Bruce Beasley, along with Mary Gillilan, selected 25 winners from the 275 poems submitted by Whatcom County residents for this year's Sue C. Boynton Poetry Contest.
The awards ceremony takes place at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 16, at Bellingham Cruise Terminal. The event is free and open to the public. Details: boyntonpoetrycontest.wordpress.com.
Question: What's the importance of this contest to our community?
Answer: The Sue Boynton contest is a fantastic celebration of poetry in Bellingham, highlighting the work of poets from elementary school-age to retirees, and bringing vibrant poetry into public spaces like downtown sidewalks and local buses.
Q: How did you and Mary choose the winners?
A: I had a great time judging, reading the work of well over 200 poets (without knowing the authors). I read each poem three times to make sure I was giving each close attention, and made a list of the top 50 or so that I found most original, moving and accomplished.
My co-judge, Mary Gillilan, separately made her own list of the top poems. About 15 poems ended up high on both of our lists, and then we met and each advocated for poems we admired that hadn't made the other judge's list.
We had spirited and interesting conversations about the poems and came to agreement on our combined choices pretty easily. We were both really good advocates for the poems we admired most.
Q: How did your growing up years in Georgia inform how you became enamored with the power of words and literature?
A: I grew up in Macon, Georgia, and began writing poems when I was 12 - originally songs, but as I clearly had no talent for songwriting I quickly dropped the music and kept the words.
I was extremely introverted as a teenager and writing became a way for me to speak about things I didn't know how to talk about any other way. I published my first poem, a poem about my cat sleeping in the sun, in Cats magazine when I was 15, and bought a Bee Gees album with the check for $3.50 they sent me.
Q: Who encouraged you on your path as a professional writer and educator?
A: A contest similar to the Sue Boynton for high-school students in Macon gave me some of my first encouragement as a writer. My seventh-grade teacher, Mrs. Lindsay, assigned us to assemble a book of our favorite poems (a nature poem, a poem about war, etc.), which is the thing that first got me loving poetry, and I'm forever grateful to her. Without knowing it, she changed my life.
Q: Is there is a Southern Gothic sensibility to your writing?
A: I think there's a very deep Southern Gothic sensibility to my poems. Like one of my literary idols, Flannery O'Connor (who was from Milledgeville, 30 miles from Macon), my work is steeped in religious and spiritual questioning rooted in the physical, the bodily, and the profane.
Q: What influences your poems?
A: I teach a course (at Western Washington University) in monsters and am fascinated by collisions of the monstrous and the sacred; my latest book is called "Theophobia, or fear of God," and its poems are obsessed with the alternating fascination with and fear of the greater structures of meaning in our culture, including genetic engineering, the lives of extremophilic creatures living in conditions of astonishing heat or cold and pressure in deep ocean vents; I'm interested in poetry as a form of linguistic and spiritual extremophilia.
Q: In searching our archives for what we've written about you, I came across a letter to the editor written in 2008 chastising you for reading a particular poem in a Turning Points lecture. Any thoughts?
A: The poem the letter writer objected to was called "May I Tell You, Mr. President, About the Sacred Chickens?" It compares President George W. Bush's misreading of the signs about the existence of weapons of mass destructions in Iraq to an ancient Roman general who ignored the omens of the "sacred chickens" whose eating patterns were consulted to determine the will of the gods. The chickens told him plainly not to go to war; he launched the war despite the signs and led his armies into a massive defeat.
I think one of poetry's most urgent purposes is social, political and historical commentary.