Poem of the Year:
May 2020-Apr 2021

Judged by Edward Hirsch

1st Place


by Judy Kaber
The Waters
December 2020

It’s not like I was hungry from the start.
I just returned the stares from those in need
of touch. I couldn’t keep myself apart.

I wasn’t good at music or at art,
but I knew how to germinate a seed.
It’s not like I was hungry from the start,

but boys just fell into my open heart
and propped their feet up there. So I agreed
to touch. I couldn’t keep myself apart

from red and tender lips. I’d hate to chart
How many boys I kissed. It wasn’t greed.
It’s not like I was hungry from the start.

If tenderness were graded, I’d be smart,
I’d get an A. They all knew how to read
my touch. I couldn’t keep myself apart

from love. (Or was it lust?) One would depart,
a face of salt and glass—another came to feed.
It’s not like I was hungry from the start.
But touch! I couldn’t keep myself apart.

The desperate need to connect through touch is recalled in this well-crafted and obsessive villanelle. “If tenderness were graded, I’d be smart,” the speaker says, “I’d get an A.” If tenderness were graded in poetry, this edgy poem would get an A too. --Edward Hirsch

2nd Place

Other People’s Cats

by Mike LaForge
The Waters
February 2021

I promise not to write about the way she sits on the sofa
in her plaid, mint green pajamas and the fuzzy gray slippers
she bought for herself three short days before Christmas.

No one needs to know, she says, about the skillful way she wraps
her freshly washed Argan Oil of Morocco scented hair in a towel
like the bright yellow turban of an Amritdhari Sikh.

She doesn’t like to be photographed or even looked at
closely after she’s removed her contacts for the night
and put on her wire rimmed glasses to watch those

soothing videos of other people’s cats, the ones
with Bengals, Ragdolls, Tabbies and Savannahs
stretching, climbing, curling up and posing

that she likes to watch before bed. If I photograph
her now, I know she won’t go to sleep until I’ve deleted
the evidence. I struggle to tell her that the photo is for me

to look at, that the sight of her curled up on our old couch
is better, for me, at the end of the day, than cats.
What are you writing about tonight? she wants to know.

The speaker can’t keep a promise not to write about an aging partner in this well-made and candid portrayal. It is a poetic betrayal filled with affection. --Edward Hirsch

3rd Place

Church of the Wheelchair Ladies

by Mary MacGowan
The Waters
September 2020

The sun always came in at a certain time
through a window near the nurse’s station.
The wheelchair ladies would slowly
make their way. If you asked them
where they were going, they couldn’t say.
But they got there, and napped
in the sun, their heads hanging
down tragically, fine dust motes
floating around them. It looked bad
to visitors, though, so we were
to move them. How about I take you
to your room for a nap? They’d answer,
Oh no, thank you dear, it’s so nice here,
in the sun. We’d wheel them to their rooms
anyway, and then, before we knew it,
they were back, their petite slippered feet
splayed like murder victims, or saints.

The speaker is a caretaker in this poignant portrait of old women confined to wheelchairs. The institution wants to keep them hidden in their rooms, but they show a deep determination to find their way back into the sunlight. --Edward Hirsch

Honorable Mention

Burying My Brother

by Bob Bradshaw
The Waters
May 2020

Last night we sponged John’s body
as if he were a small boy,
creamed his face,
his fleshy jowls–

dressed in a dark suit
unlike the t-shirt and jeans
he once raced home in–smeared with dust
from belly flops into second base.

Deaf as clay, he doesn’t hear
his neighbors’ peacocks,
their cries like mourners
who can’t resign themselves to grief.

Photos of his kids
lie scattered across his chest
like cards in a poker game–
a winning hand played out.

Honorable Mention

Sixth Street Psychic Walk-ins Welcome

by Mike LaForge
The Waters
August 2020

For twenty dollars she said she’d tell you
what you’d been or done in the past,
and not the past that you could remember
on your own, what would be the fun of that,
she was talking about the you that lived
before this you arrived and got your name
and face, and not about the face you had
before your mother was born,
that’s different, she was talking about
another life, a previous life, maybe
in a different century, certainly
in a different body with a different name
and face, and so she takes your hands in hers
and leaps back in shock, says you have enough
personal vital energy for three people
and you could be a cult leader in this life
if that’s what you wanted, but you don’t,
and then she says what you have paid her
to say, that you lived a fascinating life
before this one – and what did you get?
My brother got
French Madame in a Paris brothel, I wanted
Indian Brahmin, or Buddhist Warrior Monk,
but I got Undertaker in a time of civil war,
so disappointing, so gruesome, so very me.

Honorable Mention

Last Bus to Reno

by RC James
October 2020

Waitin’ on the last bus to Reno
out here in these long rusty hills
ponies run wild as ghost-shirt Lakotas.
There’s a stillness out here, alone
the moon is restless in its own vacant lot
there’s just nowhere for it to go
it’s lookin’ for me to give up all I know
but there ain’t even room enough for what I forgot.

Lakota ponies race over the ridge
with no riders, faster than memories
come calling, swifter than a lance
to my heart with all our old stories.

I remember, then I try not to remember
everything and everywhere the two of us sang,
you on the hood of that ’41 Ford coupe,
I thought if it was the last ride, I’d go.
Why you had to be so beautiful, why
I never made room for your dreams,
questions come down with the whole sky,
I just can’t tell exactly what it means.

Maybe in Reno, my buddy keeps tellin’ me,
maybe there you’ll hit the right combination
streets empty parking lots and the night
don’t seem too friendly or full of promise
to help set it right.

Lakota ponies race over the ridge
with no riders, faster than memories
of all our old stories.