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The Charles Simic Poetry Prize


We established the Charles Simic Poetry Prize to honor our late friend and mentor. We received 357 submissions from around the world. The editors worked to narrow the selections to 25 and passed those along without identifying the poets, to David Rivard, who selected our winners. David, a wonderful poet, taught at UNH with Charlie.


The winners of the first annual Charles Simic Poetry Prize are:

  • First place ($1,000 prize): George Perreault

  • Second place ($500 prize): Betsy Sholl

  • Editor's Choice (signed first edition of Simic's The World Doesn't End): Claire Millikin

Of the prize winners, Rivard wrote:


Charles Simic had what can only be called “eclectic taste.” He was as likely to praise a poem by Tracy K. Smith as he was one by Basil Bunting or Ales Debeljak. He knew what he liked, but there wasn’t an ounce of narcissism or snobbery to his opinions. He didn’t need to hear the sound of his own unique voice echoed back in the poetry he loved by Dickinson or Vallejo.


This made talking with Charlie about poetry an adventure and delight—that I was lucky enough to do that week to week for a couple of decades was one of the real pleasures of my life. What Charlie was looking for in poetry was the intensity of one person’s presence on this earth—it’s what he understood the lyric was looking for too. Something like what Thelonious Monk meant when he said that a genius is a person who is “most like himself.”


So I used that notion of “presence” as a guide when judging this first annual Charles Simic Prize. I was looking for that intensity. I wasn’t looking for the second coming of Charles Simic. There won’t be another Charles Simic on this planet, at least not one who writes poetry—though I do seem to recall that Charlie had some hilarious ideas about his possible reincarnation in another form.


All twenty-five poets whose manuscripts I initially read had this intensity in their poems at times. The final five had it in consistently involving ways—I felt instructed and entertained by the language and feeling and thinking they made on the page. I kept coming back to those five. I wanted to read even more of their work. That I chose George Perreault and Betsy Sholl to honor with the Simic Prize probably has more to do with my personal needs at the moment. This is a thing your teachers don’t tell you: that the poetry you come to love is the kind that gives you what most need for your own life. Sometimes these poems give you your life.


I don’t think I’ve ever quite read anything like George Perreault’s poems (though I recognize some of their possible sources in the poetry of people like Merwin or Niedecker or—at a further remove—Williams). Perreault’s poems are collagist narratives, composed out of fragments. I loved how the poems moved, their pacing and jumps, how intimate their quickness made the feeling and thinking, even when it was oblique. His poems are grounded in a recognizable scene but range through other scenes and times, often at great distance. There’s something touching in the speaker’s vulnerability to his losses as he moves through memory and experience, but he’s too knowing to want to “perform” those feelings for us. There’s a hard-won emotional honesty to these poems. They have a quiet, if rueful, wit too—I mean, it is ironic when you have to remind your doctor to finish up a memory test she’s forgotten she initiated earlier in your visit to her office. Perreault’s tone conveys so much so subtly of who and what he is.


Betsy Sholl’s poems here also have losses at their heart, and on their mind. As in Perreault’s poems, those losses link up in compelling ways with ongoing troubles in the world (both these poets live in houses that history made). But where Perreault is all about compression and quickness, Sholl uses an expansive, accumulative syntax to bring us to that compassion that has governed her work for so long. Her personal losses seem insistently to make her sensitive to the suffering and injustices of the world (again, without performative moralizing or self-regard). These are supremely adult poems (good lord, thank you for that!). They are full of sorrows and pleasures, regrets and full-throated acceptances. Discursive narrative seldom seems as genuinely urgent to me, unforced, as it does here in Sholl’s work. I love how her poems end in what so often seems the inevitable place—inevitable but still surprising—she keeps the energy flowing past the closure. Her poems uncover themselves.


And that’s about the size of that, as Professor Simic might say. Except one more thing: both of these poets are wonderful image makers. They make it look easy, which it ain’t. For that alone, I feel sure that Charlie would approve.


 

Editor's Choice Award - Claire Millikin:


the open

place in the mind where you know

what you’ve been offered

as a guiding light

is worse than darkness.


Claire Millikin writes in “The Nightlight”, a reverie from her childhood about a

Confederate monument and the “flame burning in its stone helm”. It was such startling

juxtapositions that drew us to Ms. Millikin’s poetry, the way she subtly directs the

tumbling mind one way and then another to the ultimate small nova of realization.

It was also the clean simplicity of imagery, as in “This Beautiful World” where we

find


The men living by the highway exit-ramp,

how fierce the light along their shoulders

as they try to sleep at midday.


It doesn’t strike one as odd to find out Millikin teaches American Studies and art history

at Bates College, as her poetry tells splendidly intricate, accurate stories that glow with

richly textured scenes reminding us of other artists like Wyeth, Homer and Hopper.

We received hundreds of great entries to the Charles Simic prize contest. While Claire

Millikin’s work was not chosen for the prize, we felt strongly that the quality of her work

deserved special mention, and so we created the Editor’s Choice Award.

 

Charlie wrote: “I was already dozing off in the shade, dreaming that the rustling trees were my many selves explaining themselves all at the same time so that I could not make out a single word. My life was a beautiful mystery on the verge of understanding, always on the verge! Think of it!” - from The World Doesn't End


Thank you to all poets who sent us their work for shedding some light on this beautiful mystery.


We are proud to present you with the work of all of our 25 finalists in the following pages.






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