2020 Covid-19 Poetry Competition Winners

The Laura (Riding) Jackson Foundation is delighted to announce the prize winners of our first annual poetry competition. We received over 160 entries inspired by Covid-19. Sean Sexton, Indian River Poet Laureate, presided over a panel of judges that included Carrie Adams and Janna Schledorn to select our winners. All entries were coded so that the judging would be blind. It was a very difficult decision for our judges, but we are thrilled to share with you the winners and their poems.

In addition to the winners below, we have selected a number of other poems and some writings from our K-12 competition that will be published in a print book and on our website soon! Stay tuned for that. Print versions will be available for a suggested donation of $10 at the LRJF Writing Center and at the Vero Beach Book Center.

Our Local Winners (See below for our non-local selections)

Grand Prize Winner $500 - Mark Hinkley


Like gray haired first graders,
They sit all in a line in their small chair desks,
silent and alone, under the stale blue fluorescence
of the nursing home.

Polaroid portraits border the bulletin board,
that they themselves do not recognize,
Some labeled “Happy Birthday” underneath, some “Goodbye” and some “Covid-19”.

Each was a monarch of something:
A family, a business, a platoon -
Now their ermine robes give way
to terrycloth,

Trusted signifiers are silent:
Watches reveal no present, no past, no future.
Words no longer form in their throats,
Familiar faces fade to unfamiliar.

Is there no solace here?
Does the salve of forgetting
dull the pain of remembering, or
does the mind just wander off
to places the body yearns to go?

Where do the memories go?
Do they leak out, gradually,
all over the floor,
to be cleaned up by the nice Jamaican woman, Maizie,
who calls them all "honey"?

Or do they just evaporate
into a passing summer cloud,
to rain down over rooftops,
filling the gutters with summer bike rides,
vacations, birthdays and anniversaries,

before draining through the long downspouts,
softening the ground that awaits their return?

Second Prize Winner $200 - Pat Draper

A Time Like This

I never want to forget
those twenty-six hours you last came home-

The soft knock on my bedroom door
at five in the morning,
jumping on my bed
sprawled across the foot
telling stories of Baghdad and beyond,
as I sipped coffee.

The clock stood still.

Social-distancing, be damned-
you’re my sugar-bear, my youngest.
Even at thirty-two, these hugs
can’t wait another three months
until I see you again-

I’ll always take my chances with you

as we climb into the rental Mustang
revving the engine, ready for a spin.

Runner-Up $150 - David Kimball

Waiting for the Coronavirus Wave

When I consider how my light is spent
Within these four walls, inside this world so wide,
And my compassionate acts, which would be death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent

To serve my fellow man and thus present
My true account, lest others see me idle and chide:
Shall I be judged by my non-actions when actions are denied?
I ponder this and pray for Patience, to prevent

That murmur within, that soon replies: this world does not need
Either my work, or the work and gifts of others to be seen best.
My world of friends and responders working together serving the rest.
This larger growing circle of community with thousands for this deed

To post o’er land and ocean and internet this isolation without rest:
We also serve to flatten the curve who only stand and wait.

Adapted from “On His Blindness” by John Milton

Runner-Up $150 - C.M. Clark

In the Valley of April

Oh you pity the dead, the unintended lucky dead, who lay
in their makeshift morgues,
quiet now outside their cottoned ears. Gone
the insect whirr, the thrumming ventilators

breathing in the unclenched April.
Oh the dead, the unqualified unsuspecting
anonymous dead, partnered in their bodybag shrouds
the mandate for distance having outlived

its loud purpose. Stilled hands
across the antiseptic air,
would there be among them
some unspoken unrehearsed sympathy?

Frozen lips buttoned to mute. Theirs. Mine. After hours
of unending statistics that pour
like poison into the sleeping ears. The ears
exposed during a garden nap, an April afternoon

when all you’d want is a flyover by the young spring birds, or
the contrails of unseen jets overhead. No
specific skywritten message, no
squalor of news that is never good.

If you practice hope, you will seem hopeless, risking
glances in the rearview mirror, hoping
to see the all of it retreat toward the backwards horizon, hoping
this was just bad fiction, a cheap paperback on a rusted rack. Or

just a weird night’s thrashing in tangled sheets. Just hope
to wake to a different spring morning
with Easter eggs carefully hidden, the ungloved undamaged hands
of children carefully reaching behind the tall grasses.

The times call for simple language. No
obfuscated obscurities married to obsessions, no
private penance trapped in the margins.
I am sorry I couldn’t be simpler. I am sorry

I couldn’t withhold news of the 10,000 dead. (Those lucky dead who’ll miss
the news and its recap tonight.)
I am sorry these words couldn’t be virtual, the online minutes of an
adjourned meeting, or
a scrolled-past post on social media. I am sorry I couldn’t spring ahead,
and edit this imperfect present for you,

rewriting the living hours of those lucky dead who’ll dream
of their children’s baskets in pastel colors
only appropriate on certain days in April
when the air is clean and well in its casual innocence.

Runner-Up $150 - Jennifer Hawthorne

COVID Calendar

The Sierra Club calendar lies open on my desk—
a Sandhill crane and her chick opposite
a page of lined empty spaces.
On the Illustrated Rumi wall calendar,
poems pour like a waterfall
over vacant white squares below.
I check my devices for digital markers—
no dentist, no haircut, no Tai Chi class.
April 2020—cancelled.

This is a new classroom—
new school, new teacher, new courses:
Resting 101.
Introduction to Mobile Banking.
How to Read a Novel in the Middle of the Day.

Patrick Stewart reads Shakespeare daily on Instagram
(you have me at “Hi,” Sir Patrick).
Billy Collins teaches poetry on Facebook.
I read my grandchildren to sleep in Singapore
every Thursday via Skype, twisting my body
to hold a picture book in front of a tiny camera
while trying to read, utterly distracted
by the beauty of these small faces
I hardly know.

Ah, COVID calendar, in the beginning
you looked anemic. Pallid. Listless.
But now we know the truth—
not for one second will we ever look back
and pretend that you were empty.

Non-Local Selections

Grand Choice Winner- Olivia Hajioff

The Sounds Before The Sounds I Knew Before -

Everyone says it’s quieter now, but there are more sounds:
Not the bird’s song, but the first lift of its wing.
Not a rustling of leaves, but the flip flop as one leaf turns over, back and forth.
The intake of breath before the shout of a child.

When I stand still, I hear the grass tap against its fellow
When I walk, I hear my foot raise, peeling away from the soft pine needles.
The sounds before the sounds I knew before.

I should wear a softer jacket.
I have to hold my arms rigid by my sides to stop the shiny rubbing that mutes all else.
Otherwise I won’t know what I can hear and what I cannot.

The listening itself is a reaching out. A stretching.

Only the trees hold their secret quietness.
I go close to them and find a cool darkness
Made of sounds I have yet to hear.

Honorable Mentions

As the Crow Flies - Jennifer Shniederman

The black crow surveys what will be hers
While I walk empty streets and boulevards
Playing the waiting game.
The crows, sparrows and wild parrots have gotten louder every day
As nature takes back the city.
Getting bolder,
Swooping low, soaring, cawing
Challenging the human claim to habitat.
I keep an uneasy purchase
On the claim to my land and lungs.
Passing her territory
The crow sounds the alarm
But she is barely worried about me.

In our own precarious nest
Beloved son arrives abruptly from school
Earring in his lobe and vegetarian leanings.
He is presumed healthy for exactly one day.
Then fever, cough, strict isolation
Food delivered on a tray
Contaminated laundry stuffed into plastic bags
His father on the pandemic front lines
Bringing home the virus.
The boy goes from quarantine to evacuation
Reigniting Operation Pied Piper of wartime England
Children sent to the countryside
Mine is in a converted garage
Eking out a half-life
In the San Fernando Valley
Twenty four miles away
As the crow flies.

His upright bass
Too big to take to college
Keeps a silent vigil
Sometimes I jump
Thinking the large instrument is a person
Threatening the dark living room.

Tomorrow will see a partial lift of the quarantine
The cacophony of avian noise is rising
While the black crow cackles in delight
For she knows it is too soon.


Safekeeping-Christina Kilby

Where do all the touches go
for safekeeping?

If I could collect them in a jar
Like a child’s treasure
I’d bury them in a secret place

And take you there one day
Lead you by the hand
To wrest our riches from the ground

You’d twist the lid and all at once feel

Liquid pearls of my son’s three-month skin

Matted muslin of my daughter’s wind-blown hair

Gritty grains of grass seed, sown without a plan

Nubby lace of little leaves, thyme creeping out of place

Stony rounds of breakfast plates

Slick-ribbed spines of story books

Doughy yield of pillows, as we tuck our darlings in

All these and more, I would keep safe for you
Please tell your hands
With all this washing
Not to forget
What they are meant to know


Pandemic Hands - Michelle Sharkey

Moments between hands
Lockets of memories
Lesson of Life
Palm reading in real time

Pandemic hands
Hands in a flurry, hurried hands
A slaughter of safety, the practice of sorrow
Grieving hands, losses that slipped right through our fingers

Small hands, typing away for online classes
Holding a cap and gown for a graduation
That is cancelled or postponed
Can life be postponed while our hands have no rest?

Gloved Hands, a doctor’s search for a cure
Gardener’s hands, deep in the soil of a Victory Garden
Nurse hands, holding patients’ to tame their fear
Entangled fingers comfort the weary

Worn and exhausted
Washing hands
As worry drains down into ground
Taken by the Earth, filtered

I hold in my hands a gift
Small and symbolic to celebrate the birthday of my love
Happy just to be here another year,
Another day, another minute…together

My husband’s hands full of cuts
Extra hours of labor
To make up for our losses
Protective with love

Strong hands
Warm, heroic and surrounding me
When we are down
Hands have power in a slight squeeze

Pandemic hands
Hands of volunteers
Hands of helpers
Teams of hands

Hands like Life’s Breath
Hands that build together
With mine, hands intertwined
Love Spreads Faster than Pandemics


Landmark- Rikki Santer

The train like a wailing pronoun in the dark breath of night
when quarantine responds to quarantine and I ask myself
how do I get from here to the rest of the world
or scale a kinder incline beyond the black noise
above this jittery, jumbled ground
my eyes rheumy with incessant news, my lips dry
from the briny kiss of pundits
words gather to call upon landscape
sleep a foreigner who keeps me up under a swollen moon
weary of suggestions for further study
pregnant glossary of regrets
and I am wedded
to my weary couch denuded in its binocular view
the braying train again in periphery
its skein of myth and fable trailing behind
spectral thresholds blinded by the winds
a wolverine in my lap
skulls dangle from trees
this tasseled place dead air
of press conference somewhere between scorched earth
and uncharted territory
train cars stuffed with undersongs of tarnished narrative
clouds pinched across the midnight sky


An Essential Worker Opines- Anthony Nanetti

She was waiting in line
Masked and standing on a floor decal
As I rang out preceding customers
Hoping she would land at my register
Which she did with a Fiji and SunChips
Bright eyed even through plexiglass.
“Is this a stickup?” I tried my standing joke
Not throwing her for an instant.
“Want to frisk me?” she flirted
Beating citywide claps and flight formations
By quite a stretch.