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Deborah Hall, 2020 Writer's Digest Poetry Awards Winner

The winner of the 2020 Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards discusses the inspiration behind her first-place poem, “The Loneliest Whale."

Every year, I’m excited to read the new set of poems for the annual Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards. The only downside is having to pick and rank winners. It’s always a challenge to narrow down a list of finalists and, ultimately, choose the winner.

For the 2020 Writer’s Digest Poetry Awards, there were more than 1,200 entries. The poems covered a range of poetic forms, including sonnets, villanelles, and free verse. The subjects were just as diverse, covering the big issues of 2020 (like the pandemic and protests), as well as timeless subjects (like falling in love and admiring the natural world). 

In the end, I selected Deborah Hall’s “The Loneliest Whale” for the First Place Prize of $1,000, publication in Writer’s Digest, and a 20-minute consultation with yours truly. Read her winning poem at the bottom of the page.

I found “The Loneliest Whale” to be a feast of metaphors and images beginning with the very familiar hum of a dryer. Focusing on the humming sound, the dryer becomes a whale and space itself. Unsurprisingly, the poem offers up several sonically pleasing lines (such as line four’s: “…deep in sleep, cocooned by after-midnight moon”). And underlying it all is this sense of connected loneliness.

Here’s a quick Q&A with poet Deborah Hall:

How long have you been writing?

I’ve been writing and working on my writing for 27 years—since I started the master’s program in 1994 in creative writing at Florida State, where I went on to graduate with a PhD in 2007.

What inspired “The Loneliest Whale?”

I started with a sound. I gathered my notebook, sat in the middle of my bed late at night, and listened. What I heard was the dryer. As I began to find the words for that humming in order to describe it, I thought “what things hum?” which made me remember the unidentified whale in the Pacific Ocean that has never been seen, only heard.

When I’m writing a poem in which I’m the center, I often allow my perspective to shoot above me and to think about myself inside of a container (the house) which helps me to expand to think of the neighborhood as another container. While I’m up there, I shot across the U.S. and found myself on a boat, listening to the sad wail of a lonely, unidentified mammal, so I described that scene.

In the beginning when I was thinking of “things that hum,” I also remembered hearing that there is a sound out in the universe that has been described as a hum. I wasn’t sure how I would work that in, but I found a way. I wasn’t really thinking about my own loneliness but that seemed apropos at the end, to relate to the whale, to connect spiritually to other souls through the humming (as we learn from meditation and Eastern religions), and, finally, to the universe and to curl up by myself (but not by myself if we’re all connected) to go to sleep. The thought of all this connection comforted me.

Has anything changed for you as a writer since winning the award?

I’ve had an extremely stressful semester, so not really. However, I hope to attend the Writer’s Digest Conference in July in NYC.

If you could pass on one piece of advice to other poets, what would it be?

Write regularly, write to connect with others, write about where you are, notice your surroundings and the sounds around you. It’s the original “woke space” to occupy.

Let me say this in one “piece of advice:” Occupy your place in the world and nail that down for others to experience and to connect to you. Then, practice your occupation over and over again, reading the works of others who are also occupied in their space and committed to nailing down their experience.

“The Loneliest Whale” by Deborah Hall

The dryer’s cylindrical song is humming in the center

of this quiet house, this safe wood-box I call my own.

My bedside light is the only sign that one of us on this street

is not deep in sleep, cocooned by after-midnight moon.

There’s a single bed sheet in the dryer, flapping in electric

heat, humming like the loneliest whale in the Pacific

although not the same 52 hertz frequency. I worry over

his unanswered mating call, how his love wail is too high

for the blue whales or the fin whales, how scientists

are not certain of his species as he has not been seen—

only heard—by the late-night fishermen, their rocking boats

slapped by waves, the moon above skipping the water with

blue light, how the high-pitched moan crosses water and air

and shivers up through the deck, up one fisherman’s spine

into the chamber of his chest, how his own heart breaks,

how the umbrella of star-sky above the Earth hums a

similar song in the center of all this space, how those of us

in beds below windows turn toward its sound, pull sheets

tight, turn off the inside lights, and rock ourselves to sleep

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