Last Summer, I was grateful to learn that a pair of my poems had placed in a competition held by the Virginia Poetry Society. A few weeks later my award, a check for $50, arrived in the mail. This stunned me. Over the past 40 years or so, I’ve written hundreds of things that I call poems, attempting to articulate nuggets of insight or awareness with an accessible line that yet rewards rereading. It’s a fine line to walk, especially nowadays, when the poetry in journals seems divided between the warring camps of confessional blatherers and hermetically sealed puzzle makers. Of course, the very idea of spending time writing poetry is absurd, unless you may be one of the English professors who rely on occasional publication to keep your job. So for me a passionate hobby, I guess you’d call it. Sometimes I’d send out a batch (this has become easier over the years, thanks to online submissions), and occasionally one would get published. But getting a check came as such a surprise! Who knew that a lifetime of scribbling poems could be so lucrative!
But that’s a snide thing to say. Millions of people write poems, fretting and sweating over the right word placed just so inside a matrix that doesn’t quite mesh, but let me try this. When they could be binging Netflix! Some of this work sees the light of day, so to speak, in journals nobody reads, but most of it collects on laptops or in little notebooks, destined for the dust bin. A check for $50 would surprise these poets, my kin, as much as it did me. It’s an odd cult, isn’t it? At St. Phillips Church here in Richmond, sometimes hundreds turn out for readings by laureates. In the past year, sitting on a pew at some of these events, I’ve been moved as much by the communal leaning in with ears perked as by the regally intoned prosody.
Then this. One of my poems “Immigrant Reflection” piqued the attention of the judge in this year’s James River Writers/Richmond Magazine Shann Palmer Poetry Contest. She’s a well-known, well-published poet, a person who can make a living doing this, a VCU graduate by the name of Tarfia Faizullah. And what she wrote about my poem when it was (amazingly!) published this month in Richmond magazine touched me profoundly, as if I had been grokked:
I love the lucidity of voice in “Immigrant Reflection.” This poem showed me worlds that I’ve never visited but found warmly drawn and happily familiar. It reminds me that life is both grand and quotidian at once: “We never learned much,” the speaker recalls nonchalantly, before stating a number of life’s largest and most crucial lessons: “How to catch a fish./How to dip in dance.” The conclusion astounded me in its wisdom, and awareness of every immigrant’s strange inheritance: to be always both there and here. This poem made me think “Yes, it is like that, isn’t it?” And that is a very good thing. The ending slayed me with its casual tenderness. The narrower lines made for a very satisfying tempo. I beamed! Thank you for taking the time to reflect.
No, thank you, Ms. Faizullah. I share your comment shamelessly, because it seems like such a miracle, and I can’t expect that it will happen again. On behalf of all of us scribblers who yearn all but hopelessly for such a generous and attentive reading someday, thank you. We should all be so lucky.
By the way, just learned that the winning poems from the contest are available to read online here: https://richmondmagazine.com/news/features/2018-shann-palmer-poetry-contest/. Enjoy!