In 2021, Howard County Poetry and Literature Society launched the Ellen Conroy Kennedy Poetry Prize in honor of its founding member, Ellen Conroy Kennedy. The contest received more than 100 submissions in its inaugural year, and the selection committee chose Judd Hess’s poem “Darth Vader” for an honorary mention. The committee was unanimous in wishing to recognize ”the intense, vivid voice of this poem and its layered metaphors that address the moment… it strums chords in so many of us as we’ve struggled to co-exist with COVID… the way the poem deftly builds the speaker’s frustration until the final, angry eruption.”
Judd Hess holds an MFA and an MA from Chapman University. He has won the Fugue Poetry Prize, the John Fowles Creative Writing Prize for Poetry, the Ellipsis Prize, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives in Southern California with his beautiful family.
Judd answered some of our favorite questions for writers. See what he had to say about his poem “Darth Vader,” what inspires him, and what poetry means to him.
Tell us about your poem “Darth Vader.” How did it come about? What sparked or inspired it?
“Darth Vader” is a fairly autobiographical piece. My son really did have a Darth Vader bike, red and black. The conversation related in the poem is an amalgam of various conversations over the last year, but frustrating in person as they are in the poem. Poetry is a medium for us to examine the conflicts of the human condition, and the conflicts over our reactions to the pandemic have redefined all of our lives these last few years. It felt appropriate to try to articulate the absurdity and incessant fear of the last several years, as much for myself as for others. The great shout stuck in all our throats needs to articulate itself.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
AP English Lit, senior year: We were using Perrine’s “Sound And Sense” as a text. For the summative assessment at the end of the unit, we were asked to work in pairs to explicate in front of the class one of the “Poems For Additional Reading” in the back of the book. My best friend and I chose T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” because it was the longest, and, frankly, because we were smartasses. I remember vividly the way my subsequent exploration of that poem floored me. It struck me as a tour de force of poetic power, even when I had no idea what it was talking about. I liken that experience to that of an intensely good meal. One does not need to be a gourmet chef to understand that one is experiencing culinary quality. Some things are just powerful and vibrant. They reveal the bones of the earth and help us see the strange singing of the sky.
Tell us about a writer or a book that you return to over and over for inspiration.
Shakespeare is where I most often go. I am endlessly floored by the brilliance and complexity of the construction of Hamlet, for example. Shakespeare teaches the economy of poetry. His spells are the most potent because they are the most precise. He is the great teacher of the craft. However, when I want to feel the way poetry ought to help us feel, when I need to run on the wind, when I am nearly overwhelmed with swallowing the sea, when I need to see and to be seen, I return to Whitman. Whitman is what home feels like, what the world ought to be, where wholeness triumphs over woundedness.
What is the experience of poetry? What is it like to compose?
I am often reminded of the ending of “Our Town” when the Stage Manager confesses to Emily that only the saints and poets even partially live life to the fullest. The root of great poetry, I have come to see, is the depth of connectivity to our existence. We are magical creatures, with such profundity and power as, when tapped into, shakes the firmament and the abyss. Our daily lives are full of this magic, full of the conflicts and connections that shake the stars and reroute time as though we were to throw ourselves across a river and alter its course with our agency. The art of the composition of poetry is a rooting into this power. It is as though we slip into another world collectively within us and, returning time and again, train ourselves to more perfectly construct portals to that place, to bring back distillations of its winds and waters, mysterious elixirs that others who have sunk into that place from time to time recognize in their own experience. The great beauty, however, is that those potions taste differently to each of us. We may recognize and approximate to some degree what we have experienced, but the reception of that experience distilled always savors of surprise in the mouths of those who imbibe it, for they are equally as magical, with their own sojourns in that deep place to draw from.
Congratulations to Judd!