2020 JMRL-WriterHouse Poetry Contest

It’s been an interesting spring to say the least. With many JMRL and WriterHouse programs & events getting canceled due to COVID-19, it was a huge relief to be able to continue to offer our Poetry Contest for Adults, which celebrates its fifth year running in 2020. Typically open for submissions throughout March, the contest deadline was extended this year to allow more entrants to trickle in through the end of April.

I am always amazed at the way that our poetic community expresses what is going on in the world around us, and this year was no exception, as isolation, quietude, and reflection on quarantine were well represented themes in many submissions.

The contest this year was judged once again by the esteemed Henry Hart, current Poet Laureate of Virginia and Professor of English and Humanities at the College of William and Mary. Though we weren’t able to celebrate the winner and runner-up with a reading at our Poetry on the Steps this year, we are happy to announce them here and carve out a space for their words for others to enjoy.

Henry Hart selected “Play a Note” by poet Fred Everett Maus as the winning entry, for which he receives a prize of $200 Visa gift card, and poet Joan Mazza’s “Elinor White Frost” as the runner-up, who receives a prize of $100 Visa gift card. This is what he said about his selections:

I admired the artful way the author of “Play a Note” wrote about playing the piano.  The poem is about music, and it’s written in a musical way.  In the first line, we hear the “ping” of a piano key, and the rest of the poem plays variations on themes like a musical composition.  Repetitive phrases can simply be repetitive, but here they contribute to the overall, rhythmical effect of the poem.  The author also does a good job of engaging the reader with the imperative voice.  Right from the start, the reader seems to be getting instructions, as if from a piano teacher.  “Hold a piano note,” the narrator says.  I found the poem’s narrative progression interesting.  It moves from the creation of sound to the creation of silence to thoughts of a divine Creation.  The pianist resembles a creator God who has the power to “create a note from nothing” and return that note to nothing.  At the end, the poem moves “past the end” of the piano music to a silent meditation on past performances.  The concluding idea that the pianist’s “virtuosity” has led to a “squandering” of notes is surprising, and leaves the reader wondering whether that squandering was the result of generosity or foolishness, or both.

Having written a biography of Robert Frost, I’m partial to poems about Frost.  But this is a poem about the relatively unsung woman who, according to Frost, played an instrumental role in almost every major poem he wrote.  I admired the way the author stood up for Elinor.  During contrite moments, Frost would admit that he had treated Elinor badly, and the author acknowledges this.  I thought at times this poem alluded to famous lines in Frost’s poems to show that Frost didn’t always live up to their noble sentiments.  For instance, Frost says in “The Tuft of Flowers” that “Men work together…/ Whether they work together or apart.”  The author of “Elinor White Frost” says: “Poetry brought them together, then quietly set them / apart.”  This poem reads like a biographical prose poem, but it is also an insightful meditation on the way women in the past often didn’t receive the credit they deserved for helping famous men attain their goals.

Take these comments into consideration as you read the poems for yourself (note: formatting attempts were made to be as close to the original as possible) :

“Play a Note” by Fred Everett Maus,

Hold a piano note. Ping
you sustain it,
it decays, touches the air
more softly, more softly

but for a long time,
maybe longer than you want.
When you want, lift your finger
and dull thick felt

stills the string, spreads
silence. You could be God,
create a note from nothing,
kill it when you are ready—

or was the string at rest
till you struck it into sound,
perhaps a cry,
and the felt is your mercy?

Hold one note,
and listen, past the end. Then
think of fast scales,
passagework, virtuosity,

squandering, notes
here and gone, dozens,
hundreds, thrown
like faces in the streets.

“Elinor White Frost” by Joan Mazza,

Since that morning’s lecture, bothered by the story’s
missing parts, I search for details of her life, her poems,
educational pursuits. Before her marriage to Robert,
she sensed a bit of greatness of her own,
was high school valedictorian, alongside him.
Imagine her saying no to his proposal, feeling justified.

She hadn’t expected him to ask, wasn’t kindled into passion.
Love was something earned, not mandated or demanded,
not even by someone on whom she, too, had hopes.
Poetry brought them together, then quietly set them
apart. She raised children, stayed home to school them

mourned them when they sickened, died. He hadn’t
lasted two days in kindergarten or first grade,
uncomfortable around people,
shaken by a trifling rebuke.

What happened to her fortitude before losses
and his hardness beat her down? Before
miscarriages and death shrank her

to a zero in poetic history,
her writing

never read?

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