If you are a dreamer, come in
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer…
If you’re a pretender, come sit by the fire
For we have some flax-golden tales to spin.
—Shel Silverstein, "Invitation"
Our third annual Coniston Prize issue celebrates the work of this year's winner and our five finalists.
Our winner, chosen by award-winning poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi, is Sarah Ann Winn. We live in a culture saturated with media about home design, chasing the impossible dream of what a home should look like. In her six poems, Winn borrows the tone and language of advertising to confront the range of human experience. She explores the insecurities the average homeowner feels when it comes to decor—which are really insecurities about our memories, relationships, and mortality. Winn takes a company name and transforms "Dot and Bo" into fraught, three-dimensional characters. She absorbs the commercial image of the ideal home and reflects it back through a funhouse mirror. She seems to say: Imagining that you could design the perfect home is as ridiculous as imagining that you could design the perfect life. In many ways, Dot and Bo become prisoners of their own beautiful design. They may lack introspection, but the wit, humor, and insight of the poet's voice is loud and clear. These lives are absurd, both funny and doomed. If you've grown tired of the ceaseless monologue of our time—selling us on everything from CNN to sofas—Sarah Ann Winn's poems are a wonderful opportunity to take a fresh look at the ways we live.
Finalist Annah Browning's poems demonstrate the potential of female power through the instruments of witchcraft. "I would like to feel your fur and pulse," she chants, "sugar/ and the shivering weather." There is an unrelenting and hypnotic intensity here, and that's how she scares us.
Mary Peelen's poems use the vocabulary of physics to tell a story. Just as there are patterns in nature, Peelen creates patterns of language through repetition and parallelism. She moves suddenly and seamlessly between the ethereal world of science and the everyday world: "Optimistic as Midwestern girls," she writes, "we dreamt of quantum entanglement,/ our cliquish leap into brilliance/ about as probable as photon emission."
Nancy Reddy places her poems in a landscape saturated with water, and that water becomes a symbol of the danger of life there: "Saltwater & subsidence etch a dark path through the swamp." Her characters' lives are shaped by risk and natural disaster. They live in a mysterious community governed by the dark forces of nature and of the "Sybils." And all along, the language Reddy employs is as rich as the ecosystem of her poems.
In her six poems, Rachel Sahaidachny builds a devastating narrative. Her speaker's simple, childlike voice is unsettling in contrast to the gravity of the subject matter—a mother's mental illness. "What kind of home is it where children daydream/ about being pets," she asks. "My sister wanted to be a cat/ I jumped around the house gnawing on cabbage/ My nickname was bunny/ She got skinny I got fat." There is as much power in what Sahaidachny withholds as in what she gives us on the page.
Maya Zeller writes expansive, lyric poems of grief. They take us on a journey through devastation, and every road leads back to loss. Zeller describes the guests at a wedding: "No one there had shadows/ in their glasses, they were all full of flowers." Then, "We know what happens to flowers.// A year later, they divorced." Like a balloon on a string, Zeller lets these poems float upward, toward happiness, then yanks them back to the ground. But the grief of this world is balanced by this poet's obvious love of language, her joy in using words.
Rachel Marie Patterson and Dara-Lyn Shrager, Editors
THANKS TO OUR JUDGE
Gabrielle Calvocoressi is the author of The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart and Apocalyptic Swing, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She is the recipient of numerous grants and fellowships including a Stegner Fellowship and Jones Lectureship from Stanford University, a Rona Jaffe Woman Writers Award, and residences from Civitella di Ranieri and the Lannan Foundation. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, The New York Times, Boston Reviewand New England Review, among others. She is Senior Poetry Editor at Los Angeles Review of Books and Founder and Senior Curator at Voluble, a forthcoming channel from Los Angeles Review of Books. She teaches in theWarren Wilson Program for Writers and at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She makes new economies with those who wish to. She tweets at @rocketfantastic and is on Instagram as gabbat. Her third book of poems, Rocket Fabtastic, is forthcoming. She is at work on a memoir entitled The Year I Didn't Kill Myself.