The 2020 Sexton Prize for Poetry Winner!

The 2020 Sexton Prize for Poetry Winner!

Thank you to all candidates who entered their poetry into this prize and thank you to our final judge Terese Svoboda for taking the time to dive into the hearts of these poets to give them the time and consideration they deserve. She read ALL the submissions fully and selected the shortlist also.

Our winner receives a prize of 2000 USD and publication in 2020; our runner-up wins 1000 USD and publication within 12 months. Both books will be distributed in the USA by SPD, in Canada by LitDistCo, and in the UK and Ireland by BookSource. 

We are so pleased to announce our winner:

Denise Miller - A Ligature For Black Bodies

Denise Miller is a professor, poet and mixed media artist whose poetry has been published in the Offing, African American Review and Blackberry: A Magazine. They were named the 2015 Willow Books Emerging Poet, an AROHO Waves Discussion Fellowship awardee, a finalist for the Barbara Deming Money for Women Fund, and a Hedgebrook Fellow. Their work titled, Core, was released by Willow Books in 2015 and has since been nominated for a 2016 American Book Award and a 2016 Pushcart Prize. Miller has been named a 2016 William Randolph Hearst Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society. Their chapbook, Ligatures was published in 2016 by Rattle Press. Most recently, they have been awarded a 2020 Storyknife Residency and a 2020 Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing Fellowship. Their pronouns are they/them. More of their work can be found at

Denise Miller has made the following statement in acceptance of this prize:

'I am honored to accept the 2020 Sexton Prize for Poetry. A Ligature for Black Bodies was written at a time when the only way that I could move through the violence that was happening on a soul level was to research and write about it -- to take it in as poison and put it out as medicine. That was the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016. Now in 2020, the manuscript has been accepted at a moment that is, unfortunately, not unlike that one. What is different however about this time, is the commitment of more people in Europe and the United States to shine a light in dark places. Thank you to The Black Spring Press Group for being part of that group. Your acknowledgement of my manuscript and its coming publication through this award affords me the opportunity to write and disseminate widely poetry that matters.'


Our final judge's comments on choosing this winner:

'I read Denise Miller's Ligature for Black Bodies months before the Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the US. With the noose as a framing device, the book exerts the force of witness, from “born brown then picnic blackened” to its last chilling sentence: “He was breathing.” Its eerie timeliness is striking, though sadly not prescient, since the issue of racial disparity has ground on with an unbearable cyclical quality for centuries. Police cams recordings and the self-incriminating testimony of the killers of so many innocent black Americans burn through the centre of the book, clear evidence of the urgent need for social justice. Even the media's culpability is noted, even the reader's, who cannot turns the pages without being a voyeur to such terrors, as if viewing the racist postcards still sold by white supremacists today. For the most part wrought out of found material interrogated by audacious yet formally expert poems, Ligature for Black Bodies portends and portends.'


Please support this important book.

We would also like to announce our Sexton Prize Runner-up Kathleen Balma for her entry Undelivered Notes from Birds of Passage.

Kathleen Balma is a Fulbright fellow and veteran of the US Navy. She has published widely in journals and anthologies, including Ecotone, Missouri Review, New Ohio Review, Rattle, Spillway, the Montreal International Poetry Prize Anthology, and the University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor's International Poetry Prize Anthology. Her awards include a writer-in-residence fellowship from Rivendell Writers' Colony, a Tennessee Williams scholarship from Sewanee Writers' Conference, a Katherine Nason Bakeless Scholarship from Bread Loaf Environmental Writers' Conference, and a Pushcart Prize. She currently works at New Orleans Public Library.

She provided the following statement in reaction:

'I have been practicing poetry for thirty years. I have this one book to show for my efforts. It is technically a "first book," but it's also my life's work. When I learned that it had been chosen for publication, by someone I greatly admire, I felt all the things you would expect--surprise, elation, gratitude, relief--but I also felt, for the first time, that my life had been for something. Of course I know, objectively, that my life has value separately and apart from this book, but now I have a legacy, and that's a new reality that I honestly don't know how to react to, except to say thank you, and keep saying it.'

Here is Terese Svoboda's comments on why she thinks Undelivered Notes from Birds of Passage deserves this prize:

'In the very first poem of Undelivered Notes from Birds of Passage, Balma pulls out all the [voice] stops: “once a pastel whine, now an atonal woodwind/of desire,” with the poem cheekily finishing at “The end.” She's language-focused, less Language, a subtle corralling of such for surprise as well as narrative draw – and the occasional cosplay in which the poet costumes herself in characters, e.g. in “Abraham, Honestly.” The verity these days is that even a book of poetry has to tell a story. No miscellany! But few readers of poetry stick to the program and plod from one poem to the next. Balma triumphs with the first half brimming with slimly related bon-bons, then brilliantly tightrope-walks the entire second half.'

Thank you again to all entrants, it has been a pleasure and we hope to see your work again in future!

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