Winners Reading

Tuesday, May 19 7 p.m. So & So Books 704 N. Person St., Raleigh 919-426-9502

Poetry is movement, however paradoxical this may seem for a form that either sits on a page, inert, or is performed by people standing still before a microphone. Yet it is defined by motion—of thought and feeling over time and space, of the rhythm of a voice and the tidal flow of lines, of the transformation of an idea from the first word to the last. A successful poem puts us down somewhere far away from where it picked us up. It moves us.

The winners of our 2015 Poetry Contest all achieve this feat, turning flat walls of language into deep tunnels of experience. First place winner Travis Smith takes us from farthest space to humble earthen tiles in his witty yet poignant “Hangover with Mosaic of a Man Leading a Giraffe.” Second place winner Mary Hennessy—making a remarkable third appearance in this contest—sends us hurtling through a strangely luminous darkness and then “back towards the sun” in her breath-bating “Winter Solstice.” And third place winner Kelly Jones turns an outsized presence into a gaping absence in her inexorable prose poem, “Ruby-throated Goner.”

This year, our judge was Ross White, the Executive Director of Durham-based poetry imprint Bull City Press and a teacher of creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. His poetry has appeared in American Poetry Review, Best New Poets 2012 and others, and he is the author of the book How We Came Upon the Colony (Unicorn Press, 2014).

You will hear White’s acute editorial sensibility in his judge’s notes on each poem, and we invite you to come hear him and our winners read and discuss their work at So and So Books at 7 p.m. on May 19. In the INDY‘s 21st year of celebrating local talent, as always, it’s poetry in motion.


All interviews by Laura Jaramillo

INDY: What do you do for a living?

TRAVIS SMITH: I live in Durham, but I work at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill full-time. I do a combination of bookselling, marketing and social media.

Are you from the area?

Yes, I went to Chapel Hill High School and then to UNC, so I’ve got the Chapel Hill bona fides wrapped up. And I went to Ole Miss for three years. I did an MFA in poetry. I lived in Providence for a year, when my girlfriend was working at Brown, but then we moved back here.

How did you become interested in poetry?

I kind of go way, way back with poetry. My mom is a writer and my aunt is a poet and has an MFA from UNC-Greensboro, so they encouraged me whenever I did anything poetry-related as a kid. Poetry writing got serious for me in high school.

So you consider yourself primarily a poet?

Definitely. But you know, I would like to write essays and that sort of thing. The fiction of W.G. Sebald is really huge for me. If I wrote something like that, I would totally write prose all day.

Sebald is a very poetic prose writer. Which poets have been influential to you?

Among the living, people like Mary Ruefle, L.S. Klatt and Geoffrey Nutter. Nutter is maybe one of my favorite poets. Loosely, the Wave Books poetry crew is sort of my guiding star in terms of what I want to do. Among the dead, there’s Sebald, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop.

What was the germinating moment of your winning poem?

It’s funny because it’s not really typical of my writing in a lot of waysspecifically, the way it has a very straightforward, paraphrase-able argument, which is a little bit odd for me. It came out of a time in my MFA program. It originated in a poem that was a lot more dense, not as straightforward, laden with indecipherable imagery. My teacher at the time, whose name is Ann Fisher-Wirth, wanted me to “just write something real.” I sort of broke it down, and what I ended up with was the idea of the hangover. At the core, I was trying to get at what happens when a sense of cosmic expansiveness comes up against limits and boundaries, which it inevitably does. The dramatic situation of the hangover turned out to be the best way to get all those ideas in one place in a “real” way, as she wanted me to do.

To what degree did your MFA program affect your writing?

I think the experience of writing this poem encapsulates a lot of what you could say about my MFA experience, which is that it wasn’t a situation where everyone was like, “Oh, I totally get what you’re doing.” It was a challenging process of questioning some of my assumptions about my writing and coming up against a lot of different views of what writing should be. I think that was an incredibly valuable thing. And even though the poem doesn’t end up being completely representative of my writing now, I’m very glad that I wrote it and that I can do that. I ended up finding a group of people in my MFA class who I learned so much from, and we still keep in touch from far afield. So that definitely made me a stronger writer and reader of myself as a writer. —LJ