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is a program launched in 2004 by Shoshauna Shy in Madison, Wisconsin, with the mission of bringing poetry out of the libraries, bookstores and classrooms into the general public arena. Calls for submissions are conducted largely via cyberspace.

Woodrow Hall Top Shelf Awards 2016

to the winners!


Grand Prize Winner

Ventnor City, New Jersey



        after Henry Reed's "Naming of Parts"

Here's where the instruments of torture break into song. Earlier,
an open cargo truck, a skulk of men in sweat-stained fatigues.
And later, we shall have what to do after the rapes. But here, here
the instruments of torture break into song. Doe-eyed girls
in plaits learn algebra on handheld slates, solve for x and y,
        and the instruments of torture break into song.

An eyeless machete rears up on its handle. Its blade
is a Cheshire grin. A chorus line of leggy grenades
palms safeties, upturns jowly Buddha faces,
which implies a compassion they have not got. If we add
zero to any number, we will end up with the same number,
        which implies a stability we have not got.

No gossip's brindle or iron maiden where a pair of scissors
or hot coals will do. And please do not let me see anyone
using his finger. You can convert the girls quite easily,
watch the smallest start to weep. A peddler sells twice
as many pears in the afternoon after letting everyone
         touch any of them using their fingers.

And this you can see is a whip, with a voice for soprano
arias. Hear how the notes turn steel-blue block walls
and concrete slab to calm seas, cloudless sky: we call this
a cappella. Calm seized. Clouds sigh. We must be careful
not to make mistakes when dealing with negative signs:
        they call it Deus ex Machina.

They call it the finale: it is quite easy
when the smallest starts to weep: like the whip,
and the barrel's open mouth, and the blade and burnt house,
which implies a hope we have not got; and the location
of the girls is unknown: halfway between sea and sky,
        they're instruments of torture, broken song.


The Grand Opera of Boko Haram was published in HEART and was a finalist for Cutthroat's 2015 Joy Harjo Prize.


JUDGE KARLA HUSTON: "The Grand Opera of Boko Haram was written after Henry Reed’s 'Naming of Parts,' a poem written during World War II in which he names the parts of a rifle, one he is expected to use, to care for, the naming of which is juxtaposed against the blooming flowers in spring.

This author updates the poem, making it modern and perhaps more horrifying—the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from a secondary school in a region near Nigeria. Though 57 escaped, 219 are still missing—after two years. One can only imagine the terror and reluctant acceptance of their fate.

Following the original poem’s structure, mimicking Reed’s repetitions, the author uses the trope of a music, an opera: 'a whip, with a voice for a soprano,' 'a machete with a Cheshire grin,' 'a chorus line of leggy grenades.' It is in the poem’s carefully controlled structure that the horror is sung, named, the dread multiplying with each stanza: 'the location/of the girls is unknown: halfway between sea and sky…'

I couldn’t stop thinking about this winning poem. It surfaced in my mind over and over, a poem of witness for those who have no voice."


Second Place Winner

Stoughton, Wisconsin



Not down. Not underground. And not abducted, exactly,
since he calls her up and asks if she wants to come along.
A rainy November afternoon, guys playing games of one-on-one
in a neighbor's barn after school, safety in numbers, her best
girlfriend along, though the friend will abandon her later.
Not down. And not through darkness into some underworld
of the body. But up, the ladder to the hayloft creaking
beneath their feet, the hay itself glowing, as sun breaks
through one dusty window, the dribble-dribble, thunk-thunk
of the ball and the other boys' voices receding below. Up and up
they climb toward the soft gold that smells like last summer's fields,
green she whirled through in another life, playing Kick-the-Can
or Statues with her sister and brothers. Up and up, her skin
a drum her blood thrums, each cell taut, her hand stretched
toward the boy (he is only a boy) who climbs, backlit before her,
so intent she hardly feels the needle of wood pierce her palm -
pay attention, pay attention -- while she pushes down any
misgivings -- the joking boys, some kind of cards
with pictures they passed back and forth but wouldn't
let her see. Pay attention, pay attention. And still
they climb. Until they are at the top and he hoists
her up into what she wishes would stay their own
fragrant realm. Forever. Not these dry kisses, this
hurried push and grab, her underpants tearing,
something that shoves and hurts, the smallest
happiness fading. Though she is happy to be with him,
isn't she? Happy this popular boy with the loud
voice and skinny ponytail has chosen her. Happy
to walk home alone with him afterwards in the rain,
his arm over her shoulder, his black London Fog draped
around her, cloth that blots out the light of the world.
And the rain. So good on their hot skin. Washing her and
washing her the way she will later stand in the shower an hour,
sluicing the scent of him off her until the water runs cold.
Until she is something like herself again, curled in the narrow
bed of her body, legs pulled up inside her nightgown for warmth,
a pulse of pain throbbing in her palm, sliver
of wood she shuts her fingers over, makes a fist around.


Splinter was first published in the Tor House newsletter, winning a second place prize, and in the collection Persephone in America (Southern Illinois University Press).



Ashland, Oregon



        the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver

Imagine the bowl
on a table cupping
late-summer fruit.
Think of the tip or knock
and pottery once whole
now in shards. It could be
five pieces, nine, fourteen.
The bowl breaks differently
with any given drop.
This time silver patterns
the seams like long slick rivers
instead of the jags
of a mountain ridge.
Imagine our bodies, the shine
of ten-year-old scars,
knobs of re-set bones.
Think of the way we fill
our crumbling teeth
and hold our own gold.
We piece our fragments together
a new way each time,
we repair what we can.
Our vessels holding blood
and bone make a changed shape,
and we long to be more gorgeous
with the breakage.


Kintsukuroi was first published in The Pedestal , and in the collection The Body, A Tree (MoonPath Press).



Crystal Lake, Illinois



Carl the mechanic
was the first poet
I ever met--
livin' at home
takin' a few classes
at the local CC
I think us younger guys
in the neighborhood
kinda looked up to him
because he was sort
of a regular guy
but when he
came out cryin' one day
and showed us his
first publication
he sniffed that he'd
tried to show
his old man
what he'd done
and all the old drunk
could do was laugh
and drip snot
all over the pages
Carl said this was typical
of how people
treated poets
which was why I knew
I'd never be one
so I asked Carl
to pop the hood
of the Charger
and show me
the spark plugs
or something.


Grease Poet has been published in 33 different publications since 1994.



Sheboygan, Wisconsin



I bequeath my steak knives
to all the men I have ever loved.
May they divide them evenly.

I donate my ratty sheets and towels
to my neighbors to serve as shrouds.
My dryer lint goes to the fairies for their cathedrals.

The hand-scrawled missives intended
for my first love go to the smart, handsome
attorney in Miracle on 34th Street.

(He'll know what to do with them.)
To the sun, I give my bed warmer.
My sprinkler, I give to the rain.

My garbage cans go to the trash man
and any rope I have lying around here
goes to the one minding the gallows.

Undone to-do lists and scraps of paper
marked by unidentified phone numbers
go into bottles to be cast out to sea.

Dead batteries go to the Energizer Bunny
and worn extension cords go to a place
where electricity has yet to be invented.

Burnt-out light bulbs go to the ghost
of Thomas Alva Edison and frayed laces
go to the old woman who lived in a shoe.

My pail goes to Jack,
my broken crown to Jill,
and my fleece as white as snow

goes to Mary who sits by her little lamb
and knits me a fine sweater; a cardigan
to clothe me in the next life.


Last Will and Testament has appeared in two collections titled A Brief History of Mail (Pebblebrook Press) and The Accidental Present (Finishing Line Press).


Thank you to all of the poets who submitted their work. Both Karla Huston, judge, and Shoshauna Shy thoroughly enjoyed reading your poems. In fact, reading your high quality poetry was the absolute best part of conducting this contest!