And now, what you’ve been waiting for: Statements from judges Don Bogen and Michael Griffith about the winners of the 2011 Schiff Prize in Prose and Poetry, as well as words from the winners themselves, Tresha Haefner and Elisabeth Cohen, on how their pieces came to be.
Don Bogen: What impresses me most about “A Walk Through the Parking Lot at Midnight” is the way it moves through a range of perspectives—below ground, on the surface, above the surface; outside the body, inside it—in a patient series of closed stanzas up to the very end of the poem. Each of these stanzas has its own particular angle, a new way of seeing the mundane that enlivens it. As the poem calmly and strangely unfolds, the perspectives interact, and the result is a landscape that is simultaneously defamiliarized and enriched. We may be in a parking lot, but the poet is not just parked there.
Tresha Haefner: When I first moved out on my own, I didn’t have a television, didn’t have much to do in my free time, and didn’t know anyone in town. I spent most of my nights walking around my apartment complex, which was across the street from a parking lot. I was just learning to write poetry, and most of my poems contained imagery of the night, and things I saw or thought about on my walks. A worm coming out in the rain. The nature of life, death, history, the body and brain and bones. The truth is, all the lines in “A Walk through the Parking Lot at Midnight” were originally parts of my other (failed) poems, which I had been hitting my head against for years. Things came together when my friend (poet, Kelly Cressio-Moeller) directed me to an essay on “Free Line Poems” (written by Sally Ashton), which suggests looking at your old, “orphaned” lines to see if they are working together to say something. Mine were all about light and darkness, all the many places wherein there exists this faceless luminescence, both internally and externally. Rereading the poem and rewriting it I kept thinking about the prophet Zoaster, who was the first to speculate that there are two gods, a god of light and a god of darkness. The darkness, he said, is inside of us, but the light is all around.
Michael Griffith: Elisabeth Cohen’s story is a stylish voice piece about a parent trying to get an awkward, scabby youngest child into a tony private school. The voice is wry and witty and rueful, and Cohen’s social satire is beautifully executed. But what I like most about this story is the risky and surprising way it turns out to be about parental love, and not the greeting-card-homily kind but the real thing: guilty, sometimes ambivalent or miserable, frustrated, ringed round by anxiety and loathing of self and the world, but fierce and unkillable.
Elisabeth Cohen: Growing up, one of my brothers used to have these oceanic nosebleeds, which is where the end of “Mollusks and Optics” came from. They were these torrents of blood—there’s really no other word for it—profuse, seemingly endless, requiring lots of old towels. It was like something from the last of the Romanovs. My parents were outwardly calm during these episodes even as our kitchen began to look more and more like a slaughterhouse. The memory came back to me when I was trying to finish this story, and it seemed like a pretty good way to end a story about the emotional price you pay as a parent, when you let someone outside of you, over whom you have the most tenuous illusion of control, carry your heart around.