At long last, here it is: phoebe’s spring 2022 contest issue. For this one, we received thousands of submissions containing your best work, and our readers and editors toiled for months to whittle down their favorites to a very strong pool of finalists. From there, it was our judges who determined the pieces that would take home each genre’s prizes. Let’s hear from those most involved in the process which pieces took home the gold and why.
Winner: “A Bed Filled With Birds” by Faith Shearin
Fiction Judge Laura Kasischke said: “In this meditation on loss and love, the confusion of survival follows the protagonist through death’s ordinary errands. The details accumulate with meaning for both the story’s widow and the story’s reader as each continues to live and begins to comprehend the enormity of the world—how full it is and how empty, how random a life’s events can seem while still, in the end, holding meaning. A leathery enchilada heated in the microwave for dinner tells us more about loneliness than a thousand pages of nonfiction ever could. There’s nothing in the ice box and no clothes left to iron, but the nests are full of birds. These sentences are flawless; each word rings true. And, at the same time this writer looks straight into the abyss and finds the abyss looking back, there is an undeniable call to life at the bottom of it, a redemption that only the best fiction can give us.”
Runner Up: “The Lost Girls of Lupine Cabin” by Anna Sheffer
Laura Kasischke said: “This story suggests, in gorgeous prose and vivid but subtle description, that the past was already haunted while we were busy experiencing it, and also that it will come back to haunt us again and again. Despite the phantoms and the regrets that travel with us into the future, along with life’s commonplace cruelties and its major tragedies, there is, and always was, beauty, too. This story is both a lyrical consideration of loss and a spin on the best of all the Victorian ghost stories. This writer transports us to a place in our memories so skillfully in these pages that we don’t so much read about it as live in it.”
Fiction Editor Kevin Binder and Assistant Fiction Editor Bareerah Ghani said: “We loved ‘A Bed Filled with Birds’ for its powerful rendering of grief, the way death follows the protagonist throughout her daily routine and, indeed, permeates every sentence of the story. ‘The Lost Girls of Lupine Cabin’ is haunting and layered in its subtle meditation on religion, told in a cadence that is smooth with a touch of the mystical, magical, and the wistful. ‘A Perfect Day for Christmas’ beautifully examines the heartache residing in the spaces of a relationship beginning to heal itself and come alive. The writing is evocative and the pacing steadily builds the narrative up to its emotional core. What drew us to ‘We Can’t Live Without the Birds and Animals’ was the sweeping story it tells as its two protagonists fight for a new beginning from the specter of shared trauma amid the constellation of its loose, interconnected form. Finally, we found ‘Your Hollywood Jesus’ a captivating read for the lyrical, riveting prose it uses as it transports us back and forth across time to tell a heartbreaking story of subjugation, manipulation, and loss.”
Winner: “Ariel” by Lucien Darjeun Meadows
Nonfiction Judge Jami Attenberg said: “What a gorgeous, outrageously textured, layered, deeply emotional piece of writing this is. I was so impressed with the craft and the heightened lyrical quality, how there was never a hole or a pause or a moment where I wasn’t totally with its author. I finished it and immediately wanted to read it again, and also recommend it to so many people I know. A truly wonderful piece of writing.”
Runner Up: “Split the Baby” by Lauren Rhoades
Jami Attenberg said: “This piece just moved with such authority; it felt rigorously written and clear-minded, even as its author was dealing with such messy and hazy emotions. I particularly admired the various characterizations and felt at times almost as if I were reading a novel, I was so immersed in the personalities of this complicated family.”
Nonfiction Editor Lena Crown and Assistant Nonfiction Editor Emilie Knudsen said: “‘This isn’t the essay that I meant to write, but it’s the one that I wrote my way into,’ Meg Pillow tells us in her gorgeous craft essay on writing into uncertainty, solicited for this issue. ‘The truth, my failures, your interpretation, my love—in the aesthetic of uncertainty, none have primacy. They populate a common space, and I make room for them all.’ The essays featured in Issue 51.2 thrilled us, moved us, broke us open, precisely because they feel driven by curiosity. They are investigations and meditations that have been written into. Lucien Darjeun Meadows braids personal narrative with lines of Sylvia Plath’s poetry in his contest-winning essay “Ariel,” an intimate, lyric masterpiece about queerness, class, survival, art, and legacy. Lauren Rhoades’ “Split the Baby” pulls from folklore and psychology to bring us a gorgeous personal essay about allegiance and self-concept as a child of divorce. In “Follow,” Amanda Nyren’s tense account of being stalked becomes a subtle exploration of isolation, vulnerability, and taking up space. And finally, Aisling Walsh’s “Misplaced Loyalties” provides a beautiful rendering of embodied grief, while at the same time mounting a searing critique of the gynecological healthcare system in Ireland. ‘I would love to have a concrete, heaven-opening moment of discovery,’ Meadows writes. He is writing here about memory, about its elusiveness and blurriness, but the words apply to what we love about all the essays in this issue: discovery is not sudden or concrete, it’s elusive, a gradual accumulation of beauty, pain, and insight.
Winner: “New Theories About (Our Obsession With) the Moon” by Katherine Huang
Poetry Judge Emily Wilson said: “I loved the love of language, both playful and critical, and the interest in working across languages, cultures, times and places that is show-cased in this poem. It is framed on the page like a dialogue between a dictionary and another speaker, and at the same time, between two worlds, or two Moons, each responsive to the other. The first voice meditates on the possible meanings, from the Moon’s perspective, of the many Chinese characters that contain the sign for ‘moon’ or ‘month’—many of them parts of the human body—and uses philology as an impetus for a lyrical meditation on what it is to be embodied in the world. The 15 very short fragmentary riffs on the same subject invite comparison with “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but with a different focus on time (are the numbers lunar months?) and on the embodied experience of the speaker and their companion, smoking cigarettes on a summer night before a storm. I admired the technique of this poem, which can be read as a dialogue on several levels: you can read the whole of the right side of the page, or the whole of the left, or both together, as a dialogue between body and language, or one moon and another.”
First Runner Up: “Crepe Myrtles and All Those Other Blooming Trees” by Hannah V. Warren
Emily Wilson said: “A vivid, evocative, precisely delineated poem, which nicely hovers on the edge between a cozier, lusher form of nature writing, and something sinister, claustrophobic. The voice is impressive in how it modulates a slippery lack of distinction between the arboreal and the animate, and creates confusion about who ‘we’ might be, and where ‘we’ belong.”
Second Runner Up: “Lament” by Lydia Golitz
Emily Wilson said: “A brilliantly creepy poem. My favorite line was the blackly comic, ‘The wasps in her hair are making more of themselves.’”
Honorable mention: “Adam in Eden” by Shay Swindlehurst
Poetry Editor Christian Stanzione and Assistant Poetry Editor Lloyd Wallace said: “Poems with untraditional formatting fall into the trap of the formatting overtaking the language—such is not the case with Katherine Huang’s ‘New Theories About (Our Obsession With) the Moon.’ What drew us as editors, as well as our readers, to this poem was the beauty of its internal discovery, and each stanza calling out not just to the stanza after, but to its siblings all over the page. The lyric moments in ‘Crepe Myrtles and All Those Other Blooming Trees’ are unnerving and wonderful. Content moves from universal to specific to alien with a pleasure known to us and unknown to the speaker. How quickly things fall apart in ‘Lament.’ The speaker’s perspective seems to shift to that of St. Catherine before returning to the tube. The past, the present, and nature swirl around sardonically and we get to watch. Finally, ‘Adam in Eden’ is a complicated poem with a killer final two lines. Adam is, in toiling with shaping and controlling the world around him, unable to comprehend the humanity of the woman before him; a wonderful call and response to the biblical tale.”
Of course, no literary and art journal is finished without the art, and though our contest did not extend to the visual, we received some amazing pieces. Lori Arbel’s “Dragonfly Chakra” adorns issue 51.2’s cover this time, and the art committee was enthralled by its complexity and depth, how the image focuses the viewer on the dragonfly but then offers so much more as the eye leaps away and connects the dots. Vaiva Kovieraitė-Trumpė’s work with mixed media creates surreal imagery that evokes a kind of speculative world building. These images are both haunting and alluring. The photorealistic fidelity of Jemah Curtis’ “Catharsis” had us doubting whether we were in fact looking at an image created with black and white conte pastels and pencils or a camera. The portraits of Nicola Brayan present character studies that enable the viewer to feel like they know the person they’re looking at. Finally, Ellery Beck’s experimental work with Polaroid delivers experiences that make us question if we’re seeing what we’re really seeing. All of this issue’s art is compelling, and we invite you to explore it through the links on the Table of Contents.
Thank you to all who have contributed to this issue, from our staff and readers to all of our authors and artists. We couldn’t have made such a great issue without the support and consideration of everyone involved. It is a community effort, making a literary journal, which shines a spotlight on precious few artists. However, every journal is not without a legion of amazing work that it couldn’t showcase. Each time we produce an issue, we’re amazed at how many great writers there are, and to those of you whose work we couldn’t bring into the light this time, we want to encourage you to keep going. Yes, maybe next time and all of that, but we feel we’re living through an important time in literary history, which we all are a part of, and we hope to have all of you be a part of that.
Until next time, enjoy the issue!