Before celebrating the results of the 2021 poetry contest, I need to acknowledge that the wonderful poetry in this summer issue is presented against a sad backdrop. As we were reading through incoming manuscripts, we learned of the passing of Stephen Dunn, a major figure in contemporary poetry, but in particular a long-time friend and supporter of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices, for whom our poetry contest is named. I went back into our archives and found his poem “The Undercover Man,” published in Solstice in the summer of 2012, which is a marvelous example of his unique poetic voice, at once plain-spoken and yet complex and troubling just beneath the surface:
The Undercover Man
Before the normal barriers
get erected, and silence
takes on a texture,
and secrets grow
like mold in the basement,
I want you to know I believe
in the kind of transparency
that gets me what I want.
Why would I tell you this?
Because women like you
find even a semblance of honesty
irresistible. I will listen with what
appears to be intense interest
to everything you say.
I’ll look into your eyes
as if they contained mysteries,
something vaguely coral
and deep. I’m the kind of man
who will not touch you
without permission, ostensibly
considerate, terribly polite
in public. At some point
you’ll take my hand and place it
where it will feel especially invited.
Or you won’t. It doesn’t matter;
what I love are the preliminaries,
the seeing what, the great if.
Your wise friends are likely to warn
you about me. But you won’t listen
because you’ll recognize I’m the mask
behind the face, as close to the truth
as you’re likely to get.
And I’ll have opened my good ear
to you. I’ll trust that you think it—
like the ones before you have—
as a passageway to the heart.
This poem strikes me as unintentionally prescient in this second summer of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people had been taking their masks off and now are having second thoughts, thinking about needing to put them back on again, where the whole risky business of how much intimacy and trust we can invest in our interactions with one another seems up for grabs. Stephen Dunn deftly reminds us that through poetry, nothing is really entirely new, that we have been wrestling with some sorts of masks and internal negotiations about emotional security since long before our current public health crisis. We are grateful for his years of generous encouragement, and the challenge of his wisdom.
And so it is a particular honor this year to present the winner of the Stephen Dunn Prize for 2021, selected by Tim Seibles. Of Sandi Johnson’s winning work, he writes: “’The Invisible Woman’ is an ambitious poem that connects the African experience to the African American experience in vividly poignant detail. The speaker bears witness to the troubles particular to her own immigrant experience while simultaneously addressing the historical violence that continues to affect all of us. This poem invites every reader to widen the lens through which we imagine the often invisible but extremely sharp edges that define the world in which we must try to live.”
We hope that readers will encounter memorable moments among the poetry finalists and editor’s picks also, from Jendi Reiter’s tragicomic interrogation of gender reveals in “All Cakes Are Bastards” to Chantel Massey’s bittersweet Gospel hymn to Black Joy in “Hard Times Require Furious Laughter.” In the turbulence of the present moment, may poetry hold up a complex mirror to our human condition, and lift us, enlighten us, shake our assumptions. Read deeply, be kind, and stay well.