Winners of the 2019 Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Haiku and Senryu Competition

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We are pleased to announce the six winners of the 2019 Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Haiku and Senryu Competition for students grades 7-12 sponsored by the Haiku Society of America. This year, the contest drew 2,835 poems from 1,033 young poets who represented 46 states and 9 countries.

Annually six poems are selected as unranked winners. The winning poets and poems for 2019 are listed below, along with comments from the judges Brad Bennett & Hannah Mahoney.

We want to thank the Nick Virgilio Haiku Association and the Haiku Society of America for this rewarding and vibrant opportunity. We thoroughly enjoyed reading the entries for this year’s Nicholas A. Virgilio Memorial Haiku and Senryu Competition. These poems were authentic messages from teenage writers, reflecting on their lives and baring their souls.

As we read and reread, and then selected our top six, we were informed by some criteria for haiku and senryu excellence. We were looking for a keen observation of a haiku moment, an effective juxtaposition between concrete experiences, and the kind of precision that is found only in this short form. We were interested in fresh poems with new takes on experiences. We were also looking for depth or resonance. The poems that we selected all lingered in our minds because of their successful craft. Lastly, we wanted poems that represented authentic adolescent creativity and voice. We are inspired by these young poets and hope that they continue to thrive with this form that we love. Congratulations to the winners!

— Judges Brad Bennett & Hannah Mahoney


year’s end
the smell of gunpowder

Spencer Hollberg, Grade 8
Atlanta, GA

This is a deceptively simple haiku with suggestive depths. At first reading, it describes a well-observed moment: the quiet after New Year’s Eve fireworks. Then we contemplate the poet’s choice of the phrase “year’s end.” This is an intriguing emphasis, connoting a reflecting back. And the evocation of gunpowder brings to mind the many occurrences of violence both around the world and near to home, making the pause felt at the end of the haiku a hopeful but uncertain one. We appreciate the duality of this haiku, its ambiguity, dreaming room, and possibilities.

sliding home
the familiar taste
of Georgia red clay

Lucas Tangpricha, Grade 7
Atlanta, GA

This is a joyful and comforting poem. The glee of playing baseball or softball on a beautiful day. Rounding third and nearing home plate. Diving into a headfirst slide, going all out to avoid the tag. Scoring an important run. Tasting victory. This experience is also comforting because of the double meaning of home. The familiarity and solace of home allows room for that joy to billow up. This poem is well constructed and slides smoothly off the tongue. This haiku scores in our book!

mountain road
the high-pitched sounds
of spring peepers

Lilly Margolis, Grade 7
Atlanta, GA

This is a wonderfully composed haiku. It includes a lovely parallel juxtaposition between the height of the mountains and the height of the pitch. Pitch obviously refers to the quality of the frogs’ musical sound, but also to the steepness of a mountain slope. Both are high; both are intense. This poem also delivers a contrast between the enormity of mountains and the comparatively tiny size of the frogs and their peeps. In fact, the word peepers seems to make the frogs and their calls even tinier. Well done!

twist by twist
knot by knot
mother braids my hair

Lilly Margolis, Grade 7
Atlanta, GA

We were first drawn to this haiku by the lyrical repetition in the first two lines, skillfully conveying the familiar motions of a daily task. It lingered in our minds due to the emotional depth of its image, expressed by the just-rightness of twist and knot. We have a sense of the complexities of a mother-child bond: affection, conflict, understanding, misunderstandings, the parental legacies we rebel against and eventually distill in our own lives. This is a tender and affecting haiku.

fence hole
the cat with a nicked ear
slips through

James Propst, Grade 8
Atlanta, GA

This is a sly poem, one that slipped into our consciousness, curled up, and settled in. Perhaps the author is describing the local stray, a veteran of turf wars or cruel humans. Perhaps the author identifies with this cat, still surviving despite the many trials and tribulations of adolescence. We all want an escape hatch, and this cat has found one. Both the cat and this poem are resourceful, sly, and surviving.

spring fever
back to
the chemo ward

Vlad-Sergiu Ciobîcă, Grade 12

The first line of this haiku connotes the restlessness of early spring. The second line hints at a returning, the cycle of seasons. Then the third line hits us in the gut. The literal meaning of fever comes to mind as we realize that the return is not to the ease of springtime but to harsh fluorescent lights, IVs, side effects, uncertainty, and fear. We admire the effective juxtaposition of fragment and phrase, as well as the reticence at work, in this powerful and memorable haiku.

Each winner receives a $100 scholarship award and a copy of Nick Virgilio’s Selected Haiku, as well as a subscription to the HSA publication Frog Pond.

This year, as always, the poems offered fresh looks at key human emotions – from nature and the seasons to love, loss, grief, hope, fear and joy. At the essence of haiku and senryu is the power of being in the moment and capturing that moment in a few expressively chosen words that let the reader recreate that experience.

It is for that reason that the Nick Virgilio Haiku Association and Writers House is using writing arts and poetry, especially haiku, at the core of our mission to promote literacy and self-expression. We believe that this meditative approach is crucial to helping youth and adults become engaged members of their communities.

We have approached this mission by serving as the home for programs like Mighty Writers Camden – which serves students ages 11 to 17 in daily after school and evening writing programs in our Writers House. We also host poetry readings, literary events, and writing workshops including haiku workshops, and we create resources and trainings by teachers and for teachers.

This fall, we will be holding an event for teachers (watch our website for details) that will be taught by haiku poet Tom Painting. It is a testament to the power of his excellent teaching that five of the six winning poems in this completely anonymously-judged competition were written by students of Painting, who teaches at The Paideia School in Atlanta, Georgia. The additional winner is from A.T. Laurian National College high school in Botoșani, Romania where teacher Cezar-Florin Ciobîcăhas also had winners from his class in past years.

This year’s judges were Brad Bennett and Hannah Mahoney. Brad Bennett is an elementary school teacher in the Boston area and has been teaching haiku to kids for over twenty years. Brad’s haiku have been published in a variety of journals and magazines. He is a member of the Summer Street Haiku Group, the Boston Haiku Society, and the Haiku Society of America. His first haiku book, a drop of pond, published by Red Moon Press, was awarded a Touchstone Distinguished Book Award for 2016 by The Haiku Foundation) Hannah Mahoney lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and works in children’s publishing. Her haiku have appeared in a variety of print and online journals, and she is a recipient of the Kaji Aso International Haiku Award and the Kaji Aso International Senryu Award. As always, the judging is completely anonymous with all poems submitted to the judges in a random order list with no identifying geographic or demographic information.