When Gertrude Stein said, "A rose is a rose is a rose," she knew what she meant — and so did the poets who entered the Left Coast "RED" poetry contest. They sent us poems about red carpets and red banners, red-rimmed eyes and rose-colored glasses, grape tomatoes and poison apples, red stoplights and red skies at morning, ruby slippers and red, red lips. Red flames, howling-at-the-moon lust and "lovely night embers" (the last an image from one of my favorite entries, Jeffery Earl Gerew's "Missing"). Red dresses: I loved Jennifer Ruyle's poem about the plump housewife who wins her battle with weight and conquers her nemesis, The Red Dress, to become "a goddess in red." There was a red toolbox, a red shirt, red Keds and even the voice of a preserved body in a museum exhibit (implying red tissue) in Partho Roy's "Bodies." Now that's fresh. Do you even have to ask if there were red hearts? And red blood, some of it vampire?
Naturally, we had the requisite clichéd Sappy Love Poems. But there were also poems that were intentionally funny. Among those, my favorite was "Love for sale (99 cents)" by Rita Ceresi, a poem about being overwhelmed by Valentine's Day kitsch that ends: "Get me out of this Dollar Store/ before I pull a postal/ on those cheap ceramic Cupids." There were poems about seeing red, desert red sand and war itself. Related to these were poems about longing and love for battle-worn soldiers, dead soldiers and those surviving one more day in Iraq. These truly did move me.
Despite my expectation (who knows why?) that I'd see lots of jaded love and cynicism delivered on these pages, most of the poems made a brave display of vulnerability and sincere feeling. How refreshing.
After going through almost 100 poems, I whittled the good ones down to a handful, a clutch, a three-way tie between Ceresi's "Love for sale," Gerew's "Missing" and then — ta-da! the winner. "Red Isis" by Kurt Van Wilt won out for several reasons: 1. The Feeling. This is a love poem, and one that celebrates a lasting connection. The love begins in "exuberance" and now, after years, is like the comfort of soft Irish linen; 2. The Tone. The poem calmly takes the measure of grief and joy ("winter" and "sun") which comprises a richly experienced life; 3. The Technique. Through enjambed lines and off-rhymes, this sonnet presents itself without boastfulness about form. There is also nice alliteration, assonance and lots of synonyms for "red"; 4. It's a valentine. How sweet is that?
Gianna Russo, once dubbed the "doyen of Tampa poets" in Creative Loafing (then Weekly Planet), is a Pushcart Prize nominee, a fellow of both the Surdna Foundation and the Hambidge Center for the Arts and Sciences, and the recipient of an Arts Teacher Fellowship (which allowed her to attend the Spoleto, Italy Writers Workshop in 2006) and a Hillsborough County Artist Fellowship, Emerging Artist Grant. Her poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Bloomsbury Review, The Sun, Poet Lore, The MacGuffin, Calyx, Apalachee Review, Florida Review and Tampa Review, among others. A lifelong resident of Tampa, Ms. Russo has served as an artist-advisor to the Hillsborough County Arts Council for nearly 10 years. She has twice served as grant panelist for Hillsborough County Arts Grants. She founded and is editor of YellowJacket Press, the only Florida publisher of poetry chapbooks. She codirects the creative writing program at Howard W. Blake Magnet School of the Arts in Tampa.
Winners and judges' notes: