In September 1905, the famous and controversial sculptor Rodin hired poet Rainer Maria Rilke to be his secretary. One day, when Rilke confided to his employer that he hadn’t been writing lately, Rodin gave him a simple instruction. Go to the zoo, he told the poet, and look at an animal until you see it. After following this advice, Rilke produced “The Panther,” a poem that explored the act of seeing as much as the animal itself. In the poem, the panther’s vision is deadened by the bars of his cage, behind which he paces day after day. Beyond them, he sees nothing. “Only sometimes do the curtains of the pupil noiselessly rise,” Rilke wrote of the panther’s eyes. “Then a shape enters/slips through the tightened silence of the shoulders/reaches the heart and dies.”

Rilke’s evocation of the caged creature’s hopeless gaze began to define a new direction for verse. Poetry should go beyond the contemplation of the self, according to Rilke. Instead, it should absorb the vast and meticulous universe outside the speaker. It should go beyond the bars.

Several decades later, Marianne Moore echoed Rilke’s call to notice the world when she claimed that poetry was “an act of attention.” This year, The Independent‘s Poetry Contest once again demonstrates that we live in a community of noticers. Among the 227 poems submitted, the judges found lyric portrayals of irises in Duke Gardens and coffins flooded from the earth after Hurricane Floyd, and insightful tributes to grandmothers and hair salon proprietors, bluegrass musicians and drag queens. The diversity among these voices was striking and strikingly alive.

Our winner, E.V. Noechel, skillfully uses the metaphor of photography to explore the themes of memory and loss. Two runners-up, Sean Doyle and Emily Matchar, write poignant portraits of women for whom an unconscious and often overlooked sadness is a daily condition. Runner-up Bryan Miller leads us down the avenue of regret, which we find strewn with surprisingly familiar mementos.

Although the winners take center stage in this issue of The Independent, those whose poems did not place in the contest should be commended for their commitment to verse and their courage to share it. In their individual acts of attention, each of them has chosen to lead us beyond the bars of our everyday routines. No doubt Rilke’s panther eventually died in the zoo in Paris–yet reading the poem almost a century later, isn’t it possible we are still setting some part of him free?

How were the winners chosen?

Submissions were handled anonymously. Neither the initial screeners (Carol Wills and Clancy Nolan of The Independent) nor the preliminary or final judges knew the names of the entrants until the winning poems had been selected. The screeners read each submission and chose, by consensus, poems to be sent to the preliminary judges. The preliminary judges selected a total of 12 poems to be sent to the final judge, who chose one winner and three runners-up.

Who were the preliminary judges?

Gina Streaty, published in Stanford University’s Black Arts Quarterly and the newly released anthology, In Our Own Words: A Generation Defining Itself, Vol. II, resides in Raleigh with her daughter, Tia.

Jim Stuntz took first prize in The Independent‘s 1999 Poetry Contest with his poem “Aging, Reversed.” He will graduate from Davidson College in 2001.

Maria Hummel is the The Independent‘s arts editor and the author of City of the Moon, the winner of the 1999 North Carolina Writers’ Network Harperprints Chapbook Competition.

Who was the final judge?

Luis J. Rodriguez grew up in Watts and East Los Angeles. His memoir about gang life, Always Running, La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A., won the Carl Sandburg award, and his The Concrete River was awarded the 1991 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for Poetry. Rodriguez has recently been the guest of the North Carolina Literary Consortium’s Word Wide: Writers of the Americas, a 10-week series of public readings, writing workshops and other cultural events across North Carolina celebrating Latino writers and readers.