The 2023 Poetry Contest Issue

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Featuring honorable mentions from the new issue, with poems by Joanne Holdridge, Liz Ahl, Laird Harrison and Nancy Lael Braun.
7 minutes


Passager recently published its 2023 Poetry Contest Issue. On this episode, four food-related poems from that issue.

Joanne Holdridge said that memory and poetry gave her a way to celebrate the heroines she worked with over the course of her life, whose lives were hard, but whose hearts were anything but. Here’s Joanne’s poem “If You Can’t Take the Heat.”

This happened a long, long time ago
at a restaurant that no longer exists
and I’m older now than Jean Viano
was when she turned to me in the middle

of a slammed flat out running
early morning breakfast rush
when the cook, yelled at once too often
by the menage a trois owners

caught in a seemingly endless
ever changing combination
of combustible sexual entanglements
with each other and several

very unfortunate employees,
one of whom was the cook,
who’d just finally had enough
untied her apron, yanked off her chef hat

added a couple of greasy rags
for good measure, tossed them all
on the grill which promptly burst into flames
and walked out

After that food stopped coming
out of the kitchen and between us we had 2
dining rooms full of hungry impatient
increasingly pissed off customers

and Jean, mother of 12,
whose husband had just left her
drowning in kids and debt
to take off for someplace sunnier

than northern New Hampshire in winter
started to laugh until her dark eyes
shone with tears I could see even
behind the thick lenses of her glasses

but managed to gasp out
while grabbing my arm
to steady herself

I’m too old for this shit
and, honey, young as you are
so are you

I still love her for that.

“If You Can’t Take the Heat.” Joanne Holdridge.

Liz Ahl said, “I wanted to write a celebration of my partner’s magical/medicinal home-made chicken stock. Attention to the detail of the work brought me to celebrate her more broadly – how she is a force of comfort and healing in my life.” Here’s Liz’s poem “Stock.”

The work I do – the easy routine
of roasting a chicken or turkey –
a little dry brine, a cut-up lemon and onion
in the cavity, a little butter, a little pepper;
sage or thyme, depending on the season.

The work you do – the careful
picking of the bones, the stripping
of the carcasses of what I cooked for us –
you can pull a whole other meal
from what I left behind
in the crude haste of my carving –

Then all night, those clean bones,
the vegetable scraps and water,
left on slow simmer – the emerging scent
not only of the rich stock, but an infusion
of your patient care, a reminder
of your skilled fingers, your focus,
your way of loving and attending
to the world, to me, to us –

In bed, next to the strange, yet familiar
miracle of your body, I sleep, breathing in
the scent and also the spirit of you,
dreaming a marrow-richness
down into my own, old bones, deep within
my body, which you heal and love,
sometimes in extravagant flashes,
other times low and slow, simmering,
always a cup I am grateful to lift to my lips.

“Stock.” Liz Ahl. She said, “It’s a chicken stock poem and a love poem.”

A palimpsest is often used to mean something written that you write again on. Laird Harrison’s poem “Between the Lines” adds a shopping list to a construction memo.

When Marv gathered up shopping bags,
Danny said, “Wait! Can I give you a list?”

In the whole kitchen, he couldn’t find a scrap of paper.
Marv pulled a jobsite memo from his jeans’ back pocket.

“It’s printed on both sides,” said Danny.
“Write between the lines,” answered Marv.

So after “dry silica and face masks,”
Danny wrote, “broccoli and cauliflower.”

After “alkali-resistant gloves, safety glasses, and waterproof boots,”
he wrote, “canned peaches, baking powder, wholewheat flour.”

Where the memo read, “Use hand trucks or forklifts when possible,”
Danny wrote, “Make sure the sushi was made today.”

Under “Keep floors clear to avoid slipping or tripping hazards,”
Danny wrote, “Think of what to cook and eat together.”

Laird Harrison, “Between the Lines.”

And finally, an entirely different kind of food poem, “Timothy’s Crayons” by Nancy Lael Braun.

whole sets of crayons
spanking new, tips sharp,
mint-condition paper sleeves,
the flat black box – first
day, first grade.

by the end of the year
Timmy, across the aisle,
had eaten every crayon,
not a waxy morsel left.
Startling empty box.

primary teeth primary colors,
his cloisonné esophagus
and vibrant, paisley gut
unlike the drab intestines
of the rest of our class.

I knew it was bad
but I thought it was right.
Timmy, you were small,
pale, timid, terribly quiet.
Your art was interior, private,
gastronomic, untitled.

“Timothy’s Crayons,” Nancy Lael Braun. Nancy said, “For years I had recurring dreams of living in houses which had unremembered or unexplored rooms. After I began reading and writing poetry those dreams stopped. ‘Timothy’s Crayons’ came from one of those indelible childhood memories.”

All four poems on this episode of Burning Bright came from Passager’s 2023 Poetry Contest issue. To subscribe to or learn more about Passager and its commitment to writers over 50, go to You can download Burning Bright from Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts and various other podcast apps. For Kendra, Mary, Christine, Rosanne, and the rest of the Passager staff, I’m Jon Shorr.