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US poet with tragic back-story wins National Poetry Competition

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An American poet with a traumatic family background has won this year’s National Poetry Competition, organised by the Poetry Society. Lee Stockdale won with his poem ‘My Dead Father’s General Store in the Middle of a Desert’. His father, Grant Stockdale, a former US ambassador to Ireland, was a close friend of President John Kennedy, and jumped to his death 10 days after the killing of the president. Lee Stockdale grew up in Coral Gables, Florida, Bronxville, New York, and Dublin. He was aged 11 when his father died, and his work often explores that trauma.

He has said: “My own thoughts and feelings about my father were so convoluted and difficult and surreal … I felt the poetry allowed for that expression in ways in which I think non-fiction or fiction don’t quite allow.” He served in the US army for 30 years, including a spell in Afghanistan. He has won the Sidney Lanier poetry prize and other prizes.  His poetry collection Gorilla was published last year by Main Street Rag. Lee and his wife Gail, a potter, live in the western mountains of North Carolina.

All the poems were read anonymously by the judges Jason Allen-Paisant, Greta Stoddart and Michael Symmons Roberts, and they described the winner as “a poem of beauty, wit and grace”. They said: “This remarkable poem caught and held our attention from first reading. At its heart is the desert as a wilderness, as a place of testing, in this case an encounter between the living and the dead. The general store where “no trucks travel this road / to replenish the merchandise no one buys” becomes a place of awkwardness and tenderness as father and son talk around, but not about, what separates them. This dead father’s desert store is a kind of limbo or purgatory, haunted each night by coyotes bearing warnings, threats, love letters. But it becomes a place of fragile reconciliation and hope too - “I encourage myself to love him for the trouble he went to / making all this seem real”.

Lee Stockdale said of the win: ‘Winning this prize is a blessing. I couldn’t be more grateful. It’s exciting to think that, because it’s an international prize, doors for new poetry friendships may open all over the world. My father was a US ambassador. I’m an ambassador for poetry.’

Nine other winners were also named in the National Poetry Competition, including second prize winner Tife Kusoro for her poem ‘the only other dark-skinned girl’ and third prize winner Freya Bantiff for ‘God the Whale’. The seven commended poets were: Mike Barlow, ‘My Uncle Ivan’; Elena Croitoru, ‘Quantum Mechanics’; Caroline Druitt, ‘We said goodbye at Nelson’s Column’; Susannah Hart, ‘Stepfather: Three Likenesses’; Rosie Jackson, ‘The Boisterous Sobbings of Margery Kempe’; Jennifer Nadel, ‘a cold coming’; and Jeri Onitskansky, ‘The Pretty Goat’.


My Dead Father’s General Store in the Middle of a Desert

by Lee Stockdale


It has gas pumps with red horses and wings,

but is not merely a gas station, your father is not my father,

standing over me with a clipboard, checking off things done and left undone.

He seems happy at this last stop before death for those living,

before life for those not yet born,

where his general store deals in flour, sugar, pieces of hacked meat,

or liver, reddish purple, a heart he wraps in brown paper.

He cuts my hair beneath the tin awning. I must have gotten here

from one direction or other on the road that stretches horizon to horizon,

the desert heat shimmering my eyes into pools.

I crawled in on my hands and knees,

he handed me an ice-cold orange Nehi drink.

It’s pure coincidence that this store is my father’s.

I ask him where all this stuff comes from, as no trucks travel this road

to replenish merchandise no one buys.

He doesn’t like questions that challenge his existence.

I become quiet, he’s cutting my hair

and might consciously or unconsciously make me look bad.

You’re doing a great job out here, I say, which he knows is bullshit—

how many fathers, even if they’re dead, set up a general store in a desert.

I persist, You keep the shelves stocked, floor broomed, bathroom clean.

The more I talk, the more I encourage myself to love him for the trouble he went to making all this seem real, with cans of various sized nails, beans, rice,

shelves of liquor, deli section with giant pickles.

I begin to see what a dear, sweet man he is. Is this because he is dead?

I wish he were alive again.

I don’t think he killed himself to be mean to me personally.

At night, he says, howling coyotes come down from the mountains

and leave notes, bible verses, threatening messages, love letters.

Everything a coyote wants to get off its chest.

I ask if they come every night.

He says, Without fail.

◄ Roger Robinson to judge £5,000 Bridport prize

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Nicholson Percy

Tue 21st May 2024 05:14

A feeling of melancholy and the myriad of feelings that come from missing something important are well conveyed in this poetry.

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