2017 Poetry Contest Winners

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

Nikia Chaney, this year’s judge, is the current Inlandia Literary Laureate in San Bernadino, California. The author of two chapbooks, Sis Fuss (Orange Monkey Publishing, 2012) and ladies, please (Dancing Girl Press, 2012), her manuscript bite down, hum was the winner of the Marsh Hawk Robert Creeley Award in 2015. She has won grants and fellowships from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for Women, Poets & Writers, Squaw Valley, and Cave Canem.

Contest chair Mary McMyne received nearly 350 entries (75 dwarf-length, 192 short, and 79 long poems) from around the world.

Dwarf Form winning poem:


by Kanika Agrawal 

if three vessels appear above the hill near the goat farm     hover
their black gauze of shadows across the grass     and we

marble in the shifting light     still     scatter
vein the hoof-hurt streets in unpracticed disbelief

all around eyes like brushstrokes sweeping
how will we compass our bodies     not this     not this     nowhere

have we not profligated our material     it is almost too late
to garment self-evidence in plume and barb     to wing

to always have been conditional     if birds     in the one hand
the other     flickering     it is nothing     to remember

Judge’s comments:

This poem is arresting in how it both calls us forth to not fear to not, "scatter" in the face of first contact, but also to rise above our expectations of self, as "if birds", simply beautiful.

Kanika Agrawal is a doctoral student in English, a temporary alien of Indian origin, and a book hoarder. She lives with her toy fox terrier, Django, in Denver, Colorado.

Dwarf Form Second Place:


by Adam Veal

Something that eats entire categories,
something that has a library for a stomach—

.zip compressed
inside the algorithm,
found strolling through a field/cloud/garden
highlighting Hydrangea arborescens,
arranging the day’s errands as
a drive folder—

To the lipstick
index, too, the mouth and recession.

Adam Veal, the second-place Dwarf Category winner, has been published in Conjunctions, LIT, and SpringGun. He lives in San Diego, and teaches writing at UCSD and USD. 

Dwarf Form Third Place:

Lace at the Throat

by Holly Walrath

after Margaret Atwood

This ribbon     holds our neck on.
    Or else     it hides the scar he gave us.
  Or else     it is our chain—
      see       the tattooed numbers?
  Or else       it is a brass coil
  warping       our clavicle
to make us       dragons.

Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor and author living in Seabrook, Texas. Find her at hlwalrath.com.

Dwarf Form Honorable Mentions

Hate Escapes by Alicia Payne

Short Form Winner:

On First Looking Into the Sculpture of the Song “The World is Watching,” by Two Door Cinema Club

by Jake Sheff

for Corri

There’s nothing pink that doesn’t bleed without
A little love beside it. Choral, but the moon, is pink
Without those little lights that sparkle,
Aliens that bloom and travel.

There’s nothing pink with frost that
Doesn’t spurn the harvesting of moss,
Or else I’ve sworn, and you are nearer still.

There’s nothing pink that, definite, is bluer
Still than less macabre. There’s nothing that,
In place of space, can reinstall a choral grace –

But there are aliens, empty, dry
And tirelessly; flotsam, stinky
Properly, but not arresting
Up there, in the heavens: Pink
And hairy stones.

There’s nothing pink that isn’t oft-
Oppressive, gall of thunder, bell
Of California’s peal
And carnal, irresponsible
As little girls that thrash beside

The sharks that tumble out of space
Like aliens in tidal lock with something
Accidental, and, without appearance, so
That all things lost are gray.

Judge’s comments:

Here this poem uses some truly fascinating music and imagery to illustrate a new way of seeing the world, orbits around moons and human/alien vulnerability.

Jake Sheff is a major and pediatrician in the US Air Force. He currently resides in the Mojave Desert with his wife, daughter and four pets. His poetry chapbook is Looting Versailles (Alabaster Leaves Publishing).

Short Form Second Place:

Rescue Mission

by Patricia Gomes

There was no shame
in the simplistic poetry
we carved into sickly tree trunks;
after all, we had to have something
to present when they returned.
Something pretty, something artsy.

We couldn’t tell them
about the rocks
that would suddenly explode
on the iciest of nights,
the unceasing hunger
that became a bed partner
during fallow season.
We couldn’t tell them

for why in the name of salvation
would they return?

So we smiled,
fed them 
from the cold pantries
far below the dunes,
and we read.
Read them poetry
as if our lives depended on it.

Patricia Gomes is the current and first female Poet Laureate of New Bedford, Massachusetts. She has an abnormal interest in werewolves, and is loath to write her bio. Simply put: she writes, she’s writing, she continues to write; she’s interesting, she’s interested, and continues to be of marginal interest to those with a taste for oddities.

Short Form Third Place:

Schroedinger's Lover

by B. Lynch Black 

The news arrived today
To this world of fire
Now gone cold,
Three weeks after the fact.

The time it takes for mail
To sail out on its electronic route
And reach this Earth child
Working on a distant speck.

"Your lover is dead."
An accident...
How... Why... Don't tell me.
Doesn't matter.

For three weeks more
He was mine.
Only mine.
No news was good news.

Three weeks of living
Time uncredited
Spent in blasted energy
A protracted illusion.

We laughed, planned
In a world and time
Truly of my own making.

B. Lynch Black, writer, artist and out-of-work actor, has written and published numerous short stories, essays and reviews. Most recently, “The New Fenian,” a short story, appeared in the 2015 anthology Portable Magic. Black is currently writing an historical fantasy novel for which she received a research grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation.

Short Form Honorable Mention:

Persephone by Emma Gibbon

Long Form Winner:

The Fragmented Poet Files a Police Report

by Stewart C. Baker

Personal Information
Name: you knew me once / and swore my eyes outshone the stars
Address: which glitter in the outlying districts. / Those far-flung city-pieces
Phone: where live the disconnected and the poor / still hold me;
Email: I huddle in forgotten servers, / send bits of the woman I was
Occupation: hurtling through the ether, / hoping to find you.

Time and Location of Crime
Time of crime: The moon, the stars, the dark-spread shelf of night / concealed us.
Location of crime: In the space between the city-pieces; / in the data-robbed buildings / of the outlying districts.
Nature of crime: The murder of my physical shell; the breaking / of my heart and fragmenting of my mind.

Detailed Description of Crime
Please enter as much information as you can about the crime you are reporting.

Your father warned you
not to waste your words
on one so disadvantaged,
not to spend your youthful urges
on a girl from what he called the dead zone—
those spots between the city-pieces
where watchers like him rarely ventured.

But I was seventeen,
and knew no greater lovers
ever lived;
your father's words proved it,
as well as your own, how you swore
you'd never leave me,
that you'd sooner give up
life in the city, your future
as a watcher's son
than go one night without me,
one day without the stars
in my eyes.

So when you said you knew
a place where no-one would find us,
a place where we could be free
of the city's networks, free
to be our inner selves,
fool that I was I believed you.

I longed
to be unwatched by others' eyes,
to have no witness to hear our cries
as we lay with each other;
I took your hand and
you took mine—I thought—
in gladness and in hope.

The building you had chosen
loomed over fallow fields
which once grew grains
or corn or pumpkin or
some other form of humble sustenance
in the time before the city
spread its cables, plant-like,
through the ground, before
its frequencies and signals
choked the sunlight
from the air
and the waters
from the clouds.

Like a sarcophagus it seemed to me,
bereft of life, filled with the stale smell
of old rot and dust; still,
you were with me, you tightened
your grip on my hand, led me
into its chambers, so I was not afraid.

I should have been.

You leaned in for a kiss—I thought—
looped a dirt-caked cable round my neck
and before I could fight you
you pulled its ends tight,
pulled my life out, pulled
my mind to pieces (I
did not want to fight you,
did not want to die;
neither did I want to live
in a world where you
had turned from me
and into this creature
this mockery of
what I thought then
was beauty
and love;
I did not know then
what love was
or beauty,
I did not know
I did not).

And against the pull of you
I felt another: I felt
the pull of the network
through its cable; I felt
the pull of pulsing
information, the pull
of the city, its servers, its
asynchronous havens, its
and as the life drained out of me
I swore I would find you again and make you pay
for what you took from me
and what you took me from.

Now the time has come for a reckoning.

Long have I watched you, long
have I spread fragments of song
like nets across your firewalls;
weaved words
into twine, into rope, into vengeance.

I have seen you rise
through the ranks of the watchers,
thinking yourself safe,
beyond reproach, too integral a part
of the network of the city
to be held accountable
for the things you tell yourself
are necessary (the
women like myself
who became inconvenient,
the people
you're supposed to protect,
all the ones
you've killed
in the name of

I will hunt the monster you have become;
I will spear you with the distributed servers
you use to obscure your truths
and spread your approximations of justice.

No, my love, turn not away:
you knew me once
and swore my eyes outshone the stars
which glitter in the outlying districts.

Besides, it is too late; I have sent
the shattered pieces of my self
through every open port
and visited my fragments
on the world.

Judge’s comments:

This poem is haunting, not just in the uniqueness of its structure, but the sense of longing and need by the unnamed speaker. I love the way in which the "crime" is hinted at, and how the speaker loses self to enact revenge.

Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian and author of speculative fiction and poetry. He was born in England and currently lives in Oregon with his family—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet.

Long Form Second Place:

Auto-Biography of a Trans-dimensional Extraterrestrial

by Gary Lee Nihsen

link to .pdf

Gary Lee Nihsen was born, 1962, in Sioux City, Iowa. He attended the University of Nebraska, Omaha, studied German language at the Goethe Institute and Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany and received a MFA from Vermont College. He works as a freelance translator, editor and tour manager and currently resides in Berlin, Germany. 

Long Form Third Place:

Your Dopplegänger's Afterlife Dreams: A Theatre-of-the-Absurd Prayer/Poem

by J.J. Steinfeld

The dead of another night
your doppelganger’s wretched sleep
of tossing and turning
waking you a hundred disorienting times
your doppelgänger an afterlife dreamer
poorly performed Theatre-of-the-Absurd sleep
a prayer aspiring to be a poem
you caught in the grip of an illogical word

afterlife / life after
        get your contrary ducks
        and elusive metaphors
        all in an orderly row
all the circuitous thoughts
all the proofs, neat or messy,
        of death
        and near-death
        words stolen and broken
        sentenced to life
        rearranged into death sentences
such are dreams
        subconscious flights of fancy
        jumping off miraculous cliffs
                language means nothing
                hitting the bottom
        everything as you fall
        as heavy as Sisyphus’s rock
        without documents
                or money-saving coupons
                or get-out-of-jail-free cards
                or farewell concert-of-the-year tickets
        brace yourself for the silence
        prepare yourself for the unimagined
        make your prayer succinct yet potent
                you’ve prayed before
                not this high-stakes
                like betting on Eternity
                double or nothing
the end of time
        a time of endings
        why did you sleep through
        the end of the movie?
        perforating the word endless
        praying as if there’s no tomorrow
optimist turned pessimist
        in mid flight
        abducted by space aliens
        disguised as talk-show hosts
        with perilous senses of humour
        like our worst joke-tellers
        stutterers of the absurd
        brokenhearted absurdity
        looking for new careers
        and a stronger cup of coffee
        caffeinated epiphanies
refusing to jump just now
        starting to dance
        choreographed or improvised
        little choice this time around
        what had you been studying
        stumbling through time
        looking down
        clarity or vagueness
        seeing a program from the first performance
                of Waiting for Godot
                you dreamed you were there
                the best seat in the house
                wearing a bow tie and fancy suspenders
                the colour of madness
remind yourself: language means everything
as you assume flight
the glorious optimism of flight
higher than the heavens
now the descent turns to ascent
                before the end of this prayer
                disguised as a poem
                disguised as a life....

J.J. Steinfeld lives on Prince Edward Island in Canada, where he is patiently waiting for Godot’s arrival. He has published eighteen books of poetry and fiction, most recently the poetry collection, Absurdity, Woe Is Me, Glory Be (Guernica Editions, 2017). Over fifty of his one-act plays and a handful of full-length plays have been performed in Canada and the United States. 

Long Form Honorable Mention:

witches by Holly Walrath

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