In 2010, I wrote a poem and called it Holy. I wrote it for my English class and was astonished to learn it won a school-wide prize. There was some furor: I was a lowly Fourth Former, and prizes were typically handed to departing Sixth Formers. The William Otis Smith Prize for English Verse was my first major award, an achievement I remain achingly proud of years after the fact.
In 2021, I posted it on Vocal. Today, it has a whopping three reads and no likes. I confess to being miffed by the lack of critical reception. This poem, I knew, was good. It won me a prize, goddamn it. So why did no one here seem to care about it at all?
When I wrote Holy, I was 15 and consumed by questions of the big three: life, death, and sex. This writing of this poem scratched an itch. It felt like the world was always shifting around me. Misconceptions and white lies told by kindly adults were reformulated to reveal harsher truths. My body was changing, too. Nothing felt stable, and I wanted something that was only the truth.
I knew that I was born, and I knew that I would die. Everything in between was messy. Sex seemed messiest of all. As a child, it was something to be scared of. It was whispered around, it promised of pain, it held consequences for the soul and the body. As a teen, the warnings grew starker as my desire grew stronger. And what next? Sex was forbidden, but also craved, and dangerous, but also pleasureful? It was a mystery. I wanted answers. And so I wrote on it. I wrote the poem in a half hour or so, believing after a stint at a slam poetry festival that all good poems are really just vibes.
I remember typing my final line and thinking "Ha!"
Imagine my relief to decide God is a part.
It felt like absolution. I let it be just another decision I didn't have to make for myself. I threw my hands up to a power higher than my teachers, higher than my parents, who could take responsibility for the mystery, who would oversee the messiness and repackage it nicely for me. And what a nice reward I got, winning a prize.
No writing exists in a vacuum. Holy, profound as it felt, lauded as it was, had only the poems of other high schoolers for competition. It was read by a jury of teachers who read the same poems by the same poets year in, year out. Maybe they liked that I ended with God. Maybe they liked the frank honesty of my poem, which I refused to read out loud to my parents because it was embarrassingly honest.
In a wider pool, it's too small a fish. I reread Holy now and still feel the thrum of the words, but I also acknowledge its general puerility. It's very Tell with little Show. It's self-involved. Was that what Vocal readers picked up on? At the time of posting, I had zero subscribers and no idea what I was doing. I wanted to pad my profile's low story count, but I hadn't written a poem in eight years, so I resurrected some guaranteed hits from my external hard drive and blasted them into the ether. Of course, none of them hit. None of the other stumbling, scratched-out attempts that I wrote specifically for Vocal did, either.
Until Yellow Wood.
Yellow Wood took two years to write. Its first sentence existed as a drabble in my phone notes, waiting for more words that deserved its crisp clarity. Some were added, more removed. "Jimmy takes his gun into the woods," remained. When the Sensational challenge came along, I found a sensory thread to follow. I had also just learned that one of my high school roommates committed suicide.
As soon as I submitted the poem, I second-guessed myself. It felt too personal, raw and maudlin, to be appreciated by a wider audience. I thought maybe a topic so nuanced should have more words, to accurately communicate the gravity and depth of its topic. I thought maybe it should have more of an editorial voice, a PSA blast to not do it. The poem got two hearts and six reads before being buried by other poems, and I again considered deleting it. I worried about its pretense.
You see, there isn't a Jimmy. But there was a Tyler, and a Dawson, and a Megan. Another Tyler, and a John. And plenty more who have come to me, with whom I sat until the crying ended, whom I walked into inpatient facilities or sat with over cold coffee after discharge, who are blessedly still just a phone call away. Through my poetic contrivance, Yellow Wood still felt honest, and that was enough for me to keep it on the site - and then it won.
The power of the written word is such that I can write a lie and mean the truth, and my readers will still feel it. I can take a simple image - a quiet wood - and make it hurt. I don't need to say "I'm sad that so many of my friends are dead," because you don't care - you care more about your friends who are dead. If I want you to feel what I am feeling, I need to give you, the reader, space to put your friends there, in that wood, with that gun.
Clearly, I'm not done thinking about life, sex, and death. None are given, all are messy. I no longer think there are straightforward answers waiting for me. But I also feel confident that I'm not the only one caught in the mire.
And still, I look for absolution. I look for the taste of honey in gunsmoke.
I still think God is part of it all, in one way or another. It's still a relief.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions