Mountain Xpress‘ staff A&E Reporter Alli Marshall pored over a Dagwood-sandwich-sized stack of entries to name Naomi Johnson’s “The Man Who Trained Shamu” the winner of Xpress‘ first Off the Road Poetry Contest. Marshall, who holds an MFA in Poetry from Vermont’s Goddard College, especially praises the poem’s “strong sense of story,” accomplished with “an almost haiku-like narrative efficiency.”
In honor of National Poetry Month, we present Johnson’s winning poem, at right, as well as an interview with WNC-based writer Kathryn Stripling Byer. Byer was recently titled the new North Carolina Poet Laureate, a post that has lain fallow since 2002 (see Poetic justice).
— A&E Editor Melanie McGee
The Man Who Trained Shamu
by Naomi Johnson
It’s been all downhill since,
for the man who used to train Shamu —
who used to ride the great bicolor beast
in a pool of blue, blue water,
standing on his hands to the roar of the crowd.
He sits on an upturned bucket
in the janitor’s closet at the high school,
Hands on the beast’s rough and perforated back,
and a feeling like he was one of the pod,
like he could croon to the whales
in whale language, aquatic and sacramental.
Afterward, he’d sit on the pool’s lip, stoned,
wet hair wild as something newborn,
and feel he’d been utterly at the center of things,
the black and white pupil of the pool’s blue eye.
Naomi Johnson is a student in UNCA’s Master of Liberal Arts program and in the Great Smokies Writers Program. Her writing has appeared in a variety of small publications; she is currently working on a documentary-photography project in West Asheville.
• “A Snapshot of 1954,” by C T Burr
• “Adjusted for Daylight Saving,” by Jason Parker Hall
• “Immemorial,” by Paul Newton Wright
• “The Mind Divided,” by Larry L. Dill
• “Stone-Washed Brains,” by R. Philip Toy