John C. Zacharis Award
John C. Zacharis Award Ploughshares is pleased to present Heidy Steidlmayer with the twenty-second annual John C. Zacharis Award for her poetry collection Fowling Piece (Triquarterly Books, 2011). The $1,500 award, which is named after Emerson College’s former president, honors the best debut book by a Ploughshares writer, alternating annually between poetry and fiction.
This year’s judge was John Skoyles, Ploughshares’ poetry editor. In choosing the collection, Skoyles said: “Heidy Steidlmayer’s Fowling Piece is marked by fiercely textured language and a humane voice. Its linguistic energy is perfectly matched by its calm and inquisitive tone, making a perfect tandem, an exact balance between writing and speech. The poems talk to the reader intimately while using an unexpected and often jolting diction, resulting in a collection both emotionally moving and formally inventive.”
About Heidy Steidlmayer Other than an early comment from a “kind hearted teacher” that “the rhymes were supposed to be at the end of the lines and not right in the middle,” the first profound
poetic experience that Heidy Steidlmayer’s remembers is reading Louise Bogan’s poem “Cassandra” in college.
“I was an undergraduate in the writing program at Northwestern,” she writes, “and Mary Kinzie had me look up the etymology of the word silly from the poem’s first line, ‘To me, one silly task is like
another.’ A whole world opened up for me when I discovered that silly originally meant ‘happy’ or ‘blessed.’”
While she was working on the collection that became Fowling Piece, Steidlmayer remembers coming across a picture of an old Tudor lanthorn. She was writing the poem “The X-ray,” which begins “Mornings, the body’s old / winter monochrome gives / its image of extraordinary cold / to a million hives—”
The lanthorn reminded her, she writes, “not only of a beehive but of a strange leather ‘head.’ This uncanny hive and its bees made me think of the structure of bones, their cells, where the bees going in and out were the living force—what the poet (and person intuits)—and what the X-ray does not show, but the poem does.”
When asked how the poems connect to each together, Steidlmayer writes, “I think the one common element that these poems have is that the poems’ subjects are in some ways trying to become language. The cuckoo wasps are curving into schwa, the praying mantis is reading an ancient Sumerian text, the butterflies transform like the beatitudes, and the blood of a saint of beginnings is flickering in its ampoule. In the illness poems, I think it is about a person trying to take in a profoundly “un-languaged” experience (for illness often offers in language’s place its own coded blather—sagittal, cGy, T2 FLAIR, diffusion-weighted, gradient echo sequences, etc.—or varieties of clicks and thumps and whirs that masquerade as meaningful, and are meaningful in a nullifying kind of way—as in uh-oh, the radiation is coming on), but are all part of an experience so frightening and unthinkable that there is almost no existing in it, much less writing about it.”
Inspiration comes from many places. In the natural world, she writes, “I feel a connection to things that extends far beyond what I could ever hope to understand myself.” She also finds herself returning to the great anonymous poems, particularly “Beowulf” and “The Wanderer.”
“When I write, sometimes I feel like I am trying to land a grand piano on a penny,” Steidlmayer says. “I struggle to find the purest form of what the poem seems to want to say—with a kind of music that can be like Yeats’ stone ‘in the midst of all.’”