2021 Poetry Contest Winners

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

Sheree Renée Thomas is an award-winning fiction writer, poet, and editor. Her work is inspired by myth and folklore, natural science and Mississippi Delta conjure. Nine Bar Blues: Stories from an Ancient Future (Third Man Books) is her first all-prose collection. She is also the author of two multigenre/hybrid collections, Sleeping Under the Tree of LIfe and Shotgun Lullabies (Aqueduct Press) and edited the World Fantasy-winning groundbreaking black speculative fiction Dark Matter anthologies (Hachette/Grand Central). She is the associate editor of the historic Black arts literary journal, Obsidian: Literature & the Arts in the African Diaspora, founded in 1975, and editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, founded in 1949. Thomas' work is widely anthologized, appearing in numerous publications including The Big Book of Modern Fantasy (1945–2010), Marvel's Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda, Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology, The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, The Ringing Ear, Mythic Delirium, and the New York Times. She lives in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, near a mighty river and a pyramid. Visit shereereneethomas.com

Contest chair Johh Brown received 249 poems (76 Dwarf, 133 Short, and 40 Long poems) from 126 poets around the world.

Dwarf Form winning poem:


by Deborah L. Davitt

Notes vibrate in air,
            resonate like quantum strings;
music touching stars.

Judge’s comments:

As a contemporary art form as well as spiritual practice, modern haiku offers readers a chance to slow down and take hold of the silences around us and within us. With just a few, evocative words or images, these short poems invite us to focus on a single moment or breath. This poem struck me in how it skillfully carried me to the heart of a moment filled with celestial sound.

Deborah L. Davitt was raised in Nevada, but lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and son. She’s known for her Pushcart-nominated poetry, short stories, and novels. Her work has appeared in F&SFAnalog, and Asimov’s. For more about her work, please see edda-earth.com/bibliography.

Dwarf Form Second Place:

The Health Benefits of Gardening

by Jerri Hardesty

Out in the woods, an old woman knelt down
To plant a small seed in the ground.
She waited, and in the misty dawn,
The seed had grown into a young girl.
The woman gently touched the form,
Transferring her life-force into it.
The elderly body disintegrated
As the child walked away
To the country store on the highway;
"Can you help me, please? I'm lost."

Judge’s comments:

We sometimes speak of the transformative nature of gardening, and how tending to the earth, nurturing growing things helps us tend to the earthly, growing parts of ourselves. This offers a surprisingly literal exploration of this theme, where instead of creating a new lifeforce, the spark of life is transferred and carried on. The poem’s final and only line of dialogue left me curious about the old woman’s story and her new one—a journey only just begun.

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 500 poems published and has won more than 1600 awards and titles in both written and spoken-word poetry.

Dwarf Form Third Place:


by Morgan L. Ventura

Museums deaccession spirits,
all who grieve turn to stone.
In place of things there are ghost bones,
“Holograms,” say the curators, as children poke what’s conjured.
But there is a fine line between
technology and magic.
Scientific incantations neither imprison nor release,
the worst of both worlds.
Absent eyes stare from marble pedestal,
spirit’s home remains unknown.

Judge’s comments:

[T]here is a fine line between / technology and magic” and this poem navigates it wonderfully by conjuring up the twin ghosts of culture and memory. It asks us to imagine the lingering effects and afterlife of cultural works taken from their original contexts and placed on display for our viewing. What phantoms remain to haunt us once these works are released back into the world, what grief and lessons are revealed?

Morgan L. Ventura is a poet, writer, and anthropologist of heritage from the Midwest based in Ireland. Ventura's poetry and fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Lackington'sAugur, and Strange Horizons, among others, while their nonfiction appears in Best Canadian Essays 2021 and Geist. Find them on Twitter: @hmorganvl.

Short Form Winner:

We, Dust

by Blaize Kelly Strothers

we dustmen rose up
out of nothing, coughed
ourselves up from barren sandy womb
like magma sputum expelled 
from the throat of this world.
we hushed the breathless whimpers
of the dying,
stifled the senses of the living,
flitted like the unwanted whims
of feral mens’ whiskey stupor.
between dune and doom,
between lull and still,
we change time immaterial,
become time itself
on stage amidst the players.
we drape costumed cowboys
in fine velvet coats
while their poetry decays
into bleached obsidian 

Judge’s comments:

Some poems paint pictures in the reader’s mind, create alien landscapes that capture our imagination and take us off to other realms. This poem did that with its rich and layered exploration of distant lands, both foreign and familiar.

Blaize Kelly Strothers is a writer and artist from NYC who has been writing poetry since she was 7. She loves Depeche Mode, chartreuse and playing make-believe. She can be found in the woods with her husband, two sons and cat Ozzy, as well as at blaizestrothers.com.

Short Form Second Place:

Double-Slit Experiment

by Bradley Earle Hoge

On viewing Richard Long’s Cornwall State Line at The Tate Gallery, London

An interesting arrangement
of jagged broken stones.

Placed deliberately
to represent an unnatural order.

In this installation a pathway,
though in other venues

laid out in various congruous juxtapositions
with surrounding space.

In the Tate Gallery display,
they lead through a portal—

across slate floor. Walls of stone
rising on either side to ionic columns

holding the passage open.
Where the light shines,

is fracturing. Where darkness
is allowed, the smooth curvature of space-time.

Did Long intend to guide us
into the light—

or into darkness?
If we project light,

we follow chaos.
Wherever the light touches,

particles are fixed into stochastic consequence.
Each encounter requiring the next.

Brought together at angles
to each other. If we can look away,

then everything is possible.
Color in superposition. Stone and sea

and sky—past, present, and future—up, down,
inside, outside—a singularity.

But to see where the path will take us,
we must open our eyes.

Allow light through pupil onto retina.
Carried by synapse into mind.

Let it all collapse into walls
and passageways.

Tumbling into complexity.
Never to be whole again.

Judge’s comments:

Auden, Ashbery, William Carlos Williams. Ekphrastic poetry has long been a favored fount for poetic expression. Often these poems are inspired by paintings, photographs, and sculptures, but for this unique work, it is a slate installation by Richard Long. Because the poet so carefully guides us through the exhibit, inviting us to see the art through their eyes, in other ways, readers need not know that just like fresh insights discovered upon each new reading of a poem, each time this art is installed, it must be created anew. This is a wonderful parallel to my experience of reading and rereading this work.

Bradley Earle Hoge’s poetry appears in numerous anthologies and journals, most recently in Concilience, Eye to the Telescope, Utopia Science Fiction, and Red Planet. He has published four chapbooks, and his book Nebular Hypothesis was published by Cawing Crow Press in 2016.

Short Form Third Place:

engagement party

by Aiesha Muhammad

we cross the shores with our sister
we know no other home
we give our sister to another
know she has flown

at sundown we run through rose fields
letting the wind billow our white muslin skirts
letting the thorns criss-cross our thighs,
blooming pluses and minuses.
if only to make our passage that more swift
to the Maze, a memory, our only escape.

our memories are for Mother.
to enjoy in her midnight rocking chair
our father and husbands, muddied and muddled
in the thoughts she chooses to keep.

our sisters are our keep, I recall
hidden among shaking brambles as
the headiness of the dandelions, fragrant and matured,
the dew and the mist unveiled my sister to her husband,
her body melting, then dissolving, blue and translucent
dripping over wish-flowers, at the end of his smoking gun.
her mind, well-preserved, will be for Mother.

and I alone am left to meet the Maze,
a shoreline purpled with spores and dust and bone,
where freedom is the sky, wide and spinning,
blackened blue.

I cannot cross with my sister,
I know no other home,
I leave you for another.
my mind, my own.

Judge’s comments:

A mythological work that reminds us of the ancients and their legends and lore, “engagement party” unveils the fraught and strained relations that siblings can have. For me, the Maze mentioned here represents a journey into womanhood, the literal or figurative marriage that may possibly sever the close ties of the sisters, replacing one bond with another. But it also symbolizes a kind of bondage, perhaps for the narrator, who tells us in the end that “I cannot cross with my sister,” but instead, they choose to leave, “my mind, my own.” This work speaks of self-love, agency, and freedom.

Aiesha Muhammad is an emerging speculative poet from Philadelphia and an alum of Folger Poetry's Lannan Fellow Program. In their poetry, Aiesha draws from their dreams, the surreality of day-to-day living, and afro-futurism. Aiesha enjoys composing music on their guitar and cloud-gazing in their free time.

Long Form Winner:

The Last Special Day

by Donald Raymond

all that once followed the sun still follows it now…
          —Jane Hirshfield

the days bleed like we do, it seems:
our daily horoscope, the steady drip
of minutes into hours
grows inconstant; the lines that hold
each day apart grow slack
from lack of care.

Each drags a little into the next,
against our will to live it
as a hand might skip across a globe
until repeated friction slows it
and Earth gives up Her spinning.
The sun become a constant, unblinking
eye. West-looking, as daisies do—

a surreal gravity distorts the light
of this last day. Bathed in thick syrup,
the limbs grow heavy: a reluctance
to move. Action, even at a distance,
takes more effort—as if it were in
our power to make the planet turn
or freeze the clocks long winding down.

We must learn instead, to let slip
our daily rituals and trinkets:
rising and setting, waking and sleep
become sameless. The sound of coffee
brewing in another room—
that there were, once, other rooms.
We have less of earth to lose, now:
this still small square, this afternoon
segments the world into narrow arcs:
a nightstand, a plastic bowl.

Those who find this place
crave that numbing boredom.
They’ve no room in them for surprise—
they’ve seen the sun stand dead
in the sky—what else is left? Teaspoons
and talk about the weather.
Noons and noons. And noons.
And noons. Full of nothingness.
They wait, sedate, for further news—
they might be leaving soon, they say—
though likely not; prediction
so long unfilled becomes a prophecy,
then a prayer. And where would they go
if custom didn’t hold them here?

Legs grown restless, wanting only
one last taste of night air
or delirium of twilight.
Squeak of shoes down tile halls;
light fades. Evening comes, hypoxic:
a forever party through the frozen dark.
A certain numbness comes with cold:
the clenched fist opens, breathing eases.
The heart wants pleasure, but can make do
with pain’s release.

Judge’s comments:

No one wishes to contemplate “the last special day,” at least not one imagined so frighteningly and elegantly as the fate depicted in this poem. As mortals, we are aware that our own story must end at some point, but we imagine that other stories, particularly the world’s, would carry on without us. To face horror of an uninhabitable world, sun-drenched and barren, is incomprehensible. This poem offers us fresh insights as it straddles the mythological with the mundane, imagining an unnamed speaker’s last days, fated to be in the number of those who remain, hoping for a way out, for “pain’s release.”

Donald Raymond lives in the tiny hamlet of Alturas, CA, where he works as an accountant for the county, which is not a future he had imagined. He spends his free time mediating the Machiavellian feline politics of his household. He once didn’t make a left turn at Albuquerque.

Long Form Second Place:

Docking on Phobos

by Clarabelle Miray Fields

docking on Phobos
she is thinking of them,
the neogenomenoi, future starseed
that she will plant in sleeping clay,
the cold arms of an uncertain,
infertile host.

what will they be like,
the new ones,
a genus birthed from foreign soil
without the weight of
remembering what was
and will never be their own?

memories of
constellated fireflies
pirouetting in summer darkness,
the temporary quiet before
the inevitable first breath of dawn.

cycles she took for granted back then,
rhythms lost to interstellar roads:

things they will never miss, for
they will be born of Phobos
and they will be at home here

tracing playful patterns into
barren soil, inventing new games,
new imaginings, hiding and seeking
among iron rocks and empty

they will count the turns of earthrise
and earthset, singing songs about
ancient starships and fashioning
toys from satellite fragments found in
endless orange dust.

traipsing weightlessly, their fragile skin
will never miss wind, or sun, or rain,
only knowing artificial air and weather domes
programmed for a perfect 68 degrees.

will they be happy here,
the neogenomenoi,

prototypes of the future

with uncertain promises
and gangly limbs and swollen hearts
and aching eyes?

their DNA has not forgotten the past,
not yet.

she will never see it,
but slowly, line by line,
their code will begin to unravel,
umbilicus spinning into
ether, seeking a new
home. and one day,
they will be happy here
and at peace.

they will not remember her,
their human mother,
but she will be there with them,
a ghostly mitochondrion
encouraging them to
persist on through the dark.

Author’s note: neogenomenoi is a mash-up of ancient Greek genomenoi, “those having been born”, and the prefix “neo-”, approximately intended to mean “the newly born.”

Judge’s comments:

The irony of this poem is that some believe that Phobos, one of two satellites of Mars, may someday be doomed to crash into the red planet. So, the idea of a human mother planting genetically modified seeds for a future evolution of humans who will make lives for themselves within the red dust is not only a creative endeavor but an act of hope on a few levels. This poem asks what it means to be remembered and what is the ultimate responsibility of those who are tasked with this memory work. To be born afar of old seeds but destined to become something alien and new.

Clarabelle Miray Fields is a 26-year-old writer, editor, and web developer native to Boulder, Colorado. She currently holds over 100 publications, with work having recently appeared in the 2021 Rhysling Anthology, Corvid QueenCirce's Cauldron, and elsewhere. You can find her online at clarabellefields.com.

Long Form Third Place:

Fireflies in Retrograde

Clarabelle Miray Fields

in an alien home
amid lavender sunset
a mother will one day show her child
the stars, pointing out the nexus from which
they and the others came,
silver cells populating
an anaerobic sky.

remembering, she will
build invisible worlds in
the cloudless night, the glow
of dual moons lighting
her visors like giant eyes
pregnant with memories
of the past
and a future
that is no longer hers.

her silent tongue will bleed names
unfamiliar to her progeny, reaching
backwards through time to grasp
at another galaxy’s ghosts,
a tree of family nearly forgotten.

all that remains of them
is a broken trail of
ancient footpaths carved centuries ago,
names woven among names,
dying stars amid fading

there are many names,
but most important is Andromeda,

the little child holding
tight, glove on glove,
to her mother’s hand,
imagining a world she
will never know:  

warm water, warm wind, 
a childhood running
free underneath the stars. 

in her mother’s wet eyes,
she will watch the reflection of
half an earth-crescent rising,
asterisms contracting and dilating
in the dark of her sky

a sky full of air she will never breathe
and never miss breathing, the seed
of something new
planted in her blood:

a new creation,
a human without earth

her mother’s world just a fading dream

Judge’s comments:

With a quiet beauty that is sustained in each stanza, “Fireflies in Retrograde” offers a familiar but memorable take on one of the oldest human tales of all, that of the immigrant, of migration. With ecological and climate change becoming more dire, while billionaires begin their forays into our earliest and apparently, inevitable space tourism industry, the prospect of gazing upon “the reflection of half an earth-crescent rising” sounds less like science fiction and more like future reality. What makes this poem as engaging as it is enjoyable besides its great language and imagery is that it invites us to ask, at what costs, and also, for whom will this journey, this off-earth haven, be feasible?

Clarabelle Miray Fields is a 26-year-old writer, editor, and web developer native to Boulder, Colorado. She currently holds over 100 publications, with work having recently appeared in the 2021 Rhysling Anthology, Corvid QueenCirce's Cauldron, and elsewhere. You can find her online at clarabellefields.com.

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