At last I can announce that I’ve placed second in this year’s Short Grain Contest, an annual literary contest run by Grain Magazine, from Saskatoon. I was informed a few weeks ago by editor Sylvia Legris, but asked to keep it quiet until the press release was out. I haven’t placed in a writing contest since I was eleven years old; though I’ve made the shortlist of several contests over the years, which encouraged me to keep sending in those entry fees.
Writing contests are fluky things, and it’s best never to judge your own writing in relation to them. Generally I believe that if your entry makes it to the shortlist you’re doing something right, but it’s not a sign that you should be complacent but to keep critiquing, keep challenging your creative choices. To this particular contest, poetry judge Jeramy Dodds was the main reason I applied, and being a grad student one constantly dreams of sudden windfalls.
I sent in two entries, a longer, more stylistically flashy poem about a parkade as a metaphor for social mobility and emotional blockages, and I was convinced it might take some spoils. But the poem that won, “Penelope Before Marriage”, is half the length and much quieter. Just goes to show how much I know! For years the opening line haunted me and I struggled to find the poem that would fit it. Referencing Eliot’s “I have heard the mermaids singing,” my opening lines resituate the speaker into the middle of Lake Ontario. I knew it would be a poem about sailing, even what particular outing; but the poem did not come together until I began imagining Odysseus and Penelope as youngsters. Aristocratic, young, carefree, and yet unwed, I pictured them cruising around their native harbour with their friends, longing for adventure, the years of grief still ahead of them. So whereas “Parkade” was dense rhetorically, “Penelope Before Marriage” is dense with allusion, particularly from Homer’s epic. It uses lots of internal rhyme, i.e. “singing/leaned in”, “slack/tack”, “hair/bare”, “gap/supper”. I also made a line-break I normally would not have to place “your/our” at the end of the lines 10 and 20, so that the poem could be folded in half.
It’s an honour to come in second place to Tim Bowling’s first. All of the winning entries will appear in Grain’s Winter 2012 issue.