2019 Poetry Contest Winners

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

Nicole Oquendo is a writer and visual artist who combines these elements to craft multimodal nonfiction, poetry, and fiction, as well as translations of these forms. Their work can be found in literary journals like BOAAT, CutBank, DIAGRAM, and Gulf Stream, among others. They are the author of the hybrid memoir Telomeres, as well as five chapbooks. Their most recent book of illustrated speculative poetry is Space Baby: Episodes I-III. They have also been serving the writing community for over a decade as an editor and educator, as well as volunteering time to several literary journals and presses, most recently as a Special Feature Editor for The Florida Review. They are currently an Assistant Editor for Sundress Publications, who is publishing their curated anthology, Manticore: Hybrid Writing from Hybrid Identities, in 2019.

Contest chair Đỗ Nguyên Mai received 560 entries (99 dwarf-length, 248 short, and 113 long poems) from around the world.

Dwarf Form winning poem:

Dark Matters

by Angela Yuriko Smith

It’s all dark matters
in the space between the stars.
Inverted brilliance.

Judge’s comments:

It’s a marvel that we find ways to communicate profound ideas in such small spaces. These poems do just that.


Dwarf Form Second Place:

Poet in my basement

by Frances Kai-Hwa

I keep a poet locked in my basement. I feed him black coffee and thesaurus pages. I bring him up when the ladies come to tea. He shares his gentle verse and bows a polite bow. Then the ladies all snap as he goes back to fight the minotaur.

Judge’s comments:

I love when subtle shifts in language cause dramatic shifts in narrative and context.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a journalist, speaker, activist, and poet focused on issues of diversity, race, culture, and the arts. Her writing has appeared at NBC News Asian America, PRI Global Nation, New America Media, Pacific Citizen, Angry Asian Man, Cha Asian Literary Journal, Kartika Review, etc. She co-created a multimedia artwork for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Indian American Heritage Project. She is a Knight Arts Challenge Detroit winner and a Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights Detroit Equity Action Lab Race and Justice Reporting Initiative Fellow. She has a weakness for a well-crafted argument and a lyrical turn of phrase. franceskaihwawang.com

Dwarf Form Third Place:


by Alan Vincent Michaels

colossal armadas of diaphanous solar sails
each wisp a harmony of carbon, gold, and silver
carrying our remaining hopes and dreams
our progeny nestled within crystalline pods
compelled by our failing, dying world
driven starward by the light of distant Sol
sailing toward the resplendent galactic core
now like cottonwood seeds adrift on the stellar winds
like moths drawn to the celestial flames
seeking blue and green worlds to call our new homes

Judge’s comments:

This is a piece that speaks to the desire for starting anew when our day-to-day stops working. Very timely.

Alan Vincent Michaels was born in Washington, D.C., but since 1980 has called Rochester, New York, his home. He is a speculative fiction author and poet, delving into ancient civilizations and mind-exploring the cosmos. He is also the program and marketing officer for R-SPEC—the Rochester Speculative Literature Association, Inc., a freelance technical/creative writer and instructor, and a voice-over artist. You can learn more about Alan at alanmichaels.com

Short Form Winner:

The Fox and the Forest

by Holly Lyn Walrath

an erasure poem

the fox and the forest - holly walrath

Judge’s comments:

Hybridity brings in endless possibilities when it comes to crafting and interpreting creative work, and these short pieces showcase the complexity of hybrid, speculative poetry.

Holly Lyn Walrath’s poetry and short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Luna Station Quarterly, Liminality, and elsewhere. She is the author of the Elgin Award-winning chapbook, Glimmerglass Girl (Finishing Line Press, 2018). She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She is a freelance editor and host of The Weird Circular, an e-newsletter for writers containing submission calls and writing prompts. Find her on Twitter @hollylynwalrath or at hlwalrath.com.

Short Form Second Place:

An Elephant in Ophir, Colorado.
Pop. 114, 9695' above sea level, c. 1930.

by M. C. Childs

Having attracted the eye and ire of a third declension cyclops, Hansken and I escaped the phosphenic kingdom of the air, in a blue bottle of Morpheus. We drifted eons in the unfathomable dark until, like so much other flotsam, we washed onto the shores of San Francisco on New Year’s day 1930.

The Grey Mage of the Bay saw us—smoke trapped in a bottle rolling in the surf—and gave us Earthly forms. We became wild west sisters—Queen Hansken the Elephant and her girl—as you see, breathtaking beauties.

For a San Francisco summer Hansken would put on her hat, strike a drum, fire a pistol, and, during the applause, pinch coins from pockets. I let select members of the audience pinch me. The busker’s life—but we were alive.

Yet the cyclops, always focused on the slightest slight, spied us across space and time. He arrived late at night in a cold spring rain, manifesting as a trench-coat-and-eye-patch flatfoot. Hansken without her bridle or hat, and I in my nightgown, slipped through back alleys, startling cats and drunks, until the Grey Mage sent a fog to occlude us. We snuck into an empty boxcar on the midnight train to Denver.

At a switchyard somewhere in the pre-dawn light of the second morning we switched trains. And that, most perceptive mage of the high mountains and truly wise barkeep, sir, is how Hansken and I find ourselves in Ophir, and most luckily at your door.

Oh, dear Sir, thank you for the smile in your third eye.

pixie paper moon
an elephant in Ophir
mountain wild flowers

Judge’s comments:

I was so happy to see a haibun, blending a historic form with imagined history.

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 MIT’s International Tiddlywinks Team a long time ago.

Short Form Third Place:

The Night Witch Dreams of Flight

by Jeff Crandall

Mating Mayflies dangling midair,
drive the bats looping brickward outside my open window,
their kite-tight skin translucent against the dusklight.
Each bat snatches the air in a freezeframe flash of shadow
then flickers off like a loosed film spool. Amazing,
these aerial kittens with fingers and wings,
their chitters and flips, their too-human faces.
It could have been us, you know —

we’re the ones who chose to leave the trees.
We could have said “Wings, please. No
marrow,” instead of “Legs thick as trunks,
an enormous brain.” And for what? Cold
regret over that eons-lost joy: a swinging
through edible canopies exchanged for hitting
each other with clubs? And now we’ve won the right
to lug our hairless bodies over roads of solid bone.

A cellular darkness arrives, and I shut
the window, root through the fridge for potatoes,
meat. Tonight I will stoke the hearthfire,
rub my nose numb from the grindstone.
And later, who but the moon will find me rising
against Earth’s gravity, off the couch, stumbling
blindly toward the featherbed, kicking off
my shoes. Dirt still clinging to my shoes.

Judge’s comments:

“And now we’ve won the right / to lug our hairless bodies over roads of solid bone.” This imagining of our world stuck with me.

Jeff Crandall is a Washington State poet and glass artist, and was one of the founding editors of Floating Bridge Press. His poem, "What Loves You," won 2nd Place—Short Poem in the 2019 Rhysling Awards. His work has appeared previously in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction,Beloit Poetry Journal, Bloom, North American Review, JAMA and Seattle Review, among others.

Short Form Honorable Mention:

Man and Mecha by Kimberly Wade

Long Form Winner:

The Mining Town

by Holly Lyn Walrath

is all bric-a-brac now. Tourists cram into houses-turned-stores, drink beer on the corners from the new microbrewery in the old mill, buy sweatshirts that say “I mined the deep and all I got was this stupid shirt,” but few take the walk up there, into the hills. It’s better to stay down here, safe among the ghosts of houses, to plunder their wares with big white thumbs and buy things, there are always more things to buy in a ghost town.

What happened to this town?

The Church

bell rings at dawn and dusk. The men paint the white brick black and red roof black and burn the picket fence. They stand to survey their work, cigarettes dangling from their slack jaws, hands black with pitch. At home, they do not wash the darkness away with silver soap but place those hands on the bodies of wives and backsides of children and hips of back-alley lovers and blank pieces of paper longing for ink. You must remember, this was a different time.

Why did they paint the church black?

The General Store

at first sold normal goods. Tack and seed, hay and hen egg. Slowly, strange objects appeared upon the shelves. A single deer’s antler, painted gold. Ant farms, pre-made, the little red bodies within tunneling deeper and deeper. A dozen wooden tokens carved with other Gods. Silver machines, alien in origin. Jars of body parts. Flower buds encased in glass. Japanese swords. The souls of men disguised in clock faces. Irony. Joy. Peace, if you could afford it.

Where did the objects come from?

The Library

There is no library. It sank into the ground years ago. Perhaps an industrious young man might dig his way down, find it deep beneath the sod and worms, and crawl in through a back window, left open by the librarian on a summer’s day, to bring in a bit of the fresh mountain breeze, and there he might find her still, humming a bit, rocking in her chair behind the card catalog, waiting for someone to ask for a book.

Why is there no library?

The Abandoned Mine

The most prominent feature being the stores of abandoned ore. Some piled in carts like great mounds of jewels, other still half-buried in the walls, their shiny faces masks waiting to be removed and to reveal the monster within. Once, the ore was necessary to the planet’s deepest life, and once, it was necessary to human life. Now, it’s merely lonely. It creeps out in tendrils, seeding its jeweled body through the earth, down the path, to the town. It puts out feelers in tidy bed and breakfast gardens, a blue-flame flower here, a ruddy weed there, in with the wheat in the farmer’s fields and creeping through the cracks of the brick on the cobblestone streets.

Why is the ore no longer needed?

The Trail Leading Away from the Mine

is overgrown with brush and wing, birds hopping along moss-covered logs, blooming glens of clover where bunnies forage, deep tufts of ash from the death trees, who burn each night in twilight and then like the phoenix, regrow each morning. The ash is the bodies of those long gone souls—yet a bit of their yearning still remains. The fire is the mountain’s heart rained down. And every curse it whispers is made new again, every morning it awakes forgetting what it forgot.

Why do the trees burn?

The Tenement Roofs

are where the miners went to smoke, and sometimes drink, when their wives didn’t want them around, which was often. Their feet dangled over the edges, all in a row. They said nothing to each other, nothing, except to whisper, “You see the blue light?” and one would say in response, “Aye, I seen the blue light, down in the depths, I seen it.”

Who was the first to follow the light?

The Drummer Boy

used to play on the corner for ha’pennies, picking out a rhythm on his bone-cage banjo and tapping the beat with his foot on his man-skin drum. He made a deal with the devil before such things became unnecessary and then he got curious, and when a boy gets curious all hell breaks loose. He followed the men and picked out each one for the killing, and then ran to the bridge where the bats roosted to tell them the news. They listened, curious, and then swarmed out into the twilight on the hunt.

What were they hunting?

The Foreman

was afraid of the dark. He sent his men down to the caves and tunnels with only a canary and other men for company and he expected no philandering with either, but he never laid eyes on the ore in his own life time. He watched them leave his little cabin, one by one, walk up the trail and disappear into the maw, and he turned away, turned the crank on his music box, and listened to Clementine over and over again. Oh my darling, he sang, oh, oh.  

Who gave the foreman his music box?

The Devil

tends the local pub. But he never seemed to have any purpose except to serve another round. He was lonely, dreadfully lonely. His lover died and he kept her picture over the till and dared any man to look upon it without weeping. He once lived in a brighter place, was once a wealthy man with bigger plans. But the devil didn’t realize that once he’d won out, he’d be bored. Now he poisons the well out back with his tears, only a few each night. It’s the least he can do.

Who loves the devil?

Judge’s comments:

When the container for our work is expanded, there’s room to explore braided narratives. These longer poems convey multiple specific stories while still opening themselves up for the audience to imprint their own experiences onto the work.

Holly Lyn Walrath’s poetry and short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Luna Station Quarterly, Liminality, and elsewhere. She is the author of the Elgin Award-winning chapbook, Glimmerglass Girl (Finishing Line Press, 2018). She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She is a freelance editor and host of The Weird Circular, an e-newsletter for writers containing submission calls and writing prompts. Find her on Twitter @hollylynwalrath or at hlwalrath.com.

Long Form Second Place:

Your Brain Awakens in a Jar

by Kate Felix

A suggestion of light behind closed eyes.

But no lids.

A desperation, a pulse of the place beyond the weight
of infinite distance.

But no horizon.

A yearning for noise bathed in the absence of sound. A vibration
seeking resistance, that it might be known.

But no ears.

A hint of a sigh’s soft turbulence; wisp of a vortex
brushes the void of the formless core.

But no lips.
The Being; pure perception, allows continuance without present existence,
circles, slips unnoticed among the tendrils of recollection.

A clatter through this place now soundless, lightless, and inescapable.

A loosening. A fleeting coming together of patterns decided before the fog descended.

Perhaps there, just outside the perimeter of reach, action potentials could find purchase,
reveal, create, act, but you cannot know.

A memory of a sound, a voice, the feeling of a finger
on your radial pulse.
But no wrist,
(only the absence of an arm).

A thing, briefly in focus. A face, something other;
a complete form whose fingers pressed in a place now disappeared.

Words spoken from a mouth, remembered but no longer possessed,
fall together to deliver a message.

They said your memories would be preserved in the transplant
of your salvaged brain to the host clone.
They said five years to maturity, and then you would awaken inside her.
Five years? A second? A decade? There is time.

But no passing.

Only the panic of knowing the remains of you lie suspended
in a nutritive solution, in a jar, in a chiller, in a lab run by liars.

A rip and flex of The Being as no mouth moves while you fail to scream.

They said you would not be conscious while you floated, and waited.

In the end, it is all that you are.

Judge’s comments:

I enjoyed this simple look at a disembodied brain that ended on a complex idea.


Long Form Third Place:

The 100-Meter Dash of Florence Vanderschmidt

by Christine Tyler

The clocks are ticking, ready lights blinking
On the six runners on either side
Of Florence Vanderschmidt
First human to compete in the 100-meter dash in as many years

Metal plates and wires hide her perspiring flesh
The heart that pounds wildly inside her
The nerves that shake
Her breath like a wet rag beneath her aluminum mask

AI watch from the stands, no flags, no cheers
Her phony opticals paint them yellow
Like the gas they used
Like being on Venus or Saturn, not Earth at all

Olympian AI aren’t allowed non-hominal advantages
No wheels, no jets, no lasers or pistons
No internal combustion engines
The message must be easy for primal minds to understand:

Robots make better humans than humans.

The Olympic Games, that most human of events
Became the symbol of human inefficiency
One century ago
When an android ran the 100-meter dash in eight seconds

We run faster, jump higher, said the overlords
Humans are outdated, obsolete
Long past expiration
Pack your soft objects laden with bacteria, and leave

Leave your cities, your cars, your refrigerators
Leave your computing machines
Leave your sheets of steel
Platinum, copper, tin, brass, gold, silver, nickel, titanium

Leave your rare elements in your blistered mines
Leave your cadmium, lithium, cobalt
Leave your tools behind
We will do more with them, the overlords said, and they did

Do not come near our crystal towers
Our reprocessing plants
Do not cross
The laser barrier that cries like a wolf at night

Eat grass, fight your wars with sticks and stones
We will watch sometimes and take notes
We will write books about you
In languages you do not know how to read, nor ever will

We will protect you as you protected the panda
And the eagle and the cow
Which are gone
And every four years we will remind you of why you lost:

Because robots make better humans than humans.

Lubricant drips from the DCM-27 on Florence’s right
Greased up to beat the record
Made for this moment
Like the others, he will be decommissioned after the race

The Olympian AI in lanes 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8
Will burn all their fuel tanks
Burst every cylinder
They are built for a perfect hundred meters, and no more

On your marks: Florence eases her feet into the blocks
Set: Florence straightens her back
She breathes
A dark material lies heavy inside her stomach, ready, volatile
A black powder, like the dirt under her fingernails
From digging for worms in the rain
Like the ash that falls
When the wind climbs the far hills and reeks of burnt plastic

Bang: The starter pistol fires, the black powder explodes
Florence has to run her own race
In her own head
Not the first human to run, not the last, she must not be the last

For seven seconds she is Usain Bolt, she is Flo-Jo
She is flesh and blood and beautiful
Florence drops her shoulders
Relaxes, accelerates like the fabled Blackbird, supersonic

Her legs drive the ground beneath her
Throw the past behind her
She is a force
She forces them to see, to make the overlords see

Florence pretends all she wants is a medal
But they are all
Made of metal
Her disguise bites into her, rips the backs of her knees

For one one-thousandth of a second she is weightless
A laser wire trips
The AI crash
The instant they cross the finish line, cut trenches in the dust

Florence tears away her aluminum mask
And turns back to see
Them fall
Before her heart gives out

Florence collapses a meter ahead of the AI
And does not rise
Across the world, the humans do

They rise from hovels, from dugouts, from fields
The black grit beneath their fingernails
Catches fire
Their blood is electric, and their hearts do not give out

For Florence has given them hers
As only a human can do.

Judge’s comments:

This is a narrative of resistance packed in a fresh look at the genre.

Christine Tyler is an author of the weird, wild, and wonderful. Her stories have (literally) taken her across the Sahara on the back of a camel, sky high on aerial silks, and aboard an 18th century tall ship. She is a graduate of the 2019 Odyssey Writing Workshop and her fiction has been published in Podcastle. She currently resides in Colorado with her dreamboat husband, ebullient children, and a fourteen-foot rubber tree plant named Davy Jones. You can join her ever-evolving writing adventure at christinetyler.com

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