Last year, love was all you needed to enter the Common Good Books annual poetry competition. This year, love is not required---but you do need to revive the lost art of letter-writing.
The theme of this year's competition is "Dear You," and the bookstore is looking for poems in the form of letters--and they don't have to be nice ones, either. (Just poetic.) (And to real, living people.)
Proprietor Garrison Keillor has upped the prize money to $5,000, which will be divided into three $1,000 grand prizes and four $500 prizes for "poems of merit." This surely makes the bookstore's competition one of the most lucrative in the country for a single poem. Last year's competition, with prizes of $4,000, drew more than 1,000 entries.
Here are the rules for this year's competition:
1) The contest it open to anyone living within the United States.
2) Entries must be a single poem, in the form of a letter to a real, living person.
3) Entries must be original work, previously unpublished, and the author must have full rights to the material.
4) Only one entry per person.
5) Entries must be mailed to Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul, MN 55105 and postmarked no later than April 4, 2015.
Winners will be announced at noon on Sunday, April 19, at a celebration at Macalester College's Weyerhaeuser Chapel.
The crush of people started early: in the foyer of Open Book, through the lobby, up the famous winding staircase to the second floor. Graywolf Press folks hustled past the line, privileged, no need to wait--they were the publishers, after all, of the evening's poet, and they had a lot to do.
"I feel like I'm at a rock concert," one young woman said as the crowd inched up the stairs.
And she wasn't far wrong; poet Claudia Rankine is a literary rock star. Her newest collection, "Citizen: An American Lyric," was a finalist for a National Book Award and is a finalist in two categories (poetry, and criticism) for a National Book Critics Circle award.
Rankine, who teaches at Pomona College, was in Minneapolis on Friday night after spending most of the week at the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, doing readings and talking to students.
The performance hall at the Loft was at capacity (about 200 people); three overflow rooms held a couple hundred more, hooked up by video and not always reliable audio. Macalester College professor Marlon James, author of "A Brief History of Seven Killings," introduced Rankine.
"I can't tell you how quickly I responded to that e-mail that said did I want to introduce Claudia Rankine," James said, chuckling, calling himself one of her biggest fanboys. "Even at its most boldly confrontational, 'Citizen' grabs us with its big heart. It's the pre-Ferguson book that feels post."
Rankine, quiet, thoughtful, measured, talked about the beginnings of her book. "I went to friends and asked them, 'Will you tell me a story where race entered the room?'" she said. They did, and she listened. These stories found their way into the first section of "Citizen," story after story, written in the second person the more to involve the reader, written plainly and nearly without emotion, but story after story, one building on another to devastating effect.
A friend ("you" in the piece) went to her first therapy appointment at the therapist's house, and the therapist screamed at her to get out of her yard.
Rankine ("you" in the piece) asked a friend to babysit while she went to the movies. On her way home she got a call from a neighbor, warning her about a "menacing black guy" in front of her house, casing the joint. Don't worry, the neighbor says; he's already called the police.
And when the menacing black guy turned out to be Rankine's friend who had stepped outside to make a phone call while babysitting her children, she suggests to the man that in future, he stay in the back yard. "He looks at you a long minute before saying he can speak on the phone wherever he wants. Yes, of course, you say. Yes, of course."
The crowd at the Loft was perfectly silent as she read this piece, and then Rankine looked up and said, "That's the tortuorous and complicated and sick thing about racism. I want to protect you from my neighbor, and my way of protecting you is to curtail your rights. It's insidious."
For another part of "Citizen," Rankine asked her friend Rupert, an attorney in Los Angeles, to tell her about the times he had been pulled over by the cops. Rupert and his wife came over to Rankine's house, and "one of the things that surprised me was that she had never heard any of his stories," she said. "And as he told them I could see him getting angrier and angrier."
She read some of Rupert's stories in her quiet, strong voice: "Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. I must have been speeding. No, you weren't speeding. I wasn't speeding? You didn't do anything wrong. Then why are you pulling me over? Why am I pulled over? Put your hands where they can be seen. Put your hands in the air. Put your hands up."
After the reading, the audience questions came slowly at first, as though everyone needed some time to absorb the words they had just heard. One man had no question but merely wanted to thank her for reminding him that he is not alone.
A woman asked about Rankine's emotions as she was writing the book. "There were things that distressed me," Rankine said. "The piece about the therapist really shocked me." But when she was writing, she was concentrating more on the language than the feelings behind them. "Sometimes it takes weeks to figure out the right order of the words, or the words themselves," she said.
A teacher asked how to respond to white students who read "Citizen" and feel defensive. Rankine suggested that defensiveness is only one way a person can respond, and that the teacher might consider asking her students to look for other ways, too.
"We are all struggling around this," she said. "The only chance we have is engagement."
Michael Bazzett, a Minneapolis poet, has won the third annual Lindquist & Vennum Prize from Milkweed Editions for his manuscript, “You Must Remember This.” The prize, which includes $10,000 and publication, is one of the top poetry prizes in the country.
Bazzett is a graduate of Carleton College and teaches at the Blake School; his work has appeared in Ploughshares, Pleiades and the Best New Poets series. This year’s competition drew more than 150 submissions and was judged by poet and critic Kevin Prufer, who called Bazzett’s manuscript, “frightening, hilarious, and dark.”
"The big hinge for me was receiving a sabbatical from Blake, for the 2007-2008 school year," Bazzett said in a statement to Milkweed. "I will always be grateful for that year: I essentially read & wrote full-time, for a year. It was the first time writing had been at the center of my life. ... I moved with my family to San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, where we could live very well on half-salary, and I just started delving in. In the spring of 2008 I had a pile of poems and other half-finished projects, and I started sending work around in earnest; I won the Bechtel Prize that year and Mark Strand picked one of my poems for Best New Poets 2008."
Milkweed will publish his prize-winning manuscript in November.
Bazzett is the second Minnesota poet in three years to win the prize; Patricia Kirkpatrick of St. Paul won the inaugural award in 2012. Last year’s award was won by Rebecca Dunham of Milwaukee.
Kristal Leebrick's prize-winning love poem has it all: winter, North Dakota, young love, first love, the northern lights, sentimentality, and the wise perspective of later years. It's evocative without being sweet, nostalgic without being mawkish, and it attracted the admiration of the three fine judges of Common Good Books' second annual Love Poems competition, who awarded it first prize.
Leebrick lives in St. Paul, edits a monthly newspaper, and is the author of "Dayton's: A Twin Cities Institution."
The four runners up in the competition are:
Edwin Romond of Wind Gap, Penn.
Kathleen Novak of Minneapolis
Ann Harrington of St. Paul
and Chet Corey of Bloomington.
Judges were Garrison Keillor, Patricia Hampl and Tom Hennen; Leebrick wins $1,000 and the four runners-up each with $250. May they spend it on fine pens, thick journals, and lots of books!
Here is the winning poem:
New Year Love
I remember our breath
in the ciy air
and how the northern lights gathered
in a haze at the horizon,
spread up past the water tower
then vanished into the dark.
I remember that January night in North Dakota:
We left the dance,
the hoods of our dads' air force parkas zipped tight,
our bare hands pulled into the coat sleeves.
into the wind
down the drifting sidewalks of our eight-grade lives
to the brick-and-clapboard row houses on Spruce Street.
We ducked between buildings
and you pulled me close.
A flickering light from someone's TV screen.
A kitchen window.
Your fingers tracing my face.
Your hair brushing my eyes.
Your skin, your lips.
I remember that January night in North Dakota,
but I can't remember you rname.
Common Good Books' second love poem competition drew more than 1,000 entries--"five shopping bags worth," writes Garrison Keillor (pictured) on his Common Good Books blog.
Keillor and fellow poet-judges Patricia Hampl and Tom Hennen read poems about all kinds of love--love of cheese and tomatoes (that's two separate poems), cats and dogs (definitely separate poems), men and women, hymns and helmets.
They narrowed the field from 1,100 submissions to 25 finalists; most of the poets are from Minnesota but definitely not all of them.
The winner will be announced at a public event at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, April 27, at Weyerhaeuser Chapel at Macalester College.
Here are the finalists--the name of the poem, the author, the hometown:
"Map," Melissa Anderson, Minneapolis
"Love Poem, Late in Life," Chet Corey, Bloomington
"Anniversary," Kathleen Donkin, Lubec MAINE
"Lexiphilia," Julie Excell, Denver CO
"Inheritance," Patricia Kelly Hall, Roseville
"They Will Appear Lovely In Your Eyes," Jennifer Halling, Leavenworth KS
"Shoveling," Ann Harrington, St. Paul
"An Iowa Song," Marsha Hayles, Pittsford NY
"Kinnickinnic," Michael Hill, Austin TX
"Pershing Avenue, 1960," Holly Iglesias, Greenville SC
"The Way You Move," Brett Jenkins, St. Paul
"Custodian," Maureen Cassidy Jenkins, Carnegie PA
"Galaxies," Ken Katzen Columbia MD
"New year love," Kristal Leebrick, St. Paul
"At Louie Arco’s," Kathleen Novak, Minneapolis
"Migration," Nancy-Jean Pement, Thousand Oaks, CA
"String," Jessica Lind Peterson, Brooklyn Park
"Sonnet (for K B)," John Richard, Minneapolis
"One Good Thing," Edwin Romond, Wind Gap PA
"Full Moon, Almost," Susan Solomon, St. Paul
"Parallel Lives," Donna Spector, Warwick NY
"Rondeau for My Grandmother," Marjorie Thomsen, Cambridge MA
"Sonnet for a sister who was once my best friend," Francine Marie Tolf,Minneapolis
"To Carla", Cary Utterberg, Golden Valley
"Every Morning," Mark R. Warren, Phoenix AZ
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