This was the first year of the Peter Sears Poetry Prize, planned to be an annual event. Dr. Henry Hughes, a literature and writing professor at WOU, founded the prize in honor of Peter Sears, a poetry mentor and friend to him for many years.
Over 100 poems were submitted by students. Professors Marjory Lange, David Hargreaves and Hughes selected 15 finalists for Sears to judge.
Sears holds degrees from Yale and the University of Iowa. He served as a linguist for U.S. Army intelligence from 1959 to 1962. Sears was Oregon Poet Laureate from 2014 to 2016, and he remains one of the state’s most active poets, educators, and literary activists. His poems have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Field, Rolling Stone, Iowa Review, and Ploughshares, and he is the author of eight books about poetry and writing instruction.
Sears taught writing in Portland public schools, and at several universities, including Iowa State University, Bard College, Reed College, Lewis & Clark College, Portland State University, Portland Community College, Pacific University, and through Mountain Writers and Fishtrap.
As a community services coordinator for the Oregon Arts Commission, he assisted writers and local organizations in working with the National Endowment for the Arts. His community service has been honored with awards from Literary Arts, the Oregon State Library, and Willamette Writers. Sears also founded the Oregon Literary Coalition and the publishing press Cloudbank Books, including its poetry journal, Cloudbank.
First prize for the contest was $200, second prize was $75, and third was $25. Congratulations to Kathryn Sinor for receiving first prize, Stevie Lamica for getting second prize, and Nicole Caldwell for getting third!
We asked Sinor a few questions after she received the news that she won.
What year are you here at WOU?
I technically graduated in March, so the poetry contest was my last hoorah before finishing up.
What’s your major?
Anthropology, with a minor in writing!
How long have you been writing poetry?
I took a poetry class this winter term and that was my first real insight into writing poetry. A few weeks ago, I actually found some poems from when I was a child, but I stopped writing each of them about halfway through so I doubt they really count.
What was your inspiration for writing “Cosmonauts?”
“Cosmonauts” was based on true events that took place during the space race. Russia’s program was really, really lax in safety protocols, and the cosmonaut the poem is about, Vladimir Komarov, [who] did try to ask them to hold off on his launch. His best friend was scheduled in line to take his place if he didn’t go, so there was this really tragic dynamic of them both trying to go on this doomed mission so the other could survive. Their story has been bouncing around in my head for quite some time, and it’s so painfully human that I knew after my first few poems that I really wanted to write something about them. And then, one day, it just sort of happened.
How did it feel when you found out you won the contest?
Honestly, I had to reread the email a few times because I was pretty stunned. I mean, I loved my poem, but for other people to also like it enough for a prize, I was ecstatic and ended up telling everyone I came across.
Do you have any advice for students interested in poetry?
The best advice for writing I’ve ever been given — and believe me, it’s going to sound very obvious — is to just write. We get so hung up in our insecurities sometimes that we forget the best thing we can do is just keep churning out poems. If you like it, do it, simple as that. Though I should also mention that I can hear Henry Hughes’ voice telling me to give details, details, details. It’s in the details that poems really come alive.
Any special plans with the prize money?
I took one of my friends out for dinner in celebration, but I’m planning for the prize money to just go toward my pile of student loans — which is kind of sad, but hey, I’ll take whatever help I can get for that.
Here’s Sinor’s winning poem:
In 1967, an open casket service was held for Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov.
I find 203 structural flaws—
navigation faulty, parachutes damaged.
Please, I beg. Give us a month to fix it.
But the race pushes forward, and
They say the ship will go with or without me.
It is not for the glory of my country
I step inside but for
one beloved who would take my place:
he with the snaggle-toothed grin,
with the moon-shaped scar on his heart,
with the martyr’s blood,
who shows up launch day, crying for a spacesuit.
I’m not going to make it home.
The engines breathe flames,
and the stars sing to me,
call to me.
I ask the earth to take care of him.
They call me hero.
Parachutes shredded, failing.
I don’t see any God up here.
I am comet,
a molten twisted corpse they put on display
in reminder that love kills.
Congratulations to all the winners of the contest! Sears will present the awards to the winning poets at the Academic Excellence Showcase and the poets will read their poems.