Poetry – C. T. Salazar, This Might Have Meant Fire
Winner in the Poetry category is C. T. Salazar of Caledonia for This Might Have Meant Fire. The title comes from the full line, “God promised light, but this might have meant fire.” The meaning, according to Salazar, is “the possibility or potential consequence of getting it wrong. That not everything is what it looks like, or how deadly interpretation can be.” When asked what led him to become a poet, Salazar said it was growing up in Mississippi. He said, “I love this absurd state, and I’m forever wanting it to be better.”
Salazar received his BA and MA degrees from Mississippi University for Women and is pursuing an MA in library and information sciences with an emphasis in archiving from the University of Southern Mississippi. Salazar is a Latinx poet and translator. He was a children’s librarian for four years and currently serves as senior librarian at the Columbus Air Force Base. He is editor-in-chief of Dirty Paws Poetry Review. The 2017 AWP Intro Journals Poetry Winner, his poems have appeared in 32 Poems, Grist, Tampa Review, Noble Gas QTRLY, Cosmonauts Avenue, and The Matador Review, among others. He is in the process of learning the Navajo and Nahuatl languages.
Recipient’s remarks: I’m honored beyond all means of expressible language to be recognized by the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters for Poetry. To have this kind of validation helps me understand that this is meaningful work. So far, I’m a lifelong Mississippi resident, and my poems reckon with Mississippi in ways Mississippi reckons with itself—our ongoing social restlessness that both limits our livelihood and offers us the opportunity to recognize our humanity in each other. In that recognition is the poetry worth sharing. I am both shaped by this state and optimistically wanting to shape it into something better. My poetry is space where I can imagine a better place to live and by consequence help enact that possibility. One day, only the archive we’ve left behind will answer for us. At the very least, I want the future to know we dreamed about them. The laws of language are entangled with the laws of desire—when we demand more from our words, we demand more from that which may fulfill us. The beauty and love we’re truly capable of we will first have to demand in language. Our poems carry that demand, and tenderly, we see each other.
Judge Angela Narciso Torres said upon selecting This Might Have Meant Fire for the MIAL Poetry award, “Because the ghazal, the elegy, and the ode are essentially love poems, and because praise is the highest form of devotion, C. T. Salazar’s chapbook, This Might Have Meant Fire is both a prayer and a love song to the world. In this small but richly potent collection, Salazar insists on ‘prais(ing) the mutilated world’—to borrow from Zagajewski’s poem—through his own masterful reinventions of these forms, and others of his own making. ‘The cotton field of fire looks like sunflowers, somehow caught between praise and persecution’ begins the first of ten poems in this radiant collection. Salazar draws from the physical landscapes of his southern childhood—scouring for metaphor in fields, rivers, lakes, deltas, mountains, but also in churches, dilapidated barns, and rusting bridges. Out of murky water emerge these clear-eyed gems of lyricism, metaphors that flash like gold in the pan and continue to shine in the mind’s eye long after one closes the book. A drowned man ‘answers in mouthfuls of tadpoles.’ The heart is ‘a black harpoon.’ God speaks ‘in single syllables we board like boats.’ The sky is ‘a wall for our fathers to nail prayers against.’ Here are poems informed by both faith and questioning, displacement and home, loss and salvation. Grounded in the natural world, Salazar’s poems relentlessly explore matters of identity, the importance of names in affirming our place in the world, the love and intricacy of family, the persistence of memory, and the miracle of beauty and redemption despite death’s inevitability. ‘Are you listening? Every bridge you’ve ever crossed / will eventually collapse, heavy with rust. / The miracle here is that you weren’t standing on any / of them despite your rust.’ Here is a poet at the height of his lyrical powers, trusting in language to deliver the slippery yet unassailable truths that form the core of what it means to be human.” Angela Narciso Torres is the author of Blood Orange, To the Bone, and What Happens Is Neither; and winner of the 2019 Yeats Poetry Prize. A graduate of Harvard Graduate School of Education and Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, she serves as reviews editor for RHINO. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Manila, she currently lives in South Florida.