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2017 Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest

2017 Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest

Each year, Split This Rock sponsors a national poetry contest, which serves to raise the visibility and prestige of poetry of provocation and witness. We are delighted and honored to share that this contest, formerly known as the Split This Rock Annual Poetry Contest has been newly renamed the Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest. And Sonia Sanchez will be judging the 2018 contest! The winning poems are published on Split This Rock's website and within The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database. Additionally, the 1st place recipient receives $500 and the 2nd and 3rd place recipients receives $250 each. All prize winners receive free registration to the 2018 Split This Rock Poetry Festival, and the 1st place recipient is invited to read the winning poem on the main stage at the festival.

We're excited to announce, below, the results of Split This Rock's 2017 Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest. We are grateful to the contest judge, Sheila Black, to the preliminary readers, and to all who entered poems in this, our 10th annual contest. The poems were brave and necessary, as we find poets' voices are more essential than ever.

The 2017 Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest Judge: Sheila Black

Photo of Sheila Black. She is smiling, wearing a checkered tan and brown shirt, her face resting in the palm of her left hand. She is a White woman with blue eyes and fairly short hair. She wears a beaded necklace. Behind her is a rust/orange colored wall.


Sheila Black is the author of House of Bone, Love/Iraq (both CW Press), Wen Kroy (Dream Horse Press), and Iron, Ardent, forthcoming from Educe Press in 2017.  She is a co-editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Michael Northen of Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press), named a 2012 Notable Book for Adults by the American Library Association.  A 2012 Witter Bynner Fellow, selected by Philip Levine, she lives in San Antonio, Texas where she directs Gemini Ink, a literary arts center.


Judge's Comment

It was an honor to judge this contest. Also, it was very very difficult because there were so many great poems.  I want to just say to the poets who do not appear on this list—I struggled hard to arrive at this handful of winners, and I am still mourning the ones I left out. So many of the poems I was given to look at deserved a prize—and more, they were all poems we need, especially now when so many of the freedoms we have fought for are under attack. Yet, these poets tells us, hope does not die, nor does struggle, and in that struggle there is always discovery and wild vagrant joy.


A man is seated in a coffee shop, sitting sideways to the viewer. He has his arms crossed lightly across his body, and his face is turned toward the viewer. He has brown skin and dark eyes and black goatee. He's wearing two piercings in one eyebrow and one in his earlobe. He's smiling widely at the viewer, and is relaxed against the back of the bench he's sitting on. He's wearing a light blue, long-sleeved Henley shirt, and a green turban with an intricate brown design on it.

FIRST PRIZE: on meeting a brother for the first time
By Keno Evol, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Keno receives $500, free festival registration, and an invitation to read the winning poem at Split This Rock Poetry Festival in April 2018.

Judge's Comment: This poet buried volumes of history in a language that is precise but slides and hints at in ways that feel so fresh and startling, I kept coming back to this poem and each time found more in it. This a poet who handles syntax so well--and with such original intent, that you are forced as a reader to slow down and feel the weight of the words like pebbles in your mouth. You feel this poem in your body, and it changes your understanding of what is right in front of us and all the time.

on meeting a brother for the first time
By Keno Evol

the night i was to meet my brother for the first time in 23 years he ain’t show / absence is not what comes up from that memory / more it was the dusk in September / how fog can hide a growl / more it was how i cannot attempt this with out seeing police / all seven / with hunger & dogs / earlier that morning another brother confirms rumors / true how we come from a family of warrants / he say when you meet him you’ll meet memory / he say he has a language for going to the store in chicago / babies not yet built / bullet quick / that like you he found hip hop being beaten on the southside and kissed it until it crawled inside his mouth / like you he has a proverb for everything that hurts / that before adoption our home was a drug house / that gangs kissed everything / left lip stick on boys who laughed too loudly for the living room/ give him a pen and he can tell you who called the cops / how they come / how gun point became sign language / who was beaten / who was built for bullets / how drug trafficking is not what comes up from that memory / 23 years later / knocks on a door feel like footsteps / police raids are common in south minneapolis / dogs got guns in their growls / police are communicating in a language of hunger / you’re so thankful / he was no where / to be / found

KENO EVOL is the founder and executive director of Black Table Arts, an arts based organization centering on conjuring other worlds through black art, by connecting creatives and cultivating volume in Black Life. Evol is a six year educator having taught at nineteen institutions across the state of Minnesota. Evol Teaches Black Voices at Washburn offered through TruArtSpeaks, a course centered on providing MPLS students an opportunity to engage with black literature, theory and the craft of poetry. He currently is an editor at The Loft Literary Center Manuscript Critique Services. Evol has received numerous grants and competed nationally as a spoken word artist. Evol has performed, taught workshops, and led professional development in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Detroit, Washington, DC, Arkansas, Minnesota, and New York. He has gone on to teach spoken word poetry in high schools such as Brooklyn Center High, MNIC High, PYC, Paladin Academy, Creative Arts and John Glenn Middle School. He has appeared on TPT and Urban Perspectives.


A close-up of a woman's face. Behind her is a large, forested hill or mountain. She has light chestnut hair, caramel colored eyes, and light brown skin. She is looking up and away to the right from the viewer, and she is smiling happily. She is wearing bright blue eyeliner, a green scarf with white polka dots, and the strap of a purple backpack just shows hanging on her left shoulder.

SECOND PRIZE: Shooting for the Sky
By Purvi Shah, Brooklyn, New York

Purvi receives $250 and free registration at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in April 2018.

Judge's Comment: We all need anthems and anthems are very hard to write, but in "Shooting for the Sky," we get one that is gritty and particular, yet possesses in its line and flow a wonderful Whitmanesque openness that makes us feel the power of the “we.” I like also how she sets in a garden—a girl/a woman thinking about the news and where she is situated in the world; and somehow torquing this around to a manifesto for what we might become.


Shooting for the Sky
By Purvi Shah

          “The Florida criminal justice system has sent two clear messages today. One is that if women who are victims of
          domestic violence try to 
protect themselves. the Stand Your Ground law will not apply to them...the second is that
          if you are Black, the system will treat you differently."  
-- Florida Congresswoman Corinne Brown

          "I tell everybody: Reach for heaven, and if you get the stars, you’re doing pretty good. That’s exactly what I intend
          to do.”  -- Marissa Alexander

Under sky massaged by sun, from a comfortable chair, I watch

the rain stroke a myrtle tree. Naked
rain, my father says. Naked,

my mother says, because the rain 
                             is unashamed to streak

brassy sky. Across every horizon, we,
like rain, dream to be ourselves – star

remnant, euphoric tears, full-bellied shine along a greater light.

                               In this world, we have but one sky – a holster of glass

and limited grounds, where a gunshot’s
                             meaning hinges
on who takes the stand.

Recall: this teen boy – and this teen boy – and this teen boy delivered
                                                                                                                                                     to sky
too soon.           Recall:

a woman caring for her young, caring
                                                                                                                                        for herself, and in a warning

shot, parceled to prison. The guilty shot reached not any man but saved
           the skin of her recent birthed belly: Marissa who fired not against

humanity but against oppression, who believed women too

could stand on just ground. Marissa, you say, you                             continue
                                                              to believe – we are still a nation – hopefully

in our hearts…Today                      I dream, Marissa, that you                                will emerge

to watch

                              the rain naked under a Florida sun, hold
in your hands children able to battle bullets

in every skin as we praise        unshackled
sky, prayers      liberated as rain, a day

when women will not need to be swallowed
by the earth, swallowed by the rain, when we

will not be swallowed
by a bullet, swallowed

by jury.               Survival

is more than instinct – it is soul
                              prerogative – a silver

spoon in a girl’s underwear.

                  Praise: a day
when we need not

think of survival – when we just
live, a day without warning, a day

when each breath is                              celebration, a day

when the ground, the rain, the sky, and we meet – brazen
                                                                                              & brilliant.

PURVI SHAH, known for her sparkly eyeshadow and raucous laughter, inspires change as a social justice advocate and writer. She is curious about language as dreamwork for love, transformation, and justice. She won the inaugural SONY South Asian Social Service Excellence Award for her leadership fighting violence against women. During the 10th anniversary of 9/11, she directed Together We Are New York, a community-based poetry project to highlight Asian American voices and experiences. Her award-winning poetry book, Terrain Tracks,  plumbs migrations and belongings. Her chaplet, Dark Lip of the Beloved: Sound Your Fiery God-Praise, explores women’s devotions, status, and being. Her first play, Light as a Mountain, had a staged reading in 2016 through INKTank, a playwright's residency hosted by Rising Circle Theater Collective. In addition to being a 2016-17 LMCC Workspace Resident, she currently serves as a board member of The Poetry Project and a contributing editor to Aster(ix). Discover more @PurviPoets or on Shah's website.


 A man sits on a bridge above a river. In the background are trees, a bend in the river, railroad bridge. He is hunched a little forward with his hands resting on the bridge's concrete inner buttress. He is looking away from the viewer, down the length of the bridge, out of the shot. He has a dark, curly beard, and medium brown skin. His expression is contemplative, and as if he just about to speak. He is wearing a blue and white bandanna, a dark-colored shirt with multi-colored stripes, and blue jeans.

THIRD PRIZE: Black Matters
By Keith Wilson, Chicago, Illinois

Keith receieves $250 and free registration at the Split This Rock Poetry Festival in April 2018. (Photo by: Ashley Ross)

Judge's Comment: It is unfashionable perhaps to love the authority of a poem, but there is such a thrill in finding a poet who carves language the way this poet does. "Black Matters" speaks of deeply contemporary issues, but in a language whose dense textures and gorgeous sounds give us the scope and heft of a history long borne. This is a poem that expands in the imagination.


Black Matters
By Keith S. Wilson

      after D. H. Lawrence

shall i tell you, then, that we exist?
there came a light, blue and white careening,
the police like wailing angels
to bitter me.

and so this:
dark matter is hypothetical. know
that it cannot be seen

in the gunpowder of a flower,
in a worm that raisins on the concrete,
in a man that wills himself not to speak.

gags, oh gags.
for a shadow cannot breathe.
it deprives them of nothing. pride

is born in the black and dies in it.
i hear our shadow, low treble
of the clasping of our hands.

dark matter is invisible.
we infer it: how light bends around a black body,
and still you do not see black halos, even here,

my having told you plainly where they are.

KEITH S. WILSON is an Affrilachian Poet, Cave Canem fellow, and graduate of the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop. He has received three scholarships from Bread Loaf as well as scholarships from the Millay Colony, Poetry by the Sea, Ucross, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Keith serves as Assistant Poetry Editor at Four Way Review and Digital Media Editor at Obsidian Journal.      



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