New York, NY (April 22, 2020)— The Academy of American Poets is pleased to announce the winners of the first-ever Treehouse Climate Action Poem Prize, which honors exceptional poems that help make real for readers the gravity of the vulnerable state of our environment. The winners were selected by environmentalist Bill McKibben and award-winning poet and author Julia Alvarez from among more than 500 submissions. The prize was launched in partnership with Treehouse Investments, a social impact investment firm.
The winning poems and poets are:
First place: “Letter to My Great, Great Grandchild” by J.P. Grasser
after Matthew Olzmann
Oh button, don’t go thinking we loved pianos
more than elephants, air conditioning more than air.
We loved honey, just loved it, and went into stores
to smell the sweet perfume of unworn leather shoes.
Did you know, on the coast of Africa, the Sea Rose
and Carpenter Bee used to depend on each other?
The petals only opened for the Middle C their wings
beat, so in the end, we protested with tuning forks.
You must think we hated the stars, the empty ladles,
because they conjured thirst. We didn’t. We thanked
them and called them lucky, we even bought the rights
to name them for our sweethearts. Believe it or not,
most people kept plants like pets and hired kids
like you to water them, whenever they went away.
And ice! Can you imagine? We put it in our coffee
and dumped it out at traffic lights, when it plugged up
our drinking straws. I had a dog once, a real dog,
who ate venison and golden yams from a plastic dish.
He was stubborn, but I taught him to dance and play
dead with a bucket full of chicken livers. And we danced
too, you know, at weddings and wakes, in basements
and churches, even when the war was on. Our cars
we mostly named for animals, and sometimes we drove
just to drive, to clear our heads of everything but wind.
Second place: “O” by Claire Wahmanholm
Once there was an opening, an operation: out of which oared the ocean, then oyster and oystercatcher, opal and opal-crowned tanager. From ornateness came the ornate flycatcher and ornate fruit dove. From oil, the oilbird. O is for opus, the Orphean warbler’s octaves, the oratorio of orioles. O for the osprey’s ostentation, the owl and its collection of ossicles. In October’s ochre, the orchard is overgrown with orange and olive, oleander and oxlip. Ovals of dew on the oatgrass. O for obsidian, onyx, ore, for boreholes like inverted obelisks. O for the onion’s concentric O’s, observable only when cut, for the opium oozing from the poppy’s globe only when scored. O for our organs, for the os of the cervix, the double O’s of the ovaries plotted on the body’s plane to mark the origin. O is the orbit that cradles the eye. The oculus opens an O to the sky, where the starry outlines of men float like air bubbles between us and oblivion. Once there were oarfish, opaleyes, olive flounders. Once the oxbows were not overrun with nitrogen. O for the mussels opening in the ocean’s oven. O for the rising ozone, the dropping oxygen, for algae overblooming like an omen or an oracle. O Earth, out-gunned and out-manned. O who holds the void inside itself. O who has made orphans of our hands.
Third place: “My Eighteen-Month-Old Daughter Talks to the Rain as the Amazon Burns” by Dante Di Stefano
Lark of my house,
this little lark says hi
to the rain—she calls
river as she slaps
the air with both wings—
she doesn’t know pine
from ash or cedar
from linden—she greets
drizzle & downpour
know iceberg from melt—
can’t say sea level
doesn’t know wildfire—
tax or emission—
does not legislate
a fear she can’t yet
feel—only knows cats
& birds & small dogs
& the sway of some
tall trees make her squeal
with delight—it shakes
her tiny body—
this thrill of the live
the taste of wild blue-
berries on her tongue—
the ache of thorn-prick
from blackberry bush—
oh dear girl—look here—
there’s so much to save—
horizon’s pink hue—
we gather lifetimes
on one small petal—
the river’s our friend—
the world: an atom—
name for: hope—rain—change
begins when you hail
the sky sun & wind
the verdure inside
your heart’s four chambers
even garter snakes
and unnamed insects
in the underbrush
as you would a love
that rivers: hi—hi
First place received $1,000; second place, $750; and third place, $500. In addition, all three poems have been or will be published in the popular Poem-a-Day series, which is distributed to 500,000 readers, on April 25, May 2, and May 9 respectively.
Sign up for Poem-a-Day to read the winning poems on the selected dates: poets.org/poem-a-day
About the first-place poem, judges Bill McKibben and Julia Alvarez said:
“‘Letter to my Great, Great Grandchild’ is a stirring communiqué both to a specific great great grandchild and to all the children of the future, who might wonder in bafflement: what on earth were our ancestors thinking when they did the damage they have done? The poem’s command of voice and tone—a combination of tenderness and ruefulness laced with terror; its many little surprises—the twists and turns that take the reader to unexpected places; as well as technically, the control of the free verse couplet form—is compelling. By alerting us with specific, vivid, intimate instances as to what might be lost in the future, the poem also delivers its letter to the reader’s door: what will we do to postpone, if not prevent, the end of earth as our home?”
About the second- and third-place poems, the judges wrote:
“‘O’ is an original and powerful evocation, using a single letter of the alphabet to name the wonders that are at risk of being no more. The poem conjures up each loss, barely giving us time to recover before the next loss is summoned. Its skillful use of rhythm, the lamentation of sounds, the cornucopia of imagery are a sweeping reminder of how much we stand to lose, a primer of what’s to come. The voice is prophetic and unrelenting: a lament, an elegy, and a clarion call to action!”
“‘My Eighteen-Month-Old Daughter Talks to the Rain as the Amazon Burns’ returns us to an innocence we have lost by immersing us in a child’s way of being in the world where larks and rivers and ladybugs are a part of who we are. The poem flows its river of images and moments, metamorphosing into each other, risking tenderness and vulnerability. It invites us to greet and celebrate the smallest of things that require our recognition, the hi-hi of love, while also reminding us that the Amazon is burning. This child’s world, and ours, is in the offing.”
For more information about the prize, including the full guidelines, visit www.poets.org/academy-american-poets/prizes/treehouse-climate-action-poem-prize.
About Julia Alvarez
Julia Alvarez is an award-winning poet, essayist, and novelist. She is the author of more than fifteen books, including Afterlife (Algonquin Books, 2020), In the Time of the Butterflies (Algonquin Books, 1994), which has been translated into ten languages and was made into a movie produced by and starring Salma Hayek, and How The García Girls Lost Their Accents (Algonquin Books, 1991). Alvarez’s poetry collections include The Woman I Kept to Myself (Algonquin Books, 2004) and Homecoming: New and Collected Poems (New York: Plume, 1996). Her books of prose for children include Tía Lola Came to (Visit) Stay (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2001) and The Secret Footprints (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2000), as well as a novel for young adults, Before We Were Free (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2002). In 2013 she received the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the United States government.
About Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature (Random House, 1989) is regarded as the first book about climate change for a general audience and has been translated into twenty-four languages. McKibben has since written a dozen more books and is a co-founder of 350.org, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement that has organized twenty thousand rallies around the world and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement. He is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has won the Gandhi Prize, the Thomas Merton Prize, and the Right Livelihood Prize. Foreign Policy named him to their inaugural list of the world’s 100 most important global thinkers. A former staff writer for the New Yorker, he writes frequently for a wide variety of publications around the world, including the New York Review of Books, National Geographic, and Rolling Stone.
About the Academy of American Poets
The Academy of American Poets is the nation’s leading champion of poets and poetry with members in all fifty states. Founded in 1934, the organization produces Poets.org, the world’s largest publicly funded website for poets and poetry; organizes National Poetry Month; publishes the popular Poem-a-Day series and American Poets magazine; provides award-winning resources to K–12 educators, including its Teach This Poem series; distributes the American Poets Prizes program; hosts an annual series of poetry readings and special events; and coordinates a national Poetry Coalition working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture. This year, through its prize program, the organization has awarded more funds to individual poets than any other organization, giving a total of $1,250,000 to poets at various stages of their careers. In addition, the Academy is part of Artist Relief, a national, multidisciplinary coalition of seven arts grantmakers and a consortium of foundations working to provide funding to the country’s individual artists and writers who are impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
About Treehouse Investments
Treehouse Investments is a boutique distributed-infrastructure firm dedicated to reversing climate change. A family business, founded by a family from Puerto Rico, in 2007 Treehouse made a commitment to invest in a socially responsible way. Over the years Treehouse has become convinced that the only truly socially responsible investments are those which directly aim to reverse climate change.