and line break works toward the capture of loss, sadness, and finality. I also love how certain word shapes echo (“last” and “lost”), as well as the way the dying astronaut becomes yet another body in space.


Deborah P Kolodji is a former president of the SFPA and the California Regional Coordinator for the Haiku Society of America. She has published over 1000 haiku and her first book of haiku and senryu won a Touchstone Distinguished Book Award from the Haiku Foundation.

Dwarf Form Third Place:

That hill—a giant

by John Hertz

That hill—a giant
Green elephant asleep, lost
On his way to Mars.


Judge’s comments:

I love how such a short poem evokes both mystery and wonder, and simultaneously points us to the vast distance between the observer and Mars, which is pulled together not with the allusion to mechanical, but instead, the organic.

John Hertz is no citizen of Electronicland.

Dwarf Form Honorable Mentions:

artificial singularity by Meg Freer

The Hypothesis by Sheryl Hamilton


Short Form Winner:

Skylarking

by F. J. Bergmann

Then, we still had faith: that the ship’s fuel source
was inexhaustible, that each black hole held a gate,
that the aliens loved us—or, at least, loved what
we might become. Why else leave us those gifts:
the vessel carefully stored upright in the caldera
of an extinct volcano on Europa, ready to launch
after eons of waiting, its tubular hallways echoing
with whispers, as if soft, soft paws still padded,
invisibly, just around corners; hologram starmaps
etched on metal, constellations partway to being
unrecognizable, millennia out of date. We didn't
wait for government goons to sequester that ship;
we turned things like keys, pressed buttons—away
we went with its secrets into an opening universe,
through gate after gate. We thumbed our noses
and stuck out our tongues at the old blue dot, now
far behind. That would show them. We never again
spoke of our families; we called each other sister-
brother. Speech became strangely sweet; we were
careful never to inflict harsh words on shipmates,
nor waste our breath on recriminations or regrets
looming like huge, dark nebulae. The mysterious
medical facilities allowed visualizations of violet
lesions forming on our lungs, but we told ourselves
it was heartache that kept us from singing. We took
to wearing hats after our hair fell out; we claimed
to be stricken with infinitesimal parasites, though
it was no such thing. Yet we were still in love with
wonder. Outside, the stars streamed by like snow.


Judge’s comments:

A deeply moving and evocative constellation of hope, naivete, wanderlust, and wonder that isn’t afraid to fully embrace the stars and the infinite realms of possibility science fiction offers us. Beautiful imagery blended with a close attention to voice.

F. J. Bergmann edits poetry for Mobius: The Journal of Social Change and (temporarily [again]) Star*Line, and imagines tragedies on or near exoplanets. She has competed at National Poetry Slam as a member of the Madison, WI, Urban Spoken Word team. Her mostly speculative work appears irregularly in Abyss & Apex, Analog, Asimov's SF, and elsewhere in the alphabet. A dystopian collection of first-contact expedition reports, A Catalogue of the Further Suns, won the 2017 Gold Line Press poetry chapbook contest and the 2018 SFPA Elgin Chapbook Award.

Short Form Second Place:

The Indestructible Observer Admits

by Amie Whittemore

every transmission is a love poem
to Someone, yes, but also to flowers
whose bonnets suggest kindness
& also to kindness the way it blooms
between strangers, the way it moves
a person to lift a firefly from a puddle—
Someone did that once when she thought
no one was looking but I saw it,
I saw all her kindness glowing within
her like her lungs were lanterns
like her heart was a bonfire,
like her hair was so many tangled starlights—
to ask Someone for forgiveness
at this point is like asking for dessert
after brushing your teeth.
Instead, Someone, if you ever
receive this murmur, if such murmurs
ever coast beyond that unbearable
horizon—know I don’t want you
to forgive me. Move toward the wound
I left for you. Inside it is a door
& inside the door is another & inside
that is a gate of sunshine.
I’m not there, I’m not even someone
you should think about anymore.
It would be like trying to recall
a particular zinnia—impossible—even
if they’re not your favorite flower—
I know. I remember enough for both of us
so you can shed it all & enter your life,
its desserts arrayed before you, a toothsome garden.


Judge’s comments:

II find myself surprised turn after turn the world this poem unfolds in its exploration of interstellar communication. Each image fractal and infinite, while also constantly building and moving forward toward the next discovery.

Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press), the 2020 Poet Laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Her poems have won multiple awards, including a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and her poems and prose have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Nashville Review, Smartish Pace, Pleiades, and elsewhere. She is the Reviews Editor for Southern Indiana Review and teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.

Short Form Third Place:

The Archaeoastronomer Questions the Purposes of the Destroyed Neolithic Menhir

by T. D. Walker

1.

I want to say someone
thought it up: the sky
could give us meaning and not
the other way around. Gods are
slippery like that. Like nets
we have no fish for—

2.

Do you remember that spring evening,
you took me up to the mount, the lights
red and pulsing the fact of towerness
across the river from us? The menhir
was still a menhir then. At the Lunar colony
believers want to recreate what was
destroyed. I said I wouldn’t help.
(The red stars are the ones that are dying.)

3.

I’m not sure whether the builders of the menhir
saw fish or the outline of fish. In the stars
you must have seen when the vessel
broke not stars at all, but the loss
of vision. I want to say I thought you up:
still vital, still mundane, like a god
who has lost all meaning. No one
ever sees neurons and thinks: there’s the fish
swimming the spring
                               back to us—


Judge’s comments:

Sometimes we find ourselves searching for meaning in ruins, in this case the mystery of what a raised menhir might suggest about our relationship with the cosmos. I love the way gods and fish exchange places, equally elusive and slippery, all against the night sky.

T. D. Walker is the author of the poetry collections Small Waiting Objects (CW Books 2019) and Maps of a Hollowed World (Another New Calligraphy 2020). Her science fiction poems and stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Apricity, The Future Fire, Web Conjunctions,The Cascadia Subduction Zone, and elsewhere. She curates and hosts Short Waves / Short Poems. After completing graduate work in English Literature, Walker began her career as a software developer. She draws on both her grounding in literary studies and her experience as a computer programmer in writing poetry and fiction. Find out more at tdwalker.net.

Short Form Honorable Mentions:

Collection of Mouths by Ann DeVilbiss

My Life in the Bomb by Phil Tabakow

Aswang Mango: Santiago’s Fantasia by Vince Gotera


Long Form Winner:

Which is Which

by F. J. Bergmann

If you look down your own throat far enough,
you become light. What you need is an un-
sinking spell, made with any substance
lighter than air. Or lighter than water. Or
lighter than yourself. Stir well. Pray only
to a queen of changing colors that suffuse
the dying leaves, of wishes never come true.
You fall in love with whatever still lives
under black ice, a shadow moving deep in
other shadows, almost indistinguishable
from the deceptive reflections of clouds.
What you learned from watching was not
to trust anyone walking alone in the woods
at dusk. You were once silly enough to think
makeup was a kind of therapy instead of
self-harm. Each house you’ve ever lived in
acquired ghosts you brought into it. You
tried to help them: candle-and-card rituals,
fossils crushed to powder with a ball-peen
hammer as you chanted imprecations, tears
basting you. The empress of autumn peers
in the windows, waiting for you to come out
and transform yourself into a fox, to play
hide-and-go-seek in the thickets. Soon
you’ll go door to door alone, disguised as
anything but yourself, holding out a bag
without a word, no matter what falls into it.
The next morning, your costume doesn’t
come off, and nothing in your closet is big
enough to fit over it. What’s stuck fast
in your teeth is not candy. You leave a will
with instructions to your descendants: they
can summon you from the grave by burning
brandy in a silver cup at midnight while
reciting a poem as yet unwritten. You think
of future generations with affection, though
you know nothing of how your end will
inspire them with fear. The few stars visible
in your polluted darkness suggest quite
another constellation, which you have taken
to calling the Lizard. The costume (which
still won’t come off) now faded and fraying.
You could dye it a new color; bathe in tea:
saffron or turmeric. Or blood. Somewhere
there is a spell to drive out those ghosts
who give well-rehearsed lectures at 3 a.m.;
a spell involving mirrors and a tined musical
instrument you have yet to invent. Or you
might take the direct approach: engage them
in the afterworld, where your forces wax
to their maximum violence. The closest door
to that plane lies in the kitchen, by the sink:
a door with nothing behind it. All you have
to do is shut your eyes and step on through.
You are walking among trees that will play
you false. Under a moon that looks almost
like the real one. You tell it that it’s not even
close; that it’s a lost moon; that here, no one
would ever want to land on it. In this world,
demons masquerade as abandoned children,
so you don’t pick up the baby left crying by
the side of the footpath. Something will take
care of it, sooner or later. Already you hear
growling. You’ve finally shed your costume,
but your body seems to be missing as well.
Where did you leave it? You don’t want to go
past that baby. What you smell on the wind
is absolutely not fresh entrails. If you close
your eyes—or claw them out—you could
ask the moon that is not a moon to lead you.
You could listen for distant singing, which is
always a reliable indicator for what direction
to avoid. Perhaps the ghosts didn’t intend
to cause you trouble; maybe they were being
held against their will. As you are now.
The only time you actually spoke with them
was when you had the flu. Or some kind
of virus. No one would give you antibiotics,
so you trudged home and stayed up all night
while the ghosts gave you unwanted advice
about your diet and sexual relationships
and you told them just what they could do
with that crap. You seem to recall that they
told you it was best to always take the far
left fork, which you are beginning to think
had no relationship to silverware. You close
your eyes and spin again until everything is
orbiting around your still-holding center.


Judge’s comments:

I love the sheer multiplicity of selves shifting between forms embodied in this poem. Doppelgangers, shadows, costumes, ghosts, trickster foxes, changelings. Like a kaleidoscope, the poem turns ever inward, breaking further and further into reflections of reflections, tempting us to peer deeper and deeper, always just out of our reach and yet fixed around a center.

F. J. Bergmann lives in Wisconsin and likes to ride horses. She is pretty sure she’d like to ride unicorns, if only they’d cooperate.

Long Form Second Place:

After the Decipherment

by FJ Doucet

After the decipherment, my father returns to me.
All night I have brooded, sleepless amidst the arcane
paraphernalia of translation, and he dead now

seventeen years. Yet his flesh is firm in the gold
dawn-light. I balk and sputter, insist on seeing birthmarks
(none that I know of anyway), tattoos (copious,

memorable: a bleeding blade, “Born Loser,” “Mom.”). Finally,
the scar in his abdomen (no appendectomy, but a knife
in an alley. He lay in hospital for three months). And yes,

the scar is there. My visitor entirely manifested
in the guise of my progenitor. I am not convinced: You were dead,
I inform his doppelgänger. I attended the funeral. I was beautiful,

the proper, mourning daughter, who sang for you a dirge. After,
we put your ashes in the river, and I had to move on
with the business of living. Went to school. Studied languages,

cryptography. Joined the military. Perfect timing,
when the aliens arrived and couldn't ply the vernacular.
But they knew how to communicate

exactly what we wanted to hear: sleek, silver ships a-sail
amidst meteors. Solemn miens and pointy ears. And
they came in peace, of course. I cried

when I interpreted the first word of the beings
who would give us order on Earth. We all believed
in this weird miracle. Perhaps we'd seen too much sci-fi tv,

but yes, we believed. So did I, until-- My impossible father
bellows wild laughter. Darlin'—he chides, the familiar,
brutal drawl—there ain't no 'until.' We can still believe now.

Only bury the secrets you etch in the dark.
Lay down the word and surrender the sword, Excalibur
masked as a keyboard. This time,

I'll stick around, baby girl. You'll forget all
about those glyphs inscribed on their ships' walls,
and the careless voices from the night-dark portal, whispering

what they're really here for. I promise
we're all happier now. Why bother warning people
who don't want to hear what you've got? No,

bright heir to Champollion, you alone of all scholars
have achieved mastery of the alien tongue. We can overlook this
(he warned me, hazel eyes flashing silver, once). Only

hand in your commission. Retire to the sea-side.
We can watch hockey and wrestling. I'll work on my motorcycle
and practice drawing gulls in the salt-white sun.—

All this time my father's mouth is talking, I've yet to admit him
over the threshold. He stands on the outside,
flapping those huge, meaty hands. And I waver like Frost

between two roads: close the door or return
to a little girl peeking through keyholes, waiting for a man
to arrive, wearing these rough, earnest features. Blue jeans

and leather jackets. Harley Davidson t-shirts. I know the alien
hieroglyphs, but these items were a different kind
of signaling, indicators of the rule my father lived by, always

flying down an open highway. He achieved a kind of speed
our galactic overlords might envy. Even light failed
to restrain him until the illness. The tremors shook his body

from the iron saddle. Stabled the petroleum stallion.
The only time he cried, crouched in his driveway, mourning
the bike he'd never ride again. Daddy—

I whisper now—where have you been hiding?
The man on my doorstep smiles, —Darlin',
I've been waiting for just the right time—

In my mind, I am already burning
the alien dictionary I spend nights compiling.
I am shredding annotated translations, revelation

prepared for my superiors. Heroes,
my father's face assures me, don't live long
enough to reclaim their parents. I am entangled

in true memories of him. The grace of his hands
and how he loved spices. My father
used to pepper his potatoes unto a grey thickness,

evoking ash. I wonder if this father will do the same.
Just how hard will I have to avert my gaze
if I see the ivory persist, pure? I hope

our conquerors performed their research
adequately, that I have no cause to reconsider. Please
remember my father was a simple man. A mechanic, a biker,

a hobby artist. Not a poet, in no way eloquent. Don't
get too fancy, I warn whoever sent him. Don't
make me regret it. But I know I've already taken the payoff.

And the thing with my father's face sees it—
      victory.
It opens its arms and I let it in.


Judge’s comments:

In this poem, the dead father’s doppelgänger and the aliens arrival serve both to pull us into the realm of science fiction, but also offer a way for the poem to explore what would be otherwise left unfinished and unsaid after the father’s death. I admire the way this poem does not shy away for grief and the desire for acceptance.

Fatimah Jessica (FJ) Doucet's poetry most recently appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, Beliveau Review, Yolk, Martin Lake Journal, and Literary Mama, while her work in Prometheus Dreaming magazine was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her speculative prose appears in the Retellings of the Inland Seas anthology from Candlemark and Gleam press, with more fiction forthcoming through Endless Ink Publishing House. She is a member of the SFPA, and is the newest president of the Brooklin Poetry Society, just outside of Toronto, Canada.

Long Form Third Place:

Cityscape

by F. J. Bergmann

I. Locale

The desirable lakeshore teemed
with our colorful dwellings. Every
few months we’d declare a flood
season, inundate the rebellious
suburbs. Our pet sun was at a safe
remove to the north—also suburban—
where it allowed the death-ziggurat
to cast an immovable shadow.

II. Immersive

Sometimes, no matter what we did,
tides surreptitiously rose to swallow
the streets. We stood in our arrogance
on the balconies of our pink buildings,
admiring our reflections and shaking
our fists at the water or at each other.

III. Ersatz

The further from the center
of the city, the more the houses
leaned away, until green opened
its veins gleefully. The sky
pretended to be just as blue
there. The few who owned “suns”
claimed they were as good
as the real thing.

IV. Duplicity

When the mirages began,
the city dwellers would not
acknowledge their towering
presence, even as administrators
plotted the imposition of building-
code violation penalties. Clouds
acting as mirrors, some hazarded.
They could almost see themselves.

V. Ascension

The towers continued to slide
up against the clouds until
it was obvious to everyone
that they were forming their
own world. A rift of parkland
separated us; we were each
other’s idealization. We could
not imagine that those glowing
monsters would ever fall.

VI. Bravura

We were not only no longer unique,
we were dwarfed by clouds that
mimicked our sumptuous structures,
so carefully maintained and tinted.
Our pugnacious chins lifted bravely
as we watched their stories recede.

VII. Observance

In due course the city center
was converted, block after block,
to cemeteries at ground level. Subways
could not become catacombs so long
as they remained in use by mourners;
stacking sarcophagi in parking ramps
or converted offices was thought
to be disrespectful. Besides, the floral
offerings needed room to breathe.

VIII. Splendor

We resolved to lead more colorful
lives. Grayscale was deprecated,
grisaille painted over with fluorescent
hues. Mandated by edict, all windows
were replaced with triangular prisms,
diffraction gratings, sprays of mist
that spawned rainbows when the light
coöperated with the program.

IX. Dwindle

Eventually decay caught up
with all of us. Our exteriors
faded, our contours softened.
The details of regeneration
were lost, our exploits no longer
remembered. Smoke, or possibly
dust, rose up from our ruins.

X. Expanse

In the next life, we took on
simpler shapes. Gave everyone
more space. That’s what we do
with emptiness. We reminisced
about all of our favorite colors,
but could not remember what
we had named them. Between
us, miles of snow.

XI. Atavism

Of course we reverted to our old,
savage habits. Something was lacking,
though. We mustered our reserves.
Less edgy, more inimical. The flowing
dark wound its way down the boulevards,
once more eating away the glass,
swallowing the stone.

XII. Rural

We finally let ourselves relax
into what might have been
a checkered prairie of bright
wildflowers. Nothing moved us
anymore. We still had our limits.

XIII. Resistance

As always, the city rose again.
Only the names of the colors
had changed. As ever, opposition
formed quickly. In the obscurity
above us, smoke overwhelmed
flame; clouds drew themselves
away from an invasive sunset.


Judge’s comments:

An ambitious longer poem that moves with certain elegance and lyric imagination in its exploration of the rise and transformation, not just of a city, but also of those who live there. Each section self-contained, yet resonating with the others, offering us vivid images of a world familiar, and yet not quite the same as our own.

F. J. Bergmann is presently holed up in a 700-square-foot apartment with a husband and 7,000 books, most of which are science fiction.

Long Form Honorable Mentions:

Stellar Scrap Sweep by Richaundra Thursday

The Archaeoastronomer Explains to the American’s Daughter Why a Compass Will Not Work on the Moon by T. D. Walker



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