2014 Illinois Emerging Writers Competition


Ninth Letter is proud to present the winners of the 2014 Illinois Emerging Writers Competition, the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award. Sponsored by the Illinois Center for the Book and named for the late award-winning poet and Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, this award encourages and supports Illinois authors and honors the fine literary tradition of our home state. Special thanks to current Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein, who served as final judge for the award, and to Bonnie Mathias, Coordinator of the Illinois Center for the Book, for their ongoing commitment to this project and to Illinois literature.



1st Place

Whittney Jones

The Dollar Value of Fingers

A pinky taken in the mines is worth
ten thousand dollars. A forefinger goes

for five times more. You always wanted
to get out of here, this small town.

The only thing for an unschooled boy
like you to do is dig deep

for coal. The same that blackens
your snot and the underside

of your fingernails, that traces
the hard, calloused lines of your palms

and streaks me with its war paint
when you run your hands over

my stomach, your forefinger tracing
symbols I can’t read, and I try

to remember the room I used to have
in me for this, when all that mattered

was that we could hold onto each other.
Now, the want of fifty thousand

dollars, how maybe it could
save us.



Whittney Jones holds an MFA from Murray State University. Her poems are featured in Zone 3, Split Lip, Switchback,The Jet Fuel Review, and the minnesota review, among other journals.




2nd Place

Jessica Walsh

The Library Again

Now in the home   thinking of any home
           maybe the orphanage from that box of pictures
           we all pretend we never saw
she reads a sloppy circle
through a book about Lewis and Clark

The story is new each time

Imagine her daily firstness
birthing names for things she forgets
           even as she holds them to the light

Lewis and Clark for me is school
the year the fat came   There was a diorama
with Ken dolls   and of course everyone laughed
            I would opt out of remembering that now
           I would unsubscribe
           and try the always

She says to my mother   Someday soon
I must meet your husband
                                               This part is willful I imagine
           She hangs back
from what she didn’t love   the man who
wore jeans called dungarees
drank pop right from a can
came bearing Catholics
she has never met him and someday soon she must
My father is pleased
to be anticipated   and he forgives her a bit

But she must want certain parts
   Spikes of panic stab through the evenings
Terror at sundown is to be expected
           the doctors tell us
Terror I think is rational
           Like the time I lost sight of my girl at the mall
           Where did my girl go and who the hell are you
           you are not my girl
When she came back we shook through the hug

Today grandma tells me of river mapping
She is back to that chapter and has no fear
of what lies ahead           The worst is coming I want to say
           but warnings are pointless
           She digs busily at a mud-stuck bend

where she turns earthworm reeasting the soil
All progress is collapse   the undone hard by
the done

           No one can tell which is which

 She whose hands were clean always whose garden was a perfect lawn
           the lawn someone else’s job
She heads toward earthen
Soon she will forget to be alive
           Her heart and lungs made strangers

The doctors remind me as I go that
memory is a mystery
     as though doctors alone
         knew that




Jessica L. Walsh is a professor at Harper College. Her first book, How to Break My Neck, will be released late in 2015 by ELJ Publications.




3rd Place

Pablo Otavalo

The Year of the Dragon

My uncle was the black sheep; my mother
feared for me and his fate: adrift, a man

who dreamed out-loud, on his way
to being down-and-out, a marijuanero.

At thirteen, I underwent what my grandmother
termed: the Year of the Mule, the stubborn

year. Why not the Year of the Ox, the Tiger,
the Dog? For me, it was a golden year.

I spent three weeks that summer at my uncle’s
place, a basement apartment in the city—Logan

Square—intricately carved teak armoires,
textiles on the walls, wrought iron ashtrays,

a poster in the bathroom of George H. W. Bush
shaking hands with Saddam Hussein, sage

growing on a windowsill, the scent of bohemia
dripping off the bookshelves onto the floor

pillows. I walked out of a fluorescently bright
waiting room into a desert night and saw

the chainmail of stars dividing the ehavens
for the first time. I served as a busboy

at the restaurant he managed, met his friends
at the Flatiron Building, listened to Éthiopiques

Volume 1: The Golden Years of Modern
Ethiopian Pop. He taught me to carve wood

with a burning pen, to solder silver, to stretch
a canvas, and invited me to take home any book

I wanted; I wanted Magritte, Modigliani
Picasso’s sad harlequines, but I took

a paperback of Wordsworth’s Complete
Works, slipped it into the front pocket

of my backpack. On the ride home, my mother
drew here eyes across the neighborhood, the empty

storefronts, the gangways, and decreed:
What a dump. Can you imagine living here?



Pablo Otavalo is from Cuenca, Ecuador but lives and writes in Chicago. He is a recipient of the 2013 and 2014 Illinois Emerging Poet prize and his work has recently appeared or been featured in Rhino, Jet Fuel Review, Structo 2014, and Tupelo Press. He is currently emotionally vulnerable.