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2023 Open Poetry Contest Winners

Thank you to everyone who entered our second-annual poetry contest! And special thanks to our guest judge, Twyla M. Hansen!

Congratulations to all the winners and honorable mentions!

First Place: 

Bruce Whitacre

"Murder, Mayhem, and Me, a Crown Sonnet"

For Jason Schneiderman

“For what I fear comes upon me. And what I dread befalls me.” Job 3.25


If I had known, I might not have played with guns.

Chastised at six by Eric’s mother, I holstered my pistol.

But that night I bashed Danny’s head with a bat 

to see if he’d konk out like they do on TV Westerns.

Unfortunately, he stayed conscious and just bawled,

leaving the spanking for me. Eric’s mother was right.

It was my fault. Bad boy. Lesson learned.

Childhood is no innocence. Our toys are us.

Mayhem ever a turn-on, as teens we could not get enough.

We risked our lives parking and petting on lost country roads.

After Manson and Strunk, we’d check our car door handles

for the hook of the legendary one-handed slasher

who preyed on kids doing bad things in cars.

Lips parted, hearts hammering, we looked to no avail.


Lips puckered, hearts hammered, the waters part their veil:

a femur washes up on a clay bank,

a badly butchered torso, two torsos, soupy heads.

A man and a woman, a farm couple, middle aged,

surface in pieces on Harry Strunk Lake, our playground.

Two years after the Manson trials: hippies on the highways

of the Midlands, the heartland, Nebraska. Fearful huddling.

Guns sell out. Dates are walked to the door. Keys found or made.

Players eat out of town after games, triggers cocked.

Travelers get waitress side-eye with their coffee.

A naked heart throbs on a gravestone at night.

Hippies are seen dancing cultishly in a field.

The whole region panics. The liberal, coastal mayhem is here.


The whole region panics. The liberal, coastal mayhem is here.

It doesn’t matter that the couple were killed trying

to extract their daughter from a routine ménage à trois,

that they were cut up to spare the murderer’s bad shoulder—

he couldn’t haul the bodies whole out of the basement—

that the gravestone heart was the reflection of a tower light,

that the dancing hippies were looking for a place to pee,

that there’s nothing coastal about armed rednecks arguing in a basement

So, Nebraska wakes from its Progressive Era— 

it had been the first to ratify the ERA the year before.

The mirage of Manson and Harry Strunk and their mayhem

closed minds and hunched shoulders into the Red State years.

The fear huddles would never disassemble.

Teenagers kissing in cars were now more brazen than ever.


Teenagers kissing in cars were now more brazen than ever.

Moving to Lincoln I sensed mass murder in the air.

Down the road a dozen years before, teenagers Charles Starkweather 

and Caril Ann Fugate had invented “rampage murder,” killing eleven

in random mayhem. I knew people who’d known their victims,

who recalled how the lights of Lincoln flickered

the day in 1959 when Starkweather was electrocuted.

It became Nebraska’s big story: movies, books . . . copy cats.

I met Vince Bugliosi, who’d put Manson away for life,

when I hosted his Helter Skelter tour on campus.

His crystal focus pierced confusion even at cocktails.

Manson had learned from Starkweather:

play the evil jester in court; use women as puppets;

pull the terror cord; keep it random.


Pull the terror cord. Keep it random.

Fifty years after Starkweather’s first murder

I see the Omaha World Herald’s front page commemoration.

Three days later, an unbalanced teenager shoots and kills

six in the Westroads Mall. Sheer coincidence?

Have we ever known what triggers that kind of mind?

Distilled the formula of rage, access and opportunity?

Do we bury the red dagger or enshrine it as a warning?

So, the mayhem of Starkweather, Manson

and their acolytes continues, a national trait.

“Rampage murder” becomes “mass shootings”—

oh, the blanding of language—the open vein

of American life, the great hollowing,

the unanswered prayers, the answering losses.


The unanswered prayers, the answering losses:

I had gone to college with one of the Westroads six,

my only friend to die in rampage, so far.

Grasping to cope, his survivors said he was shopping

for a gift en route to a plane, killed helping 

someone evade the rain of fire, surely, no doubt.

Who can really know in that panic, speed, squeeze?

We want to heroize; otherwise, why?

Here’s one thing that happens.

Whatever fraternity pranks we shared, 

his forty plus years of life lived richly, all 


by the image of him struck, twisting, 

spurting, staggering, then striking the gallery floor.


Spurting, staggering, then striking the gallery floor,

this image inducts me into the legions of survivors—

millions by now touched, damaged, destroyed.

When I watched the January 6 Capitol Riots

or militias encircling and menacing state legislators,

I see fear huddles embodying their own worst nightmares.

When the NRA gives away an AR15 near Uvalde

and someone protests, and someone snickers,

I hear the screams of the Manson girls on Cielo Drive,

the pleas of the young couple before Starkweather’s pistol,

my friend’s smile flashes down the table at dinner.

Helter Skelter. Helter Skelter. Helter Skelter.

The ram of the ammo, the click, the grip, the aim, the squeeze.

If I had known I might not have played with guns.

The Elk in the Glade: The World of Pioneer and Painter Jennie Hicks; 2022 PW Editors Pick, 2nd Place; TheBookFest 23; Good Housekeeping, 2024; The American Journal of Poetry; World Literature Today; and more. I Wanna be Loved by You: Poems on Marilyn Monroe (anthology) and The Strategic Poet.

Second Place:

Karla Hernandez Torrijos

"the soft pearlescent insides of pomegranates"

In 2020, nurse Dawn Wooten filed a whistleblower complaint against an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Georgia. Wooten alleges that migrant women were receiving medically unnecessary gynecological surgeries, including hysterectomies. Migrant women later interviewed said that they were coerced or misinformed as to the nature of their conditions, often signing consent forms in English at the instruction of their nurses, without fully understanding what they were signing.

bloodied pulp of oranges borne of september heat, plucked from gnarled trees before they’ve
ripened meat of fruit halved and scraped down
to the rind
if i say it very softly, to myself only
i can pretend it never happened
but it happened
girls left barren as desert dirt they crossed, glimpsing tomorrows in the sun
[i understand, my mother laid claim to the American Mirage too, once]
girls left bare as dirt
girls left sterile as operating table they lay on, not knowing yet

although it is true : i am a cavernous thing
brimming over only of my empty and my hunger
and my want and my want and my want

although it is true : year after year
i continue to bear only canines and no children
in my sleep i still feel the speculum scratching from the inside out

mother only to metal and blood, inter[twin]ed sisters
a thousand thousand futures are clumsily plopped into the biohazardous bin beside me
taken to landfill on tuesday, impromptu burial
i’m not dressed for the occasion, really
perhaps the earth might provide
all my rotted daughters are dressed in the budding blooms of summer
slash-and-burnt family tree
snipped roots




from the greek root, meaning uterus
an uncontrollable overflow of emotion
how ironic
i scream into all my empty and it echoes in me again and again

in english
a woman who loses a spouse is a widow
a woman who loses a parent is an orphan
a woman who loses her daughter is

the negative space left in a stanza

if english has for us no answer
then an adopted word will do
vilomah, from the Sanskrit
vilomah, meaning “against natural order”
and i must ask again
only to myself, softly
by whose order given did men first learn to play god?

the sun mocks relentless as it rises
a mother bird unhooks her jaw for her children
a ways away a river babbles happily to itself
it is early mourning
the whole world’s a    wake, not knowing yet

bearing a child
burying a child

could it be something was lost in translation?

Karla Hernandez Torrijos (she/her) is the recipient of the 2022-2023 Irby F. Wood Prize for Poetry and the 2020-2021 Vreeland Award for Poetry. Her writing interrogates our understanding of home, displacement, and the liminal space in between. Her work can be found in Preposition: An Undercurrent Anthology.

Third Place:

Karen Toloui

"Day Trip"

Your day off, the restaurant closed, you wanted to take

a spin all the way to Santa Barbara. You asked me


to come along, saying maybe you’d let me drive, and I

pictured myself behind the wheel for the very


first time. Mom took her pills and drank the gin

that helped her leave the house,


then climbed into the back seat, dressed in a suit 

the color of money, passing out before we


got to Malibu, where we stopped for lunch at a diner, and

where you said we might see movie stars. You said your burger 

was greasy, and I trusted you and your culinary

opinion but thought of my mother, asleep in the car, 

where she wasn’t looking for Rock Hudson or Frank

Sinatra, or tasting the slimy potato salad. She slept

for the long stretches of beach and water, and hills

and waves. She was sleeping, still, at Leo Carrillo Beach,

named after the Cisco Kid’s sidekick. I wanted to tell you I’d

wanted to be him when I was a kid, but kept quiet, 

like you. Mom was now folded up like a wad 

of bills, her small hand at her face, her blood-red nails.

I wanted to wake her up and show her the ocean, the 

seagulls, the grand, wide beach, but you said,

“It’s better this way.” And I knew what you meant

but it felt mean to think it and mean thinking it now.

At the pier, when we parked, you said, “She’ll be fine.”

We left her sleeping and set out to find a bar.

Like a bird, you fed me, raising the toothpick to my lips,

the olive sliding into my mouth—the salt and the sour.

After the second martini, you said, “Looks like you’re

driving home.” I never finished my coke.

Back in the car, she was still asleep. You gave me

the keys. “Turn on the lights,” you said, leaning back.

And later, “Where are we?” Mom asked in the dark.

But I didn’t know. And you didn’t answer.

Then a sign. “Camarillo,” I told her. 

“Ah, where the crazy people go,” she said,

then was quiet again. I drove the small streets

and big highway, obeying the laws, the good girl 

the smart girl, the girl with no license 

who could already drive a long way in the dark.


Karen Toloui has an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University and an MA in Poetry Writing from San Francisco State University. Some stories have appeared in Catamaran and the Santa Barbara Literary Magazine. Her memoir, A Late Stop in Queersville, was published in 2018.

Honorable Mentions:

in no particular order

Emory Jones

"Forever Faun"

In mottled shade of forest stood a faun

So still he seemed to be no living thing;

The sun beamed down, already he was gone—

His presence was a fleeting sign of Spring.

Once in the distant past, when earth was young,

Men saw the faun and prayed to gods that be

And chanted ancient hymns, no longer sung,

Believing by this ritual sorcery

That they could capture the spirit of the deer

And persuade it to give successful hunt.

No longer do we live in an age of fear;

With more sophistication we affront

The universe. And yet the faun’s still there,

While we remain completely unaware.

Caleb Petersen

"Washington St."

Tonight, I walked to the grocery store
to get ibuprofen and cigarettes.

I wanted to sit by my friend’s memor-
ial, so I walked—the twenty minutes—

in an L shape, passing by my old house
(the one across from his), passing the oak
tree that I used to write poems about,

the halfway house, the small stoop where the Slo-
venian couple would stand with their mugs

of coffee, to sit—one block from that place
of life itself, that patch of the earth, dug
out from some deposit of love or grace—
beside a post with a wreath of flowers,
that read, Rest in Peace and Rest in Power.

Alexia Woodall

"That wasn't my name."

That wasn’t my name.
When you called me honey inside a home that was never mine to make my own.
I'm sorry but I never knew how to say no.
When you called me sweetheart but a relationship was never bound to start.
That wasn’t my name when you turned the ignition, pretending to be ignorant of your intentions.
The intention to give me attention despite the alcohol on my breath.
The way it hitched when you held me, which hinted at maybe something more.
That wasn’t my name when you called me “mine,” as if I was meant to be yours.
When you brushed my hair back and called me “cute”, claiming I came onto you.
In my coldness, you cradled my naked body.
In my mind, I knew you would expect me to say sorry.
That wasn’t my name when you breathed out the letter L, as if calling it love wouldn’t send you to hell.
I remember shaking, waiting for the sun to rise, so you would finally let me go.
But you only pulled me closer, and again, I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, I was never given the chance to say no.

Jamie Kim

"August Is Burning a Hole through my Chest"

& I have never wanted someone as badly as I wanted you.

I can still feel your fingers, holding my first blunt to my lips.
My lungs were imploding & you told me to breathe. I passed

the roll back to you, still shaking, still slick with spit. I’m scared
the smoke’s still in my lungs, still rotting me from the inside out.

Yesterday on my drive up, there was a dead deer lying on the road,
ribs jutting from taut skin, chest cracked open for the world to see.

I remember lying: lying to the security guards, lying to my mom, lying
on your bed as the sun rose & wondering if I would survive this.

During those weeks, the world ended every night & every night I waited
for the Second Coming. Every night I waited for my fever to break.

You told me that at fifteen, your dad & the Father stopped responding
to you, and by sixteen, you started praying for forgiveness in advance.

When you took me to Mass, I saw you on the floor for the first time.
I wasn’t baptized but I ate the bread & drank the wine, just so I

could kneel down next to you and ask God what to do with this desire.

Angela Li

"Plastic Halo Taped Upon My Forehead"

hunger, they say

is to devour this body

like it was their own.

a craving
to shape nature,

molding & chisling,

to be the eve to his Adam,

but obedient.

wouldn’t want another incident now,

would we?

hands push open spring / declaring yes, You are ripe for the picking

look at the sign / tell them to / roll Me around the palm of your hand like dice

smear your spit cross bruises / they sink canines into membrane / stubble

dyed with juice / You leak the essence You swore to guard with blood & bone

they say / Of Course that happens / cause your skin just isn’t

thick enough.

juice smears over the forearm / scarlet on a white tank-top

they snap another stem / You wait / to be dented by touch & ruptured by grip.

he swallows the pit whole.


yesterday, sarah asked me in math,
don't you wish you were seven again?

i asked her
what the difference was,
being seven or fifteen.

breath knocked out at collision,

plum flowers sprout from

stems of veins,

a mesh net    through which

i slip,

gnats knotting ankles with twine,

clink & clank & clunk

shrieks of burns rattle eardrums,

and demand stranger’s glances,

i muffle its protests

under a mountain of wool,

to look is to bleed

& luck never favors the blind.


skin tears, a warning from above,

be still my dear

the little voice whispers as

tea is poured into a porcelain cup,

constellations twinkle with a smile

& i dive into the steaming liquid,

a faint lavender scent


she whispers

a hero’s cry.

hands continue

to bundle those

dead & injured.

i am divinity,

leave me

against bark,

moths feasting

on my wings.

you dance on

a field of stars,

i melt into earth.

child, tread on me,

i’ll tell you

if it hurts.

Dr. Emory D. Jones is a retired English teacher who has taught in high schools and various community colleges. He has six hundred and three publishing credits. He is retired and lives with his wife in Luka, Mississippi.

Caleb Petersen lives and writes in the Near South neighborhood of Lincoln, Nebraska. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing-Poetry from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Alexia Woodall is a 3rd-year undergraduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She works as the Senior Opinion Editor for the campus newspaper, The Daily Nebraskan. She is a short story writer, poet, and potential novelist. She also placed second in the 2023 Nebraska Slam Poetry Competition.

Jamie Kim is a poetry & short story writer and a dog owner living in NJ. She is the co-founder of the literary nonprofit Pen&Quill and has been published or forthcoming in Blue Daisies, Idle Ink, and Apprentice Writer.

Angela Li is a sophomore at Basis Independent Silicon Valley. She has been recognized for her poetry by Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.


Small Print: All poems were judged blind and no poet received any special treatment or unfair advantage. Membership in the Nebraska Poetry Society was not required to enter the contest.

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