Avatar photo

Poetry Editor’s Note

It’s a joy to present the selections for the 2023 Stephen Dunn Prize for poetry. The winning poem is “the Banjo Player Explains,” by Matthew E. Henry, selected by our poetry judge for this issue, A. Van Jordan. He writes:

In one of the most assured ekphrastic poems I’ve read in some time, ‘the Banjo Player Explains,’ grants a wish I’ve had since I first saw this Tanner painting: ‘I wish I could hear this lesson played out.’ The poem goes beyond the canvas and the framing of the two figures by “striking a balance between two worlds,” indeed. There’s also the perspective of experiential knowledge of the boy as man, an old man, looking back on a moment he will never forget, yet not initially knowing the significance of it in the moment. There’s great wisdom and a life lesson here.

About the runner-up, “Every day I wake up and get dressed for my funeral,” by Quintin Collins, Jordan writes:

The life lessons we carry with us from childhood into adulthood are sometimes offered without us understanding their significance. As, ‘Every day I wake up & get dressed for my funeral,’ opens, it sounds fairly lighthearted because, after all, how often have we heard this one: ‘…mother said to always wear a clean pair of underwear/ in case of emergencies in which EMTs need cut off your pants’?  It sounds like a lesson in personal hygiene, but it’s really a lesson in having some self-dignity, and this poet understands how this insight develops within us. As we get older, these lessons take on more weight and we come to understand that the stakes of life and death are raised daily, which this poem renders well.

Thank you, A. Van Jordan, for adjudicating this year’s selections, and for everyone who participated in the contest. It was a truly outstanding field of entries. I hope you can take some time to seek relief from oppressive heat and worldly clatter by immersing in the poems from the finalists and those chosen as editor’s picks: meditations on subjects ranging from shoes and mortality, to a reimagined fairy tale, to the complex legacy of Miles Davis, to desire. I am perpetually astonished by what can be achieved through poetry.


–Robbie Gamble

Join the conversation