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On Holiness

My first prizewinning poem

By Suze KayPublished 18 days ago 5 min read
On Holiness
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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.

By Fauzan Saari on Unsplash

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.


About the Creator

Suze Kay

Pastry chef by day, insomniac writer by night.

Catch me here for spooky stories, crushable poems, and overall weird thoughts.

Or, let me catch you on my website!

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Comments (8)

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  • Naomi Gold9 days ago

    I will admit, I did a deep dive into your stories a while back and I read Holy… and it just didn’t resonate with me at all. That’s the thing about poetry. If I’m reading nonfiction or fiction, it can be about anything in the world, and as long as it’s well written I’ll enjoy it. But poetry is like music. It doesn’t matter how well written a song is if I’m not feeling the lyrics in my heart. Yellow Wood is a favorite of mine, out of all the poems I’ve read on Vocal—for the simple fact that a boy I loved hung himself. I connected with the topic. It’s well written. But if you wrote a poem for the Sensational challenge about eating a bowl of soup, it could’ve had the most stunning language and I still wouldn’t have given a damn about it. I don’t think Holy is any more self involved than all writing is. I think you’ve always written about what haunts you, which is important. I loved reading these insights into two of your poems along with the story of your writing journey. Everything you write is honest, fiction or not.

  • Alivia Varvel17 days ago

    I have so many thoughts, so I'll just boil it down to this: you are a phenomenal writer, my friend!

  • Kelsey Clarey17 days ago

    This is a beautiful reflection, and I'm definitely going to read the poem now too.

  • Kenny Penn17 days ago

    Great story Suze, and inspiring as well. My experiences with the big questions are different but they’ve been rolling around in my head for quite some time. You’re absolutely right about not being the only one caught in the mire. Thanks for sharing!

  • Well written, and I love your thought process. We change over time, even it what we write was well-done at the time, we may be different now or maybe have grown. Nice piece. 💙Anneliese

  • "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." Profound insight into the relationship between writer, reader, and the essential truths that span the gap. Thank you for sharing this retrospective.

  • I relate to a lot of this. I too was a “big” fish in a small pond 😂🐠 ive also found Vocal in general to be an interesting judge of these things. On this platform which has a feed like a social media site, i do think we tend toward the buzzier, more showy or topical-feeling pieces. It has to grab you quickly or youre not going to keep reading. This certainly plays into what’s chosen for Top Stories. Just something to keep in mind i guess… i still think ur poem has a lot of value ✨

  • Amanda Starks18 days ago

    The way you wrote this so beautifully, even though you were just sharing a part of your life...this is amazing, Suze!! And this right here: "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." This line is SO profound. It resonates with me because I usually write fiction, so I am always lying/making up things to my audience, but there is always some kernel of truth or personal story hidden within because that is how you draw a reader in and make them care! I remember reading Yellow Wood. I was definitely one of those readers who was able to slide into the story as if I was there. Though instead of friends I imagined myself with the gun. Thank you for sharing this, Suze!! <3

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