2018 Poetry Contest Winners

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

Laurel Winter has won some awards (a couple of Rhyslings and Asimov's Reader's Poll Awards, a World Fantasy Award, and a McKnight artist fellowship). Growing Wings was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Award. She's in the midst of a creative flare-up in Oregon and her work will soon be available from Crossroad Press. She graciously agreed to judge the 2018 contest on short notice, due to unforeseen circumstances.

She says, “To the nefarious poets of the SFPA,

Thanks a lot. My hold on sanity is even more precarious after diving into the ocean of your poetry, holding my breath, surfacing, holding my breath, surfacing, gulping both air & mouthfuls of sweet/salty/terrifying/life & death giving water. Exposed to all your wonders & forced to choose but 9? Such dissimilars—no mermaid beauty pageant (elbow elbow wrist wrist, flick the tail just so)—no, I had to choose between bioluminescent dinoflagellates, rippling moray eels with teeth that sank into my soul, a clownfish in the process of changing from male to female, a strange ocean current that circled around & swallowed its own tail. Sometimes my arms were so full I barely made it to the surface, dropping beautiful things as I rose to gasp. Too many beautiful things. Too many difficult choices—a barnacle blemished with a homonym or a verb-tensed crustacean, I had to let them go. Too many words, layered over & over, kept some wonderful beasts at the bottom when brevity would have let them rise. But I have the nine, & the journey, & still a bit of waterlogged sanity (forever changed by brine) I can claim as mine. Only 9 could I keep. Your ocean is saltier for the tears I did weep.

Soggier, but still here,
Laurel Winter”

Contest chair Holly Lyn Walrath received 335 entries (80 dwarf-length, 191 short, and 64 long poems) from around the world.

Dwarf Form winning poem:

Walkers 1

by Jerri Hardesty

Lonely survivor
Of zombie apocalypse
Outran his friends… twice.

Judge’s comments:

The whole story revealed in seventeen syllables, with that last word "twice" making us imagine what it would be like to have our friends slavering after us. OMG. I'll never forget this poem.

Jerri Hardesty lives in the woods of Alabama with husband, Kirk, also a poet. They run the nonprofit poetry organization, New Dawn Unlimited, Inc. (NewDawnUnlimited.com) Jerri has had over 400 poems published and has won more than 1300 awards and titles in both written and spoken word poetry.

Dwarf Form Second Place:

At Last

by Sandra J. Lindow

Higgs Boson revealed
nabbed as it passed
by Schroedinger’s cat

Judge’s comments:

Oh, this is just brilliant, with such true catlike behavior. & getting two physics concepts in a poem this brief. Wow. Loved it.

Sandra J. Lindow is nearly completed with Defining Fire, a collection of poetry that humanizes creation, quantum mechanics, and future space exploration. "At Last" is part of that series. More can be found in  Star*line 41.1 and Eye to the Telescope 29. She has also recently completed the work of collecting SFPA's award-winning Dwarf and Rhysling speculative poetry 2004–2018 for Alchemy of Stars II.

Dwarf Form Third Place:

“in-laws at the door”

by Julie Bloss Kelsey

in-laws at the door—
those panicked moments
before I shapeshift

Judge’s comments:

I have such a clear picture from this poem. Who among us hasn't had those "is there underwear trailing up the stairs? beer bottles on the coffee table?" moments? Tying in shapeshifting morphs the poem to a whole different level.

Julie Bloss Kelsey’s poetry has appeared in Star*Line, Grievous Angel, Scifaikuest, and Jersey Devil Press. She won the Dwarf Stars Award in 2011 and tied for second place in 2016. This year, Julie teamed with poet Susan Burch to edit 25 Science Fiction Tanka and Kyoka at Atlas Poetica.

Short Form Winner:

tick more slowly

by Meg Freer

with respect for the 2017 Nobel laureates in physics

binary inspiral             merging black holes
waveforms       matched templates       chirps
ripples of spacetime             stretch
change human hair

suspended mass vibrations       splitting the fringe
shaking             barely feel
detector sees nothing

brighter and slower             desert
under high vacuum       as the instrument evolves
scatter back in                         seismic noise
isolation                   from earth
reduction in the shaking

never saw gravitational waves

have to know             the direction
at room temperature             quantum noise
radiation pressure
all just hard

stray light       little vertical spikes
all harmless

never saw gravitational waves

the improvement
inspired the dress design             many oscillations
change the shape       those curves
tiny      tiny       tiny
real potential here

merge             within the lifetime
problem                         for the future
normalized       the so-called chirp signal

it had been predicted             before
Galileo looked through a telescope for the first time

* found phrases, in sequence, from the lecture “Einstein, Black Holes, and Gravitational Waves”, given by Dr. Barry Barish, 2017 Nobel laureate in Physics, March 5, 2018, Kingston, Ontario.

Judge’s comments:

The brilliance of the word choice & the formatting gave us the poetic best of physics. & the little repetition of "never saw gravitational waves" gave us a sense of breathless anticipation.

Meg Freer grew up in Montana and now lives in Kingston, Ontario. She has worked as an editor and teaches piano and music history. She enjoys being outdoors year-round, playing the piano and running. Her award-winning poems and photos have been published in various North American journals and anthologies.

Short Form Second Place:

Tin-Head Soliloquy

by M. C. Childs

Dear engineer of my oil-less engines:

Rusted, dented, forgotten in the woods
I’ve had time enough to contemplate
the way of the cybernetic om:

We dance stiff-hinged and a touch unhinged.

We sing from resonant tin heads and are
untroubled by the scent of flowers.

We smile with the least perceivable curve
of our lips, single photons scintillating
from our titanium-gilt eyes and axes.

Dear engineer of my unoiled engines
(If only I could call you dear artist):

If I only had a heart—
A silk and sawdust heart stitched together
by girls at a sewing bee, as a gift
for an unknown and unknowable man.

Yet dear engineer behind time’s curtain:

Oiled, unfixed my storyline unfolds smiles.
You are a footnote in footnoteless
fiction—unwritten, unsung, omitted.
Only my heartless heartache calls you to mind.

Dear engineer, my heart   skips on   past you.

Judge’s comments:

Oh, the poignancy of the Tin-head (so not heartless) contemplating his creator. This poem caused a stutter in my own heart.

M. C. Childs’ poetry has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Liminality, Bracken, Polu Texni, Andromeda Spaceways, Asimov’s Science Fiction,and many others and  is upcoming in Strange Horizons,  and Dreams & Nightmares. He is an associate dean of architecture at the University of New Mexico.  His award-winning urban design books include The Zeon Files: Art and Design of Historic Route 66 Signs (UNM Press 2016), Urban Composition (Princeton Architectural Press 2012), and Squares: A Public Space Design Guide (UNM Press 2004).  Mark won the Boit Prize for Poetry and was a member of M.I.T.’s International Tiddlywinks Team a long time ago.

Short Form Third Place:

Seeking Exemption Status?

by Claire Bateman

You may be evaluated for exemption from THE MAP if you can provide appropriate documentation for at least one of the following statements:
You possess only the tendency to exist.
You are currently both random and discontinuous.
You are so beautiful/hideous/sacred/profane that a glimpse of you causes immediate, non-reversible blindness/incineration/petrification/vitrification.
You are so minute, gargantuan, subtle, obvious, transparent, plural, all-pervasive, transitory, episodic, fast, or slow as to render you imperceptible to THE CARTOGRAPHERS.
You are in training to become a tabula rasa.
You are time.
You are amnesia.
You are the Grand Universal Theory.
You are cold fusion, a perpetual motion machine, the Fountain of Youth, or El Dorado.
You are purely analogical.
You are the collective unconscious.
You overflow THE MAP.
You contain THE MAP.
You are the doppelganger and/or conscience of THE MAP.
You are THE MAP.

You may not be considered for exemption status if:
You possess a philosophical, moral, or aesthetic objection to the notion of context.
You never asked to be born/formed/conceptualized.
You are beautiful/hideous/sacred/profane within an acceptable perceptual range.
You currently reside behind/beneath/within some other entity or object on THE MAP.
You have been or are currently on a previous MAP.
You would prefer to save yourself for some future MAP.
You intend to sleep through the duration of THE MAP’S lifespan.
You are preparing to take a vow of invisibility.
You are “under the weather.”
You are the weather.
You are a false epiphany.
You are, or have registered to become, a banshee, “haint,” revenant, or other discarnate entity.
You are absence and/or the nature of suffering/desire.
You are configuration space.
You are ontic, spiritual, or moral anxiety.
You are currently extinct or designated for extinction.
You merely find it distasteful to be folded/unfolded.

Judge’s comments:

This is just makes me want to quote the whole dang poem. I'll limit myself to "You are time./You are amnesia./You are the Grand Universal Theory." Such a brilliant & bureaucratic tone!

Claire Bateman’s new book, Wonders of the Invisible World, is forthcoming from 42 Miles Press/Wolfson Press.  She is the author of eight other books, most recently Scape (New Issues Poetry & Prose, Kalamazoo).   She also creates visual art.

Long Form Winner:

Magic Lessons

by Shannon Connor Winward

after The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle (for Carolynn)

What do trees look like to them, or houses, or real horses, or their own children?

We see what we feel, unicorn—the wisdom of the living wood, or the depth of the forest's shadows, the looming threat of the oak above our fragile roofs. We see the thatch worn thin for want, or the beckoning hearth's glow. We see the curtains, hung in days of hope, just the right shade or pattern to define us. We see home, the horses safe in the stable, needing to be fed. We see work. We see our history and futures in our children—do you know what legacies look like, you who are immortal? Do you know what magic feels like when it rests, for a moment, in the belly of a babe, in his dreaming grin? Mothers do. Mothers know.

Do not boast, old woman. Your death sits in that cage and hears you.

Oh, but I have earned my boasts! I paid for them, with years and tears, with blood and labor. I made that cage, unicorn; I fashioned that trap—do you think that I don't know what for? The old are due the sound of their own wind, every word of it, and what's more we do not fear its utterance. I have bought this moment, cashed in every injury, every loss, every heartache and heartbeat, and the dreadful silences in between—I have lived, so what is death to me? Let it hear! Let it hear.

Real magic can never be made by offering up someone else's liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.

Magic, love, it's all the same. Come speak to me when you have given of yourself, Magician—when you have served up love and magic and your bloodied heart. Come back when you are but a husk, a skeleton, an empty plate, and happier for it, your true self beating out time in someone else's gut, walking away—come to me then, and tell me what you've learned.

Weaver, freedom is better, freedom is better.

Except when it isn't. Sometimes all we have are the stories we tell, the patterns hung in dark corners, in cages. Sometimes creating for ourselves is enough… but sharing is better. There is space between the bars, wanderer. Do you see? Do you see?

I will kill you if you set me free. Set me free.

We do as we must. We are all part of the story—we each have our parts.

Any woman can weep without tears… and most can heal with their hands. It depends on the wound. She is a woman, Your Highness, and that is riddle enough.

Listen to her, prince. You have been seeking answers that breed only questions, but stillness blooms in the lap of patience. Time heals. She knows.

But I am a cat, and no cat anywhere ever gave anyone a straight answer.

True enough.

It is said that love makes men swift and women slow. I will catch you at last if you love much more.

So catch me! Catch me! Let me be heavy with love, let me be laid low, let the weight of it fold me into the arms of the earth until I rot, and then let me feed the soil and the crawling things and the green things. Let a tree take root in the cradle of my bones—let it grow! Let it grow. Let it be a testament, a living monument. Let it say she loved, here. She loved.

He thought, or said, or sang, I did not know that I was so empty, to be so full.

Aah. Now he gets it.

Yet even when the wonder blossomed where she had been—sea-white, sea-white, as boundlessly beautiful as the Bull was mighty—still the Lady Amalthea clung to herself for a moment more.

As we do. That, unicorn, is real magic—that we are here for a moment, fully ourselves, until we aren't. That things go on, the endless sea, the chaos and the beauty and all of it, and us just a small forgotten part, till they crack open the world and find us there, written in the grain of its heart.

Judge’s comments:

The poet set up such an interesting & poetic conversation. I was drawn in, wanting to learn the lesson myself. "That, unicorn, is real magic—that we are here for a moment, fully ourselves, until we aren't."

Shannon Connor Winward is the author of the Elgin-award winning chapbook Undoing Winter and winner of a 2018 Delaware Division of the Arts Fellowship. She is also the founding editor of Riddled with Arrows. Her first full-length collection, The Year of the Witch, was released from Sycorax Press in September 2018.

Long Form Second Place:

Om Economics

by Sandra J. Lindow

She graduated from the School of Om Economics,
State Paranormal School for Educators,
having taken classes
in Essential Om Making skills:
“Sensitivity Sewing,” “Inseams
for Cognitive Strength and Purpose,”
“Rhythmic Chants for Existential Knitting,”
“Casseroles for Calm and Interpersonal Connection,”
“Spells for Matching Tasks with Tools.”

Her Master’s Thesis,
“InCantations for Perfect Pressure Seals,”
passed Committee with rave reviews
and was eventually made into a booklet
with a full color cover and published
by State Om Economics Outreach
Extension Agency where she worked.
Om Makers in every county knew
and applauded her Ominfused Recipes, inviting
her to demo at fairs and community to-dos.

Her Ph.D thesis “OmAesthetic Investment”
brought a faculty position at her Alma Mater,
where she taught classes with metaphysical flair
and fecundity, continuing research
into “Kharmic Cleansing for Kitchens and Bathrooms,”
“Chants for ROMantic Moments” and
“How Lullaby Decibel Levels Affect Babies’ OM Sleep”
but that was the previous century.
Times change and Old Para U.,
fighting to stay in the metaphysical forefront,
changed its name to PolyOmTechnic,
specializing in NanoOmology and quantum level,
fourth dimensional business applications.
The lightening computer interfaces required
of all newly hired faculty were beyond her,
and her department was absorbed
into Recreation, literally absorbed,
labs and classrooms disappearing,
walls shifting, her office becoming a closet
off the Biofeedback Badminton Court.

It was time to retire, but she
still had a few tricks up her Omec sleeve.
From the early days, she’d been chanting
her investments, blessing her chosen companies
each night as she fell asleep, a continuous
dream loop of unconditional positive regard
that filtered through the Ythernet as she slept,
causing her annuities to flourish even in otherwise
troubled times and her well deserved retirement
wealth bought her a hOMe on a beach,
where rhythmic words of wind and waves
sang her new book’s bestseller second-edition release
MicroClimate WeatherWork for Gardeners,
and she was back to winning blue ribbons
for her “Balsamic Green Bean Benediction Marinade”
and her “Charisma Crusted Sweet Potato Pie.”
Thus eased by Om Economics her days were brightly
nourished, and her nights were sweet with sleep.
Shanti, shanti, peace, peace, peace.

Judge’s comments:

This poem perfectly paralleled Home Economics & built on it. Such a sense of humor & knowledge of the way state fairs & extension offices work—& the "PolyOmTechnic, specializing in NanoOmology and quantum level, fourth dimensional business applications" takeover was a brilliant twist.

Sandra J. Lindow grew up in a farming community in central Wisconsin. She was a 4H girl. In the ’50s and ’60s, home economics was a big deal, often the center of a woman's life. That center has shifted, but the happily retired professor in "Om Economics" reveals that those skills are still very important.

Long Form Third Place:

Ars Timore
(a Wreath of Sonnets)

by Frank Coffman

Some poets seek to delve the depths of Horror,
To find some incantation never heard
Before. Write lines that chill us to the core,
That phantom phrase that needed but one word
To show that everything we thought was Real
Is shaken—our senses have to be mistaken!—
Show that thin veil, now parting, can’t conceal
The Truth: That safe beliefs must be forsaken.

Such lines might come, such Terrors triumph when
The bard strides forth, into the Realm of Night.
When venomous verses, blood dripping from the pen,
Find the fell formula to frame high Fright.

Who will, with uncanny craft, the Secret seize?
Only those skalds most skilled will find the keys.

Only those skalds most skilled will find the keys.
Though many will seek the secrets of Horror chants,
Scant few will ever attain such expertise
To capture Terror within their wordplay’s dance.
One truth: the characters must seem too Real!
But atmosphere and vivid scenes hold sway,
Word-pictures that the Depths of Dread convey
And make Fears in the reader’s mind congeal.

What is this Thing approaching through the dark?
What ghosts have we awakened from long sleep?
What form is shaping in that grove of trees?
With mystic Mage, true Bard, we might embark
Down pathways paved by phantoms. Dire and deep
New wordings just might open mysteries.

New wordings just might open mysteries.
Words craftily chosen for chilling connotation
Must interplay with well-wrought plot creation
And build to Horror’s crescendo by degrees.
At first, perhaps, a feeling of unease:
“This text depicts a frightening aberration!”
But words—picked perfect—form the firm foundation
That makes the mind to reel, the blood to freeze.

All Mages know that words are fraught with power:
The Names of things are not to be revealed;
The named thing known, its secrets are unsealed!
Grim action words and modifiers dour
Help in the task. But outline forms the door—
New forms might frame Fears never felt before!

New forms might frame Fears never felt before!
Although old Masters used traditions old,
As illustrated well in famed pulp ‘zines.
Most Weird Tales verse used patterns drawn from yore.
Smith, Lovecraft, Howard—all filled the sonnet’s mold.
Wandrei and others too chose old demesnes.
The tried, the true, the proven poetic forms:
Sonnets and ballads, couplets, the normed quatrain,
The fixed forms of the French are also found.
Those poets of the Weird filled unweird norms.
And many moderns find these safe—and sound!
But many also feel that verse’s reign
Is over, and new modes must seek True Horror:
Those Evils abounding that fill our dreams, our lore.

Those Evils abounding that fill our dreams, our lore:
Some from deep, eldritch images that run
Through mankind’s ancient past and passed along
For untold ages when—on primeval nights—the sun
Was long down, and the cold stars downward bore
Their spikes of light, and the awesome, changing moon
Whirled through its cycles—and the Tales began!
As soon as language bloomed, in chant and song,
Stories of beings both more and less than Man
‘Round fires were told. And, relatively, soon—
Compared to our old species span of time—
Those Terrors were etched in glyphs and runes of rhyme,
Carved into stone, sculpted on temple frieze:
Tales from dark myths and nightmare fantasies.

Tales from dark myths and nightmare fantasies
Are part of every culture’s hoard of tales.
Strange gods, themselves, were beings to be feared,
And anthropomorphic creatures—yet not Man!—
Foul, horrid abominations that the mind
Cannot contain—if Reason is to keep
Its hold, if Sanity is to remain.
Beings, Yes! but also depths of pain
That cannot be imagined. Things asleep
That must not be awakened. And we find,
Among this dire and hideous nightmare caravan,
Deep dreads within our souls, we fear—if neared—
We’ll see precisely what true Terror entails.
Such stuff the Dark Imagination frees.

Such stuff the Dark Imagination frees
To roam the realms of Horror’s mysteries.

Foul hellish things of legend and mad myth
Are summoned up to forge a tale of fright.
Many the subjects for the weird wordsmith:
Ghoulies and ghosties and things that bump the night;
Long-legged beasties; everything that scares
The bejeezus out of us—if rendered right.
The quintessential content of nightmares
Might just be caught in the poet’s wordly sleight.

Fearsome and fabulous, fertile tales to view,
The seeds of Shock are fecund in our lore.
The task: to mold these myths to something new—
All strange paths open that we may explore.

All strange paths open that we may explore
If we employ recombinative power.
A mythic example is the strange centaur.
Such hybrids of imagination flower
Within our minds. But we cannot, alone
Create a being that is truly new;
As Tolkien notes, we can combine or clone
But not Create in any sense that’s True.
Yet we have such a treasure of motifs,
And structures skeletal of myriad tales,
That we may play upon those old beliefs
To forge new Fears where Spectral Horror prevails!
This hoard of Horror helps those to compose:
Whoever walks those ways where Terror goes.

Whoever walks those ways where Terror goes,
Whoever would the Heights of Horror enclose,
That artist must be crafty and weird-skilled.
Yet, though the supernatural fills and flows
Forth from the words themselves, we do not build
A finished poem through Muse’s magic spilled
Upon the page. But, rather, we combine
Our nurtured talents with word-work. It’s willed
And woven on Life’s loom. And we refine
On weft of wit, on word-hoard’s warp. The Nine
Are not involved. We plot and plod and plan—
And through hard work we wright out every line.
Thus, from the first, the Poet’s Pathways ran—
Roads all well-trod since telling Tales began.

Roads all well-trod since telling Tales began,
Have been the staple for all narrators
Across the stretch of that unknownable span
Of years. Who would present poetic Horrors
Is right to follow such. Yet roads divide!
Perhaps the bard who less-trod paths explores—
Or cuts a trail no other quills have tried!—
Might find at journey’s end a true reward:
Fulfillment of the trade that they have plied.
And methods others have neglected or ignored
Might just be what were needed—who can say?
As phrases found move the thrilled reader toward
Phantasmal visions, Frights full fell and fey,
Encountering things most Strange along the way.

Encountering things most Strange along the way,
Those readers who enjoy a “pleasing terror”
Might first peruse those poets that they know:
Said modern masters or Grand Master Poe—
Sure they will find what they are seeking there:
Lines that may last forever and for aye,
Wrought by the pens of praeternatural scribes.
Once caught within the web of those shocking scops—
Bards that have brewed the witches’ broth, skalds who
Have proven their weird skills—then poets new
Are sought. The quest for Horror never stops,
And fond fear readers find new Terror tribes.
Seeking such frights, their fervor grows and grows,
And braving realms where the Wind of Unreason blows.

And, braving realms where the Wind of Unreason blows,
The Poets of the Dark wax deep in thought,
Seeking stark images of things that are not,
Nor ever have been. Then—a Shadow grows!

At first but an amorphous, dimly seen
And penumbrageous, phantom swirls—like mist
Above black waters that does not desist,
But rather grows and shapes where a void had been.

With such a picture planted in their minds,
The speculative scribe will dip the quill,
And soon a darkling tale or lyric will
Be born through clever craft and fit word-finds.

Then—spread across Fear’s pagescape with a plan—
Those poets may craft lines that truly span.

Those poets may craft lines that truly span
The breadth and depth of speculation’s scope,
The genres of the high imagination:
Horror, Fantasy, Adventure, Science Fiction.
Sure schemes can aid, the tried and tested trope—
All forceful figures found since speech began.

There’s nothing new ‘neath our or any sun
As far as “turn of phrase” or “apt line” goes.
All utterances are formulae put to use.
And, for the poet, there is no excuse
For not discovering how each figure flows.
Great poets learn—until All work is done.

All these genres shine, but Weird scop will convey
Horror’s horizons, our direst Dreads display.

Horror’s horizons: our direst Dreads display
If the horrific mood is clever caught.
Black magic’s margins, Sanity’s decay,
Lines with which fertile Fears are fraught,
Fine chilling phrases found that, though long sought,
Succeed in calling up the perfect lines.
With these the Ultimate Weird Poem is wrought,
And such achievement shines and redefines
The form. A grand poem both distills and refines,
Both adds to and expands the genre’s worth.
A new variety joins true Wizardry’s wines,
Even if Nightshade or Wormwood assist the birth.

And readers have new Terrors to explore.
Some poets seek to delve the depths of Horror.

Judge’s comments:

I have to admit I don't usually even LIKE sonnets, but I bow (trembling even, lest spells be invoked) to this masterful poet. I couldn't see a word gone wrong.

Frank Coffman is a retired professor of English, creative writing, and journalism. He has published speculative poetry and fiction in a variety of magazines and anthologies. Founder of the Weird Poets Society Facebook group. A large collection, The Coven’s Hornbook & Other Poems, will be published in early 2019.

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