NEA Literature Fellowships

William Notter

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(2009 - Poetry)

Demolition Derby

Gray skies and the stars and stripes
hang above this rodeo arena
two feet deep with Missouri Ozark mud.
The bombs of our latest war started falling today,
but here, station wagons and giant sedans
bellow and smoke and sling a shrapnel of mud.
We watch from lawn chairs on a rise
between the arena and a railroad line
where freights rumble past and shake the sumac
reddening along the tracks.
This is what we fight for, the announcer says,
as the last two cars face off, a dogfight,
each driver aiming to be the last one running.

The Chrysler has avoided crippling hits
in every heat and lunges through the muck
with a race engine snarl. The Number Seven car
is a yellow wreck so mangled
that the make is anybody's guess,
and soon the Chrysler plows that yellow hood
up in front of the driver's line of sight.
But Seven charges forward, back and forward,
throwing his heap against an opponent
who has him outmuscled and blind.

He lurches against the Chrysler, hissing
sugary coolant, crankshaft bearings knocking,
fan sparking against the radiator,
but out to show what he can do
with tools and junk, the skin of his knuckles,
a month of Sundays and a little bit of nerve.
This is what we fight for.
The spectators are up, shouting,
or shaking their heads as they would
at having to put an old bull down--
and the Chrysler deals a final running blow
that leaves the Seven car stalled and smoking.

William Notter grew up in Northeast Colorado. He earned an MFA from the University of Arkansas and a BA from the University of Evansville. His book Holding Everything Down received the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award, and was published in fall 2009 by Southern Illinois University Press. His poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, AGNI Online, Ascent, The Chattahoochee Review, Connecticut Review, Crab Orchard Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, Willow Springs, the anthology Good Poems for Hard Times, and on NPR's The Writer's Almanac. He was awarded the Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize from Texas Review Press for More Space Than Anyone Can Stand, and has received grants from the Nevada Arts Council and Sierra Arts Foundation. He has taught writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Grand Valley State University near Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he and his family currently live.

Photo by Tara Bray

Author's Statement

This fellowship will give me not just the time, but the charge to write. My first book was accepted recently, and now here is the opportunity to focus on what comes next. Maybe I can take a summer or two off from teaching, to write and to travel in the landscapes that trigger my poems. I'll be able to work with half-started poems and notes I have collected on scraps of paper. Simply and most importantly, the NEA's generosity will allow me more quiet chunks of time to read, observe, and write, so I might give something back to the world. I am grateful to have been selected by such an accomplished panel of poets. Their recognition gives me faith in my ability to tinker around under the hood and occasionally make something run.