Resilience: Today & Tomorrow Poetry Winners

Last fall, volunteer mentors who currently participate in the Poetry Center's workshop, FREE TIME: Building Community for Incarcerated Writers (part of our Art for Justice project), solicited submissions from incarcerated writers across the country to enter into our Resilience: Today & Tomorrow contest. You can learn more about the guidelines and call for submissions here. We have shared all winners and honorable mentions, and you can find a full list of them here.

Read Poetry Honorable Mentions here, Fiction Honorable Mentions here, and Nonfiction Honorable Mentions here. Read Fiction Winners here and Nonfiction Winners here. 

Today, we are thrilled to present the Poetry Winners.

how freedom feels (1st place)

by Steven Henderson

Arizona heat grips my sweat-clung chest 

prison swamp coolers offer no relief 

dust and debris coat the complex 

fine brown grit on chipped gray paint 


sun chars dirt to a windswept crust 

clogs my lungs, chokes my sleep 

cicada chirrs buzzsaw through my brain 

a beehive of plug-in fans recycles acrid air 


the dusk light shifts, pastels begin to bloom 

summer’s first monsoon builds in Sonoran skies 

cumulus clouds collect, nod their huge horse heads

snort virga, churn dust as they gallop through the sand 


winds staccato drum rolls on reeling blue fan palms

cracking silver forks flashbulb sharp confines 

thunder kettledrums my chest, rattles my ribs 

blazons the release of liberating rain 


the downpour counts out cadence on its march across the yard

palo verdes genuflect, agaves raise a hallelujah 

puddles conga in the cloudburst, saguaros surrender to the storm

the cleansing shower clears the grime from every dirt-clad path 


I raise my weary head, catch raindrops in my mouth

mixes in with salt and tears streaming down burnt cheeks

the deluge sloughs away the stains once stuck to me the

noose of summer’s scaffold loosens from my neck 


I can breathe wide open as coolness caresses me 

inhale clean creosote, see colors leap to life 

tonight I’ll sleep unbound in the merciful monsoon

welcome sunlit dreams of freedom soon to come


Judge Randall Horton, author of Dead Weight and {#289-128} says this about "How Freedom Feels": How Freedom Feels is bursting with a kaleidoscope poetic images and senses in which the speaker is ultimately able to actualize freedom, which is a state of being more than a physical location. I am struck by the heightened language that flows effortlessly throughout the poem. This is one of those poems that echo long after reading of these words “strung together,” as the poet Etheridge Knight would put it.

The Remedy for My Freedom (2nd place)

by Saul Gonzalez

“The remedy for my freedom,” involves, the mixing and matching of words and lines, “constructed,” by architectural designs of rhymes. Opening the doors and windows in a disturbed, yet influential mind, that “shines”, “illuminating,” the darkest corners of the past, and the present times. “See,” where I’m from, “We,” use the pen to set us free; but the opposition, and I quote: “They,” use it to lock us up and throw away the key. “We,” use the pen to exercise our creativity; “They,” use the pen to deprive us of our simple bare necessities. “We,” use the pen to write letters to our family; “They,” use the pen to make sure our loved one’s cannot be seen. The “pen” can ultimately be, like a mighty sword; or it can be, the longest, and hardest “pain,” that you have ever endured. The remedy for my freedom is found in the ink that is inside of the pen; and when it is used to express thought, and feeling, it reflects the light, just like a polished gem. “The pen,” can be a friend, to you, to me, and to many men; because it can open the gates, break the chains, and bring the bondage you are in, to an end.


Judge Randall Horton, author of Dead Weight and {#289-128} says this about "The Remedy for My Freedom: I was struck and captivated by this lyrical treatise that operates at once as a nod/ode to hip-hop and the endless possibility of poetry. The structure of the poem operates between freedom and restraint but in a way that creates a third space through internal rhyme that's sick!

Two Cicadas

by Zhi Kai Vanderford

Over-saturated with regret 

Forlorn man, I stand at my barred window 

I hear the white noise of another cell 

guard informs, rule violation issued 


A bug crawls on my bars, insignificantly 

But seems unaware of its existence and dismal chance of survival 


Guard tells him to calm down, threatens to spray harmful chemicals if he does not comply

prisoner yelling, breaks his own belongings, it is his last bastion of being heard, before

temporary insanity 


The bug is alone, but literally one of millions 

Bugs have survived cold, heat and hungry birds 

Bugs hit the windshield every day, get swatted, never knowing the dangers of the day 


Guard sprays control chemicals, armored team forces entry 

thrashing prisoner douses guards with whatever is near 

prisoner is restrained, carried out like a funeral corpse, taken to isolation

but squashed like a bug 


The fortunate bug is hidden in plain sight, quietly hopeful- the reason for existence is love


Judge Randall Horton, author of Dead Weight and {#289-128} says this about "Two Cicadas": In this poem, I was impressed by the metaphorical intent and the symbolism behind “the bug,” which, of course, challenges our notion of what freedom looks and feels like. There is also a cinematic element to the poem that bring the images to life, which in turn, provides more context on the setting of this poem, which is multi-layered with meaning.