2019 Adult Poetry Contest Winners

Each March, I am floored by the talent that floods my inbox as poets from the area submit their verse to the JMRL-WriterHouse Adult Poetry Contest. This is the fourth year that JMRL and WriterHouse have partnered to offer this contest, which accepted entries from March 1-30.

The contest this year was judged by the esteemed Henry Hart, current Poet Laureate of Virginia and Professor of English and Humanities at the College of William and Mary. The winner and runner-up were announced at the Poetry on the Steps open mic poetry event on Thursday, April 25 at JMRL’s Central Library.

Hart selected poet Ron Berube’s “A Differential Calculus of My Feelings” as the winning poem, and Clay Moldenhauer’s “Make Fire” as the runner up. He had this to say about the poems:

I decided “A Differential Calculus of my Feelings” deserved first prize, and “Make Fire” deserved an honorable mention.  “A Differential” is a moving poem about a traumatic event.  The image of “the rabbit dying in an eagle’s claws” intimates that both people in the ambulance are undergoing a painful ordeal.  The poem is narrated in an artful and engaging way.  The voice gravitates toward a formal iambic pentameter line.  (“The best of what was promised, never guessed” is one of several blank verse lines.)  Yet the voice is not stiffly formal; it can be humorous and colloquial, despite the painful situation.  The narrator, we learn early on, is: “amusing myself / By guessing where the hell we are.”  At the end, the narrator does a good job of describing an elderly couple who have grown remarkably close over time—so close that the narrator can say (once again in iambic verse): “More often lately when / You think, I answer; when I sigh you wake.”

I chose to give an honorable mention to “Make Fire” because the poem is another engaging narrative.  In this case, the narrator gives concise instructions for the performance of a simple, but profound ritual.  The narrator resembles a priest telling a supplicant to do certain things (primarily to make a fire) in order to transcend human knowledge and meanings.  The goal of the ritual is to transport the supplicant into a kind of mystical state so that he or she can “Bless whatever comes” and “Give thanks.” This is a noble goal!

And now for the real deal –

Ron Berube (2019 JMRL-WriterHouse Poetry Contest Winner) with
“A Differential Calculus of My Feelings”

Listening in the ambulance to the insistent siren,

Trying like the rabbit dying in an eagle’s claws

Just to enjoy the ride, amusing myself

By guessing where the hell we are

From my compromised position of all

That’s flashing past. The roof of our house

Needs replacing, traffic’s backed up as usual

On the bypass, there’s your office building,

Where’s your car? Clouds are massing

Gray behind the mountains west. You’ve been

Hurting more than you’ve been saying,

I can tell, afraid to scare me by complaining,

Just as I am you. More often lately when

You think, I answer; when I sigh, you wake.

I’d thought once at our age we’d have seen

The best of what was promised, never guessed

How much distance we could cover simply

By moving closer to each other. Sometimes,

Says the eagle, I’m surprised myself.

Clay Moldenhauer (2019 JMRL-WriterHouse Poetry Contest Runner-Up) with

“Make Fire”

Make fire

At water’s edge,

Bare feet in mud,

Arms outstretched

To empty sky.

Stand griefless.


Wonder at nothing

Already known.

Ponder on nothing

Already a puzzle.

Orient to nothing

Given meaning

By humans.

Bless whatever comes.

Give thanks.

They too will be Gods

One day.

Snake, turtle, Crow,

My friends,

Offer power and pain

For companionship.

But it’s up to you

To make fire.

Like the first time.

What do you think?

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