Friday, February 26, 2021

February 2021 Winners: When I Die



It has been said that the most common themes of poetry are love and death. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that “When I die” turned out to be such a popular challenge. Many excellent poems were submitted. Two judges, Jeri McCormick and Maryann Hurtt, judged separately. Each selected a first, second, and third place poem, and two honorable mentions. As editor, I selected on additional poem for an honorable mention. The results were proof, for anyone who needs it, that the judging of poetry is at least partly subjective—no poem appeared on both winner lists! Look below the poems for some commentary on subjectivity. In the meantime, enjoy all six winning poems.


First Place Poem Selected by Maryann Hurtt:

A Shady Pause                 

As I came to the middle of a sentence
death appeared casually on the arm of the sofa.
I looked up from my book
in the generous green canopy of a summer day,
surprised that the touch felt familiar,
like someone I’d seen around.

More subtle than a cloud shadowing the sun,
quieter than the jasmine breeze,
death arrived like a common gull’s feather
hardly noticeable on the white sand beach.

Since then, I paraphrase death—
when planes land and take off,
when the sun strips snow from a winter field.
Does death wear a mask? I look at the naked ground.

I remember how double peonies at their most riotous
dip in sunset pink. And how a pear tree’s halo begins
    to dim
at the moment of its translucent pinnacle,
life and death a plait we can’t unbraid.

Today I think death more like the solitary stance
of the heron, something implied in that watchful waiting,
some gorgeous secret turned to the horizontal.

~ Mary Jo Balistreri

Published by Bellowing Ark Press in Mary Jo’s second book, gathering the harvest

The judge’s comments: The images felt especially strong…the heron in the last stanza pulled everything together and stayed with me long after reading the poem.

Today I think death more like the solitary stance
of the heron, something implied in that watchful waiting
some gorgeous secret turned to the horizontal.


First Place Poem Selected by Jeri McCormick:

A Certain Slant

I cannot make my peace with death
arrest this war with life
nor quit my panting need for breath
or lose the lust for strife
nor gulp my greedy share of stars
forsaking salty sea—
so I’ll enrobe myself in scars
and sleep with poetry

~ Felicia Sanzari Chernesky

The judge’s comments: This poem holds a strong message, skillfully presented in a mere eight lines.  The writer sees life as a struggle, yet embraces it, affirming both beauty and hardship.  The rhyme scheme is subtle, but evident, and fits artfully within the flow of lines.  A single dash suffices for punctuation, and I (and I’ll) are the only capitals beyond the title.  As always in poems, the choice of verbs is crucial, and this poem recognizes that necessity with:  arrest, quit, lose, gulp, enrobe, sleep.  I will pay this poem the high compliment of remembering it long after this contest.


Second Place Poem Selected by Jeri McCormick


crumbling bone dust
weightless free fall
earth cannot confine
we flicker into starshine

light encompassed
unveiled to all
memories enshrine
we flare into starshine

this is our chance
wisdom seeing
following the signs
we flash into starshine

our celestial dance
eternal beings
mysteries align
we flame into starshine

~ Christy L. Schwan


The judge’s comments: Beginning with the title, starshine is a beautiful manufactured word that calls up a visual response we can all relate to.  It is a word that bears repeating, as this poem recognizes in each of the four stanzas.  The writer has used rhyme skillfully throughout the poem, but foregoes punctuation, which is not needed in the pared-down lines.  I admire the variation and increased intensity of the verb in the four end lines of the stanzas:  flicker, flare, flash, flame.  With this progression, we are in a process, albeit a quick one that gives death a kind of dazzling glory.


Second Place Poem Selected by Maryann Hurtt

Saving Body Parts

Just save my heart, and what,
trample on the rest of me?

Maybe save my head, I’m always
losing it; hold that thought.

But you asked how, not what
is to be saved. That’s easy

I want to save all of me
and I do not mean to be pickled

in a bottle of formaldehyde
or stuffed with herbs and spices

for the sarcophagus. Okay. Keep
the spices in there; I don’t want any

beetles gnawing their way to my bones.
I suppose I could be cut into little pieces

on a medical table. The steel is cold
but I wouldn’t feel any of it. Really,

what part is more important than
any other? Clearly, it’s my feet

because I won’t be able to stand
it, around where I might be going.

Maybe save a leg, I want a leg to stand on…
The rib cage, yes, that’s more important. Save that.

I can remember myself better by it.
And I can keep it in the closet

with all the other skeletons; it shouldn’t
rattle them too badly. I love

my funny bone. Wait. That’s in
my arm… arms. Save the laughter

in case I get sad. Yep, forget the teeth,
I don’t want to be gnashing.

Or my eyes. Don’t save my eyes.
I don’t want to be weeping.

Just save my soul, and the rest
I will get when I come back.

So, okay, go ahead donate that old
worn-out body to the worms.
You can save that for them.

~John C. Mannone

First published in Songs of Eretz Poetry Review.


The judge’s comments: The poem seemed to skip along almost like a song …kept my interest and then a surprise punch at the end: “You can save that for them.”


Third Place Poem Selected by Maryann Hurtt:

I Will Rise

I'll rise up from my burial place
and turn like a dancer, toe bones

pushed into damp grass, skull
pointed toward the trees. I'll pause,

listen to the scarlet tanager sing,
and greet my neighbors on this hill.

The first came in the 1700s, stayed
to drink from clear streams,

gathered nuts under wide chestnut trees.
You'd be surprised how present these

old ones still are, if you call them from
the sweet hereafter, and listen with your heart.

I've watched them drift into town hall to take measure,
join any party they're invited to. When they

arrived for town meeting, they swung the vote.
When I join them, bring me cups of tea,

pour it over my grave, good strong Irish tea.
Such comfort.

~ Elaine Reardon

The judge’s comments: The first two lines pulled me in immediately…

“I will rise from my burial place
and turn like a dancer, toe bones


Third Place Poem Selected by Jeri McCormick:

How poets die

Of beauty,
of broken pens, of
pleurisy and ovens.
Of birds
& bridges, shy solitude,
hollow cheeks
& sinking lungs.
Of unrequited love, pockets
full of stars.
Of embered cities,
& lakes of glass.
Of pears
& persimmons.

~ Julia Klatt Singer

The judge’s comments: The sweep of this poem takes us across history with a few well-chosen nouns, all of which relate to the verb that appears in the title.  Reading these nouns, I am reminded of some specific poets who have died, such as Sylvia Plath.   Repetition of Of works beautifully as the introductory word throughout the poem, and the ampersand (&) helps to maintain the brevity and linear look that is desirable in list-making.  Fortunately, the writer knows when to stop with this list, as well as how to choose words that are strong representatives of the overall message.


Honorable Mentions were awarded to the following poems (in no particular order):

“Pernoctation” by Gay Guard-Chamberlin (Selected by Maryann Hurtt)

“Reverberations” by Rasma Haidri (Selected by Jeri McCormick)

“If I die” by Lakshmy M. Nair (Selected by Wilda Morris)

When I Die” by Marjorie Pagel (Selected by Maryann Hurtt)

“Meditation from a bus on the New Jersey Turnpike” by Jessica Slote (Selected by Jeri McCormick)


Comments on Subjectivity in Judging of Poetry and Acceptance of Poems for Publication:

As a reader of poetry, I know that the poems that move me deeply on one day may not move me quite as much another day. A poem that I don’t “get” one day may speak to me in a significant way another day. I also know that the poems that move me are not always the same poems that move various friends or family members.

As I poet, I find it helpful to understand that there is always a subjective element in the selection of poems for publication or as contest winners. Having been a judge numerous times, I know how difficult it can be to narrow down a pile of poems to the few that can be honored in a particular contest. If I enter a contest, I am disappointed if my name doesn’t appear on the winner’s list (but not surprised). It helps to know that a different judge might have selected a different winner. And if I win, knowing that a different judge might not have selected my poem helps keep me humble.

One reason that I like to have different judges for different months is that it is fairer to poets. Each judge responds differently to different styles of poetry. If this month’s judge doesn’t respond positively to your style, next month’s judge may have a different aesthetic sense. So keep submitting!



Mary Jo Balistreri wrote this poem six weeks before she was diagnosed with throat cancer. It happened just as stated here. There was no fear but only surprise—so this was death. After writing the poem, she didn’t think about it again. Please visit her at

Felicia Sanzari Chernesky is a longtime editor, slowly publishing poet, and author of six picture books, including From Apple Trees to Cider, Please! and The Boy Who Said Nonsense (Albert Whitman & Company). In 2018 she moved away from the masthead of an academic quarterly to work with people who want to share their stories, ideas, and poems in print. Her short fiction has been nominated for a 2021 Pushcart Prize and Best Microfiction Award. She lives with her family in Flemington, New Jersey. Find her online at

Now retired after thirty years of hospice nursing, Maryann Hurtt continues to love stories of resiliency and wisdom in hard times. Aldrich Press published her chapbook, River, in 2016 and her poems have appeared in a variety of print and on-line publications. She received a Best of the Net nomination in 2018.

John C. Mannone has poems appearing in North Dakota Quarterly, Foreign Literary Journal, Le Menteur, Blue Fifth Review, Poetry South, Baltimore Review, the 2020 Antarctic Poetry Exhibition, and others. He won the Impressions of Appalachia Creative Arts Contest in poetry (2020), the Carol Oen Memorial Fiction Prize (2020), and the Joy Margrave Award (2015, 2017) for creative nonfiction. He was awarded a Jean Ritchie Fellowship (2017) in Appalachian literature and served as the celebrity judge for the National Federation of State Poetry Societies (2018). His latest collection, Flux Lines: The Intersection of Science, Love, and Poetry, is forthcoming from Linnet’s Wings Press (2021). He edits poetry for Abyss & Apex and other journals. A retired physics professor, John lives between Knoxville and Chattanooga, Tennessee. You can visit him at

Jeri McCormick, of Madison Wisconsin, taught creative writing 25 years in several settings, including senior centers and the Elderhostel program.  Her work appears in journals and anthologies, and she has co-authored two books on writing.  Her most recent collections of poems are “Marrowbone of Memory” (Salmon Poetry Press in Ireland) and “Breathtaking” (Hummingbird Press).

Elaine Reardon is a poet and herbalist. Her first chapbook, The Heart is a Nursery For Hope, won first honors from Flutter Press in 2016. Her second chapbook, Look Behind You,2019, is about her familys journey from immigration to assimilation.  Most recently Elaines writing was published by Pensive Journal, Naugatuck Journal, and several anthologies.

Christy Schwan is a former business owner engaged in an encore career as a self-published poet/author of books for children, breast cancer survivors, and expectant mothers. Energetically devoted daughter, wife, mother, grandmother, sister, dog hugger, rockhound, wildflower fan. She lives in Wisconsin where she enjoys quiet outdoor sports; snowshoeing, kayaking, canoeing, and loon spotting. 

Julia Klatt Singer is the poet in residence at Grace Nursery School. She is co-author of Twelve Branches: Stories from St. Paul, (Coffee House Press), author of In the Dreamed of Places, (Naissance Press), A Tangled Path to Heaven, Untranslatable, (North Star Press), and her most recent chapbook, Elemental (Prolific Press). Audio poems from Elemental are at OpenKim (, as the element Sp. She’s co-written numerous songs with composers Craig Carnahan, Jocelyn Hagen, and Tim Takach.



Poets retain copyright of their own poems.


© Wilda Morris