Homeless Veteran Wins Poetry Prize

by Jacquelyn Malone

Phe

Phe

When an event happens fortuitously, it’s cause to celebrate.

Last spring, a young homeless veteran we’ll simply call Phe (at her request) attempted suicide and was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Around the same time, at a coffee house, she happened to see a magazine that advertised a poetry contest for homeless veterans. She entered and she won. The prize was one of the things that made life look up for her.

The contest was jointly sponsored by both Consequence Magazine and Glass House Shelter Project—the latter being a program that gave its director, Julie Batten, a poetry grant to continue work she was doing with college-accredited poetry courses for the homeless at UMass Boston and Salem State University. To give the contest a home, Julie turned to George Kovich, editor of Consequence Magazine, who became the judge of the contest.

The contest was the first of its kind in the nation to encourage members of the homeless community to share their stories with the general public through poetry and memoir. The theme for the contest was conflict. “Conflict, and the inherent shame of its aftermath, whether domestic or militarized, is what seems to paralyze so many of my homeless students,” says Batten. Kovich says the theme of the contest worked perfectly with the editorial policy of Consequence though the contest is slightly broader than the general policy of the magazine. “…The contest’s definition of war encompasses social and physiological issues relevant to the homeless,” says Kovich. As a judge of the contest Kovich was looking for “clarity of idea and voice” as well as “freshness of language.”

Phe is perhaps not your stereotypical idea of a homeless veteran—if there is such a thing. In the cover letter she submitted to the contest, she writes:

“Over a year ago, I lost everything I had worked my life to build, though I didn’t take the traditional road of drug and drink to get to this point. What I did do was allow PTSD and an as-then-undiagnosed TBI [traumatic brain injury] to fester. I ignored them, watched everything fall away from me, and spent the entire year of 2013 couch surfing and on the streets while somehow still holding down my job without anyone too close to me being any the wiser.”

The amazing part of Phe’s statement is that she was able to hold down a job—and a demanding one at that. She writes a newsletter and edits an air force journal on nuclear, chemical and biological warfare. Writing seems to be something that keeps her going. “It has always been a part of my life,” she says, explaining that she is a type A personality and that she was reading long before she started school. And though she has been on her own since she was 15, she managed to get her GED and has taken courses wherever she was stationed. These include courses at UMass Boston and Harvard Extension School, where she was pursuing a degree in biology with a minor in anthropology.

But eventually the trauma of her experience caught up with her and she gave in and sought help. “I finally came to the Domiciliary Program for Homeless Veterans at the Bedford VAMC in March of this year after going through a shorter program at the same location,” she says.

In addition to getting help for her combat trauma and winning a poetry contest, her boyfriend has been helpful. He, too, has had similar experiences, and in addition to sharing their struggles, he bought her a computer, which makes it easier for her to continue her writing.

In addition to the poetry contest, Glass House Shelter Project and Consequence sponsored a memoir contest, which was won by Mark Norek. Both he and Phe received $250 for their winning entries.

Here is Phe’s poem:

Collared

Cold silver encircles my throat
Hard and unforgiving and engraved
The weight, a daily reminder
And the inscription telling me that
My value lies at zero, free for taking
Property.
It rest now at the bottom of the sea.

Tightly woven cord encircles my throat
The colours of he and I and made
By his hand as a daily reminder
That my value has no figure high enough, cost beyond measure
Gift.
I am folded into the scent of his embrace.

Phe won our enthusiasm. We hope to see her writing winning poems for years to come!