Celebrating Maria Zoccola, Winner of the 2021 Dogwood Literary Award in Poetry

The editors are pleased to announce that judge Lauren K. Alleyne has named Maria Zoccola’s poem “ten foot drop” as the winner of the 2021 Dogwood Literary Award in Poetry. Ms. Zoccola will receive $500 and her poem will be published in Dogwood’s 2021 edition.  Our finalist for the award was Sheree La Puma, whose work will also appear in Dogwood 2021, due out in late May.

Maria Zoccola, Winner of 2021 Dogwood Literary Award in Poetry

In her citation selecting Zoccola’s poem, Judge Lauren K. Alleyne wrote, 

The pandemic moment is an interesting one in which to be the judge of a poetry contest. The complexities, ambiguities and frailties we’ve all inhabited with varying degrees of awareness and impact have been made all the more visible. At the moment I am writing this, over five hundred and thirty-four thousand people have died from coronavirus, and millions more are living in the aftermath of infection. I despair that I may not see my niece in Trinidad before she’s lost her baby fat and worry about my mother whose vitality over Zoom does not convince me of her immortality. I worry that we’ve become such slaves to capital we’ve lost sight of the fact that caring for each other through simple acts is priceless in the economy of love. I don’t know about you, reader, but faith in this moment is such a vexed thing.

And yet.

I hope this note finds you and yours well and safe. I hope that by the time you read it, we are on the other side of this global horror—that we are seeing the long-covered faces of strangers and embracing our beloveds. I believe that our planet is sighing with relief as we’ve stilled the congestive bustle of our everyday, allowing imperiled ecosystems to thrive. I believe something good—no, better—can come from all of this. And it is this constant negotiation of faith and fear that makes a supplicant of me over and over again, that makes me greedy for more and more grace even as I count my blessings.

It is perhaps why the poem I’ve selected as this year’s Dogwood Prize winner speaks so deeply to me. ten-foot drop is a poem that brings into a fantastic collision the “i” that is clear in its own fullness and power and the “i” that knows that so much lies beyond its reach or control. With admirable technical dexterity, the poet uses line breaks, images and formal play—a veritable toolkit of poetic devices, really—to successfully evoke this negotiation. The poem opens thus:

i was raised within a kettle already shrieking

with love, so i’ve never been sure how to pray.

The initial line brings us immediately to urgency, the “already shrieking” kettle conjuring heat, smoke and cry, the i “raised within” it boiled/scalded/steeped into lower case. When the sentence continues, “with love,” what was urgent is immediately calmed, the temperature dropping significantly, the relief palpable, so that we, too, are not sure what to pray for or how. This ambivalence is wonderfully captured in the image of the creek behind the church and the “leaves swept away into what could be infinity but is really a rusting brown drain.” There’s something delightful in the irreverent phrasings, “I’ve chewed up every blessing,” and “oh holy turtle in the man-made creek.” The speaker’s self-assured-ness cools, kettle-like, into a confession of intractable inadequacy: 

i’m teaching my neck how to bend. 

i’m preaching mercy to my own proud knees.  

The poignant lyric question with which the poem wrestles— “how do you come to the divine?”—is answerable thus: as you are, “hands…always outstretched,” “yes. yes. yes.” on our imperfect tongues.

Maria Zoccola is a queer Southern writer with deep roots in the Mississippi Delta. She has writing degrees from Emory University and Falmouth University. Her work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Ploughshares, 32 Poems, The Massachusetts Review, Colorado Review, Southern Indiana Review, Fence, and elsewhere.

Judge Lauren K. Alleyne h ails from the twin island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Her fiction, poetry and non-fiction have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including The Atlantic, Ms. Muse, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Interviewing the Caribbean, Crab Orchard Review, among many others. She is author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) and Honeyfish (New Issues (US) & Peepal Tree (UK), 2019). Her work has been awarded many honors, most recently, the Phillip Freund Alumni Prize for Excellence in Publishing from Cornell University (2017), the Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press (2017), the Split This Rock Poetry Prize (2016), the Picador Guest Professorship in Literature at the University of Leipzig, Germany (2015), and an Iowa Arts Council Fellowship (2014). In 2015, the journal IthacaLit named its annual prize the Lauren K. Alleyne/Difficult Fruit Poetry Prize. Alleyne currently resides in Virginia, USA, where she is an Associate Professor of English at James Madison University, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center and Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle.

The editors would like to thank the hundreds of writers who entered the contest and invite all writers to consider entering again when submissions reopen in the late summer.  Familiarize yourself with a back issue of the magazine or subscribe by clicking on the “buy” tab in the menu above.

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