An Illustration of winner Sharron Singleton's poem "With My Daughter and Granddaughter at the Korean Spa in a Strip Mall North of Seattle." Shawn Yu illustration
Poetry rarely receives the same level of notice as prose these days; at times, it seems as though few people even read or write verse anymore. But 126 people proved this idea wrong, submitting 455 poems to our first poetry contest, sponsored by Richmond magazine and James River Writers, which coordinated the judging. A group of four judges, led by St. Christopher's School writer-in-residence Ron Smith, narrowed the field of entries to seven groups of poems, written by seven poets. Smith chose the winning group of four poems, composed by Sharron Singleton, a retired social worker from Scottsville. (For a more detailed account of the methodology used by Smith and his fellow judges in reaching their decision, click here .)
Winning Poems by Sharron Singleton
- Online Exclusive: "Unfastened"
- Online Exclusive: "A Thin Thread of Water"
- "With My Daughter and Granddaughter at the Korean Spa in a Strip Mall North of Seattle"
- "Wisdom of the Arch"
Finalist Elisabeth Murawski's "Maternal"
Finalist Henry Hart's "Independence Day"
About the Winner
Sharron Singleton's rebirth as a poet occurred in Oakland, Calif. The wife of an Episcopal priest, Singleton left her Rhode Island life for nine months in 1992-93 — a difficult decision that made her marriage long-distance and caused talk in church.
"I needed some time for myself," she recalls. "It really got me back on track."
At the Institute for Culture and Creation Spirituality, led by former Dominican priest Matthew Fox, Singleton lived in a dorm and enrolled in writing classes.
"Everyone at Oakland was very supportive" and not at all critical, although Singleton knows now that her work then "was the writing of a beginner." The confidence she gained at the institute put her on the right path: More than 45 of her poems have been published in literary journals.
Singleton, who turns 71 this month, wrote poetry as a child and teenager in Michigan. But an English professor put a damper on her enthusiasm in 1958.
She remembers him saying, "No, no, my dear. I think you'd be far better off finding a husband and starting
And she did; Singleton married husband Richard 49 years ago, and they have a son and daughter, as well as five grandchildren. Living near Ann Arbor, she worked as a community organizer for a variety of political causes, including anti-nuclear warfare, women's equality and civil rights. She didn't write verse again until 1992.
Since then, Singleton has retired, and she and her husband moved to Scottsville, Va., where her son's family lives. She's an avid gardener and gives occasional speeches about women's issues to Episcopal audiences.
And of course she writes, following a daily ritual of early-morning tea and solitude. A few poems have come out fully formed, while others are the product of rewrites. "What I aim for is an emotional truth," Singleton says.
When I lift the small heavy iron in the antique shop,
I think of my grandmother — three children, heating water,
galvanized wash tub, corrugated scrub board,
raw knuckles, the sizzle of a wet finger testing the iron,
pushing its blunt wedge into the children's Sunday ruffles
and pleats she has sewn herself, sweat pouring
between her breasts, under the long-sleeved dress,
under the camisole, petticoat, corset, the long stockings,
laced-up shoes, limp apron on grimy, sultry Chicago
Saturday nights and she doesn't know where he is.
She doesn't know or care about the role of women
in society in 1918, her place in the long line of bound,
crimped, laced-up women, whale bones pressed
against their ribs, the closest they would get
to something wild and loose. She doesn't yet know
she will be tempted to step out of herself,
slip over the rail of the ferry stitching its way across
the gray silk of Lake Michigan, come unzipped
from her flesh, released from the tight net of veins,
each white knot of bone finally unfastened.
Poet's notes: Singleton says she lived with her grandmother for a year while attending college. Although "a private person," her grandmother told her about the time her husband left the family to look for work, an enterprise that took longer than expected. In the meantime, she and her children lived with her parents. Finally, her husband sent for the family, requiring a grueling trip on a Lake Michigan ferry for an unwelcome reunion. Her grandmother had lost faith in her spouse's ability to support the family. "She told me she felt like throwing herself over the rail of the ship," Singleton recalls.
A Thin Thread of Water
After the war was over, after
the factory closed,
my father took any odd job he could find —
swung an axe on a trestle
of the Grand Trunk line,
once nearly severing his thumb.
I used to trace the red raised scar,
crooked like a train derailed —
it seemed a wound from some kind of war.
After that he cut and baled hay
on McKenzie's farm, brought home eggs
and corn, payment we didn't despise.
I sometimes saw him through a haze
of tawny dust, smaller in the distance,
bent under the heavy arm of the sun.
Years later, in the parking lot of Montgomery Ward's,
I look west where streets slope
to a shallow valley then rise again
and think of the summer
he pried boulders
from the river that ran here —
so they could bury it, cover it over,
so commerce could sink its roots
in the riverbed,
and wonder if,
now bereft of sun, air,
stick boats of children, if
deep under my feet
a thin thread of water
still bends around rocks,
Poet's notes: During World War II, Singleton's father worked in a bomber factory, but it closed after the war ended, and he was left without a job. She hadn't thought about this period for years, but reading about underground streams one morning triggered a memory. Montgomery Ward's store in Ann Arbor, Mich., was built over a river where Singleton's father worked. When writing this poem, she backed up, recalling other jobs he held after the war. The "thin thread of water" refers not only to the river but also to her father.
With My Daughter and Granddaughter at the Korean Spa in a Strip Mall North of Seattle
We undress, stroll into
A steamy rain forest of women —
the sixteen year old, a sleek reed
pliant in her slight curves,
my daughter, the forty year old, serene
and glossy as a yacht, sails ahead,
and I, scarred and pouched,
runes of compromise written on my body,
follow. We lower ourselves into the tiled tub
and a long soak in 120 degrees, not watching
but watching every shape and shade of us
come slowly stepping down the stairs —
small pointed breasts uptilted, pendulous
bottoms quivering. We close our eyes,
sink into our nakedness, sigh at the tenderness
of water. On tables, we are scrubbed
by smiling Korean women, sweat
running down their faces, muscled arms.
Vigorous, business-like, they lift our arms
and legs, swab ears, belly-buttons,
all the crevices, flood buckets of hot water
up and down our bodies washing away
dead skin and grime we didn't know was there.
You wish it would go on forever.
Stretched out on the table next to me,
my daughter, all cream and gold, glistens
like an ancient offering to the gods.
The women's warm hands knead, sweep
Along the length of our bodies,
Finish with oils and honey and milk.
Soft-lipped, eyes half-closed, priestesses,
we return, stroll through the door
and the men look up from their card game
a little awed and uncertain, reach out
to stroke the new silk of our old selves —
all our concessions now cancelled.
Poet's notes: This poem sprang from Singleton's visit to a Korean spa with her daughter and granddaughter, who live in Seattle. The memorable image of Singleton's daughter as a yacht was originally a frigate, "like a warship," the poet says. "It's big — it's bearing down on another ship." Perhaps understandably, Singleton's daughter wasn't thrilled, so she switched it from frigate to yacht, which turned out to be a better choice. "She's very unselfconscious," Singleton says of her daughter. "She's very serene in a way."
Wisdom of the Arch
My son, the father, kisses
the foot of his child as the small
arch curls in delight. His hand curves
around the boy's silky head and thus does
the father begin to understand the Buddha's
smile, necessity of pebble, plum, egg, tensile
span of bow, bridge, even the curvature
of earth — the arc of love, the rise
and fall of it in each generation.
Poet's notes: This poem, which was an assignment for a poetry workshop, "is one of the rare ones that have come fully formed," Singleton says, including the line breaks that create a curve reflecting the title's arch. Her son, then a first-time father, was "so thrilled to be a dad." The poem is about "how huge that type of love is."
Perhaps yellow, the first pill he took
to be cool. A small sun in his palm
before he threw back his head
and swallowed. Or white as a moon
breaking into laughter on the water
as he reached out for heaven
and fell in. Then again maybe blue
as my mother's eyes lighting up
at his name, same as her uncle's
in Poznan who could pull from the belly
of a cello silk scarves of sky.
It could be any color of the rainbow
and not matter now, what brought him
here, fox without a burrow. His promise
to stop is tied to a chair. Numbed
by lies, backslides, I nibble
on hope, the crust of prisoners
with nothing to lose. I live in fear
of the dropping shoe: the knock, the call,
the sting at the finish line.
An Alexandria resident, Murawski has published two books of poetry.
She left her three sons to their battles in the yard,
hiked the hill to the tower, nodded to her mother's ghost
scanning the sky for war planes.
All the way up, grasshoppers clung to rails and rickety stairs.
In the high room carved with lovers' initials,
they scratched out warnings.
On the roof, her back against the weather vane,
she surveyed the Cathedral of Pines gutted by the freak tornado,
the steeple leaning from Our Lady Immaculate Church.
All summer, she'd dreamed of storms pinwheeling across the Atlantic,
crabs picking at a space suit filled with her bones,
sparrows snapping wings against tomato nets.
She wanted to be a small wing depending on no one,
hovering in the sun's last light. She wanted the sky
to grow blank and luminous as her eyes,
stars to scatter crumbs in the woods,
the moon to guide her to a home she'd never known,
pecking the crumbs, one by one, behind her.
An English professor at the College of William & Mary, Hart lives in Williamsburg and has published two books of poetry.
Mechanics of Judging
Head Judge Ron Smith explained the judging process, which began after the Dec. 15 deadline for entries. Reader Daingerfield Henley, who holds creative-writing degrees from the Queen's University in Belfast and is a classically trained actor, and head judge Smith read each poem independently and chose the top 130.
Then, Smith sorted out the best individual poems before looking at the entries as groups. "This was to ensure that we didn't overlook an individual gem that might happen to be part of a group that might obscure it," he writes. He then chose the top 43 groups of poems, while making sure the best individual poems weren't lost in the shuffle.
Those 43 groups were then sent to judges Temple Cone and Susan Heroy, both published poets, and they chose the top seven groups of poems. Smith then reread the poems several times, including into an audio recorder, before making his final judgment. As winner, Singleton will receive $500 and free entry to the 2009 James River Writers conference. Two of her poems are published in the April 2009 issue of Richmond magazine, and two others are here, online. Henry Hart and Elisabeth Murawski, as finalists, will receive $200 each, and both poets had a poem published in the April magazine.
The contest was open to Virginia residents, members of James River Writers (including those from out of state, but none who serve on the board), and students at a Virginia college or university. The poems submitted must never have been published anywhere before.
Smith explains the judges' reasoning behind their choices:
"Tell me the truth and make it sing: That's what we asked from the poems as we read them.
"We had to read the poems over and over, over and over, just to make sure we weren't being tone-deaf to a new kind of music. Since poetry always redefines itself, we tried our best not to look for the merely familiar and thus miss the genuinely new.
"We all looked for vigor and intelligence and freshness — especially freshness of language. We looked for poems that, no matter how familiar their forms or subjects or tones, knew a cliché when they smelled one.
"We looked for subtle or complex psychology, for believable and significant experience rendered into memorable language.
"We looked for a happy marriage of form and content, for effective line breaks, for imagery that made us feel new in our eyes and ears and skin.
"We looked for poems that were technically competent, but which didn't simply play it safe. Artistic control and aesthetic risk, order and wildness, are often at odds in poems and find it hard to live together. The judges hoped to find poems that were artful and alive and surprising. We found that the balance of these qualities shifted from entry to entry and that deciding which poems were best involved tradeoffs of power and control, polish and liveliness, art and life.
"We looked for a sensibility that created its own kind of unity or its own kind of harmonious disarray, and which did this as it reflected something true and truly perceived about the world and the mind's response to the world."
About the Judges
Head judge Ron Smith is writer-in-residence at St. Christopher's School, has published two books of verse and won the 2005 Carol Weinstein Prize in Poetry.
Reader Daingerfield Henley holds degrees in creative writing from the Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and is also a classically trained actor.
Judge Temple Cone , an assistant professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, has published five chapbooks of poetry, most recently Eurydice & Orpheus.
Judge Susan Heroy , winner of a Virginia Prize for Poetry, has taught literature and creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, Randolph-Macon College and the University of Richmond.