All of the 2020 IPPY Awards Poetry Winners
OUTSTANDING BOOK OF THE YEAR - "INDEPENDENT VOICE"
9. POETRY- STANDARD
GOLD (tie): Five Oceans in a Teaspoon
by Dennis J. Bernstein; Visualizations by Warren Lehrer
(Paper Crown Books)
by Kim Dower
(Red Hen Press)
SILVER (tie): As One Fire Consumes Another
by John Sibley Williams
by Lindsey Royce
BRONZE (tie): All Transparent Things Need Thundershirts
by Dana Roeser
(Two Sylvias Press)
by Ruth Dickey
(Harbor Mountain Press)
10. POETRY - SPECIALTY
by B.A. Van Sise
SILVER (tie): Homespun Mercies
by DJ Hill
(Light of the Moon, Inc.)
by Jane Tyson Clement with Becca Stevens
(Plough Publishing House)
BRONZE: Lightning Strikes II: 22 Poets, 22 Artists.
(Dolby Chadwick Gallery)
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IPPY-Winning Poets Speak Out
Poetry in a Pandemic
Editor’s Note: We’ve heard it all over the past couple of decades: books are dead, reading is dead, literature is dead…certainly poetry – moldy, ancient old poetry must be dead – isn’t it? No, it’s not dead and it’s not even dusty. Poetry is “on the rise,” according to numerous surveys and statistics, including steadily increasing entries in our recently announced Independent Publisher Book Awards. In 2017, the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts found that the number of poetry readers in the U.S. had nearly doubled over the previous five years, and in the U.K., poetry book sales increased 12% from 2017 to 2018.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily “your grandfather’s poetry” we’re talking about. Much of the increase coincides with the rise of hip-hop music and culture, and the popularity of poetry slams and other spoken-word venues like the Moth Radio Hour. Combine this with digital access, cell phone sharing, and Facebook and Instagram posts, and you’ve got a movement. Not to mention the politics of it all – poets have always been social commentators, going back to the Beat Poets of the ‘60s. And Lord knows our society gives us much to comment about...
This year’s IPPY Awards had 148 entries into our two categories: Poetry– General and Poetry–Specialty. We awarded a total of 11 medals to poetry books; two each of gold, silver, and bronze medals in the general category (the most medals awarded in any category); four medals in the specialty category; and one book of poetry received our special Outstanding Book of the Year Award for “Outstanding Voice.” Here’s what some of our winning poets have to say:
Kim Dower’s fourth poetry collection, Sunbathing on Tyrone Power’s Grave, tied for a gold medal in the Poetry - Standard category of the IPPYs this year. Dower finds inspiration for her poetry in everyday life: “On any given day, something mundane is bound to inspire me. This morning I noticed a single, shiny black bird feather on the ground right outside my front door. Inspiration.” She believes that: “We reach for poetry when we need a true emotional connection; when we are searching for solace, truth, for answers to questions we didn’t even know we had. Some of us reach for poetry simply for the pleasure, joy and surprise a wonderful poem offers. A poem is successful when it speaks to our pain, or joy, when it holds our hand while we cry or makes us laugh when we thought no laughter was possible. We want a poem to say – I get you; this is what you’re feeling. A poem is a treasure when it shows us something we’ve already seen in a way we’ve never seen it. And when a poem ends with something magical, unpredictable, but has a sudden rightness to it that we connect with that goes right through us, changes us, then the poet has done her job. If any of my poems ever do any of these things for anyone, that would be the impact I would want them (and this book) to have.”
In Sunbathing on Tyrone Power’s Grave, Dower shares poems that “speak about the grey space between tragedy and tenderness, memory and loss, fragility and perseverance” (Richard Blanco). Dower’s favorite thing about writing this kind of poetry is getting absorbed in a poem: “the concentration writing a poem demands, entering another world, being protected from outside distractions!”
Over the past few months of uncertainty in the Covid-19 pandemic, Dower has written several Covid-19 related poems, but she also stresses the importance of finding inspiration and humor in the everyday. “When I heard the news story on the radio while driving, ‘They’re Taking Chocolate Milk Off the Menu,’ I pulled over and wrote my first draft [...] I see humor in most things and use it in my work. It’s a big part of my style.”
HE SAID I WROTE ABOUT DEATH,
and I didn’t mean to, this was not
my intent. I meant to say how I loved
the birds, how watching them life off
the branches, hearing their song
helps me get through the gray morning.
When I wrote about how they crash
into the small dark places that only birds
can fit through, layers of night sky, pipes
through drains, how I’ve seen them splayed
across gutters, piles of feathers stuck
together by dried blood, how once my car
ran over a sparrow, though I swerved,
the road was narrow, the bird not quick
enough, dragged it under my tire as I drove
to forget, bird disappearing part by part,
beak, slender feet, fretful, hot,
I did not mean to write about death,
but rather how when something dies
we remember who we love, and we
die a little too, we who are still breathing,
we who still have the energy to survive.
- Kim Dower, Sunbathing on Tyrone Power’s Grave (Red Hen Press)
Five Oceans in a Teaspoon, which tied for gold in the Poetry - General category, was co-created by Dennis Bernstein and Warren Lehrer. Bernstein wrote the poems, while Lehrer designed the book’s stunning visuals and layout. This collaboration marks the artists’ fourth time working together. In Five Oceans and a Teaspoon, Bernstein and Lehrer “investigate and explore the emotional and physical dimensions of loss. We take on gambling addictions, Alzheimer's, poverty, aging and the crucial end of life decisions about dying with dignity in the age of technology.”
When asked about how current events impact his work, Bernstein said: “Poetry and imagery have allowed me to leap over the mundane prose that often dulls the mind and fails to bring home the depth and meaning of any given event. Oftentimes, it feels to me there is the poem of the moment and the hour—that’s my news story, and then there’s the pure poetry that is the news story of Eternity.” He also stated: “I want my poetry to be functional and meaningful for everyday people. I think poetry has a special place in informing society in the deepest ways—ways that newspapers and TV cannot even come close to reaching [...] Poetry can come in so strong to deepen, clarify and inspire. Some of the best poetry has a way of skipping the brain and going right to the heart and into the veins, into emotions, informing consciousness through the whole body.” Bernstein and Lehrer strive to create socially relevant poems, believing that “art should not be shredded away from the daily struggle of people working for a better, more just way of life.”
During the pandemic, Bernstein and Lehrer see poetry as more important than ever before, with Bernstein saying: “I believe more than ever that poetry can help pave the way to a more humane and just society.” He went on to explain that poetry can help people bridge the physical and emotional isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic because “poetry is touch.”
- Dennis Bernstein and Warren Lehrer, Police Brutality (on Steroids) (Paper Crown)
Lindsey Royce, winner of the silver medal in the Poetry Standard category, says that she writes poetry because “it is a need for me. Until I’ve written about something, it is not entirely real to me, not fully formed in my consciousness.” In Play Me A Revolution, Royce grapples with issues of war, race, suffering, and violence. Royce hopes that her poetry moves people “to better self-acceptance and acceptance of others. I want my poetry to inspire people to become their best selves. I want my poetry to move people to activism. I want my poetry to provide pleasure and spark critical thinking. Ultimately, I want my poetry to have a part in improving the world by positively affecting those in my circle of influence.”
When asked about the importance of writing and publishing poetry, Royce quoted Winston Churchill. When Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in support of the war, he replied: “Then what are we fighting for?” Royce is fighting for justice and truth through her poetry, and she hopes that Play Me A Revolution is “part of the solution and not the problem. I write poetry to contribute, in my circle of influence, something positive to the world.” Royce says that winning an IPPY will help her “reach more people with what I hope is a message for love, conservancy, justice, and peace.”
Through the last few months of social distancing, Royce has written a new draft of a poem every day. She says: “the pandemic has slowed the pace of our lives for the better, I believe, and I will never return to the breakneck pace at which I lived life before the pandemic.”
AN OFFERING TO WHAT’S NEXT
I want to walk naked into the fields,
skin sequined as hummingbirds
that sip from purple lilacs, vibrant
as fragrant air.
I’d walk in sunshine glossing
of the power to birth and kill,
both the genesis of blessings.
I’d watch tanagers’ wings
beat with furious grace,
breasts against bark, singing,
Death is immodest--
Give up shyness in love--
Be light as cottonwood seeds
drifting into whatever’s next,
into all that sustains, even me.
- Lindsey Royce, Play Me a Revolution (Press 53)
DJ Hill’s first collection of poetry, Homespun Mercies, won silver in the 2020 Poetry - Specialty category. Hill says that she is driven to write because “writing is both a creative outlet and a primal necessity in the complicated world in which we live. It fulfills a core desire to explain the world to myself. Something will capture my attention, cause an emotion, and I try to describe that interaction as accurately as I can.” She is drawn to poetry because it “provides an opportunity to take in what the world offers and reflect the beauty, pain, suffering, and joy of what it means to be human.”
In Homespun Mercies, Hill strives to find balance and allow readers to discover their own meaning: “My goal is to leave enough room for the reader to insert their own experience into the work.” Hill hopes that allowing readers to bring their own experiences will prompt a conversation with her audience: “I never wanted to be a writer or artist who puts work into the world for vanity’s sake. It needs to have a larger purpose. My theory is that if a topic has lingered in my psyche, it is time to investigate why and to put it on the page as transparently as I can. That is where the conversation begins. The reader then knows they are being invited into the discussion and the work shifts to them.”
Hill has worked to keep up this conversation with readers over the past few months. Even after the coronavirus epidemic cancelled her in-person poetry readings scheduled for April, Hill found ways to share her work through virtual readings with her local libraries.
The Homestead Act of 1862 tempted with free land
and the good life. Cultivate and work it for five
years, it is yours. But as they say, nothing is free.
My grandfather’s uncalloused hands moved
effortlessly over piano keys, yet failed to grasp the
yoke of hardship that free land requires.
Grasshoppers feasting on acres of tender shoots,
soybeans or corn, second-hand machinery destined
to break, down the road to free land, with empty
cupboards and treeless landscapes, one room hovels
with dirt floors and rats and rainless culverts,
occasionally flooding to swallow up a child. “You’ll
most certainly go to hell,” my grandmother cried, as
my grandfather diligently worked the Sabbath field,
watching the fine, silvery powders of the good life
slowly sift away.
- dj hill, Homespun Mercies (Light of the Moon)
Ruth Dickey, the bronze winner of 2020’s Poetry - General category, focuses on homelessness and humanity in Mud Blooms. Dickey writes on these topics because “writing is how I make sense of the world, and so I am a happier person – and the world makes more sense to me – when I am writing.” She goes on to explain that “I’m often writing about things I feel strongly about and/or don’t understand, so society and current events are often in my work.”
Mud Blooms combines poems based on Dickey’s own experiences “trying to find a sense of home” with poems inspired by her time leading writing workshops for the homeless in Washington, DC. “The people I met through the workshops were incredible and complicated and struggling against the crushing forces of poverty, addiction, and mental illness, while trying to navigate often byzantine systems,” Dickey says. “In my writing workshop, we only had one rule, which is everyone writes. So we were all there as equals, trying to figure out how to put words on the page to capture what we were feeling and thinking. It was important to me in putting the book together that my own poems of finding home were interwoven with poems about Miriam’s Kitchen – so that the poems speak to one another, and that they are not separate.” Dickey goes on to explain: “One of the writers who was a regular at my workshop confided to me that one of the hardest parts of being homeless was that people didn’t look at him and he started to wonder if he even existed. My hope is that my book affirms the existence and importance of the lives of people experiencing homelessness, and that it illuminates some of the painful struggles people encounter and have to navigate. The final poem in my book is a sort of prayer for the poets I knew, and I imagine the sky whispering into their ears, ‘You are essential as iodine, precious as infants, magnificent / as twisting live oaks.’ I guess my greatest wish for the book is that readers would see each of us, and all of us, in this same way – essential, precious, and magnificent.”
Dickey continues to spread this message through isolation and uncertainty. Her poetry readings for this spring were cancelled, but she describes this disappointment as “a very small grief” compared to “the universe of griefs and disappointments that people are trying to metabolize these days.” She has been using her writing as a “space where I’m trying to metabolize and make sense of the world” during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Fleeing beeps and whorls, passing minutes till sunrise,
I snuck out of the hospital to smoke on the granite steps,
the night damp, giant moon hanging, a tin ornament
behind magnolias. Grateful reprieve from vinyl chair,
from curling on the laminate arm, waking to the pulse ox alarm,
nurse rounds, yawning chasm of hours, mom squirming on her back,
more infant than parent, everything unspooling.
I keep coming back to this night. The yellow of the moon.
Bitter coffee in a Styrofoam cup. Something languid in the air.
Spanish moss like swaying kelp. Horrible yes, but also
oddly open, a starfish unfurling arms, anemone undulating.
- Ruth Dickey, Mud Blooms (Harbor Mountain Press)
So, there you have it – 148 entrants, 11 winners, and 5 poets who make it clear that poetry is very much alive and healthy in 2020. Despite an unpredictable pandemic, these artists have found ways to continue creating and sharing their beautiful work with the world.
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Cece Richardson is a contributing writer for Independent Publisher. She studies English and Theatre at Benedictine College, where she spends her time acting, writing, and producing radio shows. You can find her on twitter @CeceRichardson6.