Joe Fishleigh wins 2023 Xpress Poetry Contest

WORTH THE WAIT: Though Joe Fishleigh has been writing poetry since the age of 16, it wasn't until after he retired from his career in broadcasting in 2021 that he's begun spending more time with the form. Also pictured is Fishleigh's sheepdog, Archie. Photo courtesy of Fishleigh

Over 60 local poets submitted works to our semiannual Xpress Poetry Contest. That is more than double the number of entries for the 2021 contest. (Xpress did not host the contest in 2022.) This year’s competition asked writers to draft an original, previously unpublished piece on the theme of hope. Winners, as you’ll see, took the concept in a variety of directions.

This year’s judge, Michael Hettich, retired to Black Mountain in 2018 after serving as professor of English at Miami Dade College for 28 years. Hettich is an award-winning poet, with collections that include The Frozen Harbor (2017), ​​Bluer and More Vast: Prose Poems (2018), To Start an Orchard (2019), The Mica Mine (2021) and The Halo of Bees: New & Selected Poems, 1990-2022 (2023).

Asked to select the top three poems, Hettich chose “temperance” by Tyler Hughes as this year’s third-place finisher. “This spare, elusive poem impresses me with its powerful evocation of a kind of presence-in-absence and with its attempt to communicate a sense of things that is ultimately beyond communication,” says Hettich. “I admire this writer’s use of white space to modulate tone and cadence and ultimately to evoke emotions that are intimately tied to specific moments of awareness.”

“Al Fresco” by Kim Hayes earned second place. “In this exuberant, five-part poem I particularly admire the beautifully evoked joy of good food, wondrous bird life and human — humane — companionship,” Hettich notes. “I like also the formal structure here, the juxtaposition of five distinct moments of experience and observation fused into one coherent poem, the fact that the whole is truly larger than the sum of its individual parts. Finally, I like the quiet, honest closure.”

The contest’s top prize went to Hendersonville resident, Joe Fishleigh. A retired broadcaster, Fishleigh says his winning piece, “What Stars See,” was inspired by his many nights outside, contemplating the stars and recognizing his own minor role within the broader world and galaxy. “Somehow being small and unimportant connects me to everything and comforts me to my bones,” he says. “I hope those who read this poem can have a similar experience.”

Hettich selected “What Stars See” as this year’s winner for many reasons. “This is a lovely, well-turned poem that is beautifully tuned to the joys, wonders and aching concerns that intermingle constantly in our rushing-forward lives,” the judge explains. “The beauty in the poem lies partly in the juxtapositions of its images and tones, which lend an authenticity of lived experience to the vividly rendered scene and its meditation on time, mortality and the teeming life that sings all around us, all the time.”

Congrats to this year’s winner and runners-up. And thanks to everyone who submitted to the contest!

What Stars See

by Joe Fishleigh

“… the stars, we are their children.” — Carl Sagan

A rockabilly band jukes and jams on stage
next to the ancient French Broad River.
Slide guitar licks drift downstream;
flash mobs of blue ghosts weave a dance
of hope, tree frogs croak the blues.
A man walks away from the show;
he carries a weight of worries,
the kids, his job, the bills. He sits
on the bank of the dark, moving water,
tilts his head back like a child, thirsty
to be kissed by the clear night sky,
basks in the pouring shine of distant suns.

What do stars see when they look at us?
The briefest of flickers, then gone.
He draws a breath, lets it out.
The certainty of his insignificance,
the blackness of the void,
they sing him a chorus in
that luminous moment, harmony
with all there is, all that will ever be.

On stage, the drummer pounds a pulsing solo,
“Train-Kept-A-Rollin.” The old river
wanders north to Tennessee.

Al Fresco

Kim Hayes

by Kim Hayes

I sit on the porch writing a note to a friend:
Thank you for the fresh greens!
We made stir fry last night
and here she must imagine me holding
the pinched-together fingers of one hand
to my pursed lips, head thrown back,
eyes closed, then tossing my thank-you kiss up
into the sky; she must imagine it flying to her …
Sometimes, things are too good to say without
using my hands.

A hawk slices past, flying fast,
and I think she is on the hunt, but then the crow
flies in faster, and another crow and another.
They shout: “Get out! Now! Get out! Now!”
And the hawk, annoyed, catches a thermal,
spins away, conceding defeat. For another half hour,
the victors keep croaking their husky insults.

What makes that song, I wonder, watching
the little bird perched in the fern. Notes gurgle up,
rapid little bird patois, too fast and shrill to really hear,
just a feeling of music, a feeling of music
repeated again and again.

Hummingbirds hover at my feeder
and lift off, unimpressed. I make my nectar
from a recipe of clear, pure water and sugar.
The store-bought nectar in my neighbor’s feeder
is sweet and red and seductive, the Cherry Coke
of hummingbirds, irresistible.

Tonight, we dine outside; you grill pork chops,
and I make slaw and sweet potatoes. We talk
thoughtfully, respectfully, skirting topics
that might flare into debate. We are tired
after a busy day and in no mood
to save the world.


Tyler Hughes

by Tyler Hughes

there will always be
rooms of far-gone tomorrows
with bright, chipping paint

a house is only a dwelling
if something lives there
I suppose the mildew holds
a microbe or two
the walls an errant spirit

so I’m more careful now
which windows I light
someone might cling to the flame

like it’s everything.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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One thought on “Joe Fishleigh wins 2023 Xpress Poetry Contest

  1. Xerxes Price

    Don’t know much but still want to try to win contests… Z.U.R.S.I. from Chicago or the areas around Chicago Illinois out in Columbus Ohio… re-got the flavor or zest for poetry now since the year beginning… and 3 months in st. Louis jail…cca

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