Rattle is proud to announce the winner of the 2013 Rattle Poetry Prize Readers’ Choice Award:
Rebecca Gayle Howell
“My Mother Told Us Not to Have Children”
The 2013 Readers’ Choice Award was selected from among the Rattle Poetry Prize Finalists by subscriber vote. Only those with active subscriptions including issue #42 were eligible. Of roughly 3,500 possible voters, 786 cast ballots, and Howell’s poem earned 18.8%. Here is what some of those readers had to say about their choice:
Direct, simple and powerful. Lest we forget, and this poet obviously has not, the pragmatism of those who cannot afford the currently-in-fashion idealism of the affluent, which masquerades as reality and isn’t (for so many in the world), should not be confused with lack of love or caring. This poem reminds me of the seemingly harsh but, for me, liberating world view of my English (maternal) grandmother, who raised her family in the midst of deprivation caused by two world wars and the Depression era. She spoke in proverbs, which expressed her belief in the real—the “what is” as opposed to the “what should be”—and brushed my hair too hard, hurting my scalp and said it was good for me. I have never known such strong and fierce and real love as hers.
I want to vote for Rebecca Gayle Howell’s “My Mother Told Us Not to Have Children.” I’m especially impressed by the poem’s ability to create and negate feeling without straying outside of itself. The mother’s harshness is harsh, tender, and the aftermath of struggle, and the daughter simultaneously resents and comprehends its expression. It’s a relationship in all the simplest and most complex sense of the word. Fantastic.
—Calvin OlsenWhat really brings the poem home for me are the third through sixth stanzas where the poet describes her mother giving her head rough treatment when she received a shampoo and then transitioning with the words “… the water rushing hard. It felt like drowning, her tenderness” to tell how her mother herself sat in bath water after nine other family members had used it while at the same time outside the poet’s maternal grandmother was cutting off a chicken’s head. The kitchen knife in the second stanza was mentioned as being practical but at that point in the poem any household implement would have served the same purpose as a symbol of practicality. The soft focus on the knife resolves itself into a backwards-looking sharp clarity with grandma giving that chicken’s head some of that same rough treatment that seems to run across three generations. I hope this gives some sense of what the poem meant for me and how I felt the poet effectively conveyed the grittiness of her family struggling to survive and to remain decent folks at the same time.
—William Cullen JrMs. Howell handles feeling in just the way I like—simply, directly, and without sentimentality. Also, I’ve grown a bit tired of irony in contemporary poetry, those workshopped lines that suggest writing poetry is cultic and not an art form that should strive for a measure of universality. In “My Mother,” the imagery is powerful: I am moved by the sharp picture of her mother, as a little girl, “sitting in the dirty water alone,” and the line (sorry, I’m going from memory) “… instead our estate was honesty/ which is not tenderness” has stayed with me all night—wish I could have written it. It’s a very smart thing to put into a poem, this denial of a connection between honesty and tenderness. I find honest mostly untender, even cruel, especially in families. The last short bit is perfect—this is free verse, but there’s structure to it, just enough to keep the poem honest. Nice work. I hope Ms. Howell wins the cool grand! Most of all, I hope she keep writing.
—George OvittThe images presented in the poem are striking—a harsh picture of a difficult childhood, where the one person who should be a child’s protector is, perhaps, the one to be protected from. This poem stayed with me in a way many poems do not. The narrator’s pain bleeds through the words.
—Carol A. Stephen
Howell’s “My Mother Told Us” was the clear winner, but all ten of the finalist poems received a significant number of votes, and each had their own enthusiastic fans. No one received less than 4.9%—1 in 20 readers would have selected any of the poems a winner. That’s always the best lesson to take away from any award in poetry: tastes are subjective. As a testament to that, here are just a few of the many comments we received about the other finalists:
On “A Poem for Women Who Don’t Want to Have Children” by Chanel Brenner:
Most often a poem draws me in and holds me by such elements as striking metaphor or crisp description or rhythmical music in the lines, but Chanel Brenner’s poem comes at me powerfully from a different direction. With an austere and unadorned approach, in a plain-spoken manner, the poem begins with a series of negative assertions, the speaker declining to advance several commonly voiced or stereotypical benefits of motherhood. Then, immediately following this list, the speaker delivers two straightforward statements, two declarations that strike the reader suddenly, like tragedy and joy. There is also much to like in the structure of the poem: the rhetorical technique, the use of parallelism, the clipped line length at the end of the poem. The poet’s use of craft reveals to the reader a knowledge that cannot be explained but only felt. Poems that speak to our immediate or personal experiences are the ones that often mean the most to us.
On “Baby Love” by Courtney Kampa:
While a long poem can lose a reader with too many details, I was with the poet every word and line of the way. I admired the way she kept weaving the details of her experience in and out of each other in time, making them gather momentum through the end of the poem which explodes with Gregory as present today as in 5th grade, her love for him larger than ever, Gregory now an angel who plays his harp on the strings of memory.
On “What He Must Have Seen” by Stephen Kampa:
I think this poem works on so many levels—the wonderful words: “gangles, totters, tremor-steps, orotund (which I had to look up), smarts-riddled crowd, the digital blink.” You can just see everything in it—and be thrilled for the victory of the old man, over all the condescending congregation and the too-sure pastor. The old man wins it all, crawling, but knowing he will rise again. The last three lines just blew my away—further each time I re-read it, now I must crawl, too, through my days , remembering and seeing what path I am on.
On “Man on Mad Anthony” by Bea Opengart:
Though each poem had its merits, Opengart used the long form, the thoughtful line breaks to speak with delight, curiosity, and compassion for the subject matter. I picked Opengart’s poem for its tone and its brilliant sustained pacing. Never was I bored or arguing the narrative. Always interested in the next line and in this line and believing the voice totally. Like it should, the poem let me see a new world in my old one.
On “Laundry List” by Michelle Ornat:Applause, applause for her smooth transitions. I didn’t read this poem; it pulled me through like I was water skiing down the Colorado River while having multiple orgasms move through me like the San Andreas when it’s on a roll.—Pat Phillips West
On “Man on the Floor” by Jack Powers:
I like how the alternating indentations of the lines seem to mirror the poem’s own elliptical movements from one memory or idea to the next. The back and forth of the lines mimics the fits and starts of growing up. The thematic thread of regrets concerning manhood and fatherhood hold the parts together as the piece moves from one unexpected turn to the next. This poems reminds me of Ford Maddox Ford’s famous dictum that the best writing consists of “a succession of tiny … surprises.” That stat about forgetting 90% of your dreams in the first 10 minutes of awakening stuck in my head for weeks, long after I remembered where I had read it.
—William “Mike” Pulley
On “Basic Standards Test” by Danez Smith:
I love when a poet chooses an unusual premise to explore a common topic. I also love when a poem pummels me with sorrowful truths, expert use of language, and grace. This one made me feel guilty even though I haven’t done anything. Or maybe because I haven’t. It made me want to try to change circumstances over which I have no control.
On “Who Breathed in Binders” by Patricia Smith:
A brilliant poem—a tapestry of universal themes, history, politics, economics, sexuality—all revealed through specific, heart-rending details of a bound young woman’s inevitable fate on the slave auction block. As the poem delivers the crushing vileness of the woman’s degradation, it does so in a rich and beautifully crafted work of art. Ironically the poem is deeply disturbing and at the same time a great pleasure to read. The poet’s sensibilities and voice are established and sustained with the literal, the metaphorical, and layered meanings of “binder.” There are “whole binders full of women,” followed by the repetitive “binder” sound and play on words—becoming a painful emotional chant. The artful, inner beauty of the poem is woven together with cruelty and brutality, “a black girl languished, her limbs linked by iron.” The musicality is both chilling and lulling. The weaving of rich poetic language continues with horrific images of base sexuality, woman as object, as property, for self-gratification, business, and profit. “Who Breathe in Binders,” is a poetic achievement—using virtually every poetic element to create powerful images in beautifully crafted language. The emotional depth holds a timeless record of years of inhumanity through the tortured experience of one “binder” woman. It is a stunning and hauntingly beautiful poem. And, yes, “strange we should forget.”
On “Of You” by Wendy Videlock:
For me this is a story within a story. It is a piece of memory, of peaceful acceptance. A way to say hello after a good-bye. It could be a mother to her child who has grown up, a wife or daughter dealing with a loss. Either way for me it is the bringing back of memories with the windowsill as a soft place to land and a strong hand to hold.