2015 Poetry Contest Winners

Lesley Wheeler selected the winners of this year’s SFPA Poetry Contest. Prizes were offered in three divisions: Dwarf (≤10 lines), Short, and Long (50+ lines). See her essay on judging the contest at lesleywheeler.org/2015/10/07/on-judging-and-being-judged/

Lesley Wheeler is the author of The Receptionist and Other Tales, a James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor Book, and the new collection Radioland. Her poems appear in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Poetry, New Orleans Review, and other magazines. She teaches at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and blogs about poetry at lesleywheeler.org.

Contest chair P. Andrew Miller received 71 Dwarf, 165 Short, and 44 Long entries from around the world.

Dwarf Form winning poem:


by F.J. Bergmann

Comes the night you turn on the television
and it explodes. So you sit there in the dark
house, a cascade of moonlight spilling over
the windowsill, and finally rise to swim
toward the door, which opens inward.
You may be a monster, but that doesn’t
make you a created monster. Someone
is coming up the street at midnight.
Someone is walking backward.

F.J. Bergmann is waiting somewhere in Wisconsin for an unambiguous response to flashlight signals. She is the editor of Star*Line and the poetry editor of Mobius: The Journal of Social Change. (mobiusmagazine.com)

Dwarf Form Second Place:

by Melanie A. Rawls

Methane snowfall
nose pressed
to the plasteel window

Melanie A. Rawls has published poetry, essays, and short stories in a variety of national and regional publications, including Essence magazine, The African-American Review, Amazing Stories, Star*Line, Callaloo, Catalyst, The Sun, Black Renaissance Noire, Mythlore, and Penumbra. Her poem “Beauty’s Beast” was a Rhysling Award nominee. She teaches composition at Florida A & M University in Tallahassee and is an assistant fiction editor for the Apalachee Review.

Dwarf Form Third Place:

Crater Conundrum Pizza

by Greer Woodward

delivery to your habitat
all-terrain rover fleet
Time Toss® for msec arrival
Double Time Toss® for yesterday drop off*
free breadsticks

*prepay required

Greer Woodward lives upcountry on the Big Island of Hawaii. Her neighbors are cattle and horses. Goats are down the road. When based in New York City, she completed the Doctoral Program in Educational Theatre at New York University and wrote lyrics for Theatreworks/USA's Sherlock Holmes and the Red-Headed League and the Off-Broadway musical revues Pets! and That's Life! Her poetry is in Star*Line, Illumen, Scifaikuest, and Silver Blade. She's been nominated for the SFPA's Rhysling and Dwarf Stars awards. Her poem "Closure" placed second in the 2012 Dwarf Stars competion.

Dwarf Form Honorable Mentions

“speed of light” by Susan Burch
After Dark by F.J. Bergmann

Short Form Winner:


by Akua Lezli Hope


Smite jive Zeus
that parthenogenesis
was a trick, a braggart’s lie
This time he swallowed a FLY
METIS, already pregnant with her brilliant child
caused him aches, made him quake
as she hammered, smelted and wove
her baby’s protection deep within:
helmet, breastplates, shin guards, shield
items of mother loving steel,
that’s why Athena sprang forth steady,
ready to deal.

A third-generation New Yorker, firstborn, Akua Lezli Hope has won two Artists Fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, a Ragdale U.S.-Africa Fellowship, a Creative Writing Fellowship from The National Endowment for The Arts and the Walker Foundation Scholarship to Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She was a Cave Canem fellow. She received an Artists Crossroads Grant from The Arts of the Southern Finger Lakes for her project “Words in Motion,” which placed poetry on the buses of New York’s Chemung and Steuben counties. Her first collection, EMBOUCHURE, Poems on Jazz and Other Musics, won the Writer’s Digest book award for poetry. Notable publications include The 100 Best African American Poems; Too Much Boogie, Erotic Remixes of the Dirty Blues, The Killens Review, Breath and Shadow, Stone Canoe, Three Coyotes, The Year’s Best Writing, Writer’s Digest Guide; DARK MATTER, (the first!) anthology of African American science fiction, and Erotique Noire, the first anthology of black erotica. She is a crochet designer with a collection of scifi hats, and avid hand papermaker, who loves to sing, play her sax, and play with her huge new kitten, Luno. A paraplegic, she’s founded a paratransit nonprofit so that she and others may get around her small town.

Short Form Second Place:

Phone Tree

by Alexandra Erin

To continue this call in English, press 1.
To continue a different call, press 2.
To resume a call you don't remember placing, press 3.
To end a call you had no intention of ever beginning, press 4.
To speak with technical support, press 5.
To speak with the dead, press 6.
For billing inquiries, press 7.
For all other inquiries, press 8.
For other other inquiries, press 9.

If you know your party's extension,
enter a perfect dreamless sleep
and never awaken now.

If you'd like to leave a message,
please consider with whom,
and at what cost.

If you'd like to speak with the operator,
please hang up the phone
and turn around slowly.

Please have your account number
and be ready to scream.
Be ready to run.
It won't help.
Nothing will help.

Your call is very important to us.
It will be answered in the order it was received.

Alexandra Erin is.

Short Form Third Place:

Some Who Wander Become Lost

by Peg Duthie

Even the children
fully schooled and amply warned
may stumble into captivity—

chocolate-caulked cottages
with unbreakable, insoluble
candycane rebar

beyond the reach
of helicoptering
or helicopters.

Taught about triumphs
over fantastic odds—
the grace of godmothers
and fickle gods—

they were steered and sped
past the tales' sadder thread:

a promise need not
be spoken
to be broken

Peg Duthie is the author of MEASURED EXTRAVAGANCE (Upper Rubber Boot, 2012; tinyurl.com/MeasEx). She blogs at varytheline.org and zirconium.dreamwidth.org/ and there's more about her at nashpanache.com

Short Form Honorable Mention:

The Agnostic Fireman Considers Tears
          by Jonathan Travelstead
Mermaids by Jeffrey Park
Neighborhood Charms by Marian Moore

Long Form Winner:


by F.J. Bergmann

I. Indicators

She felt slightly different, almost
excited, as if some molecules
in her glistening body had been
replaced with those of a different
element, ionizing surrounding
tissue. She knew she should check
air intake, monitor the oxygen
level, watch for signs of danger
(the captain invariably multiplied
the severity of each incident
to serve his own ends). Her private
debriefings were held in a room
smelling of winter, his criticisms
of her performance like a dirty film
of oxides dulling the sheen
of her enthusiasm. Never before
had any male biological refused
to smile at her during sex. Even
his sheets were the slick, pale gray
of ice. By what was called morning,
he would have decided to put each
disappointing fact in a sealed file
along with its awkward solution.
She carried her event data written
within her, grievances polished
to a high gloss. She had never
told him why she always smiled,
so she let him assume she had
taken a shine to him. Let him
believe she was happy.

II. Displacement

The captain was convinced
that a fifth column existed
aboard the ship. He cast sharp
looks at every crew member,
human or otherwise, who in turn
looked at the floor, or tried
to look busy. Under the rose-
colored light that passed for dawn
he led mandatory group drills
in physical contortion and martial
artistry. He would throw them
so it hurt or damaged their bodies,
docking their pay for replacement
parts. He had them lift their voices
in choral song, page after page
of elegiac odes to his own home
planet, which he assured them
they would enjoy. Oh distant red
oceans wide.
While all the rest
of the crew slept or recharged
in darkness, alone and cold
he stood motionless in the far
corner of the bridge, illuminated
by a band of light from stars
he did not bother to identify.
He could never make himself refer
to the concatenation of disasters
he had helped to set into motion,
but could not deny the fate
of his world. He was very careful
to avoid any mention of its death.

III. Repression

Her instruments showed disturbance
on an imperceptible scale. The key
idea was to set an event threshold
just high enough to filter out
noise. So what if something like
a bird was singing somewhere
out there, if no one was listening?
Their mission was classified, but
its only possible course was toward
the deep past, now that the captain
was indisposed. She did not involve
herself in the regrets of flesh.
Most of the biological crewmen
had insisted on pairing with her
in turn, as if she were a mountain
peak that had to be scaled at all costs;
one even brought a pound of grass,
fresh from the oxygen generators.
As if foliage would sway her.
He wept over her lost hair, told her
what his father had done to the animal
he'd rescued from the pound, then
asked if she was ready. “Oh, take
your time,” she said. “I never was
a child, nor ever wanted to be.”
Soon it was over. He told her
it was too late, that he had to go.

IV. Surface Details

The problem was they did not know
what might constitute an attack.
The major in charge of the descent
to the surface preferred to assume
that everything was dangerous
until proven otherwise. His opposite
number on board ship claimed that
the fossil records were clear:
nothing that had evolved locally
could account for the previous
expedition's disappearance. Even so,
they would traverse in groups of four,
and all carry weapons. The female
cyborg would be left to guard
the base camp while the others
penetrated the ancient city, so old
that its name had been forgotten
thousands of times. No one ever
asked her what she had been called,
or to what she would like to answer.
The major spoke in a thin voice,
giving her simple orders and suspicious
glances, as if she might invite aliens
to an orgy in his absence unless closely
supervised. He had always shrunk
from touching her except when he
had to; his mouth narrowed whenever
he looked at her. Before leaving,
he deactivated all her recreational
neurosensory input. Aboard the vessel,
the captain shrieked and bled into
the padding of his secure restraints.
Her solution was simple; once they
were at a sufficient distance, she rose
well before dawn and signaled
all their energy devices to malfunction,
recorded the electromagnetic pulse,
the towering cloud of smoke and ash,
the absence of meaningful directives.

F.J. Bergmann is waiting somewhere in Wisconsin for an unambiguous response to flashlight signals. She is the editor of Star*Line and the poetry editor of Mobius: The Journal of Social Change. (mobiusmagazine.com)

Long Form Second Place:

Arizona Rest Stop

by Richard Bruns

I was driving home to California from
the Second Annual Southwest Astro-Photography Seminar
and Astronomy Expo in Tucson with a stop-off
slated for Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory and
a slight detour to Barringer Meteor Crater
when I pulled over at that high and lonely
Arizona rest stop just north of Anthem on US 17 …

Where else, right?

… and it was just two days and a night past new moon
and that silver sliver had set hours before
behind the hills across the highway
and it was dark, way dark as I pulled into the stop
because i was falling asleep at eighty miles an hour…

Arizona, right…?

… where a 75 miles an hour speed limit governs
any road stretched longer than two miles.

My pickup camper shell and I were the only
vehicle-driver combo on the car side of the parking lot
facing east while all the eighteen wheelers
and the three forty-foot RVs were facing the other way,
looking west after the long gone moon
and sun had dropped behind the hills.

Anyway, only I saw a great and vast blueness descend quickly
and ever so quietly behind the Arizona stonework restrooms,
vending machine nooks, and the rest stop’s
inevitable information signage, and then go out,
this silent blue light, and disappear entirely.

Now I said it was dark and I have to say it was closer
to being pitch black even though the rest stop
was well-lit, softly and warmly, but dimly because
being an Astronomy Center for the whole country
conservative Arizona is progressive about Dark Skies
when plenty of progressive states are not,
but even the summation of all those factors
couldn’t have made that dark night
as dark as it seemed to me.

And because I’d been driving for five hours and I was tired
and falling asleep at the wheel I was already doubting
that I had actually seen such a thing as
a soft luminous light with a blue radiance
like one of those light sticks you break
so the chemicals mix and create a beautiful glowing
luminescence, sometimes red, or orange
or yellow, or sometimes like this glowing I saw,
a blue that was even more brilliantly blue
than some carnival begotten Glo Stick.

Then maybe a minute after it disappeared
the blue light reappeared, only smaller,
less bright and somehow seemed shaped
like a rectangle, and then, it too, went dark.

Although it was rapidly cooling outside at 2 a.m.
at 6,000 feet in a Northern Arizona November crystal clear night I had my driver’s-side window open and I was leaning
out just a little, trying to get a better view.

In such crisply cold desert night air, sound carries
like a dog carries fleas, and it did so then, so well that
I heard some scuffling noises and what sounded like chattering,
and truth to tell that made me more than a little nervous,
so I pulled my chin back in the window and tucked it down
so that the brim of my hat came down over my eyes, like
i was still deep into the tired slumber of a highway driver.

And then I saw them!


There were three of them, two short and squat
and one tall and thin, and all three big-eyed
and pale tan and talking back and forth
at each other while waving their arms around
like kids coming out of a 1950s summer movie matinee
until one peeled off and went into the men’s room
and another went into the ladies’ room
while the third started checking out the vending machines.

I grabbed my DSLR with the 200mm 1.2 prime and punched up
the ISO, making sure the flash was off, then set
the artificial shutter noise-maker to Off,
and did the same with the Preview Window
and finally I set the electronic Blue Tooth cable release
to Auto and Burst and, ducking down as much as possible
like I was still asleep, began to shoot pictures.

The one at the vending machines dropped coins of some sort
into one machine and then another and yet another,
extracting candy bars and peanut butter sandwich crackers
and bottles of soda, one a Coke I noticed, and one a Pepsi,
and a couple of cans of Red Bull and some
other nutritious travel stuff, and when the other two
exited the restrooms they were each handed the goods,
while the vending machine operator did an about face
and took a turn in the men’s room.

A few minutes later the third one emerged shaking water
off what seemed to be hands (I’d done the same earlier
when I found out that the hot air blowing hand dryer
was out off order) and tore open the paper wrapper
around a Butterfinger that had been handed to him,
(and I say him becaus that’s the restroom he had entered
and later emerged and I’m tired of trying to keep it neutral),
and he twisted off the top of a bottle of water
and drank deeply before noshing on the candy bar.

He tossed the wrapper into a nearby trash receptacle,
as did the other two with their own refuse, and together
they disappeared back behind the building.

Then, as one, they peeked back around the corner,
and looking straight at me, they chattered back and forth
looking for all the world a little
like Huey, Dewey and Louie Duck in a 1940s Disney cartoon
and I knew then that they knew that I was not asleep.

This time when they went around the corner
the blue light came back on, the small dimmer one,
and then went away, and maybe this time I thought
I also heard a soft little sigh before the bigger,
greater blue light radiated out from behind the building,
around and above and suffusing the air with
a strange kind of static and tingling I hadn’t felt beforel.

And a smell like—

I know,
I know,
you won’t believe this either—
a smell like grill-fried yellow onions.

And before I could say Project Blue Book
the soft blue light seemed to brighten,
and build a sound that I couldn’t hear,
exactly, but which made my head follicles
feel like they were growing hair again at a very fast rate,
and the great blue radiance quickly shot up into the air
and away, heading north, towards Flagstaff,
the same direction I was going.

And the oddest thing, just as it seemed
to flow out of sight high in the sky and far to the north
more than a dozen cars poured into the rest stop,
all lined up as though they had been
going tail pipe to nose fender
(and undoubtedly were, it being Arizona, remember!)
all the way from Phoenix.

As they entered the lot, they each dropped off into
the angled rest stop parking places like World War II fighters
peeling off for a dive-bombing run, each car
filling a parking space with no spaces left empty and
no cars left over, even the handicap spaces perfectly filled.

Across the way, nearly a dozen eighteen wheelers
fired up their big diesel engines and began to shift
that long rack of gears and began to rumble off,
some to the north, some to the south,
since this rest area was on the east side of the highway
with an underpass to accommodate the southbound traffic.

I noticed that the rest stop seemed to have taken on a new glow, or maybe just returned to it’s normal glimmer.

Shaking my head like a hero recovering from a bad guy
six-shooter knockout in a 1940s B Western,
I punched Review back on the camera to get a look-see
at what had happened this cold dark night.

But instead of a picture, there was a single frame
with a message, in Arial Semibold Italic type and
in English no less, that said:

“Nice try, buddy.

Get some sleep.

It’s another two hours to Flagstaff.”

But I didn’t sleep.

I was wide awake, and in somewhat less than two hours
I entered Flagstaff and got a room reserved
(check-in wasn’t until 3 p.m.) and I drove up
to Lowell Observatory, my original destination.

Finding Lowell not open until noon, I got lunch
down town and pondered the early morning events.

I did not tell anyone at the observatory
of my adventure nor have I told anyone else.

Until now.

I still have that 22 megabyte digital file and
I’ve got that high-res professionally reproduced
60" X 90" Museum Wrap print of “the message,”
as you can see, there on my living room wall.

I know you will say that having a digital file
in this Age of Photoshop and digital deception,
or having a big photographic print made up
by professionals is not proof of anything—and I agree.

I don’t expect you or anyone else to believe me.

But I have to ask you this:

Why would you believe that I, your long-time friend
with whom many adventures have been shared together
in our younger and somewhat less wise years …

… Why would I offer up such a fantastical tale
and call it truth to you if in fact it wasn’t?

I mean, really!

Why would I do that?

And how the heck else did I get
this luxurious head of hair?

—Experienced at the North Anthem Rest Stop, Highway US 17, Arizona, 11/04/2014

Richard Bruns is a zen pantheist, retired photojournalist, graphic designer and racquetball teaching pro. Five decades of publication highlights include Fallout (editor); Arx; Bonsai: A Quarterly of Haiku; City Miner; Golliards; Berkeley Barb; Berkley Tribe; Fiction West (creator, publisher, editor); Sonoma Review; The End of the Year 1975, Western Haiku Edition; Napa Valley Register; Racquetball Illustrated; Racquetball News (editor); and recently, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Easy English Times, Pedestal, and frogpond.

His photographs have won three Best of Show and a 100+ awards in Northern California professional competitions. In August 2014 his photos were featured in a month-long show at A-1 Piano Store in Seattle.

Richard is married to Judy and has a step-son, Collin, a daughter-in-law, Heather, two grandchildren, Aidan and Cailin, and two cats, Leonard and Biscuit.

Long Form Third Place:

The Comet Elm

by Martin Elster

The comet elm has sent its roots deep down
into a gelid heart. It’s grown so tall,
its arms reach to the stars. Its blizzard-ball
careens across the void in a vapor-gown
and you, enveloped in that misty shroud,
will scale the trunk, touch leaves of palest lime
and, gently gaining impetus, in time
will enter the Large Magellanic Cloud.
Two hundred thousand ninety long years later,
while suns rain vital light on leaf and limb,
refreshing the great comet’s floaty loam,
you’ll get a letter from a long-dead lover
then take a stroll on truly alien soil
with one you hope is down-to-earth and loyal.

With one you hope is down-to-earth and loyal,
crossing the fractured crust of a dried-up sea,
huffing beneath a rucksack, cresting a scree,
flushed from a pair of citron suns, you toil
toward a tower looking out on a forest
as thick as moss. Your comet’s a billion bits
of grime, its elm gone too, yet from the heights
above a wilderness that is the barest
you’ve seen on any passing world, you note
a beast that looks a mix of hawk and jet
soaring like a cirrus cloud. Forget
your past! A rustling spills from the treelike throat
of the one now twining your arm with seven twigs.
Her rainbow eyes say you’re the one she digs.

Her rainbow eyes say you’re the one she digs,
while willowy finger-twigs keep holding tight,
and tighter still. A former physicist,
you worked on characteristics of the Higgs
those millions of moons ago, and reckoned
that if you could be standing at the helm
of a comet craft that’s nurtured a noble elm,
then a hundred eighty six thousand miles per second
would be doable. When your lover left,
you sipped the bitter sap of the stately tree,
a bitter drop of immortality.
Just in the nick of time you got a lift
and fled the Fifth World War and sped through space,
gone from the ruins of the human race.

Gone from the ruins of the human race,
you feel her seven willowy fingers, strong
around your arm, and watch a distant throng
of gazelle-like creatures, carnivores giving chase;
they pierce the forest beneath more jet-like birds
soaring, wheeling, gliding, wings as frozen
as plastic-coated pasteboard. Were you chosen
to be this being’s mate? She talks, the words
a rustling sound that makes your eardrums buzz;
bewitches you with those enormous eyes,
the compound motion-sensing eyes of flies.
You’re in her spell. Nothing’s the way it was.
And nothing’s what you’ll come to when she shoots
a hefty egg into your human guts.

A hefty egg inside your human guts,
munching on your kidneys and your liver,
your heart and brain? You might even forgive her—
her larva, too—when its tiny noggin juts
from shreds of flesh. But having been a meal
and vanishing without a single trace
would make it hard for you to show your grace.
As she draws you near her mandibles you feel
a quiver of excitement. Then a stab!
Numbness overtakes you and you dream:
Walking along a footpath by a stream,
you catch sight of a silver eel, a crab,
giant ferns fringing the trail, and a whirl
of leaves gusting and gliding around a girl.

A whirl of leaves gusting around a girl
who casts two shadows from a pair of suns.
You stop, hold out your hand, and then she runs,
you close behind. You’re squirming like a squirrel
caught in the talons of a jet-like brute
which lifts you high above the tallest redwood.
Whose voice is this? What was it that he said would
happen if you went and found the root
of all your troubles? Long before your birth
you’ll change it without chopping down the bole,
the bole that sprouted from it. Take control!
Immortal one so distant from the earth,
awake and face the forest of your sorrow.
Awake and bless the atoms that you borrow.

Awake and bless the atoms that you borrow.
The universe expands. All its dark matter
can’t halt it. Suddenly you hear the chatter
of chat, cicada, chickadee, and sparrow.
Leaves flutter to the forest floor, and she,
she stands in sunlight as it filters through
the labyrinth of stems and branches. You?
What memory is this? What symphony
is twittering and chirring in your ear,
so clamorous you cannot hear her crying?
The raucous trilling starts to fade. You’re flying.
The forest and the planet disappear
as you clamber higher, higher, toward the crown
of a comet elm whose roots go down and down.

Martin Elster is a composer and serves as percussionist with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. His poems have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Astropoetica, The Centrifugal Eye, The Martian Wave, Mindflights, The Speculative Edge, and in the anthologies Poems for a Liminal Age, Taking Turns: Sonnets from Eratosphere, and New Sun Rising: Stories for Japan. He is a Pushcart Prize and a Rhysling Award nominee, and has won the 2014 Thomas Gray Anniversary Poetry Competition.

Long Form Honorable Mention:

Job, Isaac and the Barrio by David Cowen

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