The writing looked like the thin blue veins on the back of a leathered old hand, the small roads on a map of some distant rural place, the kind of place where there are only residents, their homes, the quiet sounds of coming and going, and familiar voices from the small radio station in town, the one just off the square, behind the bank and Farrish's Feed and Grain.
"I've never entered a contest like this," the first shaky sentence said, "but my Alice, that's my wife, said I should anyway. I had her type the poems.
I felt my face curl into a smile.
"I'm eighty-seven, and I figured it was about time. What am I waiting for anyway? I've been playing at this poetry thing for I don't know how long."
I withdrew the ten dollar bill, folded neatly into a smaller envelope with the note. It was the only cash I had seen so far.
"Here's my $10 entry fee," written on the front. "Don't spend it all in one place."
I could almost hear the old voice behind those words in this, the most unique submission to date in the eighteenth annual Poetry Contest at Wordsmith Press. I was the editor and the competition's first reader. With just a week left to the deadline, we had already received over two-hundred entrants from thirty-seven states. This one was from Nebraska.
I logged the poems into the big list and gave them numbers for the blind readings. With these three (entrants could submit up to four), we had more than seven hundred pieces already. These were 708, 09, 10.
I placed them in the box with the others and moved on to the next envelope in that day's mail.
Two weeks later, I sat down with the box of poems, my task being essentially to separate the wheat from the chaff, setting pieces into those two categories. It would be a week-long process.
There had been so many submissions that I could honestly say that I could not remember or identify the writer for each, except, that is, for 708, 09, 10. When those poems came up, I immediately heard the old voice, saw the brittle words of the attendant notes.
The first piece, "Let Us Not Forget," seemed to match an initial sense I somehow got that day two weeks earlier: a flag, a blue-sky Memorial Day poem that, while offering several engaging phrases, ultimately turned to cliché to evoke a patriotic response. I set it onto the growing 'chaff' pile on the left beside me.
Number 709, "Other," didn't take long to become a generally predictable paean to Alice, an apparently delightful woman who, for fifty-six years, had kept the poet "grateful for the sun that finds her" and still "captured by her dancing eyes." It brought a smile and paused my hand a while before I placed it too on my left.
It was the third piece, "Old Man," that stopped me as I read. It was different, though clearly from the same voice that penned the first two. There was depth, strength, engaging images, and a turn of phrase that caught and held me. I did not smile as I moved down the page; I nodded slowly with a sense of appreciation growing line by line. With a final, definitive nod, I placed poem number 710 atop the much smaller pile on my right.
By week's end, I had completed the preliminary screening of the poems, one-hundred-twenty pieces having made it to the second round. The next step involved two judges reading and exchanging batches of sixty poems with instructions to identify what they felt were the top twenty in each batch.
The two groups of twenty would then be compared, with the common selections and ten 'others' being sent forward to the final judge who would then select the three 'prize-winning' poems, the 'finalists,' and the 'honorable mentions.' Those results would then come back to me, and I, in turn, communicated those results to the poets.
The best part of that duty was calling the three prize-winners. Their responses, even those from well-established, widely-published writers, were always gratifying. Once, a two-time Pulitzer nominee got positively giddy with news of a $300 award. This year's enhanced prizes of $1,000 for first, $750 for second, and $500 for third would likely produce some interesting calls indeed.
Those increases had already produced a dramatic increase in both the number and quality of submissions. There were several entrants whose books had long graced the shelves of my own small office.
There were twenty-eight poems in the packet sent by the third judge: fifteen honorable mentions, ten finalists, and the three prize-winners. First place went to "Ever After" by Elizabeth Savage, a much-heralded poet from Vermont with six collections already in print, another on the way, and two Pushcart Prizes to her name. The second place $750 award was given to "The Monk's Request" by Bruce Annon, a young poet from Colorado who had begun to build a national reputation with his first book, "A Bitter Taste," published a year ago.
And the third place $500 prize was being awarded to Joseph Addison of Stapleton, Nebraska for the poem "Old Man."
The phone rang eleven times before a small, thin voice came on:
"Hello." I could barely hear.
"Hello," I perked up. "Is this the Addison residence?"
There was a pause. I must have sounded like a telemarketer.
"Yes…..yes it is," came back skeptically.
"Great. Is Mr. Joseph Addison there?"
There was a longer pause punctuated by several small, distant coughs. Then the voice returned.
"Joseph is... he isn't here."
"Oh, well, can I leave a message for him then?"
"Ummmm, I don't think so."
"I just wanted to..."
"Joseph died three weeks ago."
Silence on both ends. I closed my eyes and drew a deep, slow breath.
"I'm… I'm so sorry," I managed as at once I recalled opening the piece of mail with the ten-dollar bill in it.
"Is this Alice?"
There were two dry coughs, then "Why yes, it is… who is this?"
"I'm the editor of the Wordsmith Press, and we..."
"The Wordsmith Press?"
"Yes, and we…"
"The poetry contest?" The voice grew louder
"Why yes, the poetry contest."
I could hear a soft sigh.
"Did he send you that ten dollars?"
I could imagine that she was shaking her head.
"I bet he forgot to send in that money, right?"
"Uh, no, no, that's not it at all…"
"That man could forget to put on his shoes sometimes."
I began to picture my own father.
"No, no. He sent in the…"
"I gave him that ten dollar bill and told him not to forget it. I even gave him a little thank-you envelope to put it in."
"Yes, I remember seeing it… I'm... I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Oh, don't fret young man. He just didn't get up one day."
"I… I'm sorry."
"Well thank you. But you didn't call about all this. What did you need to know?"
"Well," I brightened, "I was just calling to tell Joseph… to tell you that Mr. Addison won third prize in this year's contest. He's won $500."
There was a loud exhale on the other end.
"My oh my, don't that beat all," Alice Addison said. "$500 you say?"
"Yes, $500, and his poem will be published in our annual poetry journal.
"Well, how about that."
"It's a very good poem, Mrs. Addison, and there were hundreds of poems submitted."
"And you all picked one of Joe's?"
"Yes, ma'am, we did."
"Which one? The flag thing?"
"No. It was…"
"I told him I don't like that one. Everyone writes poems like that. It's just one of those 'proud to be an American' things."
"No, it wasn't…"
"The one about me? Was it the one about me?"
"Made me flinch to have him send that out, 'my dancing eyes' nonsense. Old man like him writing that stuff like he was some moonstruck teenager."
"No, no… it was a poem called…"
"It was 'Old Man,' wasn't it?"
"Why yes, it was."
There was another pause.
"I liked that one best."
"We liked it too."
"I told him to send that one in, and I guess he did."
"It is a very nice poem, Mrs. Addison."
"Uh huh, it sure is."
"Had Mr. Addison been writing for a long time?" I asked, curious about the voice I had read in the poem.
"Oh, he fooled with it for a little while, I guess. Never told anybody about it but me. You know, it's not the kind of thing you share with the fellas down at the McDonald's in the morning."
"No, I don't guess you would.
"Started maybe thirty years back. Our son got him a copy of something called Traveling at Night or something like that by a man named Bob Stanford, I think."
"William Stafford? I offered. Traveling Through the Dark?
"Yes, yes. That's it. And he started to buy other books and then started trying his hand at it."
I felt myself nodding.
"He went to this group at the library down in North Platte. They all wrote things and talked about them with each other."
"Yes. That's a good way to learn."
"I suppose. He said that someday he'd take a writing class at the community college, but he never got beyond talking about it. Said he'd have the time one day." The thin voice trailed off.
"Did he ever have anything published?"
"As a matter of fact, no. I guess this will be the first."
I shook my head. "It will be our honor, Mrs. Addison."
I told her we would send her the check and that as soon as it was published, I'd send her two copies of the journal.
"That would be nice," she managed softly. "That would be real nice."
I said goodbye, put down my phone, and looked out to the gray September sky. I sat like that for several minutes then swiveled my chair and picked up our copy of the third-place prize-winning poem by the late Mr. Joseph Addison of Stapleton, Nebraska.
John P.(Jack) Kristofco has published over seven hundred poems and sixty short stories in about two hundred different publications, including: Folio, Rattle, Bryant Literary Review, Cimarron Review, Fourth River, Stand, The MacGuffin , Sierra Nevada Review, Blueline, Slant, Snowy Egret, and Offcourse. He has published four collections of poetry (most recently "The Timekeeper's Garden" from The Orchard Street Press, at orchpress.com) and is currently putting together a book of short stories. Jack has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times. He lives in Highland Heights, Ohio with his wife Kathy.