Wednesday, March 27, 2013

March 2013 Challenge Winners - Poems about Poverty

Rick Roberts, author of one of the March example poems judged the Poetry Challenge this month. When I asked him if he would do so, he commented on the subjectivity that is always involved in judging poetry, and added, Quite often a better constructed poem lacks the emotional impact of one that may be more raw and honest. . . .  The words that move me, that knock my socks off, will always carry the day with me.”

Roberts listed two poems as tied for second and third place, saying, “Both of these poems are full of subtle and forceful imagery. They were wonderful, each in their own way.” Here are the two runner-up poems:

Dead End Kid

          The photo on his bureau 
is studio-precise: Knickered.
Eight years old. Shining Irish face.
I see my father hidden here.
Long ago, this boy was posed in a fancy parlor
drawn down from a painted canvas roll—
He'd been dusted off, fussed over
like any robber baron's son
for this oddity-- a satin-lit vignette—
A boy standing beside a wooden chair.
Placed on the wooden seat there is
a small bouquet.
           It was slums that welcomed newcomers—
not Fifth Avenue mansions. My father's home
waited five floors up noisy tenement stairs. 
My father's tenement childhood ran with an alley gang—
kicking cats and heaving bricks before Rosary at bed.
His mother died sometime after her steerage voyage.
The aunts lived on, old maids, polishing
the mahogany floors and brushing the velvet
of an elegant age. They gossiped
over Venial Sins of both rich and poor.
But it was Mortal what they did to him—
They told the boy "The Drunkard" was dead.
At eighteen, my father met his father
in a box at an Irish Wake.
           My father's childhood hovers
in family shadows and the shallows
held by an antique camera lens.
I understand the Friday drinking and the Irish Luck
that trapped him here, going silver 
with the small bouquet on a wooden chair.

~ Francis Toohey

Francis Toohey is a painter and writer working in Mexico. His chapbook, The Household, was published in 1989. Goodfellow Editions is publishing a full volume of his poems entitled The Great Gods later in this year (2013).


She stands in the midst of the busy road
all 40, maybe 50 pounds,
wind from passing vehicles blowing her threadbare dress.
Hair and skin the color of dessert and dust,
distant brown eyes
hardly seeing.

She stands in dry heat, diesel fumes, and danger
at the curve while
vehicles of visiting gringos slow, then motor past
her arm extended to collect
coins thrown her way
into a cup.

Every day I see her from my safe, soft seat
en route to that day’s adventure.
Our driver quickly passes
the same dress, same cup, same eyes.
She stands and 
I wonder.

For months I’d saved my money to
Escape to Paradise!
Each day she seeks coins
and hope
and dreams to get away.

~ Katie O’Connell

Katie O’Connell is a writer,  educator, and enthusiast of all things creative. Having worked in the publishing industry as well as in the classroom, she has always loved words and writing, but only recently has dedicated time to refining and publishing some of my own creative works.

Now for the winning Poem:

A city water spigot at the end of a narrow alley
Rusted bucket, grey rag
She shivers, she is naked
No sunlight reaches her between the cement block buildings
At ten years old, she is the size of a six year old
Can this small bit of water clean her body?
Can anything ever clean her emotionally?
The scars of abuse? Can they be taken away?
Tonight she will sleep under the eaves of someone else’s home
She may not eat until tomorrow
Yet now, now all she has is this bucket she found
This rag that she found which is as good as the clothes she wears
Day after day
He must be tough
He must laugh with the others
Money exchanged for a small plastic baggie
Running, running, running
To the next hit and the next
Tonight he will sleep inside at least
On the cement floor, wrapped in the thinnest of blankets
Tomorrow he will run and run some more
So he can eat a piece of stale bread
Tears run down her cheek
And drip onto her baby
He does not notice, he continues to cry
She rocks him and sings to him
This will not ease his hunger but there is nothing else to do
People walk by and don’t notice
Other babies cry today and no one notices
There are too many babies crying to notice
But, she thinks, this is my baby
My baby crying
A coin falls at her feet
And another
Thank you, thank you, thank you
She whispers
It has been days since she’s had a real meal
But now today her baby can have a bite
Tomorrow may not come
She can feed her baby today

~ Chris Kincaid

Roberts said this poem "left me breathless." He described it as “Raw and amazing.  Full of immediacy and all the desperation and agony of its vision.”

Kincaid wrote, “When I was in Kenya on a mission trip, one of the places we visited was Mathare Slum. The poverty there was so overwhelming. What can one person do to help any of these orphans or widows? So many pictures from that day remain vivid in my memory. The young girls sell their bodies and the young boys run drugs. HIV-positive women who have been widowed or abandoned by their husbands do whatever they can to find food for their children.”

Her memoir of this trip, A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven, shares the efforts of those who are trying to make a difference in the Slums of Nairobi. The book is available online at, Barnes and Noble and Life Sentence Publishing. There is a Kindle version, in addition to the paperback book. You can find out more about the author on her blog at

Congratulations to the three poet winners this month. And thanks to Rick Roberts for judging the contest and to the other poets who entered the challenge contest.  The poets published on this blog retain copyright of their own poems.

Check back on April 1 for the new poetry challenge.

© 2013 Wilda Morris

Friday, March 1, 2013

March 2013 Poetry Challenge: Poverty

This picture shows the stone bridge mentioned in the poem by Peter Ludwin.

The world’s great spiritual leaders—Buddha, Isaiah, Jesus, Mohammed—for Instance, have taken a special interest in those who are poor, and have entreated their followers to be generous to the needy. Poets can handle the issue of poverty in many ways. There is a risk of moving past sentiment into sentimentality, of going into the opposite direction, into insensitivity. The form a poem regarding poverty takes depends on how the poet encounters it, and the poet’s ability (or inability) to identify with those who are poor.

I was raised in a family which was on the line between “lower middle class” and “upper lower class” (to use the language learned in schoo). There was an obvious “pecking order” in elementary school, and I was aware I was close to the bottom. One year, a child who was much more economically deprived than I joined my class. I was immediately aware that I got picked on less as she was picked on more. I felt relieved—and guilty for feeling relieved.

My first encounter with extreme poverty came when I was on the debate team at American University in Washington,D.C. We participated in a tournament in New York City on a bitterly cold weekend. One experience I had that weekend has had a life-long impact on me. It was years after the experience that I wrote the following poem:

Feet on the Subway

His coat was ragged
as his face. His worn hat
and threadbare gloves
could not protect him
from the icy cold racing
through the wind tunnels
of New York City.
Probably he panhandled
coins to ride the subway.
My eyes were drawn
from his drawn face,
his recessed eyes,
to the skin of his ankles
stretched tight and red,
his puffy feet, pressed
into loafers, the newspaper
stuffing visible through
large holes in the soles.
I shivered less from the cold
than the coldness
with which I stared.
I reached my station,
rose and left the subway car.
I took his feet with me.
Look, the swollen ankles,
the newspaper-stuffed shoes
are still stored
just behind
my eyes.

~ Wilda Morris

This poem, which was first published on the website of the Evanston. Illinois, Public Library, and has been republished several times, focuses on the impact of the experience on the narrator.

While I was in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico, earlier this year, I purchased a copy of Atención, a local bilingual newspaper. It included a poem by Rick Roberts. His poem focuses on the interaction between the narrator and a woman who sits on the sidewalk begging for coins:

For a Peso

  As I was walking the streets of San Miguel
I saw a twisted old woman half sitting,
           half lying on the sidewalk,
 I stopped to drop a peso In her basket.

      As I bent down, she looked up,
her eyes probing mine, pulling me
              into her very being.

Did I see the mother she had once been,
 her children now scattered and lost to
  Had she once been someone’s bride,
          some young man’s passion?

   Had her body always been broken,
or  had she run with her friends laughing
                    in the sun?
   Had she ever been carefree, giggling,
   sharing her dreams and her longings?

  Had she held the hands of her brothers
                  and sisters
     as they skipped across the plaza?
In her long life had she ever felt safe,
          sheltered, and wholly loved?

           Then I saw in those eyes
   that she had been all those things.
               Was all those things.
                  Is all those things.

       As I finally released the coin
       into her basket, she smiled
  the sweetest smile, said “gracias.”
Then released me to my passing self.

~ Rick Roberts

From For a Peso, by Rick Roberts. Also published in Atención, January 4, 2012, page 17. Used by permission of the author.

Peter Ludwin who goes to San Miguel de Allende every winter, developed some degree of relationship to a street vendor named Carmela. Carmela was not destitute as the man on the New York Subway or the woman described by Rick Roberts, but her economic means were obviously limited. Perhaps I have a bias in favor of this poem because I stayed in the same posada in San Miguel, and also purchased gorditas from Carmela. I’m also impressed by the way Ludwin broadens the focus of the poem to include historical and socio-economic factors. The images and metaphors in this poem are also strong. Unlike the two poems above, this poem is addressed to its subject.


Every winter when I return to San Miguel
I find you in the same spot
under the little stone bridge: Carmela,
the gordita woman, a mestiza crone

one step removed from the shriveled Indian
begging in a doorway like a starving bird.
For thirty years you’ve made empanadas
filled with cheese and hot chilies
on your comal, hand dipped in a bucket

of tainted water I ignore. What are you
if not the chime of the tolling bell?
Mexico’s true constant, a blue feather
waltzing with dust? Revolutions, coups,

cartels—they come and they go, rank winds
that sear the eyebrows and ravish unsuspecting nuns.
You remain, the lines and folds of your skin
the paths of ruined armies, of obsidian blades
and Spanish bayonets kicked up by a plowing mule.

Once, coming down from the Andes,
an old man asked me What is your faith?
I knew what he wanted: that identity card like
American Express. Inconceivable

I would ever leave home without it.
A casualty, that faith, like so many others
in the course of learning to stand naked.
More reliable those simple things that anchor
the common rhyme: a rooster, a bougainvillea.

And you, gordita woman?
I believe in you as others believe
in Exxon or the New York Times,
the way I used to believe in the Lone Ranger,

a masked redeemer unscarred by doubt,
a range rider whose shirts never creased.
What I see is what I get. Digging for change,
you feed me in places neither of us
has drawn on our worn, tattered maps.

~ Peter Ludwin

From Rumors of Fallible Gods (Rockford MI: Presa Press, 2013), pp. 36-37. Used by permission of the author.

About the poets:

Rick Roberts lived in Camano Island, Washington, for twelve years before moving to Mexico. He found his poetic voice in San Miguel de Allende, near the age of 69.  He believes both truth and music are the essential elements that bring power to words. One without the other leaves us feeling, somehow, incomplete.” (NOTE: The poet named Rick Roberts who has a website is a different Rick Roberts).

Peter Ludwin is a folk musician as well as a poet. He regularly participates in the San Miguel Poetry Week (see ). He has received prestigious awards, including a Literary Fellowship from Artist Trust, second prize in the 2007-2008 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Awards, and two Pushcart Prize nominations. His poems have occurred in numerous journals, including Nimrod, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Comstock Review.

More Poets on Poverty:
Hayden Carruth, “Notes on Poverty” -
Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Poverty and Wealth” -

Poetry Challenge for March 2013: Poverty

For the March challenge, write a poem about your encounter with poverty (your own or someone else’s) or, more broadly, about poverty as a social issues. No poems that belittle those in poverty will be considered.

How to Submit Your Poem
Please put your name at the bottom of the poem (note the format used above). Poems published in books or on the Internet (including Facebook and other on-line social networks) are not eligible. If your poem has been published in a periodical, please include publication data. Poems submitted after the March 15 deadline will not be considered.

If the judge or judges for the month do not believe any poem submitted is quite good enough, no winner will be declared. Decisions of the judges are final.

Send your poem to wildamorris[at]ameritech[dot]net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and a . for [dot]). Put "February Poetry Challenge" in the subject line of your email. If you want a bio published with your poem should it be a winner, please include put a brief bio below your poem. Submission of a poem gives permission for the poem to be posted on the blog if it is a winner. The deadline is March 15, 2013 (Central Daylight Time). Copyright on poems is retained by their authors. 

© 2013 Wilda Morris