Cal Poly English Major Wins Academy of American Poets Award

Cal Poly English major Marissa Ahmadkhani of Gilroy, Calif., won Cal Poly’s Academy of American Poets Contest.

Ahmadkhani took top prize for her poem “On Remembering,” which renders the aftermath of a love relationship. She will receive a $100 award from the academy.

Nationally recognized poet Patty Seyburn was this year’s contest judge. “The intimacies of human connection permeate Marissa Ahmadkhani’s work, proffering a deceptive simplicity, as her poems investigate the perils and abundance of memory,” said Seyburn. “[Just as] the natural world encodes a bounty of information in a small space, so do these poems embrace economy and trust image to convey the complexity of relationships and carry emotional weight.”

Cal Poly English Professor Kevin Clark said, “Marissa is one of those poets who has the ability to write about extremely nuanced relationships and ideas without resorting to difficult language. She can evoke intricacy with deceptively unpretentious, quietly musical expression.”

First honorable mention was awarded to English major Maira Argenbright of Colfax, Calif., for “Tiger in the Moon,” a poem about teenagers breaking dangerously free from conventions of behavior.

Seyburn said Argenbright’s poems “celebrate what can be understood and what cannot as, deeply inhabited, they explore relationships between culture and the body, pain and ecstasy, risk and reward. They expertly attend to pacing, judiciously employing the opportunities of line and white space.”

Second honorable mention went to Isabella Lazzareschi of Healdsburg, Calif., for her poem “The Beach,” concerning the way ideas of paradise can be distorted by early confrontations with death.

“The intersection of life’s lushness and mortality contributes to the compelling nature of Isabella’s poems,” Seyburn said. “In the sisterhood of her world, gorgeous in its materiality, a piece of fruit and a photograph share the bond of representation -- everything given a voice.”

Rebecca Liberatore of Paso Robles, Calif., was awarded third honorable mention for her poem “Sleet Lies on Sloan Kettering,” which evokes the way self-destructive behavior, such as addiction, seems beyond the control of certain individuals.

“Liberatore has been writing ingeniously inventive poems for a few years now,” Clark said. “Her poems are sinewy and always surprising.”

The winning poem will appear on the Cal Poly English Department website, .

The contest was sponsored by the Cal Poly English Department and the Academy of American Poets. Located in New York City, the Academy of American Poets promotes poetry across the country through sponsorship of individual university contests. 

1st Place - Marissa Ahmadkhani

On Remembering

There’s a heaviness to my hands,
waking empty in the morning,
shifting, urging me from bed.

There were days where skin was warm
on skin, and fingers traced
the lines around your eyes, like the wrinkling
of sheets.
Of hands together,
somehow light.

And days like petals curling
          inwards, wilting to our stale,
weighted words.
Words charred and thick, coating
the inside of my throat.
Your body beside me,
a silhouette.

Pouring my morning coffee
into one mug, my hands are empty
but stained with traces of you—
like blood in water,

          sinking slowly, then all at once.

Honorable Mentions

1st - Maira Argenbright

Tiger in the Moon

David’s head was a moon,
all buzz-cut spherical and pocked with crater scars.

He’s the one

who said Let’s take off

and we went—always went—

and he drove us to the skate park,
all pad-locked up, and he took his dad’s Stanley bolt cutter

to that cheap lock,

And we said David, we gotta go back for our boards.
And he said That’s not why we’re here, you pussies.

So we just walked in,
down the kiddie ramp
and into the vast gray bowl with the skid marks and pot holes
of the daytime,
and we saw David dump out his backpack, clattering aluminum

hollering against the concrete floor—

he popped off a lid,
shook the little rattling ball inside and
shot off a test spray into the air—
We’re gonna get caught, we said.
Shut the hell up, he told us.

Next we knew,

A sketch

he had a blueprint,
no, not a blueprint,
laid out like a villain’s scheme, and
he was rattling that can again and we all just looked at each other
and held our breath as he made his mark,
but the mark kept growing
and then it was a circle, a big, white sphere with craters
like his round skull,

and he told us,

Why don’t you go ahead
and put yourselves in this moon. And he tossed me a can
so I’d have to do it.
And everyone stared.
But then,
I really felt like doing it,
so I grabbed a black and an orange and I sprayed a tiger on that
huge, wet roundness, like
it was something that was mine—like
I’d been meaning to do it

for a long time. I couldn’t wait to come back

and see my tiger

glistening in the daylight with the other kids grinding

and shredding across its stripes with their little rubber wheels,

not knowing it was mine

and they’ll say Man, whoever sprayed that
tiger had guts.
And I’ll say, yeah sure
and climb the half-pipe
way way up.

2nd - Isabella Lazzareschi

The Beach

Emerald Beach was only for the easy-
breathing of us, the ones who found ecstasy from the right shade of lavender
or the rubber tinted hose water—
the essence of summer that lives in our bones.

It was only a beach to us inland kids, the fleshy moss softer than sand,
we chose the mud over salt, the variegated lace ceilings
over the precipice of nothingness sky.

It was only real when I was alone in the cove. The blackberries stained my skin bloody, fireflies 
turned back into mosquitos
with the setting sun and gave tribal dances for the rain and the algae. But when

I left, the heartwood
seemed to promise cobwebbed
skin and porcelain teeth, pleasantries
and allergies and moral girdles for thoughts. I thought that was the end. But years later

they found one of us, her eyes silent as the hidden secrets of the beach. The body tucked
away safely under a blanket of brambles;
for once, the thorns not bothering anyone. Reading the headline, I pictured her small

and dainty, lain across
the parted lips of the moss banks,
the cool flowing breath of the clouded current, leaving wet afterthoughts
and melodies on her skin.

That autumn, I returned to the beach,
September already leaching life from the leaves. The shallow waters, which once had whispered the secrets of my world, were now only
a cacophonous undertone of summer.

3rd - Rebecca Liberatore

Sleet Lies on Sloan Kettering

"You can never really tell apart the steam
from the smoke,"
you called, thumbrolling a Lucky, holding it from yourself tender
like a scalpel,
as you'd release bouts of exhaust compressed hot and leakslipping
in milk streams
between what you'd speak, cracked out dry
and what you'd inhale in swayed waves marbling in and out
so that some dropfaded not inches from where you kissed them off
and others

surged out in pummels, circles of plumes

that wallowed for a moment, stirring opaque and cupped inside the paper blue mask
still clapsealed  around
your neck, before they carried on. I watched, rawed pink breath paused, allowing
your secondhand whatever,
tinted like chalk
and singeing bitter, to swim smooth in my peachripe lungs that still bubbled moist and pulsated
with lukewarm bundles of bronchi.
I traced the clouds bleedweaving up
in front of your face
until they were defined into lines by the twisted tar silhouette of elm branches,
rotting under a torrent of Spanish moss, knitripped
and tangled— I was absorbed, motionless as sleet at 10am that I didn't notice you walk off,
twirlpushing out the last dancing flecks of ash skirting away just barely above ground—
that I didn't tell apart the wind rickets
from you murmuring, "You know, I don't do this because I want to," your lips curlcutting around 
glassy ovals

of steam

and of smoke.

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