Yesterday Robert and I were discussing the series of posts he's been doing about poetic forms, and we started talking about how we originally got motivated to try forms after writing mostly in free verse. Robert said a college class had introduced him to poetic forms, and that's when he began to experiment with them and see what he could do.
I told Robert what finally moved me to try to write a sonnet. He thought it was funny and said I should share the story. I think it shows a bad side of my nature that doesn't reflect well on the purity of my literary spirit. However, what is a poet if not honest? So, here's my story of my first sonnet. It all revolves around an engraved silver bowl.
The year was 1985. I was writing and sending out work pretty regularly, but it was all free verse. I hadn't written in rhyme since high school, and I'd never written in a traditional form.
I subscribed to Poets & Writers, which was then named CODA. Among the ads for contests, I saw one for Amelia and the Eugene Smith Sonnet Awards. What had caught my eye was the prize being offered: an engraved silver bowl for each winner, first place through honorable mention.
Here's where I have to 'fess up to a shallow aspect of my personality: I loved winning awards. At first I coveted the encouragement of having my work honored, but over time I realized I loved the actual awards themselves. By 1985 I'd won quite a few.
Most weren't for writing, although I had a few Writer's Digest certificates in my stash of ego-boosting trinkets. I had a ton of county fair and state fair ribbons for needlework and crafts, including my favorite, the luscious Best of Show rosettes with their sunburst of satin ribbon. I also had a first place age division trophy from the clogging championships at the Indiana State Fair, a smaller third place age division trophy from a clogging competition at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, and several mayoral proclamations (that's another story).
What I didn't have yet was an engraved silver bowl. My mother had a gorgeous trophy Revere bowl for winning the pie championship at the Hamilton County Fair, but I'm a lousy cook. Just to give myself a chance at such a bowl, though, I put myself through the trauma of trying to bake a couple of lamentable pies and entering them in the contest. Naturally, I didn't win.
So, when I saw silver bowls being offered as prizes for poetry, my lust knew no bounds. I would enter the Eugene Smith Sonnet Prizes contest in the hopes of winning my silver bowl--even though I'd never written a sonnet in my life.
I consulted several books on poetic forms and read all about the Petrarchan, the Shakespearean, and other styles of sonnets. I decided I'd better choose the Shakespearean on my first try. I scribbled and fiddled and finally wrote my sonnet. Then I mailed it off to Amelia.
And you know what? I won second place! I was beside myself. Of course, as you can tell from the photo above, my "bowl" wound up being more of a relish tray, but it was silver and it was engraved. It was mine.
Did that sate my desire for awards? No way. I still had never won a medal, or an engraved plaque, or a rosette from the State Fair. Eventually I got a clogging medal (third place, age division in a small regional contest) and some medals, including first place, at Cincinnati's Irish feis (one was even for dancing, in a group category; the others were for needlework). Eventually I won Best of Show several times at the Ohio State Fair. I also amassed a pile of certificates from Ohio Poetry Day over the years, and a couple from The National Federation of State Poetry Socities competition.
I even won a second silver bowl from Amelia, in the Amelia Awards. It was for second honorable mention; and the editor, Frederick Raborg, wrote to me saying they'd been having a lot of problems with the quality of the silver bowls. They were going to discontinued offering them for future contests. In fact, I could have a cash award for my prize instead of the bowl if I wished. No, I wrote back, it wasn't about the money. If it wasn't too much trouble, I wanted my silver bowl.
I eventually did outgrow my mania for awards, and many of those old trophies and things are in a closet. The silver bowls have faded into the background of my china cabinet. In fact, I had to do some serious polishing just to make my Eugene Smith bowl halfway presentable to take a photo. Every now and then I judge poetry contests, so I've stepped through the looking glass to the other side. Even though I still haven't gotten that engraved plaque, my competitive days are behind me.
In case you'd like to read that first sonnet that won me my silver bowl, here it is. I never wrote a lot of sonnets or became particularly good at it; and I write in forms less now than I did a decade ago because of a deterioration of my "formal" skills (the cause of which I'll address another time).
MAMMOGRAM VS. THE THING
The scopes and tools of radiology
remind me of some cinematic scene
where radar trails Godzilla undersea
or tracks the flight of Mothra on the screen.
Could something evil lurk, unknown, within,
(gasp!) coiled in secret, waiting to attack?!?
(And don't these preying monsters seldom win
before the final credits fade to black?)
It helps, to think in B-film sci-fi terms
of cancer as a popcorn-flavored fright,
like mutant frogs or radon-swollen worms,
assailants from the underside of night:
a flesh-consuming alien from Mars,
a black hole in the heavens eating stars.
originally printed in Amelia, Vol. II, No. 2, (c)1985
P.S. My grandmother had a mastectomy that summer, and I wound up needing a biopsy. This sonnet reveals what was on my mind at the time.