Worcester State University English major Tommy Sheehan won the Etheridge Knight Performance Award on April 23 at the College Poetry Contest sponsored by the Worcester County Poetry Association for the poem “I Hold a Wilting Orchid for You.” He also received honorable mention for the Elizabeth Bishop Manuscript Award for the poem “In Which the Poet Confesses a Questionable Family Dynamic: PTSD.”
The Worcester County Poetry Association hosts this annual contest, now in its 14th year, for students from all Worcester colleges and universities. Local faculty select one student poet to represent their universities at this competition. This year, there were student poet finalists from Worcester State University, the College of the Holy Cross, Assumption College, and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and the contest was judged by the local poets Eve Rifkah and Tony Brown, who have each received the Stanley Kunitz Medal for their service to the poetry community in Worcester.
Tommy Sheehan is a queer writer from Grafton, Mass., who experiments with a variety of prose and verse forms to explore themes of sexuality, mental illness, and family relationships, and his poems are forthcoming in several literary journals. Sheehan’s winning poem was written as part of a chapbook assignment in Professor Heather Treseler’s Poetry II class. He said his winning poem was inspired by his trans identity and coming to terms with giving up fertility as part of his transition.
“This poem is essentially an apology to a future partner who may want biological children, and how I will not be able to provide this for them,” Sheehan explained. “I’m imagining how disappointed they may be in me for my shortcomings. I was inspired to write about this subject because I see trans art and poetry so rarely in the limelight, and I think that it’s super important that the trans experience is heard, especially if it’s extended to allies.”
Linguistically, Sheehan said he gets a lot of inspiration from singer-songwriter Mitski. “I find her to be an incredibly expressive songwriter and poet, and I like grabbing bits and pieces of her lyrics and motifs to use in my poetry.”
The Etheridge Knight Performance Award is named after the African American poet from Mississippi who founded the Free People’s Poetry Workshop in Worcester; the award comes with a generous monetary prize and membership in the Worcester County Poetry Association.
Professor Treseler remarked: “I’ve had the privilege of working with Tommy on his manuscript of poems for two semesters, and it’s truly wonderful to see him earning recognition in this prize as well as in forthcoming publications. In creative writing classes, students encourage and push each other, and Tommy has worked with a cohort of talented, ambitious classmates.”
Said Sheehan, “I’m super thankful for this opportunity; after giving up on writing for four years due to depression, it feels really good to have my work be recognized. Admittedly, I can’t help but fall into imposter syndrome and believe that I don’t deserve this position, but I suppose I’m my own worst critic. Nevertheless, I’m thankful that I have the opportunity to communicate such an important subject that is so often pushed to the side; I have found my voice recently and I am grateful that I get to use it.”
Photo: Tommy Sheehan and his dog Riley.
Here is Sheehan’s winning poem:
I Hold A Wilting Orchid For You
Though I cannot bear you a son,
I hope my honest thighs will suffice
to whisper to you the promise of a pomegranate tree,
never to ripen, never to drop ruby seeds.
I can still taste the prospect of our first cottage,
wallpaper chipped with time as we trace our history in the walls.
Do you see it too? Two stories, passed down by the
worker bees that live in the honeycomb beside the tire swing.
But I know you are blind,
and the spider’s webs in the attic blacken your lungs to tar.
I try to bring you home, wear your favorite petticoat
and take you to drive-ins, but the spider burrows.
Let’s shake this poet out to the bleak, laugh in the face
of the son he never had. Just a little bit more,
so that the cottage collapses and Hera sends a
prayer from the peacock’s mouth.