Poetry is hard. There’s an immense history of form, meter and voice to contend with. You have to say so much by saying so little. Every word countswhich means that every word is a chance to go wrong. Carrying a thought or feeling from the first line to the last without dropping it is like a magic trick, a feat of levitation. When a poem falls flat, it falls very flat. When it doesn’t, it puts us on the ceiling and leaves us there long after we’ve finished reading.

All three winners of the INDY‘s 20th annual poetry contest make that incredible leap through language. We hold our breath as they arc through the air, exhaling only when they nail their landings. In “Notes from Our Chef,” first-place winner Rajeev Rajendran movingly but unsentimentally channels the inner life of his mother, who happens to be a well-known Chapel Hill chef. In “How to See a Ghost,” second-place winner Ashley Memory intently tracks a surprising line of thought toward an ingeniously counterintuitive conclusion. And in “Bibingka,” third-place winner Jeffrey Pineda exhumes a vast web of memory, geography and time from a deceptively simple cake.

There is a pleasing symmetry in how two poems about cooking frame one of a decidedly less corporeal nature. But all three of our winners are united in performing acts of profound imaginative empathy, resulting in the transubstantiation of unique personal experience into broadly relatable, endlessly reinterpretable literature.

Over the last two decades, the INDY Poetry Contest has brought together new writers who are earning their first publication credits and experienced ones with books and awards already under their belts. Every year, we are astonished and delighted by the undiscovered talent in the Triangle. We are thrilled to be giving all of our winners their first publications this yearthough Memory is a published novelist, “How to See a Ghost” is the first serious poem she ever wrote.

After leading the in-house screening of hundreds of entriesfor the record, I’ve been publishing my poetry in the small press world for a decade, and have been a preliminary judge on the INDY Poetry Contest for nearly as longI sent a dozen finalists to our esteemed judge, Jeffery Beam, who selected the winners.

In 2011, Beam retired after many decades as a botanical librarian at UNC-Chapel Hill. The poetry editor of the journal Oyster Boy, he lives in Hillsborough with his partner of 35 years, Stanley Finch. Beam is the author of more than 20 works of poetry and criticism, including The Broken Flower, Gospel Earth, The New Beautiful Tendons: Collected Queer Poems 1969 – 2012 and the spoken-word multimedia album What We Have Lost: New and Selected Poems 1977 2001.

Beam’s song cycle Life of the Bee, with composer Lee Hoiby, continues to be performed on stages around the world, and its Carnegie Hall premiere can be heard on the album New Growth. Beam is currently at work on a opera libretto based on the myth of Demeter and Persephone, a commonplace book on poetry and spirit, and a new song cycle with soprano Andrea Moore, composer Daniel Thomas Davis and Hillsborough authors such as Allan Gurganus, Michael Malone and Lee Smith.

You can read Beam’s essay about our first-place winner on the following page, and then join him at Letters Bookshop in Durham at 7 p.m. on May 6, where he and our winners read from their work. Poetry is hard, but listening to writers of this caliber? That’s easy.

2014 INDY Poetry Contest Winners, First place

Notes from Our Chef

by Rajeev Rajendran