Travis Mossotti, MFA neophyte from Southern Illinois U/Carbonale Ill,  has been beknighted by Garrison Keillor for this year’s May Swenson award from USU press for an mss titled About the Dead. Last year’s deserving winner was Elizabeth Murawski. This year, we have a major OMG-WTF situation. Here are a few lines from Mossotti’s Crossing the Gap from Rattle:

….Afterwards, in bed, she’ll reach for the Virginia Slims
on the nightstand, and he’ll open
the windows behind the headboard
as a summer breeze creeps past the lithesome curtains—
wild grass and honeysuckle mixing with the tobacco.
If the drone and flicker of a gathering storm should disrupt
the silence of the room, she’ll tighten the wing nut
of her body behind his, so close that when her lips
brush against the nearly imperceptible hairs
on the back of his neck he’ll be convinced
there’s no other life but this.

These are only a few lines out of a young writer’s not-yet-an-ouevre so you can take my bitching with at least one grain of salt. His line breaks are nice but every line is a cliche. This kid wants to be a poet but has yet to find a voice, and Garrison Keillor gave him the May Swenson award?  I’ll remonstrate once more: this is a poem worthy of a publication prize, selected by the scion of American Arts and Letters, Garrison Keillor?

Now if the poem’s “she” were reaching for the Bugler and a hand-roller to displace the fatuous and the predictable (originality), we might have a real person and not an anachronism in this poem. But Virginia Slims?

These lines come out of someone who at least by the light of what one can find online of his work is so obviously not even damp-dry from the M.F.A.– albeit somewhat precociously so given how frighteningly prolific and online-published he appears to be.  It’s smoke and mirrors– the tricky but going-no place image of the wing nut, and what serious master of his craft resorts to a 19th century word “lithesome” probably not even ever resorted to by King Walt to describe the curtains, and uses the “nearly imperceptible” convention regarding the also over-used hairs on the back of his neck. How amazingly awkward and nowhere-going is “…wild grass and honeysuckle mixing with the tobacco..”– Literally? So self-conscious is the poem’s voice that at least here– and in others I’ve read online– but judge for yourselves– Mossotti seems a bit self-besotted.

I have no way of viewing the winning mss About the Dead, but among the few poems of Mossotti’s I could read online, this,  the Valparaiso Poetry Review— cliches in my italics:


When I came around back, I found him

leaned against the post like a shovel,

hands blistered around an amber

bottle. He’d been hoeing weeds

all day in a garden that long ago

had gone back to GodSure did

make a mess of it, he said. We

walked out to the skiff buried under

long whiskers of grass near the pond.

When we were kids we’d stuff

our bottom lips with tobacco and spit,

gaze out into a field and spit away

hours as though we were old men,

mortgages and busted marriages,

guts rotting out with cancer.

A snapper’s head broke the surface.

I knew his wife had left him—he didn’t

have to say. I asked for a beer and

he pointed to a cooler next to the house.

I grabbed two. Just then, the dobbers

started to rise from the ground, whirling

like miniature buzzards as a red light

folded over us; for a second, everything

was all right, almost like we’d been saved.

Travis Mossotti,  The Valparaiso Poetry Review.

Where did we first hear a poet say a garden goes back to God.  Many times.  We’ve heard that hands are blistered thousands of times and that beer bottles are amber, that a person leans like a shovel…et cetera.  If anyone can find any unpredictable move or innovative image in this one, e-mail me.  I think we needed some indication of the occasion of the poem besides “I knew his wife had left him…” —  it’s just not clear when the brother says “sure did make a mess of it”– one of the stronger touches here as to referring to garden or marriage– until about the fourth rereading.  This poem seems again to turn on conventions and an unfortunate stereotype of aging men in the middle– it tries to amp up its emotional power with surfaces.

Perhaps the winning collection is stronger, and uniformly so, as it was a National Poetry Series finalist last year, an additional head-scratcher for me.  FYI– that series publishes five books a year with five different participating presses and there are esoteric judges with many personal predilections and whims of taste involved.

So then I’m thinking, what is GK doing judging poetry, anyway? He’s not a poet: he is the people’s feel good funny man. He’s NPR’s mostly one man Chautauqua, the Earl of Lake Woebegone– and a great essayist and humorist. But what does he know about the craft of poetry? Is he qualified just because he runs the Writer’s Almanac, and reads the work he likes on the air in his sweet deep voice?  The point is, shouldn’t a major poetry award be judged by somebody who practices the craft?  We’ll see, when the book comes.

I do love Garrison. I’ve loved and admired Garrison for years and used to party with him and I might be one of the few people with the distinct honor of having him walk out of one of her readings– way back when in a snowstorm in Minneapolis when I was reading at The Loft over Marly Rusoff’s bookstore in Dinkeytown. I forgive you for that here and now, GK.

I’ll also tell you that I submitted an mss to the prize, more out of a feeling of obligation to myself and the valuing of my own work than any idea given previous interactions with Keillor that he would choose it, and that once upon a blue moon, GK read my students’ poems on the air– a thrill for them and for me.

But wait for it– Mossotti will be on Prairie Home Companion as Billy Collins’ Jerry Mahoney, championing accessibility and all that and all that– and soon.