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Also by Virgil Suárez:
Anatomy of a Poetry Contest | Vespers on the Anniversary of My Father's Death | Poem for My Father

Anatomy of a Poetry Contest

In the years I have been writing (about 22 now), this turns out to be my fifteenth judged contest, so it almost averages out to one judged contest every year and a half or so. Why do I keep doing them? Because like editing anthologies it keeps me in touch with the poetry that is being written at the moment. It keeps me tuned in. It keeps me thinking about all the wonderful voices out there. Nothing better to keep the blood pumping. I can't imagine the poet, in particular the American poet, living in such a vast landscape and literary tradition(s), not to be aware of how much good work is coming from every corner, every nook and cranny of the American poetry scene. Like most poets, I wish the audience were larger. Many of us are working on it. The Poet Laureate is working on it. The Academy of American Poets is working on it. The Society of American Poetry is working on it. But, mostly, it is up to the individual. It is up to the small journals and reviews to keep the flame bumming. All these years I have tried the hardest to be democratic in my tastes. And I stay true here. My daily mantra is "I like all kinds and forms of poetry. My only religion, my only belief is poetry.

This year Clackamas Literary Review has asked me to judge their contest, and I now have completed this task with much pleasure. Once they screened the entrants and delivered the finalists, my job wasn't any easier than in other years, other contests. It is difficult to judge contemporary poetry because so much of it is good, so much of it is bad, and so much of it depends upon how the individual poems speak to me. During my own culling process, I gave each poem a day or two to start talking to me. Many of these poems called me back time and time again, until I had about four of them saying: "Hey, wait, and one more thing. And, hey, look, another thing. Are you thinking about me? Still?

I've lived with these poems now almost a month, and those left on my table kept bringing me back. It became a difficult matter to choose because I think each of the four poets I kept listening to (Glaser, Sapia, Reyes-Boitel, and Brewer) created the most interesting questions in their poems. Elton Glaser's "Incompatibles in the Wild Light" is a wonderful poem and it kept me aware of nature: "Sit under the sweet olive and suck / A stick of sugar cane, and let the mockingbird / Recite our history like a syrup of sins? I read and reread this poem while still in Miami, and it made me homesick for my house in the woods of Tallahassee. Yvonne Sapia's "What It Is Like To Be Gone" took me straight to the personals/poet's childhood, and by extension, through rich imagery and exacting detail, my very own. I like Sapia's work, and have always delighted in reading it everywhere I find it. "I'm the only one who knows the truth about / where he has gone and about how he leaves no evidence / because it is his special skill to use the camouflage / of light and dark to conceal himself as in this picture where he hides eternally." "Everyday Mambo" by JoAnne Reyes-Boitel simmers with sound and heartfelt emotion. I like the rhythm of this poem. I like its cadences. Also I loved the fact that of all these poems I felt this one resonated with details of an extremely familiar world and culture to my own: "your heart bore the rhythm a mambo would take as its own- / or the other way around, / the mambo extracting the first heart / from the same wood its conga would be lifted, / always then connected."

Excellent work indeed. And so the hours and days passed. The choosing became a matter of taste. Finally, this judge's taste turned to Gaylord Brewer's "Ode to Leonard Cohen and Yogi Berra" because it simply clicked in. This poem spoke to me directly about the fears I have as a young man, a young poet, in the darkening and dangerous world. I reread this poem because it invited me back each time with new layers of meaning, tone (initially I thought the poem, unlike other work by Mr. Brewer, was dark and too blue for my own moods, but then the humor began to surface. Not a funny "Ha-Ha" humor, but the kind of nervous laughter one falls prey to on a morning walk in the woods where the mockingbird perches on the fence post, a cardinal chases a crow from its nest, when you first stumble upon the deer carcass left by the side of the road, hit by a car the night before, a flock of vultures congregating over survival.) "I live in horror of my parents' deaths, / either sudden loss or the slow diminishment. / How will I ever enjoy the world / without them? I fear the day commitments." And I thought of the last exchange I had with my father before he died. He'd had colon surgery to remove a tumor, and he'd have to wear a bag on the side of his stomach, and while the nurse taught my mother, him, and me how to replace the bag and keep it clean, I told my father that he'd be able to now go on very long trips without ever needing a bathroom, that he'd save a bundle on toilet paper. And he half-smiled because he thought it was funny. We all want to die laughing, or in our sleep. No one I know wants to go any other way.

Mr. Brewer spoke to me clearly and directly about living the moment, but at what cost? Soured memories? What is taken from us on a daily basis? When we arrive at the last two lines of his poem: "But the future, I've been there, / and it's not what it used to be. It's murder." I get goose bumps after much reading. I kept coming back to it, and I couldn't help but tell myself that although there were many more excellent poems among the finalists, this "Ode," this one was the one that I liked best.

Printed in the Fall/Winter 2000 issue of CLR

Virgil Suárez

Virgil Suárez was born in Havana, Cuba in 1962. He is the author of four published novels: Latin Jazz, The Cutter, Havana Thursdays, and Going Under, and of a collection of short stories titled Welcome to the Oasis.

He teaches Creative Writing and Latino/a and Caribbean Literature at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida where he lives with his family.

You Come Singing, a new collection of poems, is out from Tia Chuca Press/Northwestern University, as well as the limited edition book of poems titled Garabato Poems (Wings Press, San Antonio.) In The Republic of Longing, a new collection, is due out in the Spring of 2000 from Bilingual Review Press/Arizona State University.

You can find Virgil Suárez on the web at:
—  Florida State University
—  Barcelona Review
—  Meridian
—  Garabato Poems
—  Poetry Daily
—  Amazon
—  Barnes & Noble

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