The soft glow of the moon and a porch light illuminated Madeleine Mori’s fingers as they tap-danced over the worn keys of her mother’s vintage typewriter.
For two hours on a warm, breezy November night, Mori remained seated at her boyfriend’s oval, wooden outdoor desk, sipping Earl Grey tea and speed-writing the poem that would go on to win the 2013 Academy of American Poets contest.
“There’s something about a typewriter that’s very static and momentaneous,” said Mori, who began the poem on the typewriter and switched to her laptop to finish it off. “I had this obsessive image of the vision I wanted to convey and, at that point, it was about finding the words to express it.”
Mori’s award-winning poem (posted below), “Ten Cents,” is a tribute to American folk singer Karen Dalton.
Out of more than 204 pages of poetry submitted, Los Angeles-based poet and contest judge Suzanne Lummis chose “Ten Cents” as the winning poem, earning Mori $100.
“Ten Cents” portrays the difficult choice an artist must make to sever ties with a traditional lifestyle in order to pursue his or her passion.
“It’s about being young and having these inclinations and simultaneous directions you’re being pulled in,” Mori said.
Mori, a junior, understands being pulled in different directions. Her major, wine and viticulture, was chosen “on a whim.” Mori really wants to pursue poetry — not just as an outlet but as an occupation.
Mori also feels a pull between cultures.
“A lot of my poetry is about deep-rooted American nostalgia, but I’m half Japanese, and so I’ve always had that pull,” she said.
Contest director and English professor Kevin Clark calls Mori’s award-winning poem “well-polished, highly imagined and subtle.”
“Her poems are anchored in the real world, but there are two real worlds: the outer real world and the inner,” Clark said. “And the inner real world, the kind of psychological dream state that we often inhabit, is a place that she feels comfortable exploring in her work.”
Mori says this way of writing is practically innate and natural for her.
“I’ve always been very obsessed with dream analogies and symbolism, and I get a lot of inspirations from my dreams, which are often very vivid,” she said. “I don’t try to write that way, but I’m sure that floats into my consciousness.”
Mori almost lost consciousness, though, when she found out she won the Academy of American Poets contest.
“I was stunned,” she said. “I got an email from (Clark) with no punctuation, something like ‘Can you please come to my office I have something that might be interesting to you.'”
Once she arrived at his office, Clark presented her with the good news, stuck out his hand for a shake. Mori stood aghast, almost forgetting to shake his outstretched hand.
“Both Cate (Harkins) and Eli (Williams) were in my class, and I know the level of poets they are, so I was very astonished that I beat them out somehow,” Mori said, referring to the students who received honorable mentions.
“Cate has the ability to create these dark, otherworldly textures, and Eli is such a master of wit and turning normal situations into profound moments,” Mori said.
English senior Harkins’ honorable mention poem “Dirty Laundry” delves into the mind of a woman who is so poor that she only has enough money for one load of laundry.
“Now Cate … Cate is a writer who knows how to create atmosphere,” Clark said. “And she renders that atmosphere through a kind of filigree of words, so that she tells these small stories with deeply resonate implications in them, and they’re fascinating.”
Williams, an English junior, received the other honorable mention for “Cut & Dry,” a poem ripe with sexual tension. “Cut & Dry” details one man’s temptation for adultery while getting his hair cut by a seductive stylist.
Williams described the inspiration for the poem: “One day, I went to get a haircut and the woman cutting my hair finished and asked, ‘Is there anything else I can do for you?’”
“The poem is definitely very psychological and sexual in nature,” he said. “I tried to use the language of sex to portray the scene, so it’s chalk full of innuendo that I thought would be funny and relatable to an audience of my peers while still making them think.”
Clark says Williams is able to balance social observation and comedy while revealing facets of human nature.
“What’s so interesting about him — this is not easy to do — he can write poems that on the surface are comically entertaining but, beneath the surface, have serious application to our lives,” Clark said.
Overall, the caliber of poetry-writing students was nearly unparalleled this year, Clark said.
“This is by far the most poetry we’ve had submitted,” Clark said. “I got to say, I think we’re in a cycle of good Cal Poly poets at the moment, and I don’t think there’s any particular reason why that happened, but it just kind of took off. There is an unusually high number of students who are very, very fine poets at Cal Poly right now.”
by Madeleine Mori
for Karen Dalton
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he path down to the river
weaved with the rotting moss driveways,
the still breath in the air
of the ’57 Chevrolet
with withered thistle and rosehip
married to its chassis.
Some never left
the dry creek town, old, proud
limbs waving back and forth,
their porches leaning downhill,
rocking back and forth ceaselessly,
into the open earth.
The iron rich red of the soil
could cake bare feet like butter,
fallen tree limbs could grope,
snake holes could trip
like the telephone lines
if you didn’t know how to step.
In a bag, she brought a mason jar
of mixed wine, a loose lick of tire
swing rope she’d been working to unravel,
the graying map of Tennessee.
This time I’ll go to Nashville,
wrestle off this ten cent life.
She strained her toes under the spyglass film
of the muddied water
and thought herself one lone cattail,
a wild mess of golden seed
raging through towns,
projecting free prayers.
But how far would her highway stretch
when a neighbor emptied water
from his buckshot brass gutters
and the bed grasses lunged
with the mounting river to coil
and pull at her ankle?