Sunday, March 28, 2010

Abandoned Things: ZIP Code 17927 / Centralia, PA

"Wind Turbines above Centralia"
copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

(Click on images for larger view)

I’ve been hearing about the fire burning under the town of Centralia in Pennsylvania’s northeastern anthracite region for nearly as long as I can remember. I had grown up in a different coal mining region of the state where an old boney pile had ignited and burned for several years just outside the town where I went to school, so the threat of such a tragedy seemed very real to me even as a young girl.

Boney piles, sometimes referred to as gob piles, are big heaps of coal mining waste left behind by the mining companies. On our recent road trip, we were amazed at the size and number of these ugly black hills of industrial waste along highways and surrounding towns.

The area in central Pennsylvania where I grew up had been mined out decades before I was born, but boney piles left from those mined out veins and long gone coal companies still remained. My grandfather and great-uncles had been coal miners as young men in those mines. For most of my childhood and teen years, that old boney pile smoldered outside the town of Mount Union and gave off nasty fumes. I held my breath and pinched my nostrils shut each time we drove past, trying to avoid the sulfurous odor which actually caused a burning sensation in my nose. It was one of those smells that you can’t get out of your nose, even hours later. Pointing at the homes nearby, some of them tidy new ranch houses, I’d ask my parents: How can they stand to live so close to that smell? My parents would say: I guess you get used to it. That fire eventually burned itself out. By the time I was in high school the odor was not as strong and eventually I realized I no longer smelled it.

The situation in Centralia was much more serious. In 1962 a coal vein had been ignited and burned deep below the town where there were labyrinths of old mine tunnels. Accounts of how the fire began vary, but most seem to point to it starting at an old strip mine being used as a landfill dump site. The fire burned for decades while all attempts to extinguish it failed. Town residents had to monitor carbon monoxide levels in their homes and live with the sickening sulfur dioxide smell outdoors. Pipes jutting out of the ground vented gaseous vapors. Fissures formed and released steam. Eventually sinkholes opened up and pavement buckled.

In “Centralia, PA: How an underground coal fire erased a town” (Christian Science Monitor, 2/15/2010), Eoin O’Carroll writes of the 1981 incident where 12-year-old Todd Dromboski fell into a sinkhole in a yard and saved himself by grabbing onto a tree root until he could be rescued. The article includes a photograph of the boy standing outside a fence erected around the hole later that day following his rescue. That incident served as a wake-up call to how serious the situation had become. O’Carroll states, “Two years later, Congress appropriated $42 million to buy and demolish every home in the town. By 1990, only 63 people remained. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service eliminated Centralia’s ZIP code.”

Fiction writer Tawni O’Dell based imagery in her novel Coal Run on Centralia. When I interviewed her in 2005, I asked about where that imagery had come from, impressed by how she used it to create tension smoldering under the whole story, in the same way that it burned under the town until eventually the earth opened – like hell rising up through the backyards.

Tawni O’Dell responded:
“That’s based on Centralia. I went there with my cousin, Kenny, for the first time when I was a freshman in college. I made a road trip to Centralia just to see this place, and it blew my mind. Part of it was because I was already a writer – it’s the kind of place where you think: Wow, I’ve got to put this in a story someday. I was 18 or 19, and I hadn’t even written a novel at that point, but I knew it was something I was going to use someday . . . I always thought it perfectly summarized the whole Pennsylvania mining experience. What’s under this ground? It was the lifeblood of this community, gave them jobs and prosperity – and now it’s poisoned the place to a point where people can’t even live there anymore. It’s an extreme example of what other communities went through. And it went farther than being about evil mine operators and rich coal barons taking advantage of poor coal miners. It’s about the land. It’s the actual ground on fire. And it’s still burning, and it’s spreading. More and more of the area is being pulled down. And it’s just like I described in the book, a really fascinating place. I’ve been back there two times. As a matter of fact, I was just thinking recently that I want to go back again to see what it’s like now and see if the things I remember are still there. I can still vividly see all the little details – the swing set, the tricycle, and the lawnmower. Are they still there? It’s a ghost town. Not a Wild West ghost town, but a coal mining ghost town. And it smells like sulfur. The image of that town always stuck with me. And the name, Coal Run. There’s a town of Coal Run very close to Indiana, PA. Even as a kid, I loved that name. I always thought, that’s the name of a town I’ll put in a story someday. So, I filed all these things away, thinking – someday I’ll put that in a story.” (“Tawni O’Dell: The Influence of Landscape and the Journey Home” Paper Street, Fall 2005.)

There’s not much left to see of Centralia. Driving along route 61 we were nearly past it before we realized we were there. We drove around the town on what remained of the street grid, on streets with no names. The street signs have been removed, but the sidewalks remain and driveways lead into yards where houses no longer stand and the lots are overgrown with brush and saplings.

"Wood Street, Centralia"
copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

On a street that was once called Railroad Street, we spoke to a man out walking his dog. He had grown up in the town but moved away as a young man before the fire began. He now lives in the nearby town of Mount Carmel, but comes to Centralia for walks with his dog. He told us there were still five holdouts in the town but that most of the residents relocated when their homes were bought and demolished by the state in the mid-1980s. When we asked if there was still an area where there was evidence of the fire still burning, he directed us to the area below the cemetery on the hillside across the highway and told us to look for the sign tacked to a tree which said “Fire” with an arrow indicating where to turn. He also told us how to get to a nearby section of abandoned highway which had to be closed and rerouted after the hot earth buckled the pavement.

"Sentinel" copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

A church still stands atop one of the hills, a lonely sentinel above a town now gone. On the opposite hillside below a cemetery, steam still rises from the ground. The hottest area is marked by fallen tree trunks bleached white like tree bones, fissures emitting wisps of steam, and concrete steps that once led to a home. Snow lay on the ground in other areas of the town, but the earth is too warm for snow to accumulate here.

Filmmakers Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland filmed a 2007 documentary The Town That Was over four years in Centralia, showing holdout resident John Lokitis, then in his early 30s, fighting to save and preserve what was left of his town. According to the recent Associated Press article “The Last Days of a Town: Centralia, PA” (2/5/2010), Lokitis lost his battle and his home was bulldozed.

Journalist David DeKok, author of Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, describes the Centralia mine fire as “a direct legacy of the environmental devastation of that era and the failure of either the government or private industry to face up to the damage that had been done and the risks that remained.” He sums it up best with this statement: “Centralia and its mine fire symbolize the folly of the notion that man can abuse the environment without consequence.” His photograph below, which was taken in 1983, shows the view of Centralia as it once was.

"The View" copyright 2008 by David DeKok,
all rights reserved, used by permission

The landscape of Centralia is forever altered – an environmental disaster equal to that of New York’s Love Canal. Wind turbines now line the hilltops, generating energy from a cleaner source – albeit too late for this town destroyed by coal. The landscape from my own childhood has also been altered, but for the better, with most of those old boney piles now gone, many of them removed at great cost during a highway expansion project. They’ve been gone long enough that I’d nearly forgotten about them, until our road trip sparked those memory images – where it always seems to be nighttime and I’m sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car as we drive past that nasty smell and I ask once again, How can they stand it?

"Steam Rising, Centralia"copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon,
all rights reserved, used by permission

Photo credits:
  • “Wind Turbines above Centralia” copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved
  • “Wood Street, Centralia” copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved
  • “Sentinel” copyright 2010 by Dory Adams, all rights reserved
  • “The View” copyright 2008 by David DeKok, all rights reserved, used by permission
  • “Steam Rising from Fissure, Centralia” copyright 2010 by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved, used by permission


Readers who comment on this post are eligible to win two free passes to the Carnegie Museum. Passes are courtesy of Pittsburgh Budget Cars, a company that deals in used cars in Pittsburgh.

To enter, post a comment below. Names of entrants will be placed in a hat (maybe that Levon Helm Band souvenir hat I bought at the Ramble on our road trip!) and the winner drawn at random. Deadline for entering is Saturday 4/3/2010 at midnight. The winner will be announced in next week’s post, Sunday 4/4/2010. Be sure to include your name with your comment and check back next week in order to claim your prize.

Around the Blogosphere:
  • Read “W. Eugene Smith and the Jazz Loft Project” by Jeffrey Scales at Paper Cuts and be sure to click on the link to the audio slide show of Smith’s images (narration by photographer W. Eugene Smith recorded in 1971). According to The Jazz Loft Project website, “the exhibit is now on view at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center and will run through May 22, 2010. The exhibit will travel to the Chicago Cultural Center (July 17-September 25, 2010), the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University (February 3-May 22, 2011), the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego (May 19-Oct. 7, 2012), and the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona (late 2012, early 2013). There will also be an exhibition of projected images at the Monterey Jazz Festival September 17-19, 2010.”

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Road Trip: Woodstock & Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble

Levon Helm, copyright Paul La Raia

We’re back from the road. The high point of our trip was the performance by The Levon Helm Band at the Midnight Ramble on Saturday night. Held at Levon’s studio, the sound was terrific and the atmosphere intimate. If my seat had been much closer to the stage, I’d have been IN the band.

Upon arriving in Woodstock, NY on a cold and rainy Saturday morning, our first mission was to find Big Pink, the house where much of the material for The Band’s first album was written. Located on Parnassus Lane, in the shadow of Overlook Mountain, it was the house they rented and retreated to just outside Woodstock after their first tour with Bob Dylan as his backup band — the tour where Dylan went electric and the crowds booed when the electric guitars appeared during the second half of his shows. The basement of Big Pink was where The Band rehearsed and worked out new material, where Dylan would show up daily to write and play, and where the often bootlegged Basement Tapes were recorded.

Big Pink, copyright 2010 by Dory Adams

Big Pink looks much the same today as it did in the old photos. And yes, it’s still pink, though faded to a more muted hue. We photographed the house from the lane, trying to be unobtrusive and respectful of the current owners. Much to our surprise, the owner opened an upstairs window and chatted with us for a few minutes, welcoming us into his yard to get better shots of the house.

In the village of Woodstock, we visited the local cemetery where Rick Danko is buried. The last cars from a funeral were departing through the gates as we arrived. Driving slowly along the road past the back section, we scanned the names on tombstones before deciding Danko’s must be one of the flat stones that we couldn’t see clearly. It was too rainy and muddy to walk the section row by row looking for his headstone, but one of the grave diggers graciously walked over to show us the gravesite, saying, “I knew that was who you were looking for.” Danko is buried next to his son, who died nearly a decade before him. Tokens left at the graves – two small peace signs cut from paper, a scripture card, and three small stones placed on Rick’s headstone – indicated there had been recent visitors.

Rick Danko's Grave, copyright 2010 by Dory Adams

During the afternoon when the rain eased to a mist, we took a brief walk along Tinker Street, the main street through the village. Our intention was to visit the Center for Photography, but because a new exhibit was being hung the gallery was closed until the opening reception later that day. Instead, we stopped at Oriole 9 to shake off the chilly dampness with hot coffee and then we browsed at a bookshop where Kevin Tomasic bought us a copy of Across the Great Divide: The Band and America, which I’m now reading and enjoying – particularly the chapter I’m in the middle of now about Big Pink.

Saturday evening in the studio at Levon’s home on Plochmann Lane, a fire burned in the fireplace to warm the ramble guests while a storm raged outside bringing down trees and causing power failures a little further down the road. Not that we were paying attention to the storm. Rapt with the show, we were oblivious to the weather conditions. We only knew about the nearby damage and power outages because an announcement was made between sets about the storm damage with directions for which end of Plochmann Lane was still open and how to get back to the highway after the show. We were reassured that in the event of a power outage at the studio they were prepared with lanterns and the show would continue as an acoustic performance.

Studio, copyright Paul La Raia

The studio never lost electricity in the storm – possibly because so much power was generated onstage by Levon and his band. And what a band it is: Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, vocals) and his daughter Amy Helm (vocals, mandolin); Larry Campbell (guitar, fiddle, vocals) and his wife Teresa Williams (vocal, guitar); Jim Weider (guitar); Byron Isaacs (bass, vocals); Brian Mitchell (keyboards, vocals); and a 5-piece horn section adding a New Orleans R&B flavor with Jay Collins (saxophones), Erik Lawrence (saxophones), Howard Johnson (tuba), Steven Bernstein (trumpet), and Clark Gayton (trombone). Former bass player Mike Merritt, who was in the audience, also joined the band for a few songs.

After an opener by the Ulster County AOH Pipe and Drums Band in honor of St. Patrick’s Day and an acoustic set by Brewer and Shipley, we were treated to 2 ½ hours of music by The Levon Helm Band which included songs from Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt as well as songs from The Band era. Levon played drums through most of the show. I loved seeing the interaction between Levon and his daughter Amy on stage. Amy and Teresa’s voices blend beautifully on harmonies, and each took turns as lead vocalists on several songs. Larry Campbell, an extremely talented musician with an impressive history as a session player and producer, gave a strong performance at center stage (also notable for his gracious and down-to-earth demeanor). The horn section engaged in a little Mardi Gras parade around the studio, and later Levon showed off a few dance steps. Best of all, Levon’s vocal cords are healing and he was able to sing a few songs and join in on harmonies from what he calls the “best seat in the house” behind his drums, taking center stage only when he played mandolin and to do his little dance.

Levon Helm, copyright Paul La Raia

Despite the storm, it was a perfect night. I must’ve been grinning from ear to ear all evening because after the show Teresa Williams told me “I saw you out there smiling!” Yep. Couldn’t help it. It was an evening of pure joy and once-in-a-lifetime experience – except that I’m planning to go back for more.

Photo Credits:
  • Photographs of Levon Helm and the studio copyright © Paul La Raia, used by permission
  • Photographs of Big Pink and Rick Danko’s grave copyright © 2010 by Dory Adams

News & Updates:
  • I’ve added additional subscriber options to the sidebar at the right of the screen to make it easier for readers to subscribe (there is no cost for subscriptions). You can now subscribe by e-mail and have notifications of new posts at In This Light sent to your inbox. You can also subscribe through an online Reader such as Google, Yahoo, Netvibes and others. A Followers widget has also been added near the bottom of the sidebar for those who want to follow the blog.
  • Be sure to visit In this Light next week next week for a chance to win two free passes to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (a $30 value). Details will be posted on Sunday, March 28th.

Around the Blogosphere:
  • A Conversation with Philip Graham” by John Warner at The Morning News was especially interesting to me for the discussion of the low residency writing program at Vermont College, which is where I earned my MFA prior to when Phil Graham joined the faculty there. (thanks to Erika Dreifus pointing out this interview via Practicing Writing)
  • In “Future Saving Time” Robert Gray writes about ‘on time’ vs. ‘in sync’ at Shelf Awareness.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Looking Forward, Looking Back: Road Trip

Kevin Tomasic, Dory Adams and Kevin Scanlon
copyright 1978 by Kevin Scanlon

(click on image for larger view)

That’s me in the photo above, seated between two Kevins (Tomasic and Scanlon) who were at the end of a long journey. They’d just spent the first half of the summer of 1978 on the road after graduating from college, traveling from Pittsburgh into the Canadian Rockies and British Columbia, then down the Pacific coast to California.

I'd moved to Los Angeles after graduation, where I stayed with a good friend while finding a job. I was about to sign a lease on an apartment when the two Kevins rolled into town. That changed those LA plans and I ended up moving to San Francisco instead.

I love this photo for many reasons, one being that we were so very young then. But mostly I love this photograph because we were at a turning point, each of us about to set off on a new path. It turned out to be only the beginning, not the end, of a great trip.

More than 30 years down the road from when that photo was taken, the two Kevins and I are heading out on a new road trip – this time to Woodstock. We were too young back in ’69 for the original Woodstock festival, but this time we’re headed to a Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm’s studio. Levon was a member of The Band, the legendary group who backed Bob Dylan. They'd played together as The Hawks in the pre-Dylan days, then went out on their own again as The Band in 1969, opening their tour at San Francisco's Winterland, which would also be the site of their final show, The Last Waltz, in 1976. After recovering from throat cancer a decade ago, Levon put together a new band, which includes his daughter Amy, and they've had two very successful and critically acclaimed CDs, Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt.

I missed seeing The Band perform back in the 70s, but Kevin Scanlon and I have seen various Band members play over the years. When we lived in San Francisco, we saw Rick Danko play several times at small clubs in the Bay Area -- once when he played with Richard Manuel at the Old Waldorf, once with Paul Butterfield and Gary Busey at a small club in Berkley. Later we saw Danko play in Chicago with Levon Helm.

Last summer, the two Kevins and I caught Levon's show when he came through Pittsburgh. He was having throat problems and couldn’t sing that night, but it was nice to see him play on stage with his daughter, Amy, and surrounded by his new band -- all fantastic musicians.

As for that road we're on -- it ain't over yet. Kevin Scanlon and I have been married 30 years now. Kevin Tomasic, who raised two sons with his wife Sue (who he lost a little more than a year ago after a long battle with cancer), remains a lifelong friend. If I could choose one decade to live through again, it would be the 1970s -- for the clothes, the music, and free-spiritedness. We're hoping to catch a glimpse as we search for Big Pink and visit the site of the original Woodstock festival on this leg of our journey. We'll photograph, as always, and no doubt take a few sidetrips along the way. I’m looking forward, looking back – continuously fascinated by how things look in this light.

Around the Blogosphere:

“David Foster Wallace at the Ransom Center” by Lisa Peet (3/9/2010) at Like Fire.

“My First Electronic Book . . .” by Meredith Sue Willis (3/9/2010) at Literature and the Web: Meredith Sue Willis Thinks About the Intersection.

3QD Arts & Literature Prize 2010 Finalists (3/10/2010) at 3 Quarks Daily.
Congratulations to the finalists!

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Monday, March 8, 2010

We Made it to the Semifinals for the 3QD Prize in Arts and Literature!

Thank you to all who voted for the nominees in the 3 Quarks Daily 2010 Prize in Arts and Literature! Misko Kranjec’s guest post, “Lens and Pen as Mirrors,” is a semifinalist.

The editors at 3QD will now select the finalists and announce them on March 10th. The contest judge, former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, will then select three winners.

You can see the list of semifinalists here.

Congratulations Misko!

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Sunday, March 7, 2010

Watching The Rivers Flow

Pittsburgh Dawn, copyright 2008 by Dory Adams

It’s easy to find ourselves on autopilot, mindlessly going through routine motions. We’re preoccupied by deadlines to meet and problem solving tasks for our jobs, and by items to tackle on our “to do” lists – already mentally at the next destination before we’ve physically arrived. Everyone seems to be in a hurry, rushing to the next thing – get in, get out, get it done, do more and more and more. Instead of rushing toward the next thing, instead of living in a state of distraction, we need to spend more time living in the moment. Slow down. Pay attention. Tap into simple joys. Notice our surroundings. Stop crashing through life and allow ourselves time to watch the river flow.

A favorite part of my day is the drive along the rivers on the way to and from work. Regardless of which route I take, I always cross one of Pittsburgh’s rivers, and usually see one, if not both, of the other two. My favorite route takes me over the Allegheny and across the middle of the city to the other side where I then follow the Monongahela from high above as I drive along the bluff.

There’s a rhythm to this commute that changes from morning to evening, and also with the seasons. These past two weeks have brought significantly more daylight to my evening journey. For most of the winter months it’s already dark when I leave the office at the end of the day. Last month marked a shift of seasons when a trace of light remained as I headed out into the evening. It was still dusk as I left work, but dark before I got across the city. Last week, a few minutes of daylight still lingered after I arrived home.

The rivers themselves are part of the rhythm. The Allegheny usually looks steely gray because of its gravel bottom. Even on the coldest days of winter when it is frozen over, there is a tinge of gray to the ice. Because the Monongahela has a mud bottom, it is usually brown in color – especially in the rainy spring months which tend to stir up the bottom. When the Mon calms down, it turns green.

The Allegheny and the Monongahela converge to form the Ohio River at the very tip of Pittsburgh’s downtown area at The Point. Depending on morning traffic, I sometimes follow the Allegheny and cross it near The Point where I can also see the Ohio River. Driving this route in summer, I often see sculling crews rowing on the Allegheny.

Several summers ago we had the most extensive road construction projects that I can remember. It seemed as though every major artery was being repaired, and it made the commute twice as long. I tried alternate routes, many of which didn’t follow the rivers, trying to escape the inevitable gridlock. Although I still had to cross the Allegheny to get to my destination, I tried shortcuts over the hills instead of around them, and tried crossing bridges further upriver. But, on days I didn’t cross one of the bridges close to downtown where I could see the details of the skyscrapers and not just the skyline in the distance – and especially if I didn’t get to look down at the wide curve of the Mon from the vantage point up on the bluff – I realized it had a negative impact on my mood all day. I needed to see the city waking up and coming alive from close up.

When I realized how much seeing those rivers affected my days, I stopped looking for alternate routes. Instead, I used the time stuck in traffic to savor watching what was happening on the rivers. I no longer cared if I was at a complete standstill as long as I could watch the river flow.

The Mon is different each day. Some mornings I would see the Delta Queen, but now that she’s been forced into retirement she no longer comes to town. A lot of coal moves along the Mon, each powerful towboat pushing up to sixteen barges (4 across, 4 ahead) and trains hauling coal along tracks on the far side of the river. In summer, fishermen drift close to shore. On some winter mornings when we’ve had a sudden cold snap and the air is colder that the river, I can even see the river’s breath as wisps of mist rise up to meet the air, the river seeming to exhale.

Evenings have a different tempo. In winter it’s too dark to see the water, the rivers a black void in the city lights, except where the bridges cross. These past few weeks watching the daylight linger a few minutes longer during each drive home has lifted my spirits. The hillside houses look especially lovely in the changing evening light with their windows glowing golden, the sky more dramatic above them, and the hillsides they cling to still white with the last of the winter snow.

The changing light is the best, whether it is in morning or evening. The shifting color in the sky exhilarates the senses – something is changing, in transition, becoming. In some ways it’s like watching an image develop when making a photographic print in the darkroom, seeing the details emerge from the darkness.

My husband once described dusk as a shifting of gears. That description seems especially fitting to me on the commute home when I’m trying to empty my mind of the day’s challenges and shake off the work day, to give space to my other lives – my creative life and my home life.

I’m happiest when I quiet my mind and make a conscious effort to look at the world around me. It’s when I discover my best story ideas or have insight about a character’s motivation or behavior. There’s a lot more than meets the eye to watching the rivers flow.

Photo Credit:

“Pittsburgh Dawn” Photograph © 2008 by Dory Adams

Around the Blogosphere:

Good advice from Christina Baker Kline about The Curse of Multitasking at A Writing Life: Notes on Craft and the Creative Process. She truly nails it with this: “But writing is not about keeping the balls in the air. It’s about letting them drop. To unspool a story is to inhabit a different space altogether. You have to let the world in your head grow until it becomes more important than the world you inhabit. You have to calm your heartbeat, slow your skipping brain, become comfortable with silence. You have to accept that you will get nothing done except this one thing – this one paragraph or page or, perhaps, on a good day, a chapter – and possibly not even that.”

Levi Asher at Literary Kicks maps fiction In Gatsby’s tracks: Locating the Valley of Ashes in a 1924 Photo

Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer offers a belated 100th birthday to social documentary photographer Milton Rogovin with Milton is 100! More about Rogovin’s lifetime of photography can be found at Milton Rogovin’s website.

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

We Need Your Vote!

Misko Kranjec’s photo essay “Lens and Pen as Mirrors” posted at In This Light last November is a nominee for the 3 Quarks Daily 2010 Arts & Literature Prize. You can vote to determine the semi-finalists until March 7th. The editors at 3 Quarks Daily will then choose the finalists in the next round. The three winners will be chosen by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. To see the details and full list of nominees, please vote here. Help us get the word out to others so that they can vote too.

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