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Judges' Commentary for
the Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Haiku Competition


Judges' Commentary for 2014

2014 Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Haiku Competition


Rick Black, Arlington, VA
Raffael de Gruttola, Natick, MA

It has been a real pleasure to judge the 2014 Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Haiku Competition. We received 793 entries—a daunting number—but we each read all of the poems and then narrowed it down to approximately 20 of our favorites. We then read the final poems out loud to each other and discussed the merits of each one.

Our criteria were as rigorous as they would have been for an adult contest—weighing the overall effect, sensibility, grammar, pacing, and word choice. We were looking for poems that resonated beyond the verse itself or were moments keenly perceived. It was not easy to narrow down our selection and to choose six of the best poems. A lot of the submissions dealt with these subjects because it requires an emotional restraint that is hard for anyone, adult or adolescent, to achieve.

Whether or not you were among the winners, we hope that you will continue to write and to plumb the depths of your life through haiku and other forms of poetry. You are doing a great job using words to try to make sense of life and to record those moments most precious to you that you would like to share.

The following are our winners? they are not listed in any particular order in terms of one being better than another—they are all wonderful poems.

Rick Black and Raffael de Gruttola

• • •

napping cat
her heart beating
on mine

Marisa Schwartz
Grade 9, The Paideia School, Atlanta, GA

We love the way in which the author depicted the close relationship that people and animals have with each other—simply manifested in the sensation of a heartbeat. The acceptance of feeling and trust of this simple moment captures the symbiotic sensation from cat to person and person to cat. It’s the relationship that a mother might have with her newborn, two hearts beating in unison. Trust is never compromised.

• • •

abandoned trailer park
a pink flamingo
on the lawn

Aja Smith-Saunders
Grade 8, The Paideia School, Atlanta, GA

In this poem, a bird of flight is present while the people have moved on. There is a poignancy between the abandoned homes and flamingo, which may or may not be real. This bird of flight, this pink flamingo, serves as a symbol that we, whomever that may be, may not or can not ever return. For one of the judges, this poem recalled the image of Katrina when so many people were displaced.

• • •

after the beach
five-day-old sand
between my toes

Mariah Wilson
Grade 12, Sage Hill School, Newport Coast, CA

Sand from the beach sticking between our toes long after we’ve left is a familiar feeling for many of us. The tiny, leftover granules of sand recall a day at the beach—wind flapping against kites, seagulls, beach umbrellas, and sun shimmering on waves. In fact, the author prompts us to remember our own beach experiences—and the way in which they have gotten stuck in our own memory.

• • •

my Grandma
watching her pine trees
for the last time

Grant Dunlavey
Grade 9, Sage Hill School, Newport Coast, CA

To write about separation is not an easy task, but this poem manages to do so in a poignant way. We naturally get a sense of sadness even though this emotion is never explicit. A grandmother apparently has lived in this place a long time and perhaps is off to a nursing home or another less homey place. The sense of sabi—of sadness at parting, of loss and aloneness—resonates long after our finishing the verse. Yet, of course, we don’t know for a fact that the grandmother is sad? it is quite possible that she is happy to be leaving this place, and it’s also this breadth of interpretation that we found so appealing.

• • •

her greenhouse
16 plants
she knows by name

Ryan Shuman
Grade 12, Sage Hill School, Newport Coast, CA

In this poem, one can imagine the devotion to life that this person gives to the plants inside her greenhouse. We imagine her rising early, perhaps, watering the ones that need it or pinching off some yellowed leaves in the middle of winter. It’s the preciseness of observation that is so memorable and that particularly captured our attention—not one more, not one less plant. Similarly, the author has used not one more, not one less word than necessary.

• • •

El Morro
saltwater stinging
my sunburned back

Michelle Oglevie
Grade 12, Sage Hill School, Newport Coast, CA

We like the richness of possibility that this haiku presents as well as the way in which the resonance of a Spanish presence is retained through the original name. While haiku are often about smaller things, they can also reflect the vastness of a landscape. El Morro (as a number of places were called by the Spanish explorers) could refer to a variety of locations, including a California beach, a national monument in western New Mexico, or the castle guarding the harbor in Havana, Cuba.

The author of the poem contrasts a sense of history with the palpable sensation of saltwater on a sunburned back—all of which deepens our sense of the landscape as well as our interaction with it.

• • •

About our judges:

Rick Black is a poet and book artist who runs Turtle Light Press. His haiku collection, Peace and War: A Collection of Haiku from Israel, has been called “a prayer for peace” by Emmy-award-­winning poet Kwame Dawes and his most recent book, Star of David, won the 2013 Poetica Magazine poetry contest. Black has garnered several international awards for his haiku poetry and his poems and haiku have appeared in a variety of journals. He was haiku poet of the month in April 2013 at Cornell University’s Mann Library.

Raffael de Gruttola, past president and treasurer of the HSA in the 90s, is a poet and editor of haiku, senryu, renku, haiga, and haibun. In 1988 he was a founding member of the Boston Haiku Society and the editor of its newsletter. He recently was elected as the 2nd vice president of the United Haiku and Tanka Society of America. His haiku and other Japanese poetic forms have been printed throughout the U.S., Japan, Canada, Romania, Ireland, England, and other countries.



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