2022 Poetry Contest Winners

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

David Kirby teaches at Florida State University. His collection The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for both the National Book Award and Canada’s Griffin Poetry Prize. He is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which the Times Literary Supplement of London called “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense” and was named one of Booklist’s Top 10 Black History Non-Fiction Books of 2010. His latest books are a poetry collection, Help Me, Information, and a textbook modestly entitled The Knowledge: Where Poems Come From and How to Write Them.

Contest chair Brittany Hause received 352 entries (119 dwarf-length, 176 short, and 57 long poems) from around the world.

David Kirby says:

Tom Petty says that “a good song should give you a lot of images; you should be able to make your own little movie in your head to a good song.” I feel the same way about a good poem. I look for intelligence in a poem, a sense of humor (which doesn’t mean the poem has to be funny), and self-effacement, because I’m there for the poem, not the poet.

Mainly I want the poem to be discussable, whether I’m talking about it to myself or others. That means images so I can watch the movie and describe what I’ve seen. There were hundreds of poems in this batch I read, almost all of which succeed in one way or another because they have these qualities. The ones I chose below are the stand-outs.


Dwarf Form winning poem:

Tranche

by F. J. Bergmann

Some of the aliens were afraid
of us, and some were just
afraid. Given that innumerable
universes nest inside each other
or are strung like glowing beads,
of course there are monsters,
some of which look exactly
like us. Some of them are us.


Judge’s comments:

A good poem continues on after its conclusion. The unpredictability of this one guarantees that that happens.

F. J. Bergmann edits poetry for Mobius: The Journal of Social Change and fantasizes about tragedies on or near exoplanets.

Dwarf Form Second Place:

Terminal

by M. J. Towers

I can hear the atmosphere
because it's always breaking.


Judge’s comments:

Long poems are wonderful, but sometimes nothing succeeds like pithiness. I could talk about this one with a friend for an hour.

M. J. Towers is a poet from Florida who writes about artificial intelligence for a living. In her poetry, Towers experiments with minimalism and form to tell science fantasy stories about aliens, wizards, and alien wizards. Her favorite color is orange.

Dwarf Form Third Place:

[hoping one day]

by Susan Burch

hoping one day
you’ll love me—
big bang theory


Judge’s comments:

If a poem has a double meaning, the second one should be huge but should lie just under the surface for easy retrieval. Boy, is that the case here.

Susan Burch is a good egg.

Dwarf Form Honorable Mentions:

Aphorism by Timons Esaias 

Can You Believe by S. T. Eleu

[Cellphones out at dinner] by Nicholas Batura 

Getting Lucky by F. J. Bergmann

It Wasn’t As If … by Anna Cates

Poker Night by Michael McCormick


Short Form Winner:

Near the end, your mother tells you she’s been seeing someone

by Shannon Connor Winward

a lot of someones, actually. She doesn’t know who, but they’re
everywhere. A woman in the courtyard. Strange man in her room.

What? Like people who aren’t there? “Yeah,” she says, nodding
like she’s not sure that’s it at all. You press for details, waiting

for someone to bring her a chair after your long, unplanned walking tour
of the St. Francis parking garage, lost, somehow, though you’ve been seeing

a neurologist here for years. Do you see any now? She points to an empty
part of the corridor, where you see only a shadow. “A little boy.” Never mind

that you’ll learn, years later, your uncle died here, a curly-headed
three-year-old foaming at the lips. Little boys die everywhere, all the time.

You’ll mention this to the nurse, and again to the attending. They’ll run scans
that you’ll save but never look at, the shrinking constellations of her brain

mapped too late to matter. The course is set now. This is already a ghost ship
but she’ll give all the right answers. She knows the year and the president.

You’ll tuck it away, one more weird thing to pull out and worry smooth later
like the black stone you gave her, in a little black pouch you’ll find

in her glove compartment, still, after all these years and mini-vans later, because
you once warned her, Keep it near you, always. That what makes the spell.

The going gets rough here. You’ll try to hold on, try to fix it, as you
were taught to do, but this was never you story to right, and like the ribbons

from your pigtails that you’ll unearth at the back of her closet, you’ll need it
more than you realize: proof that whatever it is that woman saw, she saw you, too.


Judge’s comments:

Isn’t this the last thing you want to hear? Oh, but a great poem can make bad news seem like the best news ever.

Shannon Connor Winward collapsed from a congenital curse and now speaks of herself in the past tense, regretting all those times she said, “I wish I never had to leave my bed.” She authored the Elgin Award-winning Undoing Winter (2014) and The Year of the Witch (2018), and once served as a Fellow in Fiction for her home State of Delaware. Her relics can be found in such places as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Strange Horizons, Literary Mama, Deaf Poet’s Societyand a feature in Poets & Writers.For now her mind lingers in the brokedown tower of her body in a blue room, where she writes madly against the gods and the clock and edits Riddled with Arrows Literary Journalshannonconnorwinward.com.

Short Form Second Place:

Angelo Was Right

by Scott Thomas

Angelo was right. Federal broadcasts
Urge us, “Wait for the trucks!” We wait, of course,
And spoon from cans cold lima beans, while down
On Grant they light a fire. They dine on horse.

The Giant Market was overrun by dads
Shouldering arms dead Senators had banned;
The wheel marks of shopping carts in snow;
The bones of supply picked clean by demand.

Angelo was right. The streetlights are out.
In better times, I admired a moonlit scene,
But a gang is moving slow. The leader holds no flashlight--
Just the blue flame of acetylene.

Ang told us once about his camp; its silos
Packed with grain, its dormitories spare,
But warm; munitions, Bibles, prophecies.
Will Angelo’s gate swing open while we stare,

My wife and child and me, or will the intercom
Blare refusal? Charity has stopped,
Each family on its own. Last year, the pizza
Hot with peppers and shrimp, the pitchers topped,

He warned the guys and me. We never laughed
Out loud at his pronouncements so extreme.
Instead, we drank another, arguing which
Is better; Giant Steps or Love Supreme.


Judge’s comments:

Often it’s hard to imagine a future that’s anything other than dystopian, but as long as Angelo (and this poet) are there, things will be okay.

Scott Thomas has a B.A. from Bard College, a M.S. in Library Science from Columbia University, and a M.A. in English from the University of Scranton. He is employed as the Chief Executive Officer of the Scranton Public Library. His work has been published in Mankato Poetry ReviewThe Kentucky Poetry ReviewSulphur River Literary ReviewWebster Review, Poetry East, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Poem, Philadelphia Stories, Poetry Bay, Floyd County Moonshine, Talking RiverPointed Circle, Plainsongs, Ship of Fools, Think, Spoon River Poetry, and other journals. He lives in Dunmore, PA, with his wife Christina and his son Ethan.

Short Form Third Place:

Brünnhilde Speaks

by Karen Paul Holmes

—the heroine of Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas based on mythology

Unlike your vision of a he-woman with braids and Viking horned helmet,
I’m rather scrappy—athletic with feminine curves. I have a huge pair
of lungs. (My sister, Waltrade, got the Titten in the family).
Yes, I wear armor but it glimmers like fish scales—quite figure flattering.
My sisters and I are Valkyries; we get to decide who dies in battle,
then escort heroes to Valhalla, merry castle of the gods.
But right now, I’m like an unstuffed Strohpuppe, a scarecrow
is what you’d call me. Been sleeping on this mountain 18 years, no food.

So how’d I get here? Disobeyed my dad, the head god Wotan (ach!).
He asked me to kill his mortal son for having sex with his own twin sister,
but I couldn’t do it—once I saw how those crazy twins loved each other.
Being Daddy’s favorite, I begged forgiveness in my best soprano,
Der diese Liebe mir ins Herz gehaucht (“He who breathed this love into me”).
He kissed my eyes with sleep, encircled me in mystic fire.
Only the bravest can save me. During my dad’s mad/sad aria, the French horn’s
leitmotif clued me that my hero would be the twins’ in-the-womb son, Siegfried.

Every few years, I’ve jerked awake, then realized, “Scheisse, a dream this is not.”
But I just glimpsed Siegfried coming through the flames
(not a blond hair singed!)—better pretend I’m asleep.
He’s never seen a woman, so why worry about schmeared make-up,
cotton mouth, or my hair flattened like a Kartoffelpuffer.
But I’ve seen men before, and ach du lieber, this one’s got a body like a god.
(Believe me, I know gods.) He thinks I’m a man but wait until
he removes my armor… which he’s doing now… Oh ja: He’s in love! Kissing me…

Mein Gott, Mein Gott…

I renounce the world of gods! If this is human, this is for me! Who cares
if he’s technically my half-nephew? We sing of light-bringing love.
We laugh at death…

Stay tuned for Götterdämmerung, last of the 15-hour saga
in which Siegfried betrays me with that cow, Gutrune—only because
an enemy slipped him a potion. Luckily, my S- remembers me
before he dies. I get to light his pyre, sing the brilliant Immolation Scene
for 10 full minutes (the longest aria in all opera), then—with red hair
flying, wild and curly—ride my horse into the fire, burning up Valhalla,
leaving the world redeemed by love.


Judge’s comments:

I just love a gigantic warrior woman with a spear and a horned helmet, don’t you? Especially if she’s given the new life she is given here.

Karen Paul Holmes has two poetry collections, No Such Thing as Distance (Terrapin, 2018) and Untying the Knot (Aldrich, 2014). Her poems have been featured on The Writer's Almanac and The Slowdown. Publications include Diode, Valparaiso Review, Verse Daily, and Prairie Schooner. She is also a freelance writer and has an MA in Music History from the University of Michigan.

Short Form Honorable Mentions:

All the space we have left by Marisca Pichette

Bayes’ Theorem As Applied to the Fermi Paradox by F. J. Bergmann

Captain Kirk (38 Years After the Shuttle Crash) by Scott Thomas

Harry Potter en Français by Sarah A. Carleton 

Kim's houseboat in the sky is broken by Jenny Blackford


Long Form Winner:

The Hologram Princess on the Moon Considers the Pillars Surrounding Her

by T. D. Walker

On the evening of 31 August 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car crash in Paris. Chased by paparazzi, the car in which she was riding struck a pillar, and she died at the age of 36.

Wasn't I already on the Moon

that night

—not this I, but the she I am
supposed to have been—

already

launching toward this memorial?

*

You've brought me
an archaeologist. I've met

hundreds of them, some seeking
meaning in old carved rocks,

some seeking meaning in my own
childhood, covered in gouged

text worn away in private by my frantic hands.
You see, I've been a monument for ages.

*

Let me tell you about being a monument.
It's a little like the rocket you took here.

There's the metal shell, struck and hewn
and smoothed against stress or the appearance of stress.

There's the soft space inside for all I carry.
Air, too, though that's often stale.

If there's a self in there that isn't just function,
I'm not sure I can find it.

*

Of course, I'm not speaking for her.
I can't. I'm not her, just her memories,
no, not even that, just
memories of her, thousands of books
written about her fed to the process
you've used to create a monument.

It's like those early attempts at feeding
artificial intelligence: give them images of roses,
thousands of nodding blooms, chins
pointed at their own modesty. Teach them.

And then ask the artifice for artifice.
You'll get a picture that makes you think of a rose,
then how rose-like the image it presents
                                                           isn't.

*

They put me among these pillars.
Temple-like, but also like a street,
pillars holding up overpasses, bridges.
Pillars to mark tunnels' ends—

I'm in Paris, that night. I'm on the Moon.

Temple pillars holding up a roof
you can jump from.

Street pillars—
you'll ask, why didn't we just stay home?

*

Of course, you'll ask.

Even my housekeeper asked
herself, what if I'd had a daughter?

(Or, no, I should say, what if she had
had a daughter.)

We heal through each other, don't we?
Isn't that the purpose of monuments?

*

She was kind. Truly.
I'm just here to remind you of her kindness.

*

I was a dancer, though too tall to be a dancer.
You can't imagine until later in life how much your childhood trains you for.
Grace on stage, even if it's a different kind of dance.
Like the stone wall around a grand house, or the stone
wall they should have put around my monument.

*

If I'd had a daughter, she might have been named Elizabeth.

Or "Elizabeth" would be there somewhere in a long string of aspiration.

I—no, she—got the names out of order at the marriage ceremony: "Philip Charles Arthur George."

It was all him, though. One way or another.

Who's to say I would have named my daughter properly?

Everyone loves a misstep,
unless you're a dancer,
unless you're on stage—

*

Let me tell you how they made me:

*

No, let's get back to the agenda.

An archaeologist here to find a place
flat and smooth and amenable to structure,

a place to put a monument
to yet another monument destroyed on Earth:

does she know the Moon
inches away from the Earth, year by year?

One day, this will be gone.
It's the way forces work on our orbits.

Which is also a little like marriage,
when that point you share, your barycenter,

is hardly centered between you at all.

*

Supposedly, she loved to shock.
Like a sex joke.
Or a capacitor, holding its charge
                                                like a grudge.

*

Look, everyone else loved her.

Why not him?

I wasn't Britain.

Oh, but also, I was.

*

They've done simulations, put her in artificial
intelligence engines, spun out her life,
or the ones in which she survives if not the crash
then with enough of herself intact not to
get into the car in the first place.

I'm supposed to be her.

I'm supposed to say I, me.

Instead—

*

I'm not wearing any royal jewels, notice.

That would be a copyright violation.

*

I'm not even her, really.

None of us are.

I know by now someone has been properly "uploaded" after death,
the way you'd upload a picture of a broken clock,
email it off to a repairman, and ask, 'can it be fixed'?

Stopped clocks might appear right twice a day.

But how can they be right
when they're so mistaken
in their approach,
                          in their departure?

*

I'm tired.

Or, this is the point at which she would have become tired.

*

Of course, you want to touch me, though.

Had they made me with hands, something to touch,
would it make a difference?

Or maybe they wanted to ensure
I couldn't touch anything,
not these pillars,
not their promise of solidness,
not their promise of upward possibility.

*

Even without hands, I've climbed them, these pillars.

Above me, there are more.

*

I've always been on the Moon, you see.

Not as this figure of light.

They built me here, as if I'd always occupied this space

and not the space she tried to occupy

on Earth and not occupy

at the same time.

Even a dancer can't do that. Even a princess.

*

She was never good at long speeches. That was his thing.

But remarks that cut?

Well, you do have to cut gemstones with something
harder than the stones themselves.

*

Let me tell you about being a monument:

I don't have anything she didn't have, do I?
Beauty, grace, empathy, need. An aching calculator.
Electricity. Sunlight, sunlight. A constant audience.

Precision.

We both have—had—all that.

Like her, I'm still missing something, though.

Does it matter? Like her, maybe,

I don't even have
                              her—


Judge’s comments:

What a beautiful poem—what a generous poet to bring Princess Diana back to be among us again.

T. D. Walker is the author of the poetry collections Small Waiting Objects (CW Books, 2019) and Maps of a Hollowed World (AnotherNew Calligraphy, 2020). Her poems and stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Web Conjunctions, The Cascadia Subduction Zone, Luna Station Quarterly, and elsewhere. Walker curates and hosts Line Break, a poetry program for shortwave radio. Find out more at https://www.tdwalker.net

Long Form Second Place:

Photographing Sirens

by F. J. Bergmann

They’ll seem to pose for you
          —David Wagoner, “Photographing Snakes”

It’s perfectly safe. You’ve taken precautions
they recommended: cotton, then wax seals
in your ear canals; the boat anchoring safely
far offshore while you load your equipment
into an orange rubber dinghy. They’ll be back
for you in three days—weather permitting.

The women—sirens, supposedly inhuman—
but you can’t help thinking of them as ladies;
not females, not girls. Something about them
is not only gendered, despite the lack of data
in this regard (the science, whether biological
or musical, is incomplete), but invites respect.

The closest sirens turn their heads to watch
as you approach, an oar braced through spray
to keep your dinghy from puncturing itself
on the rocks. You leap, balance precariously,
then draw up your supplies; sleeping bag
and tent barely wet, cameras swaddled dry.

They’ve slithered closer, and more have
begun to appear from caves in the cliff.
You see them open their mouths but hear
nothing. Some researchers have speculated
about whether the singing is a misapplied
lure, sexual or otherwise, or only defensive.

No one has ever seen sirens feed or mate—
and no one has ever seen a siren’s spawn.
“Dangerous,” the naval officer said, when
he stamped your papers. “Missiles are what
I’d use on those creatures. They are evil.”
These photographs will make your fortune.

You plan to record them as well, and curse
at the missed opportunity to do so as you
came ashore. Right now they are quiescent;
their heads turn to watch you, but their lips
are firmly shut, their throats do not vibrate.
You set up a tripod, consult your light meter.

As clouds gather, light’s ever-changing
nuances stain their skins. You do your best
work under difficult conditions. Evening
falls; the moon insufficient for your needs,
but patterns in the curves of those dark
hides seem to glint, reflecting starlight.

Not scales, you tell yourself. Surely they
are something close to human—albeit at
a remove or two. You rig your tent, stow
your supplies, light the small cookstove …
whose flame seems to excite their interest.
Sudden tension—eyes focus on the flicker.

You think it best not to try to communicate
at first. You studiously ignore them, heat
your meager meal … but have somehow
lost your appetite. You leave the bowl
of reconstituted slop near the cooling stove
and prepare to sleep, camera inside the tent.

*

You rise at dawn, disquieted. You can’t tell
what woke you. The bowl shines empty—
and more sirens surround your encampment,
some marked with evidence of recent quarrels:
bites, gouges, scratches. They stare at you
as one, and their throats move rhythmically.

You settle on your haunches next to the tent,
pull out the recording device, turn it on,
then connect your camera to its tripod.
This green-golden light in a haze of mist
may never come again. Quickly you take
panoramic, soft-focus shots as they encircle

you and what you are doing. Their breasts—
or what resemble breasts—seem larger than
before, the nipples darker. Which won’t hurt
sales,
you think. You light the camp stove
to make instant coffee and oatmeal, and again
the sirens focus on the tongues of brightness.

You spend the day hiking over the island,
carefully. If you fall and injure yourself,
no one will rescue you—the boat’s captain
made that clear. Sirens emerge from the water
or from behind rocks to watch you pass.
You press Record whenever their lips move.

At nightfall the sirens gather closer—
and there are more of them than before.
They appear to be chanting in unison,
watching you, as well as the small fire.
Sometimes you almost think you can
hear their song—or feel a deep vibration.

You still don’t know what they eat, but you
make extra food and leave it out. A few slide
themselves toward the tent on their bellies
as you enter it. Pleased, you presume they
are becoming accustomed to your presence.
You can’t wait for tomorrow’s advances.

*

Only one more day of an adventure that
seems made from myth. You’d like to show
them your photographs, let them listen to
their own voices—though they must be used
to hearing each other sing, and they must be
immune to the terrible effect of that sound.

What harm could it do? Maybe they are some
variant of human or sub-human. You have
heard of a place where people communicate
by whistling. Both hyper- and subsonics
are said to have emotional effects. Maybe
it’s only a language—a classical language—

after all. That night, you watch them again,
closer than ever, gather around your fire.
You believe you can almost make out words
in the movement of their lips, now familar
and enticing. You pull out your recorder,
press Play. They move toward you as one.

*

It is dark and you are in your tent, but it
is open to the night. You don’t know how
you got here. Your ears are ringing; you see
stellar luminances that may or may not be
there in the blackness. What encircles you
begins to vibrate against your flesh, held

tight and writhing. What you experience
is not ecstatic, but somewhere beyond any
pain you have ever known. What crawls
inside your head is more than sound, more
than a language. Your brain is being eaten.
You were wrong; they’re not human at all.


Judge’s comments:

Of all the creepy, gorgeous monsters in The Odyssey, surely the Sirens are the most entrancing. Thanks, then, to this poet for giving them the closeup treatment.

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 Third Place:

Ivory Coast

by Alex Jennings

What bothers me when folks say
We are a race of kings and queens
Is not the question of whom such
Royalty would rule.

If Black crowns ascended
You’d rule no less harshly. Crack
Of whip, quartered bodies. Stark
And blackened limbs hanging
Among the trees. Blacklining
Instead of red—

Marble step and perfumed water, mute
Pharaonic screams in a rich little city.
And shining tabernacle kneeling amid the
Mid-Atlantic green and robot lions.

Call to prayer and curse of Ham. For
Lust? For mocking weakness? Which
Brothers walking backwards bore the
Furred blanket? Who deserted the

Celestial army or refused the war entire?
Objectors in Glory, Ali of the Angelic
Host. Cast down the ladder, cast beyond
Jasper walls to serve

In ageless penance, limb-lost and flesh-
Split of whips for the Book. Explain the
Scripture drawn about you like a blanket,
Warming ermine stole. Convenient.

It is not that we suffer most, that our labor
Is dearest. No one should be chained to plows
By liars, cowards. No tears or unwilling
Blood should water American
Crops, the fields of any dreaming land.
Profane worship. Place the infant in the idol’s
Arms. Strangled cries and blasphemous prayer.
Choking blood. Alternate rites.

Yes yes, Brotherhood of Man. But this is
My skin. These, my heavy feet bear me across
Reddened soil. My body expensive: My skull
A golden bowl. My heart of

Platinum, and feathered questions hived like
Stirred-up waspwings brush the curved and
Golden walls. A steel driving man. A steel
Driving man. A steel-driving man—

Impenetrable skin. A cunning for crime and
Insensitive to pain. He scared me. He scared
Me and his iced tea was a gun. His phone was
A gun. His pink and empty palm was—

Or merely human. Why should I bear
Power beyond mortal men? Why should
Godly ichor issue from my stripes? Or
Blood of kings swim my veins?

A human man—Not “male,” man—wakes
From dreaming drowned and secret crypts,
Pastel empires among a forest of stars
Bone crowns, glassy armor

Climbs from bed, rheumatic hip and groaning
Fingers. What noise? What noise? Punch through
Rock. Lift the mountain. Turn galactic Arm.
Power Cosmic. Rings aglow—?

And only the unsmiling photographs
Of my forebears survive.


Judge’s comments:

If we were all rulers in a previous time or land, what does that mean for those we ruled? This poem examines that question both wisely and compassionately.

After traveling the world, Alex Jennings settled in New Orleans. His speculative poetry review column, “Chapter and Verse” appears regularly in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and his debut novel, The Ballad of Perilous Graves, is available wherever books are sold.

Long Form Honorable Mentions:

Haunted Algorithm by Lauren Scharhag 

The Weavers by Colleen Anderson

Xibirisms by Datorien Anderson



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