Zócalo, with its daily ideas journalism and free public events, aims to create a welcoming space for people and communities to tackle big questions, ideas, and issues. As our reach has expanded—we now syndicate to 185 media outlets around the world—so, too, has the range of subjects we explore. Every Friday, we publish a poem by an established or an emerging poet. And in every year since 2012, we’ve awarded the Zócalo Poetry Prize.
In conjunction with our annual book prize, we honor the writer of a poem that best evokes a connection to place. In 2012, Jody Zordrager won our inaugural prize for “Coming Back, It Comes Back,” a poem about returning home to Massachusetts; our 2013 prize went to Jia-Rui Cook—prior to her joining the Zócalo staff as editor—for “Fault,” a poem about the shifting ground on which Southern Californians live. Last year’s prize went to Amy Glynn for “Shoreline,” about a place where we can sit back and watch the tide roll out and come in.
This year, 350 poets submitted about 700 poems to our contest. They brought us to all sorts of places: from the Bronx and Finland to what we imagine heaven is like.
Ultimately, Zócalo poetry editor Stephanie Brown and the Zócalo editorial staff chose to honor a poem about a place here in California. We’re delighted to award the $500 Zócalo Public Square Poetry Prize to Gillian Wegener, who works on teacher training and curriculum development for the Oakdale Joint Unified School District and serves as the poet laureate of Modesto, Calif. Her winning poem about a small-town diner evokes the intimacy of its staff and regulars, and accepts the inevitability of change:
The Old Mill Café
Everyone knew where to sit.
Everyone knew what time the men from the dairy plant came in after the night shift.
Everyone knew when the all-night drunks would come looking for breakfast.
Everyone knew when Sandy’s girl ran away and why.
Everyone knew the size of the pancakes.
Everyone knew the windmill might really work, but then again, who could be sure.
Everyone knew when the junior college let out for summer.
Everyone knew when the talk was that the highway would be decommissioned.
Everyone knew when the hometown boy made good.
Everyone knew when the waitress was home sick and that she wasn’t sick at all.
Everyone knew and everyone commented when something wasn’t right.
Some folks commented with words and more words and some just nodded
and some didn’t nod.
Everyone knew that team didn’t deserve to win that championship game.
Everyone knew the goddamned hippies weren’t welcome.
Everyone knew the smell of fresh coffee and the little clanks of the creamer lids.
Everyone left that stool empty for a long time after Charlie passed.
Everyone clutched their coffee cups when the train passed through—could have
touched the train as it squeezed by—the truth then, but not now.
Everyone heard about the accident and then everyone knew or thought they knew.
Everyone knew wind from the west meant a little rain.
No one knew what happened to that kid who used to bus tables.
Everyone knew when the price of almonds just about dropped through the floor.
Everyone knew the overpass was coming and that the Old Mill would be razed.
Everyone knew the café would reopen way down the street and no one was happy
Everyone knew they would keep going to the new place, which they did
even though it wasn’t the same—eggs tasted different, couldn’t put a finger on it.
Everyone knew that things don’t stay the same and there’s no use in whining about
any of it.
We spoke on the phone to the winner, who wrote a piece for Zócalo last year about Modesto’s poetry scene—to tell her the good news and ask her some questions:
Q. Was the “The Old Mill Café” inspired by an actual café—and, if so, where is it?
A. The Old Mill Café is in downtown Modesto. It had a certain kind of mystique. I actually never went inside—but I used to go past it all time. It was on the Old Highway 99.
When I wrote the poem, I was imagining its history over the course of time—how the same people went there day after day, year after year. It was close to a dairy, so I imagined shift workers going there—people who’ve been at the heart of Modesto as a town over the years.
[In 2001], the city built an overpass and knocked down the old restaurant. The Old Mill was moved down street and it doesn’t have a windmill anymore. It’s a regular old diner now, but the same people still go: farmers, ranchers, and the occasional person passing through.
Q. What’s been especially rewarding about being the poet laureate of Modesto?
A. So many community groups have asked me to write poems for their events. No one needs to include a poem in an event, but people feel that a poem gives a sense of gravity to a situation. I’ve been honored to meet that need.
The most challenging poem I’ve written was for the Community Hospice, for the dedication of the Children’s Memorial Garden. I was writing for families who’ve lost a child, so I wanted to honor their experience without assuming that I knew what they were feeling. Having that kind of trust from them was an honor. It was challenging to write and also meaningful, hopefully.
Q. What do you do when you’re not writing poetry?
A. I taught 8th grade English for 22 years. I’m out of the classroom now and working on curriculum and training teachers.
Q. What subject do you find yourself returning to?
A. Sense of place. I moved around a lot growing up and didn’t have a home place. I moved to Modesto and got a teaching job. At first, I wanted to teach and then move somewhere more exciting. Then this became my home, almost in spite of myself. I’m fascinated by how home gets created around us, even when we’re not looking for it.
Q. Which English-language poet do you find especially inspiring?
A. Lorine Niedecker. She has an amazing sense of place in her work, and an amazing sense of history. She’s my go-to poet when I’m stuck, when I feel like I’m caught in little bit of a rut and need to go in a new direction. Sometimes reading her work generates ideas that have nothing to do with what’s in her poems. It’s always a pleasure to read her work and see what happens.
*Photo courtesy of Robert S. Donovan.