Tor House Poetry Prize




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2009 Prize For Poetry Awards

We are pleased to announce that the 2009 Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry, an honorarium of $1,000, is awarded to:

Sharon Fain
Mill Valley, California
for her poem
"Demeter in the Suburbs”

Honorable Mentions, each with an honorarium of $200, are awarded to:

Jim Crenner
Romulus, New York
for his poem
"Godot in O'Hare”

Gordon Grigsby
Columbus, Ohio
for his poem
"An Ocean Sound” 

Marsh Muirhead
Bemidji, Minnesota
for his poem

Regina O'Melveny
Rancho Palos Verdes, California
for her poem
"A Guest in the House of Dusk"

Final judge for the 2009 competition was poet Diane Thiel.

The annual Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry is established as a living memorial in honor of American poet Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962).  The Prize is underwritten by Tor House Foundation Board member John Varady with additional support from Honorary Board Member Allen Mears.  This year we received over 1,700 poems from 45 states, the District of Columbia and five foreign countries.

One of the poems selected for an award was withdrawn after the announcement of its selection had been sent to those participants who had included an SASE with their submissions. We apologize for the confusion and any inconvenience this may have caused.

Prize winners for past years can be viewed on-line:

2008 Poetry Prize winners
2007 Poetry Prize winners
2006 Poetry Prize winners
2005 Poetry Prize winners
2004 Poetry Prize winners
2003 Poetry Prize winners
2002 Poetry Prize winners
2001 Poetry Prize winners

The 2009 Prize Winning Poem

Demeter in the Suburbs
Sharon Fain


No one said how hard it would be,
the empty room, last child gone,
that sprawl of moonlight
across a made bed. Midnight, then two a.m.,
then four, walking barefoot,
touching the pillow, just checking.

There must be thousands of women awake,
a demographic of emptiness,
the ones who paid for orthodontics,
packed the school lunches.

They want more than silence,
bend toward flickering computer screens,
moving backward through patterned light.


It wasn't as if a meadow opened,
violence of thrown soil
and uprooted plants, the smoky entrance
to the underworld suddenly there.

It was what we did, she and I,
sitting at the breakfast room table
with lists of questions
commonly found on the S.A.T.
(the opposite of redundant,
the specific gravity of salt)

choosing sheets for the dorm room—
single, extra-long, black
to stand out in the wash.

The letters of admission
were printed to look like diplomas,
bright seal, a ring of Latin, a promise,
the end arriving first.

You might suggest I courted it.
No dark chariot was needed,
No trampled petals.
I worked toward my own loneliness.


And you may raise an eyebrow when I say
sex plays no part in this grief.

We're permissive here on the coast,
beneath our laurel trees.

My pain has nothing to do
with how she might use her body
but everything to do
with wanting her bodily presence,
reading cookbooks aloud,
eating my lemon chicken.

Hades' crime, I see now,
was not theft or seduction
but making a girl invisible,
face and breath no more than a rumor
drifting up through layers
of granite, shale, sand.


Sharon Fain's work has appeared in Nimrod, The Literary Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Crab Orchard Review and is forthcoming in Poetry East and Spoon River Poetry Review.  She is the author of Telling the Story Another Way, winner of the 2003 Pudding House Press Chapbook Prize. Her work also appeared in Times Ten: An Anthology of Northern California Poets. She was awarded an individual artist grant from the Marin Arts Council and a nomination for a Pushcart Prize. She is retired from City College of San Francisco, where she taught child development and counseled at-risk students. 


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Honorable Mentions

Godot in O'Hare
Jim Crenner

Merde! I'll be here forever. Who could have imagined,
after that simple start at Orly, that it would, countless years,
runways, and re-bookings later, have come to this—stuck

in Chicago? At first, I could at least see the dead-pan
faces of the agents behind the Customer Service Desk—
but now I'm a hundred meters farther down the interminable

concourse of Terminal C—or is it B?—and inching steadily
backwards—as if—for surely no one's letting people cut in
on them—new strandees are being born in the line up ahead..

My hope of getting out on the next flight, or some flight
sometime, grows steadily more unreal, and with it my chance
of ever meeting up with those affable dimwits, Vladimir

and Estragon. I feel bad about leaving them in the dark, day
after day, but it's not my fault they don't carry cell phones.
I have sent a go-for every night to tell them: "Tomorrow."

But the truth is, even half-wits should have given up by now
on a no-show like me, and found someone else to wait for.
Or given up on waiting itself. I would have. I wouldn't

have, actually. That would just be good common sense,
and it's at least a tiny bit of a hedge against boredom to gamble
on the impulse to wait for someone whose most reliable quality

is his unreliability. Anyway, Val and Esty absolutely need me
not to show up. I mean, just imagine the cosmic downer
if I did! Me in my corduroys and Italian loafers, arms full

of the souvenirs I would, pro forma, have to bring them—
duty-free Bud Lite, a Rolex knock-off, a Cubs baseball cap....
Confronted with the guaranteed emptiness of the rest

of their lives, they would die howling on the spot. No—
it's better that I remain here on stand-by, my deferred
advent the reason for their deferral of suicide, and their

deferred suicide the justification for my never coming.
They'd laugh, though, if I could tell them my own fantasy
of me also having someone to wait for—a sort of Super

Godot, hanging out up in the air traffic controllers' tower,
sipping bottled Perrier, and coolly exercising real power,
as he directs not only all flights in and out, but the weather

too—so that, if he were to will it, O'Hare would instantly
become a perfect work of living art, a gorgeous, pulsing
organism of color and motion, with all planes, personnel,

and passengers pumping smoothly through without pause
or stress. And then, polite and deferential, he'd approach
me here: "Sorry to have kept you waiting! Everything's

in order now. Here's your boarding pass, seat assignment—
and a complimentary first-class ticket to anywhere, anytime,
to compensate your inconvenience. Bon voyage!" Him

I could happily wait a lifetime for, Godot waiting for Godot.
Except I know, of course, that he would also never come
because of waiting, himself, for an even greater Godot

of his own devising. Meanwhile, the word here on the carpet
is that there's a T.G.I.Friday's further down the concourse
that does a decent cutlet. I'll lose my place in line again, but hey.


Jim Crenner is a Professor Emeritus of English and Creative Writing at Hobart & William Smith Colleges in the Finger Lakes region of New York.  One of the founders of The Seneca Review and a co-editor for its first twelve years, he is also the author of four books of poetry, the most recent being Drinks at the Stand-Up Tragedy Club.  A poem from this collection was the featured poem on the on-line site, Poetry Daily, on January 4, 2009.


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An Ocean Sound
            East Penobscot Bay, Maine
Gordon Grigsby

I wait for the moon to rise through clouds
over the low hills beyond Castine,
watch the clouds thicken, go back inside.
Maybe it'll clear up later.
But it's the rising time that matters,
that almost dawn in the evening—
the large disk, gold or orange at the start
like a different kind of sun
you can look straight at without going blind,
the wide glittering path on the bay.
Especially in these days without a human voice,
cries only of seagull, heron, crow
that lead to a deeper solitude.

And the child's questions come back, thinking
of you now eighty-three
in the dry night of Arizona,
me by the grey Atlantic
with slowly greying hair. Why
do all these birds exist, these pines, this house,
its yellow windows solitary in the dark,
this mind that sees them all, and loves them,
as it loves you, father, restless, like a bird trying to sleep
on the ocean, while the wife of loneliness,
widowed old friend, sleeps behind a wall.
You pause beside a table in your office-study,
an old letter or snapshot in your hand,
and feel the woman you loved for fifty years
slowly enter your heart. You turn away.
Better to keep busy, fix a doorknob,
make lists of things to be done,
cross off days on the calendar.
It was all that mattered, that life.
The old things now are just pain. You
put them away, your breath coming short

just from bending over
and straightening up, that frail body,
so different from your life, feeling as strange
to you as it looks to me. You sit down
to rest, wondering for a moment,
before a grateful darkness gathers
in your mind, how the meaning of your life
has turned to pain. And fall asleep
without finishing your drink. I bend over
and kiss the back of your thin hand
loosened around the glass
and leave you in your chair. Maybe then,
in the dark that's sometimes
mixed with light, you're in Ventnor again
on the wide sand beach, both of you strong,
good-looking in 30's suits, two young sons
half in your laps, all of us smiling
into the camera, legs coated with sand
like grey sugar, then happy washing it off
in the ocean, the two of you lifting me
over waves higher than my head—those weightless
flying moments—until my hands slip
out of hers and yours, I'm upside down
inside a wave, drowning, spluttering for air,
then grabbed through the dark, lifted up
salt-mouthed, laughing again.

From behind the clouds a dull, diffused light
spreads like air. Islanded now
in air and water,
I keep going over the old pictures
until they merge with the cries of birds,
the bell-buoy across the bay,
the steady murmur
of small waves washing the shore.


Gordon Grigsby was born in Washington, D.C., grew up near Philadelphia, and lives in Mt. Air, Ohio, just north of Columbus.  After high school he went to the Navy, Gettysburg College, Penn State, the Army, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Since leaving Madison, he has lived in the Midwest, teaching at The Ohio State University.  He has also taught in Iran and Malaysia and has traveled widely. He has published Tornado Watch, Mid-Ohio Elegies, a chapbook (Greatest Hits), and in several anthologies and a number of magazines.  Tornado Watch won a Dasher Poetry Prize in Ohio.


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Marsh Muirhead

Here is the map, I tell my flight students,
unfolding the unwieldy sectional chart.
Like any map, I say, true north is up, south is
down, east and west are right and left, none of
them questioning how north might not be true,
still unaware of magnetic variation and deviation.

See the lakes, I say, lakes in which you swim,
and fish and there—the railroad tracks along
the highway, past the school and the ball fields.
And here is Clarksville, and there the Clarksville
airport, and that funny squiggle is the pipeline,
the pipeline you could follow all the way to Alaska.

But first you'd be crossing into Canada, over that
line, the international boundary separating us. It's
one thing you'll see on the map but not on the ground,
I explain, as they nod, filing this bit of information,
not understanding we are talking imagination here,
correspondences, representations of this world.

"Can we use GPS?” someone always asks, not knowing
the difference between being told where you are and
knowing where you are, where you've been and where
you are going—critical if you are lost, hail or lightning
in your path, the engine running rough, a gauge on empty,
or if you'd just like to land for a sandwich or a hat.

We switch topics: the advantages of getting above it all,
the tiny houses and quarrels within, the ant-like traffic.
Then, back to gravity, thrust and drag, airspeed and altitude,
a few reasonable rules: an airplane must always give way
to a hot air balloon
, how to talk on the radio: "Roger,
Chicago Tower. Foxtrot Whiskey Tango cleared to land.”

After much study, bouts of vertigo, tests of courage and
planning, a few will assume pilot in command, in charge
of their own safety and destination. Now they want shortcuts
through fear, the quickest route from here to there, unaware
of all the ways of falling, getting lost, how things go to hell,
the map turned the wrong way, a lever pushed by mistake.


Marsh Muirhead is a flight instructor and dentist, writer and photographer, who lives on the banks of the Mississippi, not far from the headwaters in northern Minnesota.  His fiction has been published in Carolina Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, The Southeast Review, and elsewhere. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals—Passager, New Mexico Poetry Review, Modern Haiku, the secret of salt, and others.  He won the poetry competition at the 2009 Robert Frost Festival in Key West, and is the author of a guidebook: Key West Explaineda guide for the traveler.


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A Guest in the House of Dusk
Regina O'Melveny

Next door my neighbor the longshoreman
is dying. I barely know him though sometimes his wife
says hello when we meet on our separate walks
in the neighborhood, my sloppy hound trotting beside me.

The hospice has come, she tells my husband on his lone walk
one evening, soon I will be alone. When he mentions it
I'm unaccountably sad. Is that because we've been neighbors
for 26 years and barely know one another?

Or that one day we too will be visited
by the hospice – a word that once meant lodging with
a religious order for pilgrims, travelers, the destitute
and the homeless. Given a home by strangers.

I send a card, wishing her husband peaceful passage,
though this feels so meager I almost don't send it.
Late at night I see the light on in their kitchen.
And early in the morning too, as if it's never been turned off.

This evening I look toward their house that I can't fully see
through branches of maple and mock orange.
I'm working on words at my desk when the melon-hued light
of dusk floods my room, then deepens to rose and goes grey.

There, there, I think. We're not moving toward tunneled light
but moonless dark, a vast thicket of trees
on the long black shore of silence, small human consolation
for which, really I have no words.


Regina O'Melveny is a writer, assemblage artist, and teacher at Marymount College in Rancho Palos Verdes, California.  Her prize-winning work has been published in literary magazines including The Bellingham Review, rattapallax, The Sun, The LA Weekly, and Passages North.  Her first book, Blue Wolves, won the Bright Hill Press poetry award in New York.  Her long poem, Fireflies, was the winner of the 2007 Conflux Press Poetry Award and was published as an artist's book.

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