Aaron Gardner, Douglas Richardson and Hannah Dow
(the judges of the 2014 Poetry Super Highway Poetry Contest)
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Aaron Gardner lives in Ojai, California and is a poet, educator, and father of two phenomenal children. He has been heavily involved in the spoken word scene since 1999, and was the Oakland Grand Slam Champion in 2010. He has been published in journals and online publications such as Ibid, Rivertalk, Cult 456, and Poetry Superhighway. Aaron continues his work locally with young poets to help them discover their voices and the power contained therein.
The following work is Copyright © 2014, and owned by Aaron Gardner and may not be distributed or reprinted in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
You first found him under the bed at age 12.
Too seasoned to be scared by boogeymen,
you watched him watch you with dust-mote
eyes and a vacant smile. He dissappeared
like sunspots every time you looked, so you
trained your sight to slacken and unfocus.
Awash in grey, your childhood became pixelated.
He grew bold as you aged, moving to your
pocket with the lint and worry-stones, biting
your nails as you reached for subway change,
for the keys to your first apartment, for the familiar
dented curves of a Zippo lighter. People noticed your fingers,
bitten to the quick, and commented on hygiene
and dirty habits. "We all have them," You said –
yours just seemed a little more absolute.
He sat on your shoulder during the wedding,
teeth like broken fifths of gin clacking in your
ear as you spoke your own vows.
His talons left bruises that looked like rings
on the rise of your shoulders, and you cringed
with every clink of every champagne flute.
When you cried flower petal tears
at the birth of your daughter, he
climbed into your throat. There,
he took up residence in your vocal
chords, playing them with crooked claws;
a master harpist. Everyone says you
sounded Just Like Him sometimes.
You tried burning him out, leaving
filterless Malboro Light cigarettes
smoldering on your tongue while you slept,
your bedroom smoke detector became
a lullaby, and you slept through your own funeral.
For someone who never believed in Heaven,
you sure looked nice next to those constellations.
Dressed head to toe in white, you shone like a
proud moon, hung against the suffocating darkness.
Draped in silence, where the voice inside you can
finally speak with its own timbre, echoing from the
stars like a soft rain.
City Kids at Upper Lake Tahoe
The snow fell sudden and strange
that June, we bundled up
in whatever could be found; wore
socks on hands, wrapped
t-shirts around our heads.
City children with grins like
springtime, we wrestled and
dug with numb fingers, our
impressions in the fallen white
some new kind of magic.
Later, around a fire,
cheeks and lips raw, we told
stories of things that can’t be
and won’t be. Our throats
alembics, distilling rime
from razorwire and concrete.
I’ve never seen him without
sunglasses, he wears snakebite piercings
and insolent swagger like manganese steel,
his smile twists sarcastic at the corners
of lips designed for raillery; he jokes
like someone who’s never seen the
inside of concrete cages; he revels
like his veins are clean.
Seventeen with a backpack full of
vodka, headphones sprout from his
ears, a wall – twin parapets for keeping
it all out, for piece of mind. He’s been
in four times now, a knife, a bottle,
He wears his time like an expensive watch,
though now, when the corners of his mouth
fall, ever so slightly, and the lights
reflected in his aviators travel down and
get caught in his throat, I think
he might be wishing for wormholes,
he might believe time means something
completely different when it’s in his hand.
She has been used by so many men
she no longer wears her own skin.
It hangs like a winter coat in the closet,
pockets full of mothballs and loose change,
When her mother went to prison,
she borrowed that skin –
wears it with a grown woman’s
swish and sway, hides the wrinkles
under layers of eyeshadow like
false sunsets. She goes out, armed
only with her mother’s expired
drivers license and an empty keychain
spray bottle of mace.
She drinks and she drinks and
She forgets how to spell the word no,
detaches, hides behind the bars
of her own ribcage, whispers
to herself like a heartbeat.
At home, when no one looks,
she drapes her own skin back
over her shoulders, she looks in the
mirror and she sees nothing
but sky and sky and sky
He learned to pronounce
diacetylmorphine and methadone
before his fifteenth birthday,
he liked the way the words rolled
and clinked in his mouth like
the butterscotch candies
his grandmother kept on the
In rehab he learned a new language
the crunch of distortion, dented microphones
staccato machine gun snare hits.
He imagines the songs are
poppies, opening in a field.
Some days he wakes up with the
taste of butterscotch on his tongue
and can barely contain himself.
Some days the floor is his only
friend, a cool hand on a burning
brow, it reminds him that there is a
bottom to this.
These kids, who come
and write and laugh and
cry and speak
always have small voices,
at first, almost like they forgot what words
sound like when somebody is listening,
but that is fleeting,
and when a voice ripens
it’s not always gradual
sometimes it comes ripping
from the throat with serrated
teeth and iron claws,
sometimes it brings the heart
with it, pulsing and spraying
anyone near enough to hear.
When this happens,
every word spoken before
that moment is cleared of
the dust and shit that
has collected from so many
years of swallowing before
speaking. Every word
is a bear trap, taught
and gleaming. Every word
shouts its own name.
Douglas Richardson is a novelist and poet who resides in Los Angeles with his wife, Jen. He has had fiction and poetry published in literary journals, such as The Nervous Breakdown, Straight Forward Poetry, Misfits’ Miscellany, and Aesthetica (UK), as well as in the anthologies The Night Goes On All Night and Ekphrastia Gone Wild. For more information, please visit Douglas’s Kirkus Pro Connect page, at https://www.kirkusreviews.com/author/douglas-richardson/
The following work is Copyright © 2014, and owned by Douglas Richardson and may not be distributed or reprinted in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
you check in
at the wooden gate
the lake beyond
the sunlight upon it
seems to speak
the burden is gone
there are fountains in the statue garden
but a guard dog keeps you out
you worry about trees in the winter
you worry about yourself in the winter
a Shell station on the corner
in the new century
same architecture as the last century
but not the next
there are twenty-six beds
in the mattress showroom
you can sleep there tonight
until they see you in the light
At the Starting Line
From our vantage point at the starting line, we can see how the coastline shapes the bay. The race official points across the water to a mountain on the faraway shore and announces that we will run until we collapse into the arms of the Virgen de Guadalupe.
in the bathroom
you open the medicine cabinet
and watch your face multiply
as one mirror closes in on the other
losing your friends
and the park outside
A Lucid Afternoon
On a lucid afternoon you sit at the kitchen table writing a letter that details every essential memory of your life—eating lemons, watching game shows, and so on and so forth for forty-five pages. You put it in an envelope and walk to the post office. You feel different now, lighter. Your back has stopped aching. You pass by the used car lot. The cars have olive branches for antennas. Your dinner and meds await back home, a photo of your wife on the fridge.
Scent of the Ocean
scent of the ocean
in the middle of the room
all the accompanying colors
turns out your religion was true
Hannah Dow is a recent graduate of Loyola Marymount University’s English M.A. program. She is now pursuing her Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers in Hattiesburg. Her work has been featured in Poetry Super Highway, as well as in journals such as Literary Laundry and Contrary Magazine. She is honored to be judging this year’s contest.
The following work is Copyright © 2014, and owned by Hannah Dow and may not be distributed or reprinted in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author.
The tar pits were a false heaven luring thirsty animals to their black-gold surfaces. Not pools, traps. So many animals died there. The paleontologists think the animals were stupid to fall for the trick, which is why they have gathered their bones and put them on display in Natural History Museums, as if to say—“See how stupid the animals were? We are so much smarter.”
Last month, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology met in Los Angeles to discuss the latest fossil findings from Rancho La Brea. They spoke clinically. With close attention to detail. They spoke about the markings on cougar, hyena, cheetah, lion teeth. They showed maps of hunting injuries—a wolf kicked in the skull by his prey, a sabre-tooth tiger dragging his twisted spine.
Every day, I am lured to a false heaven. Every day, I am hoping no one notices or finds out I have been stupid enough to fall for another trick. Every day that I am alive, I am hoping no paleontologist looks at me like I’m a cloth bag full of bones he can open and read and find out what I ate and who I chased and whether I have ever been kicked in the head.
This is what scares me: They have let the tar pits go unpunished. In fact, the city of Los Angeles has worshipped them, has risen around them. What scares me is that after so much death, the people have come together to celebrate what they have found. What they have found is Massacre. Carnage. Extermination. Genocide. They are excited by massacre. By death. Death is exciting to them.
“Have you been there?” my friend asks me in a letter.
My response is no. No, I am not excited by death. Death is not exciting to me.
If I had said otherwise, he would think I had fallen for the tar pits. He would try to dig me out. He would find only my bones.
Eclipse Parcial de Sol
After Ron Padgett
Today, the sun looks like a piece of Babybel cheese with a bite taken out, without teeth marks. I’m inside, looking out the window when I realize I’m sitting in a high chair. There is a girl next to me, tearing off pieces of cheese and putting them on my tray, and alternatively, putting them in her mouth. I scratch at my neck, recalling antipathy for bibs.
She asks me if I would like some bread to go with my cheese, but when I try to respond the words garble, as if someone were trying to scramble eggs inside my mouth, as if that is what the cheese is for. I try cocking my head to the left, thinking if I can just break all of the eggs, then maybe I will earn myself some time before the cook comes back with a new dozen.
This does not work, and so I begin to cry.
In times of frustration, I turn to exercise. Last year, I purchased an elliptical machine for my basement. I invited my friends over to try it. I used it every day until people started noticing. “You look good, have you been using your elliptical machine?” they asked.
“Yes, I have.”
Then a French exchange student moved into my basement and started using the elliptical machine as a drying rack.
Last night, there was a missing cat and I was in charge of finding it. My brain was in Saturday, but the cat was in Sunday. I tried explaining this to the cat’s owner, but he told me I had two options: I could search for the cat, or I could explain to his child that the cat was missing. I took a walk down the street and wondered how far I could go before someone noticed I was missing.
I come to a mental clearing resembling the sidewalk. The girl sitting next to me asks if I would like to go for a walk, and of course I do. I want to bring things with me on the walk, for example, my pocket knife. When I reach for my pocket I find instead a rubber giraffe and I start to cry again, wanting to know where my knife went and if the person who has it is going to kill me, and if all I will have to defend myself is this rubber giraffe. The girl thinks I’m crying for a different reason, and so she tries to lift me up. I don’t know her, so I swing my arms and legs in protest. I am not trying to be difficult; I would tell her this if only I did not have scrambled eggs for words and if only it was dark today, for I am beginning to think the sun is the one to blame.
After Italo Calvino
As he enters the city of Araceli, the traveler feels that he is being watched, and he is. To get to the city, he must first pass through a long tunnel of mirrors. There are few places to stop along his journey into the city, but when he does stop, it is so that his horse can sip what looks like mercury out of small streams gushing from the mirrored walls.
At the city’s gate, the traveler is greeted by two twin frowning men, with foreheads wrinkled from ages of squinting their eyes against the mirrored glare. The twin men hand him a stamped ticket, and the traveler realizes that the city is in fact a museum. Some citizens of Araceli reside in glass cases. There are families dressed in tiger skins, chewing the carcasses of antelopes. Others have their faces painted gold and they wield scepters and staves. The less fortunate citizens of Araceli live in closer quarters, each family relegated to one large picture frame. Beggars and prostitutes have had their shirts pinned to the wall of a large, blank room. The most dangerous criminals of Araceli, however, must lie very still, so that passersby can read the crimes etched into their hairless backs. Meanwhile, the rulers of Araceli are always patrolling the museum, flashing their badges and enforcing quietude and sweeping the floor when necessary. They make sure the tiger families have been fed and that the criminals are lying very still.
Once inside the city of Araceli, the traveler notes the importance of mirrors, of remembering the way he looked atop a moving horse.