2014 Poet's Seat Poetry Contest: A diversity of voices
GREENFIELD (April 29, 2014) â Poets Seat Contest adult winner James Heflin sits in the Poet's Seat for the first time after Tuesday's awards ceremony. Congratulating him are contest organizers and fellow winners, including 2nd place winner Stella Corso of Greenfield (to his right) and youth winner Grace Engelman of Conway. Recorder/Trish Crapo
A woman recalls her fighter-pilot father teaching her to drive, swallows fly in the rafters of an old milking barn, a young man wrestles his father to the floor for the last bowl of ice cream. These are some of the scenes evoked by poems read at the 23rd Annual Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest awards ceremony on Tuesday night.
The contest, sponsored by the Friends of the Greenfield Public Library, drew close to 250 entries this year, said contest organizer and children’s librarian Kay Lyons. It is named for Poet’s Seat Tower, which overlooks Greenfield and is dedicated to Greenfield poet Frederick Goddard Tuckerman, a well-respected contemporary of 19th-century writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Tuckerman was known for frequenting the ridge that the stone tower now stands on and the area has long been known as Poet’s Seat because residents would spend time there writing poetry even before Tuckerman's time.
Nearly 100 people filled The Capen Room at Stoneleigh-Burnham School to hear all 20 finalists read their poems before awards were given to the two top winners in each of two youth categories and to the three adult winners.
In the adult category, James Heflin placed first with his poem “Viva,” Stella Corso placed second with “Slow March” and Alice Thomas placed third with “For Wood: Syria.”
The top youth poems in the 12- to 14-year-old category this year were “Be Free,” by Jenna Hackett and A.J. Wilson’s “Winter.” In the 15- to 18-year-old category, Grace Engleman placed with “The Perfectionist,” and A.J. Urzedowski with “Poetry That I Understand.”
“I love hearing the diversity of voices,” said finalist F.D. Kindness, after the readings. Her poem, “Before He Discovers Gravity,” imagines a young Isaac Newton propped under a tree contemplating the elements. “Earth, Air, Fire,/ Water. Must each thing be just one?” the young physicist wonders.
Kindness said that after the reading, a man came up to her, introduced himself as a physicist and said, “I was so glad to hear that poem.”
“He thanked me for not mentioning apples,” she added with a smile, explaining that the common belief that Newton’s observation of an apple falling to the ground led to his theory of gravity may be erroneous, or a fabrication.
Kindness has entered the Poet’s Seat contest before but this was the first year she’d placed as a finalist. She was impressed with the youth poets, “Who always seem to have it so much more together than I did at that age.”
Like their adult counterparts, the poets in the youth categories juggle many outside commitments along with their writing. One of the top-two youth poets in the 12- to 14-year-old category, Jenna Hackett of Erving, arrived at the reading just 15 minutes before she was slotted to read, still dressed in her Franklin County Technical School athletic jacket, shorts and running tights. The only reason she wasn’t still wearing her cleats was that her mother switched shoes with her.
“I just came from track, which explains the get-up,” Hackett explained to the audience before reading her poem, “Be Free.”
It also explained her strong delivery of the poem, Hackett said later. “I was all hopped up on adrenaline,” she said with a laugh. Asked which events she’d competed in at the meet, Hackett replied, “200 dash, 4 by 1, pole vault, triple-jump, you name it!”
Hackett, 14, said her winning poem began as an in-class writing assignment. English teacher Alyssa Kelly had her students play what Hackett described as “musical books.” Instead of changing chairs, as in the childhood party game, students passed books around the room and as each one cycled past, chose words from page numbers determined by their birth dates. Hackett, born on July 21, culled words from pages 7 and 21 to create the surreal narrative of “Be Free.”
A.J. Urzedowski, 17, is focusing on auto mechanics at Franklin County Technical School. Also a student of Kelly’s, he said that he enjoys her writing classes because his work, “is not really censored.”
Students don’t have to share what they are working on unless they want to, he said, and Kelly’s assignments provide a “format that’s not too strict.”
“It’s easy for the writing to come out,” he said.
When Urzedowski was writing “Poetry That I Understand,” he thought of “the clichés of poetry” and then wrote the opposite.
“It’s Sweet words on paper to win women’s hearts/ Or maybe just a quick way to the bed,” Urzedowski writes of poetry, working his way toward its antithesis: “I will write about how I never want/ To be in love. I don’t want to feel it.”
First-place adult winner James Heflin also expressed admiration for the youth poets.
“I was really impressed with the poise of many of the younger poets,” he said. “They seemed very comfortable and confident with what they were doing.” He remembers being struck by the “restraint” that Jenna Hackett showed, “in not overdoing or driving home the point” of her poem.
“I could never have written something that interesting at that age, I don’t think.”
Heflin, associate editor for the arts at The Valley Advocate, had two poems make it into the finalist list: “Mister Have Big Time” and “Viva,” the first-place poem.
“It was the small details that arrived first and gave rise to the rest,” Heflin said of writing “Viva.”
He cited the image of stacking bits of pancakes and shoving them past “the syrup lake” as providing the starting point for the poem.
“I was thinking of that as the most minuscule act of rebellion possible,” Heflin said. “Rebellion on a really small scale that is really only meaningful to one person. I didn’t really think about it in terms of the larger issues but now it seems like it’s about the narrowing of possibilities as we get older. Perhaps you’re fooling yourself, perhaps not, I don’t know,” he added.
Heflin’s poem drew laughter from the crowd at several points, noticeably near the beginning when the poem’s narrator fakes picking up after his dog: “just a swipe of the bag through leaves” and at the poem’s final lines.
“I always enjoy reading,” Heflin said. “I see it as more of a chance for storytelling instead of the old-fashioned intoning of the great poem. I try to read as if I’m entertaining someone as much as anything. I’m not writing for laughs, but I enjoy getting them.”
This was Heflin’s first time entering the contest.
“I love that this is such a local contest,” he said. “Having that actual poet’s seat in my house makes me feel more connected to this place. I grew up in the South. Being able to show my friends that poet’s seat gives me a little more credibility as a New Englander.”
The poet’s seat
The “poet’s seat” Heflin is referring to is a wooden mission-style chair that has been passed along to each winner since the contest’s inception in 1991.
“The chair was built by a carpenter named Carpenter — John Carpenter,” Lyons told audience members, in a tone that borrowed a little intrigue from James Bond. The chair features the names of all winners on brass plaques on its back and its cushion is upholstered appropriately in a fabric printed with a pattern of scattered books.
Heflin also received a redware platter and mug inscribed with the accolade, “Poet,” handcrafted by Shelburne Falls potter Steve Earp, and gift certificates to Greenfield businesses World Eye Bookshop and Poetry Ridge Bed and Breakfast.
Second and third place adult winners and the top two youth winners all received redware mugs made by Earp and gift certificates to World Eye Bookshop. Organizers also thanked The Country Jeweler (for engraving the plaque), Locust Press of Deerfield for printing the programs and the chapbooks of all finalists’ poems; and Plants for Pleasure in Shelburne Falls for donating the white roses given to all finalists.
Earp has donated his pottery to the contest for the past 10 years but now, as his wife Cindy Snow is retiring from the organization committee, contest organizers are looking for another potter willing to design and donate a new first-prize platter and the seven mugs that are given as prizes each year. Please contact Hope Schneider at 772-0257 or leave a message on the Friends of the Greenfield Public Library Facebook page.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She is always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff photographer Micky Bedell started at The Recorder in 2014. She can be reached at email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 273.
(Editor's note: Some information in this story has changed from an earlier edition)