The Phoenix Art and Literature Contest Judge

The Phoenix
Logo by Alex Phelps, FTHS ’11

Today I had the pleasure of judging finalists in the poetry category of The Phoenix Art and Literature Contest. Sponsored by the Journalism Club at Foothill Technology High School, the contest received 564 entries in five categories — 157 entries in poetry alone — from teenagers across Ventura County. I was truly impressed with the quality of the poems, and encouraged to see an upcoming generation of local poets exhibiting such promise and skill.

Having entered numerous contests myself, with varying degrees of acceptance and rejection, I was keenly aware of the implications of my task. There is certainly a degree of subjectivity when it comes to “ranking” art. Each poem had merit, and were I able to convey a single message to the ten finalist poets, I would want, most of all, to encourage them heartily to keep writing.

In the end, however, my job was to pare down, then rank, the poems. The task was difficult because the poems were good, because I am aware how much young people need encouragement, above all, in artistic pursuits, and because I think this contest supports such a wonderful cause. After arguing with myself, reading and re-reading the poems, and cycling through three different varieties of caffeinated drink (brewed coffee, green tea, and espresso), I made my picks. In the end, I have both a greater appreciation for the care that goes in to the judging process, and great hope for the future of poetry.

Kudos to all who entered. Winners will be announced in May.

Mark Doty: Phoenix Aflame

“What did you think, that joy / was some slight thing?”

-Mark Doty, “Visitation”

Fire to FireIt is now a matter of public record that my company recently laid off 40% of staff. But numbers do not do justice to the sense of loss. Today I rifled through comments written in our software source code management system by ex-members of my programming team. Sprinkled among the technical remarks were little witticisms and the occasional wry geek joke, artifacts of camaraderie among the ash.

I have been cauterizing the wounds of loss with poems — more reading than writing lately, and catch-as-catch-can. I could not have willed my way toward a better book in this challenging time than Mark Doty’s Fire to Fire. Doty captures the fierce and sometimes terrible beauty of life with musical phrasing, stanzaic integrity, and the courage to look and look, deeper and deeper, into the human world. It is from loss that these poems are written, but their trajectory is towards awe — the hope that springs from amazement, the amazement that springs from deep observation, the deep observation that settles in the ashes of loss.

Doty’s carefully-measured stanzas seem to propel his poems like an engine — which is, after all, a series of well-timed explosions. Each little engine links together to drive us into the depths of the poem — be it the shell of a turtle, the smoky glitz of a cross-dressing bar, or the heart of a man care-taking his dying love. Doty is not afraid to hold with the poem until it opens up, frequently busting the page barrier in little epics that never feel watery, or strain to make a point. It is an inner fire he seeks in each poem, heating up line by line and phrase by phrase — his technique a poetic kiln. Thank you, Mark Doty, for firing your ovens, and plying your craft — producing stunning reminders of the beauty that can rise from flame.

Blogging, Reincarnated

“I rhyme / To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.”

-Seamus Heaney, “Personal Helicon”

PhoenixWired Magazine‘s Paul Boutin recently declared personal blogging dead. Soon after, The Atlantic‘s Andrew Sullivan extolled the endurance of blogging’s “human brand” in a postmodern world of words. Me? I just keep writing. But why?

In “Personal Helicon” Seamus Heaney rhapsodizes on his boyhood love of wells, then concludes that writing poetry has become a sublimation of this love of the messy, muddy darkness no longer accepted in adulthood. I, too, write — both poems and blog posts — to create reflection in the dark, and to delight in the mess.

I did not start as a poetry blogger, but rather converted my existing site from a static collection of all-about-me pages into the chronological format of a blog. I did so around the time I became a freelance technology writer and consultant. It became a great outlet for me to float my nascent technical ideas before a global audience, and I soon found my blog posts widely re-syndicated.

This was during the heyday of personal blogging. Boutin now sees this golden age as having been pulled apart by two forces: the major news sources catching on, and dominating the market, and social networking sites like Facebook providing an alternative outlet for those seeking self-expression and a social community of peers online.

But my blog isn’t about monetizing my writing. Otherwise, I would still be mostly writing about technology. And, although I joined Facebook some time ago, social networking messages and status updates have by no means supplanted my writing here.

I never set out to write about poetry, or about grief for that matter. But by following the thread of my thoughts through the thread of my life, I seem to have touched upon a wide range of subjects, and to have built new thoughts upon past ruminations. In doing so, I feel I have also actually begun to build up a greater understanding of my self, and of how best to share that self with others. Far beyond “self-expression,” blogging for me represents a means to see myself in Heaney’s well, to gaze down through layers of history, into the dark.

For those who are afraid of the dark, perhaps it is true that many of the rewards of blogging’s prime have withered, and with it a certain breed of personal blogging has died. For the rest of us, I say: personal blogging is dead; long live personal blogging!