Melanie Almeder Wins the 2024 Zócalo Poetry Prize

‘Coyote Hour’ Tracks a Summer in Southern Maine

Photo courtesy of author. Background image courtesy of John Dalton/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 DEED).

Melanie Almeder is the winner of the 2024 Zócalo Public Square Poetry Prize for “Coyote Hour.” The poem tracks the rhythms of summer in a part of coastal New England where you can smell Deet and rotting seaweed, hear piping plovers call and speed boats growl, and spot a seal and even a former president. “With rich musicality and stark imagery, this beautiful poem explores place, class, nature, flora, and fauna,” wrote one of our Poetry Prize judges. “Each line sings with surprise and delight.”

Since 2012, we have awarded the Zócalo Poetry Prize to the U.S. writer whose original poem best evokes a connection to place. This year, writers submitted more than 1,000 poems to Zócalo staff and judges for consideration. We are also pleased to recognize four honorable mention poems, by Tommy Vinh Bui, Fatma Omar, Abu Bakr Sadiq, and Yvanna Vien Tica, which we will publish on Fridays in May.

Almeder is the John P. Fishwick Professor of Literature at Roanoke College and a community arts organizer. Her first book of poems, On Dream Street, won the Tupelo Press Editors’ Prize, and her poetry has been published in a range of journals, including the Seneca Review, Poetry, and the American Literary Review. Zócalo is delighted to share Almeder’s winning poem and an interview with her about the origins of “Coyote Hour,” and how and where she connects with nature.

The Zócalo Poetry Prize is awarded in conjunction with the Zócalo Book Prize for the best nonfiction book on community and social cohesion. Almeder will receive a $1,000 prize and will be honored at our annual Book Prize event on June 13, 2024. The 2024 literary prizes are generously sponsored by Tim Disney.

Coyote Hour

Late June the fattened raccoon,
precise as a garbage man, tips the
garbage cans and out spill
the remnants of last week’s renters’

lobster feasts: the carcasses,
cooked to a cerulean red are
scattered hieroglyphics. No matter
the weather, at four a.m.

the millionaire’s sprinklers hiss on, mist the
skinny birch. His yard is as lush as a new
carpet. In two weeks flat last summer his new
house cropped up, kit-quick.

The summer visitors arrive gleefully,
armed with Deet and rosé.  They sit
in clutches on the beach
while the piping plovers peet-

peet-peet back to fenced enclosures.
By July, seaweed clots rot
corporeally, draw flies, the horizon
buzzes with motors.

I can’t tell from here which boats
might be stalled among the buoys or
which might be
fishing for hours. A former President summers

near. His security men patrol the bay in a
speed boat named “Fidelity.”  The marsh
does its crabbed best: willets nest,
and least terns careen themselves

over the high tide, certain for minnows.
September arrives as a sigh of quiet.  I walk the
wrack line. A seal periscopes up, stares back at
me like an old self. Cool lapses in.

One dusk, a skinny coyote steps from the marsh into the light
cast by the fire pit I contrived of discarded bricks. She does not
startle, raises her gaze to me, then trots off towards the field
that borders a field that borders a highway.

“Coyote Hour” seems to be set in a specific place—can you tell us where, and what that place means to you?

“Coyote Hour” is set in southern Maine, at a peninsula land spit just north of Cape Porpoise called Goose Rocks Beach. It’s a place of memory, of family. I love it so much. Both of my parents have been active in conservation there and have lived there for many years. It’s a place that shows up in dreams and poems and is a touchstone for so many other things.

When and where did you write the poem?

At Goose Rocks during the pandemic. It was this moment where everything was coming back, and people were joyfully flooding back to the beach and being in groups and being outdoors. I had been reading some of the poets of New England—in particular Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Armadillo” and Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.” My poem was kind of this response, this update—here is New England today, here is southern Maine today, engaging in a conversation with these two amazing poets from history.

What role does place play in your poetry in general?

It’s everything. I write so much more from place than, say, from character. I think place focuses us. I’m thinking about Seamus Heaney talking about the Irish landscape and everything that comes up from it, including sound and story. And how place has such an impact, not just visually—I’m thinking of Maine, of the scent, the tang of salt air and balsam, even the smell of dock. These things are so visceral that sometimes they come to the senses first before even a story or a lyric does.

Where did this poem start?

I started with the Saturday rental turnover. All the local raccoons know of this, and summer’s their big buffet time because there are all these yummy leftovers. The raccoons tend to knock things over—I was thinking of the hieroglyphics of these lobster carcasses and clam shells. The poem moves from the late summer into the fall season, when everything quiets down. The wildlife comes closer in, the seals come closer in. So that was the arc, to start with that festive garbage morning, the remnants of these family gatherings and vacations—and then the raccoons pilfering that, to show what the registers are of our humanity on the natural life. We’re seeing, like a lot of places, this huge increase in coyotes. They’re pretty bold, but they make themselves more apparent when the season ends. It’s this remarkable thing after Labor Day, there’s this quiet, and I wanted the poem’s end to be a register of that, but also a kind of elegy and grieving for development. There’s the sense that not only in Maine but in so many places, our natural world shrinks and shrinks.

What prompts do you give your students to inspire them to write about place?

All kinds of things. I’ll ask them to write about a place where, when they were young, they played a lot, or they spent a lot of that early time—a basketball court or a backyard or a lake. I’ll ask them to start writing from the senses—sound, image, smell—and then to ask themselves, what kind of song or story might come from there? And I’ll have them do exercises, like the kind of Buddhist meditation exercise where they go into the woods and really listen deeply, and then write. Or stare at a leaf for a long time and then write.

When was the last time you were in nature?

I went into the woods during the eclipse here in Virginia. There was a heavy cloud cover, but I just wanted to listen and see how the sound might shift. I have a garden in my backyard—I’ll go sit there just to be around these green and growing things and be around bird life. But it isn’t really till I go back to Maine—I go into the woods or get into a kayak on the ocean. Part of this poem was registering a grief that I’m part of causing—the ocean becoming overrun and more polluted. For me, part of the poem is elegy for the place. A lot of times I go into nature these days and feel both wonder but also grief.


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