By Edwin B. Smith
Beth Ann Fennelly (left) distinguished professor of English at the University of Mississippi and former Mississippi poet laureate, recently won first place in the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest. She is congratulated by Ellie Black, an Ole Miss doctoral student in English who placed second in the national competition. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services
University of Mississippi English professor Beth Ann Fennelly and doctoral student Ellie Black have taken the top prizes in the 22nd annual Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest, sponsored by Winning Writers.
Fennelly, distinguished professor of English, won first prize and $2,000 for her comedic poem “Epistle to My Lord Concerning My Sons’ Future Spouses.” Besides the cash prize, she gets a two-year gift certificate for the services at Duotrope, the contest’s co-sponsor.
This was the first time Fennelly had entered the competition.
“It was a fun surprise to see this poem get recognized,” said Fennelly. “I’ve used more humor in my writing as I’ve gotten older, but I’ve never considered myself a ‘humor poet.’”
Fennelly said the inspiration behind her poem was feeding her sons.
“I love to cook and they love to eat,” she said. “My oldest son will be going off to college before long, and that’s made me reflect on the fact that my years of being their primary source of gustatory delight are coming to an end.
“In fact, one day – if they find partners – they will likely eat many more meals prepared by the partner than by me. Of course, that’s natural and wonderful, but I had fun in this poem indulging in a little petty jealousy.”
The second prize of $500 went to Black, of Oxford, for “On Being the Glamorous Blonde Villain from All Those Nineties Kids’ Movies.” Her poem pokes fun at familiar movie tropes while critiquing how society indoctrinates the next generation into mistrusting independent women.
Although Fennelly is Black’s thesis director, she didn’t know that Black had also entered the contest.
“Winning was great, but even better than winning was discovering my fabulous and very talented student had won second prize,” she said.
Black said she entered the competition on a whim.
“I had actually never even heard of this contest before I submitted,” Black said. “I stumbled across it online, on a list of poetry contests with no submission fee. First time’s the charm, I guess.”
Black said movies she watched as a child were the inspiration behind her winning entry.
“Around Halloween 2019, I watched the 1995 version of ‘Casper,’in which the primary antagonist is a businesswoman with a blonde bob very similar to my own hair,” she said. “(This) made me consider how many other movies and TV shows I loved as a kid in which the villain was a woman with that exact haircut.”
Black said she wrote a few lines from the perspective of an invented character like these women, then put them away and forgot about it for a couple years. She returned to the poem in 2021 while working on her Master of Fine Arts thesis, a book that includes many other poems about pop culture and unlikeable or complicated women.
“I had no idea I’d placed second to Beth Ann until she saw the press release and texted me to tell me,” Black said. “I’m so excited and honored to have placed alongside Beth Ann, who has been a dedicated mentor and advocate for me since I was accepted into the M.F.A. program four years ago – and whose winning poem is absolutely killer.”
Jendi Reiter, final judge of the Wergle Flomp contest, said Fennelly’s and Black’s wins make Oxford the “humor poetry capital of the America.”
“The difference between winners and almost-winners often came down to the originality of the subject matter,” Reiter said. “With sybaritic imagery and delicate hypocrisy, the praying mother in this poem nurtures her sons with one hand and claws back their autonomy with the other.”
Reflecting on the humorous spirit of the contest, Black said she found the dual wins hilarious.
“Among 6,000 total contest submissions, what are the odds?” she said. “Oxford ladies represent. I think it goes to show just how strong our creative writing programs are here at the University of Mississippi.”