This year, 176 poems competed for the top spot in the biennial Shann Palmer Poetry Contest. Sponsored by James River Writers and Richmond magazine, the competition encourages Virginia poets to share their best unpublished work.
The contest is named after the late Shann Palmer, a longtime JRW board member and a beloved poet who inspired and encouraged others in the literary community. This year’s head judge was Ron Smith, Virginia poet laureate and writer-in-residence at St. Christopher’s School. Speaking about winner Zoa’s poem “A New Emotion,” Smith says, “In a mere 20 lines and for all its occasional vagueness, this poem not only cries out in convincing pain, it presents two credible characters, gestures toward a shadowy but a seemingly full and significant narrative, taps into a universal theme, presents an interestingly complex tone, displays freshness of language, and both honors and subverts traditional form. Every time I come back to this poem, it moves me and intrigues me.”
Here we present “A New Emotion” and two finalists, “Sestina of Turku in Winter” by M. Lee Alexander and “Inspecting the Fields” by Bill Glose.
ABOUT THE WINNER
Zoa began writing poetry seriously about seven years ago, and “A New Emotion” is his first published poem. A native of Ortonville, Michigan, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and literature at Eastern Michigan University. He works as a copy editor at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and says he writes every day, working on short stories and other projects. “I focus more on prose than poetry,” he says, “but every once in a while, something will come into my head that is more suited to a poem.”
He likes that poetry “allows you to focus word for word on what you are trying to say instead of all the things that go with a bigger story.”
“I don’t have to worry about plot or sentence structure,” he says. “It’s more freeing, more direct and it’s more enjoyable to work with smaller ideas with less texture.”
He began writing “A New Emotion” about two years ago, completing it quickly. He’s gone back to the poem many times since, “adding a lot to it, and eventually cutting most of it away.” Finally, he felt it was finished and entered it in the contest. He says that after winning the Shann Palmer Poetry Contest, “I am more inspired now to maybe take [poetry] a bit more seriously than I had in the past.”
(Illustration by Rachel Maves)
A New Emotion
We need a new emotion for this,
Call it heart rot:
The slow decay of adolescent bliss,
Like the liver of a miserable old sot.
We climbed the schooling branches together,
Smoked away hours, philosophized up there,
Tested ideas like fledglings test feathers,
Drank more truth than our stomachs could bear.
With other bents we might’ve been great lovers,
But we were lovers of a different kind —
Horatio and mad Hamlet — no blood, but brothers
With one deep-rooted, rising mind.
I know he thinks about me, still,
Because I think about ... about
Guitar riffs, wrecked cars, alcohol thrills,
And the mad threats he learned to shout
From the brain spores sucking
Life, that preternatural collection
Of sentience, idling, dying, fucking
Useless to a life without direction.
(Illustration by Rachel Maves)
Sestina of Turku in Winter
By M. Lee Alexander
Finland is the land of endless winters;
you buy Sami mittens and sharp metal grips
for your boots to keep from slipping on the ice
that lurks beneath fresh-fallen snow,
and in the woods your new friends build a fire-
stove from split logs that glow with eerie light.
So as darkness falls you value the dwindling light
that lasts so short a time in Turku’s winter,
which is why Finns burn with an internal fire,
a strength that warms their hearts and grips
their souls as they watch the mounting snow
cover their world in a glittering case of ice,
while the children in Moomin hats indulge in ice
cream joys for which their land is famous, and light
candles for Santa Lucia’s Day, and make snow
lanterns, and ski their way across the winter
landscapes lined with pines, while cold grips
outstretched tongues so falling snowflakes burn like fire:
and for their saunas Finns prefer a birchwood fire;
sharing memories, they slice a hole in the thick ice
on the lake and dip in, and as the freezing water grips
their skin, they laugh and run back to the sauna’s light
smoked steam, then bold as their soldiers in the Winter
War, with true sisu spirit, they roll in freezing snow.
The Turku Christmas Market is dusted with snow:
families and friends gather to smell the sweet fire
of roasted almonds and ginger-root, as winter
treats abound, and warm glög fights against the ice;
the wool-crafts booths are lined with frosted lights
and underneath your feet cold gravel grips,
until you look around and finally come to grips
with the epiphany that sauna and sisu and snow
are the independent Finns’ great hearts’ delight —
they are born of songs and stories round the fire
and, forged by skating diplomacy’s thin ice,
they have learned to make a holiday of winter...
and the knowledge grips your heart like fire
till like a true Finn you find the secret of snow and ice
is lasting and enduring in the fading winter light.
(Illustration by Rachel Maves)
Inspecting the Fields
By Bill Glose
Shoulders round as he crouches
in the loam to squint down a row,
temples fanned with years of dirt
and seeds and constant scrub of wind.
Low morning sun lances through pines
edging the field, stretching long the shadow
of his John Deere, tires big enough
to swallow a man. From a back pocket,
fingers of sweat-hardened gloves
bobble like a family of nesting chicks
eager for whatever their mother
has to offer. Pinching a tiny shoot,
the farmer worries its green skin
between a calloused forefinger and thumb,
his touch as gentle as the velvet
of a mole’s neck. Holding a fistful of soil
to his nose, he inhales the scent, tongue
of earth blooming inside his head.
The sun is climbing onto his shoulders,
so he rises and wipes brown streaks
into the stone-washed denim
of his jeans, knees popping
like a gunshot of crows escaping
a field that a fox just entered.