Photo courtesy of Anthony Trumbo/Flickr.
Zócalo Public Square’s daily ideas journalism and free public events aim to connect people and ideas, exploring our shared human condition and the world we’ve made. In that spirit, we publish a new poem each Friday. And for the last seven years, we’ve awarded a prize to the poem that best evokes a connection to place.
This year, 441 poets submitted a record total of 1,145 poems, transporting us to physical locations near and fear, as well as to imagined worlds and mental states found on no atlas.
Ultimately, Zócalo poetry editor Colette LaBouff and the editorial staff chose to honor a poem that evokes the complex relationship between the natural and human-made environs of Tucson, Arizona: cloud-brushed mountain peaks, a coyote’s plaintive wail, and a baby quail “nested beneath the aluminum carport.”
We’re thrilled to award the $500 Zócalo Public Square Poetry Prize to Charles Jensen, a Wisconsin native who once lived in Tucson and now makes his home in Los Angeles. He will deliver a public reading of his poem at Zócalo’s annual Book Prize award ceremony on May 22 at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Los Angeles. Please see more details on the public reading here.
Jensen is program director of the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and the author of six chapbooks of poems including Breakup/Breakdown and Story Problems. A new collection, Nanopedia, will be published by Tinderbox Editions in summer 2018.
His Zócalo Poetry Prize-winning poem is below, followed by a brief interview.
Dark clouds pull themselves,
hands first, over the peaks.
A snake leaves a warning
in furious cursive on the trail.
The drooping arms of acacia
have lost something precious
and cannot be consoled.
Further out, a coyote
chokes up a wail so thin it scratches
against windows like a fingernail.
The baby quail nested
beneath the aluminum carport,
a false sky
they can’t see through. They wait
and wait for rain but it never
falls. They never see the sun
but they must know it exists—
surely they trust one or two
unseeable things about the world.
We spoke with Jensen about his Midwestern rural upbringing, what turned him on to poetry, and his prize-winning poem, “Tucson.”