Tor House Poetry Prize




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2014 Prize For Poetry Awards

Click on a poem title to read the poem, on a poet's name to read his/her bio.  Prize winners for past years can be viewed on prize pages for past years, available here.

We are pleased to announce that the 2014 Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry, an honorarium of $1,000, is awarded to:

Rob Carney

Salt Lake City, Utah

for his poem

"Seven Circles in The Book of Sharks"

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

Brian Patrick Heston

Atlanta, Georgia

for his poem "The Year of Kurt Cobain"


Marilee Richards

Sedona, Arizona

for her poem "Nudist"


Kelly Terwilliger

Eugene, Oregon

for her poem "What we don't see"


Brenda Yates

Los Angeles, California

for her poem "Seven Ways of Reckoning"


Final judge for the 2014 Prize was poet Wesley McNair.

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 1,000 poems from 40 states and three foreign countries.


The 2014 Prize Winning Poem 


Seven Circles in The Book of Sharks

Rob Carney


The cousin of a shark is a manta ray;

and the cousin of a manta ray, a hawk;

and the cousin of a hawk is lightning, the ocean reborn,

returned skyward and alive with storm;


and the cousin of storms is a waterfall;

and the cousin of falling is the wind;

and the cousin of wind is erosion

leaving rock, the bones of the mountains, scattered;


and the cousin of the mountains is a row of teeth,

and another, and another behind;

and those teeth are the cousin of the manta ray,

lightning, the wind . . .



In a story seldom remembered, sharks were ghosts

guarding the afterlife

since their rendered bodies had no skeletons,

just teeth.


The shock of that discovery

must have added new verses to songs

and widened the net of old omens, but nobody knows.

Those details aren't the details that lasted.


Only this: The dead step out of their bodies, walk down

to the sea, swim out to the horizon.

For some, the passage is easy—

a day, a night, a warm current there to guide them.


For others, the journey goes on and on—

if they killed a bear, or left a wolf's mate howling—

and the water is cold as a shark's eyes.

And then they see the fins.



Under the first full moon of summer,

they would carry bowls of water,

the light reflected on the surface making more,

a procession of moons moving forward.

In the center of town was a rowboat

being filled one bowl at a time,

and this was the boat of anyone lost at sea,

gone without a burial.


Those in mourning floated candles and petals.

There may have been music on flute or strings,

but we don't know; it's a ritual fallen away,

and all we have left are the wives' tales.


They say their empty bowls filled with quieter sorrow,

and with memories of the dead to carry home.

They say the boat would be gone come sunrise,

just the anchor there, still as a headstone

by others from the years before.



We have one such anchor on display in the museum,

arrangements of fishhooks,

even spears tipped long ago with sharks' teeth,

and figure, That's that,


think the past

fits into our pockets.

We wander about

then buy a bar-code souvenir.


But the past is more like the wind behind us,

and the present more like a ship,

and the only pockets on a ship that matter

are the sails . . . 



and they're wrong about the skeletons,

apart from the age of the bones,

bones buried deep but seated upright together,

all of them facing the sea—


so the ancient world believed in guardian spirits

watching over the living,

and a salmon was placed with the deceased

to keep the spirit fed.

Fish bones wrapped in deerskin

were discovered in every grave


a plausible explanation, but it's wrong.

The living were playing the part of angels,

guiding the dead to the edge of heaven,

seating them upright to find Forever in the waves.


But what about the salmon?

Well, that's counterclockwise too:

The salmon were meant as an offering,

a present for the sharks,

a thank-you for taking our spirits

into their home.



Spearing a shark means seven days of work—

that long to do the rendering—

and all you get is a set of jaws and teeth,

some fragment to hang in a window

or look at over the fireplace

instead of at the fire.


I've heard there are monks somewhere

using human skulls as paperweights.

Not to keep old scrolls from rolling up,

or pages in place while they bind them,

but to bear in mind

we aren't the measure of Creation. Just a part.



The edge of the sea is a teacher—so many bones:

all the shells and the sand dollars,

all the barnacles encrusted on the pier,

even wood—it used to stand upright in forests—


even ash left behind in our fire pits

dug to keep warm, to boil water

and empty our crab pots . . .

even steam rising up like the spirit of rivers,


joining clouds that drift above our graveyards,

and higher still

the moon keeps sailing through its phases,

all of them the color of bone.



(Photo by
Quentin Carney)
Rob Carney is the author of three books and three chapbooks of poems, most recently Story Problems (Somondoco Press 2011) and Home Appraisals   (Plan B Press 2012).  His work has appeared in Cave Wall, Mid-American Review, Quarterly West, Redactions, Sugar House Review, (most recently as the winner of the 2013 Poetry Contest; theme:  "Elemental"), and dozens of other journals, as well as the Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward (2006).  He is a Professor of English at Utah Valley University and lives in Salt Lake City.

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Honorable Mentions


The Year of Kurt Cobain

Brian Patrick Heston



The year of Tonia Montez:  she of the goth-girl

wigs and black gowns and pink bedroom walls

covered with watercolor and charcoal

drawings.  "This is one of him as James Dean."

"This one is of him as Bill Clinton."  Another

was a study of his heart, red and green,

wound with razor wire, sprouting daisies.

"Daisies may be weeds," she said.  "But even

they need soil to grow.  That's why I love him."

We'd listened to Smells Like Teen Spirit as she

rubbed away unexplained bruises with snow white

foundation.  When her face was restored,

she'd recite from the Song of Songs by memory:

"I sat down under his shadow with great delight;

by night on my bed I sought him whom

my soul loveth."  Her every leaning whisper,

her lips of scarlet, plummeted me into love.

But it was Shawn Minkins she sung for.



The year of the City Hall Rapist, his vague

sketched portrait peering out from newspapers.

We gathered in the firelight of televisions

to learn of the wolf.  In bottomless subways,

on horror movie streets, his animal breaths

lurked piss-stained stairwells, colonial

alleys, stalking crepuscular night for

a straggler to sever from the herd.  As we

traveled buses, trolleys, and cars through

blighted neighborhoods, we expected

to see him grinning in jaundiced streetlight.



The year of Shawn Minkins:

he of the "Boyz II Men" voice, the mother

who worked mornings bagging for Acme

and nights waiting tables at Arimingo Diner.

His pops went crazy because of Vietnam,

showing up every few months then disappearing

again.  You learned never to ask Shawn about him

because later he'd find reason to throw you

to the ground and punch until he drew blood.

He was always sorry after and offered to let you

hit him to make things even.  I wasn't with him

the night he walked into the Xpress Food Mart

on Frankford Avenue with a 9mm, demanding

what was in the safe.  Mr. Peng behind the counter

(who knew us since we were small) refused.

That's when Shawn pressed the muzzle

to Mr. Peng's forehead and didn't ask again.



The year of Missy Montero, the rapist waiting

patient as a monk until she emerged alone

from some dive to stagger on uneasy heels

into the darkness ahead.  He left her unconscious

and half-naked on the sidewalk beneath the El

at deserted Front and Berks.  Rain had been threatening

to the edge of daybreak, but passed.  The sun shone

dank Berks Street dim when morning broke.

She moaned inaudibly in her unnatural sleep.

Somewhere inside she was bleeding and this slowed

her heart until it stopped.  Eventually, the rapist

went away like storms or locusts—never caught.



The year Tonia took the bus every Saturday

to Graterford Prison, to step behind its high hard

walls to talk with Shawn through cloudy

Plexiglas, his boy's face a new scar every week.

The first weeks he grunted his love, then he

only glared, finally telling her to get on

with her goddamn life.  I watched as she pulled

the portraits from the walls and piled them

into the bathtub.  She shared a bottle of Vodka

with me then poured the rest over the portraits.

Her hands were steady when she lit the match.

The tiled room filled with flashing embers

that floated up until they dimmed into miniscule

shards of ash.  She wasn't crying (she never cried)

but held my hand as she watched.  She would

graduate at the top of her class and be accepted

on scholarship at Penn.  Instead, she packed

her life and left.  Five months later,

I received a signed postcard telling of yellow Spain

and the dust filling the streets of Grenada.  The boy

she found who never raised his fists or voice.  It was

the year of fleeing—the year of being left behind.



Brian Patrick Heston grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His first book of poems, If You Find Yourself, won the 2014 Main Street Rag Book Award and is due to be published in November of 2014. He is also the author of the chapbook,  Latchkey Kids,  published by Finishing Line Press. His poetry has received a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and a Sidney Lanier Poetry Prize. His poetry and fiction have appeared in such publications as Many Mountains Moving, Rosebud, Lost Coast Review, West Branch, Harpur Palate, 5AM, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore, and the South Carolina Review. Presently, he is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at Georgia State University.

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Marilee Richards


I hated the weird zoo—

the hairy, wrinkled snails, slugs, hanging

bird nest things that swung in my face,

thatches of wilderness on the women,

hiding who knew what.  Who had asked

for this bare bottom exposure anyway,

this having to eat ice cream next

to naked Mr. Wenzle, so covered

with fur he looked like a bear,

and my father's friend George Abbott

with his elephant trunk appendage

I was supposed to know enough

not to stare at who challenged

me to a licking contest.  Go ahead,

he said, let me see that pink

little tongue.  What did I know?

That nickel hadn't really been behind

my ear.  That my nose hadn't come off

when Frank somebody pretended

it was his thumb.  That if I got in the pool

right after lunch I'd get cramps and drown.

I remember the voices of the men

were like tubas.  I lay down on the hot

cement instead.  If I closed my eyes

I could pretend I was in the hubbub

of Griffith Park on the carousel

where the horses chased each other

like horses, like children wearing clothes.



Marilee Richards was fortunate enough to learn poetry from Charles Entrekin at the Berkeley Poet's Co-op.  Her poems have been published in The Southern Review, The Sun, Cimarron Review, Rattle, The Laurel Review and many other journals.  Her first book, A Common Ancestor, was published by Hip Pocket Press.  Retired from adoptions, she now introduces others to poetry via poetry hikes in Sedona's red rocks through the local Osher Lifelong Learning Program.

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What we don't see

Kelly Terwilliger


Sometimes a whale will die at sea

and its body remains a lost

balloon afloat, rising and falling on the rolling

watery bed, turning  softly within

to something like cream, until at last

the skin splits, the bones

fall away.


Its strange coat, washed ashore,

a bewildering softness.  Recognizable

only by traces of pigment, by the blowhole's

empty portal.  A hill of skin,

enough to hide a house.


And this is what we find.

A man rides his horse down to the beach

toward all of us waiting

beside these remains, the clouds

so low his head skims them, his hat

pulls them into plumes.  We stand in the wind,

waiting for him to arrive.


But out at sea the bones are still falling.

I'm sure of it.  Slipped from the skin

they descend through the sea's green rooms,

huge bones made small by distance, by depth,

slowly spiraling down.



Kelly Terwilliger's poems have appeared in The Atlanta Review, Prairie Schooner, Hunger Mountain, Poet Lore, and The Comstock Review as well as other journals. Her chapbook, A Glimpse of Oranges, was published by Finishing Line Press.  She is currently working on book-length collection of poems. Kelly works as a professional storyteller and writer-in-residence in public schools.

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Seven Ways of Reckoning

Brenda Yates



At the edge of dusk, sea meets the land and sighs,

murmuring rhythmic wind-lost words

as though crooning;

her dark voice of gathered ends

unfolding night, like a lullaby.



We are all the sea, he tells me—water

invented bodies as a way to get

around.  I wanted to believe eyes

blue as the darkest ocean, but even

then felt his restless heat.  And who can

not love fire?  Even air is drawn.

Fire has its ways.  As for the rest, wishes

are silky ash or mists of afterthought.



After buying stuffed quahogs at the beach-

shack window, we sit on the seawall eating

salty flesh, toss back the shells.  Waves slap,

suck at the sand and take them one by one.

Final arbiter, gizzard and maw, unmaking

what she gave birth to.  Even sailor

children who glide away in painted boats,

sunfish or catamarans, are but soft bones

anchored to her belly, and the pulse we need

blisters hulls to remind that she, in time,

will take us back, breath by breath.



There's blood on the moon and trees talking

nonsense, and too loud.  But if I cover my ears,

it's the sea that calls and sea that answers,

humming beneath the watery luster of my skin.



Harbor seal.  Its mid-section a gaping hole.

Parenthetical printed on the sand:  (shark

attack, single bite, escape), punctuated

with drag marks of hauling ashore.  Visible

signs of invisible order as when, tonight,

scavengers that have been smelling death

all day, move down from the hills unless,

unless the tide has already come back.



The cubists had it right, you said, ducking beneath

the boom, the seeing and seeing and seeing.

Wind takes the sail; we hiss away.  Boyish lover,

reservoir of lilacs and thorns, owning my cheekbones

with a careless touch.  I still dream of your prickly

heart and the sad dances when your body whispered

in my hands, still feel brown shoulders damp

from a night swim, and the wrists I tried to hold,

and how you broke away.  I still wake seeing

how you ran from the car on the bridge at Buzzard's

Bay, and the way you leapt, not into the water,

but onto the rocks—to be sure.



Falling off the edge of myself, I move inland,

grow excessively fond of roses and wild

jonquils, or is it daffodils?   I haunt old graveyards,

walking among broken-winged angels who

long since gave up all pretense of anything but

merely holding on to the pitted stones as they

return to dust.  But night comes; wind carries

me back to the water, still humming her tuneless

strains, to breathe all that's falling into the sea.



Brenda Yates is from nowhere. After growing up in Tennessee, Delaware, Florida, Michigan, Massachusetts, Japan and Hawaii, she settled first in Boston and then Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Askew, Chaparral, Eclipse, Illuminations, Kattywompus Press, Mississippi Review, Mixitini Matrix, Pearl, and in Blue Arc West: An Anthology of California Poets (Tebot Bach), City of the Big Shoulders: An Anthology of Chicago Poetry (University of Iowa Press), Manifest West (Western Press Books) and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VI: Tennessee (Texas Review Press). A Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center Poetry Contest, Brenda was also awarded the Patricia Bibby Memorial Prize. Her first book of poems, Bodily Knowledge, is forthcoming from Tebot Bach in 2015.

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

2013 Poetry Prize winners
2012 Poetry Prize winners
2011 Poetry Prize winners
2010 Poetry Prize winners
2009 Poetry Prize winners
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



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