By STEVEN NALLEY
Emily Damm prefers poems that incite smiles and laughter to more depressing fare, but sometimes, tragedy and comedy are not mutually exclusive.
Damm, a junior at SHS, said one of her favorite creative writing assignments dealt with similes and metaphors. She was asked to create a poem where such a comparison starts out positive and ends up negative, but Damm turned the tables more than once. She starts “Icy Containment” comparing her life to leftover food in a fridge, patiently hoping to be chosen only to be left in the darkness.
“Eventually, untouched, I give up / Until one day I am picked up by a warm hand,” Damm writes. “I practically jump with joy — / Only to find myself in a trash can.”
Damm placed first in the Starkville High School Annual Poetry Writing Contest, sponsored by “Mississippi Quarterly,” which will recognize her and two other winners Thursday at 6 p.m. in the SHS library.
The evening will feature a dessert buffet, performances from members of SHS’s Jazz Band and a keynote address from Catherine Pierce, the co-director of Mississippi State University’s creative writing program who won the 2007 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize for her collection, “Famous Last Words.” “Mississippi Quarterly” will award Damm $100, while freshman Barnes Locke will receive $50 for second place and junior Katrina Henn will receive $25 for third place.
Robin Dibble, a senior English teacher at SHS, has organized the competition for the last eight years, and she said it was formerly known as the Cotton District Arts Festival’s poetry competition which also held an awards ceremony in MSU’s John Grisham Room. The competition is open to Starkville Academy students as well, she said, and the poems are first judged by MSU’s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta and then by MSU faculty Nancy Hargrove and Peter DeGabriele.
“I would never want to be a judge,” Dibble said. “I think there’s a real art to recognizing the nuances of poetry, what makes a poem good. I think good poetry is something that speaks to a wide range of people. I think, to write poetry well, you have to read a lot of poetry yourself, a lot of good poetry. I think you also have to be able to take a lot of risks. I think it has to come from deep down inside and communicate things you wouldn’t necessarily communicate any other way.”
Dibble said she is grateful to Pierce for returning to the annual awards ceremony after speaking last year.
“Her talk was right on target with high school students,” Dibble said. “It was very inspiring and motivating for young writers. I do want to give credit to Noel Polk and ‘Mississippi Quarterly.’ They donate the prizes each year, and that’s a huge incentive for high school students.”
Damm said her favorite subject is actually math, and English is actually her hardest subject. The lack of rules set in stone makes English more difficult than math for her, but poetry is an exception.
“Poetry has always been a passion of mine,” Damm said. “When I was little, my family and I would read poetry together. Then, when I was a little older, my family and I would memorize poems to read at family gatherings.”
Henn is involved with SHS’s own annual literary journal, “Writer’s Strike,” and she said it takes not only takes poetry, but also short stories, songs and artwork. She said she loves both English and history, and her favorite genre is historical fiction.
“My favorite author is Phillippa Gregory,” Henn said. “She’s most well known for ‘The Other Boleyn Girl.’ When you read something, if it’s good enough, it stays with you.”
Henn’s entry is a limerick, one she said she thought of one afternoon in the time between sleep and wakefulness. “Everybody’s Guy” tells the familiar story of the average Joe in just five lines.
“There walks around many a beau / Of dormant genius, wealth and show / With a plan so prized / But never devised / And so walks the average Joe,” Henn writes.
By contrast, Locke’s “The Miniscule Sphere” tells a familiar story of evolution, warfare and civilization over 93 lines, revealing only at the end that the titular sphere is Earth. Central to the poem, he said, is the idea of how small Earth is compared to the rest of the universe.
“The beings never left, and died with the dot / Ignorance more present than fear / Claiming salvation would come from the stars / To aid the Miniscule Sphere,” Locke writes. “But that was never the case, and died they did / That much is apparently clear. / So what happened to their history, their heroes, villains, beauties, disfigurements, stories, poems, gods, demons and lives? / They perished with the Miniscule Sphere.”
Locke said the inspiration came from a photograph of earth at 6 billion miles away taken by Voyager 1.
Locke said, “It just made me think, ‘If Earth is that small, are we that much smaller to (Earth)?”
Locke said his previous literary experience took a similar historical perspective. He and a group of online friends developed an alternate timeline based on a different conclusion to World War I.
“We had to make a bit of guesswork in some places,” Locke said. “It sort of turned into a game, really.”