2012-2013 IATE Poetry Contest Winners

Here's a list of recipients of Special Merit awards, their schools, and their nominating teachers. Winning poems can be viewed by clicking the students' names.

  • Tempest Kipp Evans, "Note to Myself on a Sunny Day" / Twelfth Grade / Teacher, Danny Wilson / Carbondale Community High School

  • Radia Lahlou, "An Ode to the Man I Met on American Airlines Flight #22 from Chicago to Philadelphia" / Eleventh Grade / Teacher, Justin Dennis / Carbondale Community High School

  • Benjamin Bruno Dixon, "Thirteen" / Ninth Grade / Teacher, Amy Birtman / Lake Forest High School

Journeying as Poet and Citizen

Poets sit at their writing desks in paradoxical quest for travel. Readers come to poetry seeking transport. Theirs is an unspoken, perhaps unconscious, wish. Still, it is resides there beneath the heart’s thump thump, its engine idling ready, its throttle aching for the right foot’s tap then floorboard plunge. Then, off we are. Down the tarry road, into cloud-crepe sky, along that dusty path one-shoe wide and winding.

Winding is the poem’s fondest trail. As is wood-bent or snow-scaped or fog-shrouded or bottle-strewn or lonely. It is at least enough to set our feet in motion beneath the head and heart that never still -- the latter not until its deathbed throes and who’s to say of the former?

The former is where we used to be but are no longer. The poem’s feet and outstretched hand took us off, somewhere (somewhere being the place we are before we are not there, on the way to somewhere else, always afoot, always). Always is not somewhere but something not possible, as is alone. How often we find ourselves most among others when we are most alone.

Billy Collins has quipped that poetry is a kind of “travel writing.” At least some took his remark as quip when, in fact, Collins was as serious as he gets. The mode of travel poems elicit is precisely this moving in space and time, in emotion and thought, in the known among unknowns. It is the home we leave for the home we have never lived in, until now.

It’s no wonder poets favor the journey as motif. No surprise either that Frost’s two roads diverging in yellow woods have so enthralled our schoolmarms and students as much for the choice as the choice not-taken. Even our techno-moment’s search engines favor the topic. If one Googles “travel poems,” one is served up a heaping plateful ranging from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 50” through Rupert Brooke’s “The Night Journey” to Wang Wei’s “Peach Blossom Journey.” Among my favorites is Li Po’s “Hard is the Journey,” in which a lavish feast has jammed the poet’s belly with fine meats and wine but has not satiated his hungering to wander over whatever mountain range falls next upon the horizon. Even the inveterate traveler Li Po stand bemused before the rich tapestry of struggle, surprise, and confusion from which every journey is woven:

(Hard is the journey,

Hard is the journey,

So many turnings,

And now where am I?)

This asking “where am I?” is partly agent and partly consequence of travel’s unhinging. In search of it, we set out, hopeful for the answer to arrive in GPS dollops both local and existential. After all, to ask “Where am I?” is as much to pose “who am I?” of both one’s self and of the larger world. We dismiss, or wishfully forget, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle that warns us we can never be sure both where we are and how fast we’re going. It’s one or the other, or neither. Still, and momentarily stilled, one wishes fervently to be placed within a world constantly in motion inside and outside of us.

One reason for travel, the story goes, is to open fresh experience, to learn one has much to learn, to be surprised that surprise itself can come bidden. Ah, yes. This year’s IATE winning entries, particularly those cited here as Poems of Special Merit, ably join their voices with those of Li Po and countless others who before them mused on the notion of journeying and its rewards. Radia Lahlou’s wonderful “An Ode to the Man I Met on American Airlines Fight #22 from Chicago to Philadelphia” shares Li Po’s fondness for the contextual title that sets the table for the poet’s musing that follows. The speaker enjoys a sweet displacement in the rarefied air. Her neither-here-nor-there location in motion above the continent affords the opportunity to ponder her place in the world without the burden of place to define and limit her contemplation. Hoping for the pleasures of “free” onboard wi-fi, she instead finds occasion for dialogue with herself and her culture via an overly talkative aisle-mate:

While the cars on the ground become small like the ants that often

litter my kitchen floor,

FOR MOTION DISCOMFORT

And the trucks, blurs of color, like disorderly crayons thrown into a

child’s pencil bag,

AND BABY DIAPER DISPOSAL

You wouldn’t shut up.

But that’s okay, because what is sleep, but a mindless escape?

Please place in waste receptacle after use.

They said the wi-fi was free on board, but it’s not—So I guess I’ll listen.

The speaker interpolates “found” text borrowed from the plane’s barf bag within her own observations, illustrating the poet’s playfully sophisticated self-awareness. This is a poet who knows she’s making something, and she claims that making as well as its sources. What she sees amid the older man’s eyes flying high above the earth at first borders on cliché – nearly shopworn descriptions of cars as small as “dots” and rivers as “ribbons.” Then the speaker ascends boldly to visions of her own life viewed from such dizzying altitude. She recalls her family’s often repeating the immigrant’s impossible charge in the United States – “Radia, be happy. But be successful.”  She reflects on the assumed pressure to earn a college degree, to excel in one’s field, to make the family proud on this second chance in our supposed land of plenty.

The old fellow’s eyes, however, offer advice that counters her ancestral injunction, slyly drawing from only the first part of that injunction – “be happy.” His words fall like chrysanthemum blossoms from his mouth, blooms the speaker thought befit only “funerals.” And in some measure a passing has occurred. The speaker now has lain to rest the sense of herself as driven only to succeed, her family’s counsel itself having lost its heartbeat. In this chance encounter with a stranger, and through the self-aware act of napkin-writing a poem, the speaker has come to see life as rich, varied, surprising, and redemptive in ways beyond status and wealth. Even her leaky orange juice container, the speaker wryly notes, is labeled “premium” – something rare and valued. That notion applies as well to her own life, she realizes, a life of chances fashioned as she wishes to live it, just as this poem-moment was made out of fortuitous wi-fi failure and an accidental seating companion.

Unlike Lahlou, Tempest Kipp Evans doesn’t have to leave home to find a way to converse with her environment and her inner self. “In Note to Myself on a Summer Day,” Kipp Evans allows herself a walk on the family farm that takes her past hay bales, down a gravel road, along the red barn holding its share of rats and rat-eating snakes. What’s remarkable about the poem is its conditional footing; such a journey need not actually take place in the moment because it lives so much within the speaker. “You,” she tells us, while clearly thinking of herself, “you could,” “you might,” “you may” follow this path or another and still end up “unseen” in a rural promised land beyond the “blackberry” thorns:

but now you are sitting

quietly in the tall grass

unseen and lost

to the cherry red barns

and pink plum tongues of dogs

who lollygag and bark on the side porch

where, soon, your father

will step out

and call your name like

a foghorn

and wait until you return

slowly from far off

covered in burrs and peaceful

dusty secrets.

Kipp Evans’ farmland description blends loving attention to detail with a musician’s ear for sound. What reader does not relish the particularity as well as the alliteration and assonance of “pink plum tongues of dogs”? All of it “begins with a walk” – a journey taken or one simply imagined, her poem a tribute to this place known intimately and intimately treasured.

That such a journey need not follow an outward path to travel great distance is evident in Benjamin Bruno Dixon’s “Thirteen.” Here, the speaker finds himself on the cusp of childhood and adolescence, a step away from adulthood’s responsibilities to himself and others. He lounges on his bed, amazed to find there his childhood stuffed animal, remembering how together they would “battle / the monsters of the night”:

a little bear with its body plump

its stitched mouth smiling, fur plush

smooth to the touch. I was uncertain, 13

The lovely, unsettling enjambment of each stanza’s repeated last line accentuates the speaker’s sense of adolescent tentativeness if not fear. The teenage speaker’s admission that “I was uncertain, 13” might be said of most of us at that age, and might well be modified as we slide up the scales in age and down in years left ahead of us. “I was uncertain, 21” or perhaps “I was uncertain, 59” – How apt does this sound to you of considerable years under your widening belt?: Readers, no matter their ages, empathize with Dixon’s vision even as he tenders it to us from the youthful plateau of his ninth grade year.

The poet would have delivered an insight were he to have stopped there. Thankfully, he doesn’t. He recounts his recent trip to a homeless shelter during which he encountered a young boy crying on a bed, a boy looking wildly about for his mother. His was a journey outside of the self whose path turns quickly inward:

Remembering a homeless shelter I recently visited, I saw a

frightened boy, lying on his tattered bed where he

had been left. He had tears streaming down his face, looking for his mother.

I held my

bear as I walked to him. The boy stroked the fur,

suddenly grabbing. I paused and nodded, walking away.

What’s curious is the mish-mashing of time that occurs within this memory. When what happened to whom matters less than the speaker’s sudden awareness of his own coming of age. To be 13 is to acknowledge one’s passing from childhood to some new state replete with obligations to others, particularly to those less fortunate. The poem is equally pleasing whether A) one imagines the speaker actually gifting the bear to the boy, or whether B) one envisions the speaker’s mere cognizance of the boy’s plight as his own flight from youthful innocence embodied by that beloved stuffed animal.

These three youth poets remind us of poetry’s ability to transport both poet and reader. Embarking upon journeys both literal and figurative, they reveal in their wanderings myriad ways our sense of self is located equally by familiarity and by disjuncture. To situate the self among a world of selves means, as Martin Heidegger says, to remain always underway. This is the necessarily constant journeying of poet as solitary artist as well as communal citizen.

Kevin Stein
Illinois Poet Laureate