Rattle is proud to announce the winner of the 2018 Rattle Poetry Prize Readers’ Choice Award:
Katie Bickham (web)
The 2018 Readers’ Choice Award was selected from among the Rattle Poetry Prize finalists by subscriber vote. Only those with active subscriptions including issue #62 were eligible. “The Blades” earned 24% of the votes and the $2,000 award. Here is what some of those readers had to say about their choice:
All ten of these poems were masterful and heartbreaking or hilarious, each in its own way. I’m choosing “The Blades” as my favorite because in seven vivid paragraphs, Bickham creates a new myth as powerful and memorable as the Greek myths, beautifully written and sharp as a blade. The last paragraph was shocking and unforgettable.
Late fall of 2018, I read The Power by Naomi Alderman. What. A. Novel. This dystopian future imagines a response to #MeToo in which women discover that—shockingly—they have had an ability which makes them strong, dangerous, unique, and unpredictable, and as society adjusts to this “new generation” of women, power dynamics shift swiftly and startlingly. Similarly, this poem envisions a new myth for women of the body and its trauma as its new strength. I connected with the narrative form that made it believable, a cause-and-effect perspective on how it might really happen when we suddenly change and have to suddenly accept ourselves. “Empowering” is sometimes an overused term, but this poem was genuinely empowering.
I know how important it was for me to win the Readers Choice Award in 2017, so I made sure to make an extra effort in my voting this year. On the first day, I read the poems one to ten in order. On the second day, I read the poems from ten to one. On the third day, I read the poems in random order. Then on the fourth day, I skimmed through all of them. On each day, the poem that stuck with me was Katie Bickham’s “The Blades.” I have not been able to get it out of my head. That is the poem I vote for.
I like the way Katie Bickham’s “The Blades” uses a mythic narrative arc to elevate the language to a fevered pitch which does not let up through all seven stanzas. The poem is filled with images, startling turns of phrase (“one wing per wrong,” “hair sliced off like a whisper,” “statures curved downward like sorrow,” “women folded // around their secrets like envelopes”), and allusions to both literature (“red letters”) and current events. The poem can rightly be called a tour de force for the technical skill it displays and the way, as Alicia Ostriker would say, it “steals the language” from its male oppressors.
To read “The Blades” and all of the other finalist poems, pick up a copy of Rattle #62, or wait until the April, when those poems start appearing online at Rattle.com.
Katie Bickham was the winner, but this year’s voting was as evenly divided as ever—each of the remaining poems received 6–13% of the vote, and all of the finalists had their own enthusiastic supporters. As always, it was an interesting and informative experience reading the commentary. To provide a taste of that, here is a small sample of what our subscribers said about the other finalists:
On Destiny Birdsong’s “Long Division”:
This one kept me coming back to it, and it rewarded me more and more with re-reading, something none of the others did to any equal measure although I liked all the poems and, when I first read them, thought I would have a hard time choosing this year. So I didn’t choose, then. I just kept thinking about the poems, and “Long Division” was the one that stayed in my mind, partly because it’s so complex, partly because the voice is so compelling, partly because the images are so arresting. I was afraid that when I read it again, it wouldn’t seem as strong. But it did and did and does.
It’s hard to write good poems about rape, about how it intersects with other parts of one’s sexual identity. It’s hard to keep it real without veering over into titillation or the pornography of violence. This poem manages to do all that and more—it’s use of language, repetition, the swing between high and low culture all mark it as something truly special. It’s not preachy. It doesn’t tell us what to do or how we should think. It is righteous and fierce while being tender, like Cardi B.
On Debra Bishop’s “Lonely, Lovely”:
This poem makes me want to finish my poetry. It is the deepest deep down thing inside me.
Ms. Bishop has crafted a picture that is so clear it’s as thought she’s plucked a note on a string instrument that rings true and reverberates and grows louder rather than passing back into silence. It is the essence of what we mean when we say, “that speaks to me,” or “it resonates with me.”
On McKenzie Chinn’s “You Don’t Look Like Someone”:
What makes Chinn’s poem outstanding and important is that she meditates on what really happened behind the words in a brief elevator exchange and arrives at a place to take back personal power. After hearing a statement that questions her belonging in the building, the speaker “arms” herself with the “learned response, survivor staple.” Chinn’s line breaks, expert repetition, and brevity of language emphasize the “centuries” long gaps “between the someone and the who,” and the insinuations of racial dominance in the remark, what the speaker hears through the “thin walls in this place.” By the end of the ride, she has angered beyond a defensive to an antagonistic stance, both corrosive in social interactions, but she continues to reflect on what she “could’ve / said” to put the exchange on equal footing. These inner twists and turns are real and well rendered.
As a woman of color, I can’t help but identify with the speaker in the poem and her experience. Plus, I like the mixing of different stanza forms and text styles in the poem.
—Stephani Maari Booker
On Steve Henn’s “Soccer Dad”:
For me, the winner is Steve Henn’s unexpected Soccer Dad. It is smooth, funny, sad and speaks the truth without any overt anger—this poet has a polish that takes the politics of our incredibly hypocritical society, our manipulations of our own children, our neighbors, our selves—how we got to the thug in the White House, really, and the intense loneliness we feel in our everyday lives, and he spins it into a truly marvelous read. I shared it with a good friend of mine, who is a “reader” of my poems and I loved hearing him read it in his own voice. We took turns reading it, and each time, this poem/monologue became more important, and even funnier, if possible. A true standout, among the finalists. I look forward to more of his work.
I laughed and felt part of the poem, part of the experience on the soccer field , part of wanting to hide poetry from silly judging eyes, and the end, a perfect comedic moment. You know the protagonist is going to stand up and do something hysterically proud and ridiculous . For Love. And then it happened. Like a perfect pratfall in a comedy. And like all good comedy, it revealed us, and made comedy into something that is poignant true sad and funny all at the same time.
On Courtney Kampa’s “In Charlottesville After Charlottesville”:
This is the poem I came back to again and again. Courtney Kampa is doing such a deft and difficult thing here: describing a moment of national outrage and tragedy by showing us the marks it left on the lives of people who were actually there, including her. With its incongruous images (“their faces doing that angry Goya thing / with the colors,” “the steel front bumper / severed, like two arms bent, palms up / and sorry”), this poem feels like it simmered a long time while the poet figured out just how to write this thing that affected her so deeply, personally, physically, as a person who lives in this community. Poems of witness, when done well, can carry a sort of self-propelled power via the events they describe. But this one goes beyond; it’s masterful writing by a poet who probably doesn’t feel good about having made this tragedy into art. You can sense that, all through these lines.
I love the way this poem spirals grief all over the place, illuminates different versions of “mortal sin,” and most impressively, tells us something about intergenerational violence and the forms of rage we inherit. There is so much kneeling and crouching and claustrophobic deference in this poem— a brilliant meditation on passivity and exhaustion in our current political climate.
On Michael Lavers’ “Will Exult Over You With Loud Singing”:
It’s touching, plainspoken, suspenseful, eventful, subtle, complex—a novel of a poem. With its particulars about three generations of a family it also conjures reflections universal enough so that any reader might relate them to their own experience.
Reading through all these wonderful poems gave me a glimpse into the challenge faced by anyone who’s having to judge a poetry contest. But the Lavers poem stood out in its ability to shift back and forth in time and in its interweaving of the abstract with the particular. Just as there are layers in and beneath the bark of a tree, there are layers of meaning in this poem. It calls me to revisit it again and again.
On Darren Morris’ “To the Insurance Agent Who, in Denying Coverage, Explained that Everything Happens for a Reason”:
The poem takes on a major human concern—religious faith—and grapples with it by considering one horrible act done in the name of faith. It’s brave, and its shocking central image will stay with me a long time.
—Mary Ann Honaker
Fantastically dark poem. Brilliant use of history to tease apart that bland sop, “Everything Happens for a Reason.” Hell yes, it does, but that reason can be unjust, misguided, malicious, and perverted as all get out.
On Loueva Smith’s “The Dead Weight of Dogs”:
There is always a kind of strangely split feeling about the love we feel for those who require our constant care. This poem is an attempt to bring together that duplicity toward the humane. Honest and courageous.
—William D. Dyes
I read Loueva Smith’s “The Dead Weight of Dogs” immediately after reading Nickole Brown’s award-winning chapbook, To Those Who Were Our First Gods. I walked around in a gray cloud for the rest of the weekend, fighting a lump in my throat and seriously thinking about becoming a vegetarian. “The Dead Weight of Dogs” went straight to my soul—it is a poem I will not forget, and the last four lines still bring tears to my eyes. A poem with that much impact deserves the Reader’s Choice Award.
—Carol Clark Williams
On Mike White’s “The Way”:
It’s short. It’s one slithery sentence. Its use of rhyme suggests it could have been written as an epigrammatic couplet but it toys with that idea and moves along as the dog moves along or, to put it another way, its “in-the-way” structure is lifted to reveal something new and original.To go a bit further: if you take “to” as an echo of “two,” then all four legs—one, to, three, fourth—are referenced in the poem. Great things come in small vessels. I hope it wins.
I love short poetry, especially when it successfully captures everything that needs to be said in a few brief lines. Saying a lot with the bare minimum is incredible skill. My parents are both amputees and the theme of White’s poem, in particular, really hit home for me. It’s simplistic and clever, but most of all the language leaves you with this ringing in your ears, and I don’t know if it’s the rhyme or something deeper, but I hope it never goes away because I love this sound.