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  • Writer's pictureKayleigh Willis

THE WINNERS PT 4: 1st Prize - 'I Don't Think About Them' by Lauren Oertel

First prize was awarded to emerging writer, Lauren Oertel for her poem: 'I Don't Think About Them'. We are thrilled that this poem was chosen as the overall winner as it sums up everything MONO. is about; getting under the skin of ordinary life even when it's uncomfortable, addressing societal taboos by being vulnerable and honest through writing and finding the hints of humour as you peel the layers back. Vivid, disturbing and moving in equal measure, this is a bold and accomplished poem by a name to watch out for...congratulations Lauren!

'I Don’t Think About Them'

I don’t think about the kids I gave up

except when my disease flares,

the disease I developed from the extreme stress

of the short time I was a parent

Except every time another friend of mine has a baby

and I’m terrified about the daily horrors

they’re gleefully signing up for,

I don’t know how to separate my experience

from what they envision parenting to be

My mind goes back to scrubbing the reeking accidents

out of the carpet from the youngest,

patching the holes in the walls

from the furniture thrown by the oldest,

the excruciating hours of screaming tantrums

until their throats were too raw to speak

of the gaping wounds of their histories,

what they’ve seen and what they had no choice

to do for survival

I don’t think about the kids I gave up

except when I see the swirls of pink Sharpie marker

that never came out

Except when I smell hot Cheetos and my stomach turns,

thinking of that big fight with the red powder-stained fingers

smearing the white wall

while I cleaned up the snack-speckled puke off the floor

Except when I hear a small child scream

and my heart races

while I scan for an exit,

my flight instinct kicking in

Except when I think of their parents

in and out of prison,

gutted by their separation from their babies,

this family being just one example

of the collateral damage

of the war on drugs

Except every time I see other kids we’ve let down

and left behind,

along with their parents,

no matter what they’ve done

What about what we’ve done to them?

How we failed them

I don’t think about the kids I gave up

except when I do

Lauren, tell us a little about yourself and your life as a writer...

I am an organizer, covering Texas and New Mexico for a nationwide (U.S.) nonprofit organization that works on policy advocacy, elections, voting rights, antiracism, etc. If you've seen Texas in the news at all the past year, you'll know this work keeps me quite busy. Every day is a new crisis, unfortunately.

I'm relatively new to creative writing, but I've loved the experience of meeting and working with other writers in various communities. I started with short stories and short nonfiction, found a poetry workshop in early 2020 (four of us from that have met twice a month since then, which has been wonderful), and I'm working on my first novel. I take about two writing workshops a week while working on various projects; it's been a great way for me to manage the stress of my job (and the state of the world/the state I live in) by focusing on creativity and learning. I also love celebrating other writers, and attend book talks/readings as often as possible.

What appealed to you about this particular competition and theme?

I liked how this competition helped me think outside of the box on how I had been interpreting the poems I chose to submit. The theme opened a door for me to consider how different experiences can be connected to themes I hadn't thought of before.

Who or what inspired your winning poem?

Well, this poem is essentially a clipped summary of my experience as a single foster parent of five siblings (ages 3 to 16) I took in seven years ago. It ended disastrously, with both conflict with the kids and my body breaking down with a stress-induced disease. This poem is the first time I attempted to process what happened, and I am honestly shocked that it was able to translate to readers who likely don't share an experience like that. I refer to it all as a time when my heart was significantly larger than my brain, and sadly, the worst thing I've ever done. It's scary to think of it being out in the world where readers will likely wonder how I could attempt to do such a thing (and how awful it is that I failed). But I guess this can be an exercise in vulnerability. Of all the poems I've written, this one feels the most awkward to win a monetary prize for, so I will be donating part of the award to a mutual aid program here in Austin. I see those programs as one of the best ways to keep families together, so they can get their needs met and kids don't need to become wards of the state. It's all very heartbreaking but I believe we can make a difference in this issue through addressing systemic racism and pushing through policies that help families.

Whose poetry do you admire, past or present? Picking favorites - always a tough question! I'll need to break this into two categories. 1. Fairly famous poets whose styles really work for me include: Audre Lorde, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Natalie Diaz. 2. Lesser-known poets who I recommend folks check out include: ire'ne lara silva (my first inspiration to get into poetry!), Reginald Dwayne Betts, and Destiny O. Birdsong.

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Janet Howard
Janet Howard
Sep 27, 2021

I was very moved by your poem Lauren. It takes a brave writer to write about something that continues to cause pain. I witnessed the pain of foster carers who felt they had failed, but in the hard times and the difficult memories there will be small moments of gold that the children will take with them into their future.

Keep writing and sharing and congratulations on winning.

Sep 27, 2021
Replying to

Thanks so much for the kind words. I appreciate it!

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