Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Coffee Poem Winners

My American University Coffee Mug

I have long known that an individual’s response to poetry is very subjective. That is one reason that “schools” of poetry sometimes have fierce arguments about what is good poetry and what is not. It is also why a poet like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow can be highly regarded by his own generation, then fall out of favor, and then become more popular again. It is why, although some poetry journals disdain rhyme and regular meter, others specialize in publishing sonnets, villanelles and other formal verse.

I asked Mary Jo Balistreri and Karla Linn Merrifield, whose poems were used as examples of “coffee” poems in the previous post, to judge the February Poetry Challenge separately. One of the judges identified first and second place poems; the other picked first, second and third place work – but not one poem was on both lists. As a result we have two poems, tied for first place, to share this month.

Balistreri picked “Barista:” by Caroline Johnson as winner.


Henry says the Lakota called it black medicine.
I can imagine Black Elk drinking from a gourd,
huddling around a teepee with a peace pipe
sometime in July when the cherries are ripe.

Henry looks at each customer with green eyes
full of gourmet hot chocolate and caramel mochas. 
He moves his arms across the espresso machine,
steaming milk, whirling words with a smile.

His eyes sail through you like a windjammer,
as if you’ve been caught by a cool island breeze.
He hums as he scrubs stubborn stains off of soup
kettles, stocks the pantry, or pours steamed milk.

He shakes his head and his braids rustle round him. 
I work the register, exchanging money for drinks.
The smell of French Roast perfumes the air.
You can hear the crackle of beans as they grind.

The line is long:  a mother with a stroller, a boy
in a wheelchair, two ladies with Gucci bags. 
Two wealthy ladies talk of sconces in their new
living rooms, a young couple orders hot chocolate,

and a lone man with dark black hair stands at the back
of the café wearing a T-shirt, his arms exposed to reveal
a green tattoo:  “I-R-A-Q” neatly printed across his skin.
Henry talks to them all as they huddle around, waiting

for their black medicine.  Henry makes everything look easy. 
He can do three things at once.  Yet Henry’s not easy. 
He’s just trying to figure life out before it passes him by.

~ Caroline Johnson

In discussing why she picked this poem, Balistreri said

Barista” is as much about Henry as it is about coffee, as much as it is about two distinct groups of society. The black medicine winds through the entire poem, from Black Elk huddled around his teepee with a peace pipe to the customers that huddle around waiting--and the contrast is clear.  Henry's eyes might really be green, but green is also a sign of envy as he watches these people with money to spend on coffee, while he works behind the bar. "His eyes sail through you like a windjammer," and he gives his customers individual attention as well as the "feeling of a cool island breeze."

The poet gives an accurate and poetic description of a cafe--I smell the French roast, see him wiping the machines, hear the crackle of the grinding bean. The small portraits of the long line are interesting, too—a microcosm of society. IRAQ is another symbol of gaps in our culture.The ending of the poem makes the reader ponder other baristas she's seen--and people in general. Our outward appearance often has little to do with what's going on. The last line keeps the poem open--we don't know what he's trying to figure out either. 
Craft: The poem has seven stanzas, all except the ultimate one with 4 lines. Good diction, and wonderful use of rhyme, slant rhyme, assonance and alliteration. I like the way the stanzas give a firm container for Henry who is most likely firmly contained. He doesn't give much of himself away. Form and content complement each other.

Caroline Johnson enjoys watching movies with her father, especially James Bond movies.  She has published two poetry chapbooks, Where the Street Ends and My Mother’s Artwork.  In 2012 she won 1st Place in the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Poetry Contest. She has published poetry and fiction in DuPage Valley Review, Prairie Light Review, Encore, Chicago Tribune, New Scriptor, The Quotable, Uproot, Rambunctious Review, and others.  She teaches community college English in the Chicago area, and leads poetry workshops for veterans.  Currently president of Poets and Patrons of Chicago, she has a blog at  

Copyright on this poem is retained by Caroline Johnson.

Unfortunately the way this blog is laid out, it will not accept lines as long as those in the winning poem, so I had to use indentation.

An Early Morning Hymn

The air is heavy, still and silent, disturbed only by the rasp of the cup
in protest of being pulled  from its cabinet slumber
as the dawn chorus of warblers and goldfinches greets the start
      of the new day.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the soft sighs of the coffee pot
      on the countertop
as it whispers “Good Morning” to the dust motes whorling
on an invisible current like the fae Queen’s glamour, or snowflake
      s in Autumn.

As the skies slowly bleed from black to purple to pink, it reminds
      me of a Romanichal spell
being cast, which bids me stay reticent and lend ear, as the day
      slowly awakens
to the strains of an early morning hymn that slowly fades away
      as I savor my last sip.

The charms of the morning dissolve as swiftly as they had
      appeared, and the birds are mute
until the morrow, when the sweet refrains can be heard again
and the runes are restored once more with the divine communion
      of decoction and cream.

~ Christy Cole Quast

Merrifield’s response to “An Early Morning Hymn was “WINNER! On theme.  Lovely language. Narrator’s lofty diction (appropriate to a hymn) sustained throughout. I am charmed.  Great control over form and line, too.” She used fewer words to explain her choice, but her enthusiasm for this poem is clear!

Merrifield remarked separately that “Romanichal” is a “great word.” It is a word which may send some readers to the dictionary – but unless you have a very unusual dictionary, you won’t find it there. Wikipedia explains that the Romanichals belong to a group of Romani (the group that used to be referred to as gypsies) who settled in England in the 16th Century. Sometimes an unusual word detracts from a poem; other times it is just what the poem needs.

Copyright for this poem is retained by Christy Cole Quast.

Christy Cole Quast is an avid reader of the written word, and has a B.A. in English Literature.  She hasn’t written any poetry since college, but has recently dusted off her beloved notebook to jot down some verse here and there, inspired by her 12-year-old daughter who writes poems and short stories “just for fun.”

Congratulations to Caroline and Christy for winning the February Poetry Challenge, and thank you to Mary Jo and Karla Linn for serving as judges. Bios of the judges can be found in the previous post on this blog.

Check back early in March for a new poetry challenge.

© Wilda Morris