Winners of the #DignityNotDetention Poetry Prizes 2019

Poetry@Tech, Detainee Allies, and Poetry International are delighted to share the results of the Dignity Not Detention Prize. When we began this project, we had no idea how widely it would reach into the world: poets from three continents sent work for consideration. The winners, runners-up, and finalists include a broad range of poets: some are widely published, and have received such prestigious honors as the Yale Younger Poets Award, the Pushcart Prize, a Poet Laureateship, and Best American Poetry anthology publications, while others have never been published before.

Judge Ilya Kaminsky was so impressed that he chose two winners for each prize category. These categories are: the Detainees’ Prize, open to detainees at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, California, and the Outside Prize, open anyone currently living outside of detention. Here are the winners and his thoughts on each entry.

It’s an incredibly moving and humbling experience to hold in one’s hands these poems from refugees detained on US borders, to read them and read them again. I was so touched by the honesty and clarity of these voices that it seemed obvious that there should be at least two winners and several runners up and finalists—one wants to encourage as many poets as possible—especially those who find themselves in such a difficult situation, especially when all of it is created unjustly, by our unjust government, in our name – Ilya Kaminsky.

To read the winning poems and the winning poet bios, click on the titles. Scroll down for a full list of runners-up, finalists, their bios and Ilya Kaminsky’s comments on each.

Co-winners of the Detainees’ Prize

 Untitled (Am I an Immigrant) by Daniel B., translated by Daniella Kim

An honest voice, set to music, touches the heart. I admired the use of incantation in this poem, as well as its use of symbolism; the elegant simplicity of a letter from one person to the world.

My Nation by Marlon R S

 “My nation has a people with a deportation order” this poet writes, and the directness and openness of its tone impacts us. Knowing the context of this poet’s dire condition gives additional power to the final lines: “lend my people a hand.” It is impossible not to be touched by this.

Co-winners of the Outside Prize

What Welcome Feels Like   by Dayna Patterson

This poem is beautifully made, with refrains, memorable images, strong music. But it is the combination of imagery and emotion that finally sways me, a voice that’s tender and yet bold: “I would wash you with the softest words I know.”

plans  by K. Eltinaé

Lullabies. Wailing Songs. Spells. Those were our species’ first poems. I love how this poem weaves a spell, conjuring something into being, making the impossible feel possible: “Sometimes if you look / hard enough at something it will bloom in your eyes & / make countries for refugees no one took in.”

Runners-up for the Detainees’ Prize



You help me, I help you / We help each other.  / Thou shalt love thy / neighbor as thyself”

The poet takes the Biblical aphorism and makes it a refrain, giving it a new life. Even in a camp, even in captivity, help thy neighbor, the poet says. Indeed.

Originally from Honduras, Jose Luis HL is no longer in ICE detention. His location is unknown.


The directness of tone coupled with the litany of repetition impacts the reader’s apprehension of the piece, making the terrifying landscape that surrounds this poet clear: “I’d like to breathe again  / the fresh countryside air  / and leave this nightmare behind / not hear any more screams nor see / angry faces.” This plea, this prayer, reaches us here, shows us what is being done in our name.

Originally from Guatemala, Esperanza SR, who is bilingual in Kiche’ and Spanish, is currently detained at Otay Mesa Detention Center.


This brief poem packs a lot in just four lines: symbolic, direct and nuanced in the way the sentence extends itself across the four lines. Knowing the context of where this poem was written, and to whom it is dedicated, adds an additional meaning, an additional emotional weight.

Originally from Cuba, Rene HW is currently detained at Otay Mesa Detention Center.


This poem’s dynamics, starting with “enemy” and ending with “friends” is skillful, and its tone–“my days – without fortune – will be tranquil”–is both wise and moving.

Originally from Honduras, Javier Absalon HO is currently detained at Otay Mesa Detention Center.


I came with immense expectations / hoping to find safety and better life, / instead I am trapped in immigration” this poet writes, in a ballad-like story of their life, a chronicle of injustice, a song of dispossession. This song about judges “who refuse to believe narratives” is as compelling as it is terrifying.

Originally from Africa, EM is currently detained at Otay Mesa Detention Center.


This mysterious, spiritual piece is compelling and calm. Given the context of where it is written, this open voice is both admirable and touching. The voice of this poem— intimate, direct— contains a mystery to which a reader will relate.

 Originally from Mexico, Antonio MC is no longer in ICE detention. He is presumed deported.


Senay T
Keness F M
Marcel V L
Luis F H M
Akum A H
Luini G O / preferred name Violet

Runners-up and Finalists for the Outside Prize


FOR A SOUL WITH BREATH by Tamra Carraher

Sometimes a successful narrative poem creates its own lyricism, its music. But at other times—far more rarely—a lyric poem can use imagery to create a dwelling space so nuanced one can recognize the story behind it. This poem has such a light-touch it “shimmers like a fish,” and yet there is a great deal of gravitas behind all its music. How so? Perhaps because the poet is able to find precisely the right balance between the intimacy of two people, and the larger scope of our collective history.

Tamra Carraher is the editor of Alexandria Quarterly. Her work has appeared in Talisman, The Penn Review, and Literary Mama.

MATTHEW 18:10 by Laura Jarocha

Reading this, one is also reminded of Auden’s famous poem about a dictator, “September 1, 1939.” One is reminded of Marquez’s great novels. How much is done here in just two lines: “He once put babies in cages, / and now it’s God he faces.”

Laura Jarocha lives in Orchard Park, NY.

ENOUGH? by Pippa Little

Clarity is the deepest mystery, Mahmoud Darwish once said. Indeed. This poem’s political vision is clear, but its precision also guides us towards tenderness. This kind of duality allows the act of welcome to happen on the level of language itself. I love this poem’s voice and its tonalities.

Pippa Little is a Scots poet who currently lives in Northern England and works as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at New Castle University. She is the author of two poetry collections and volunteer fundraiser for RAICES


Often when we read poetry, we fall in love with it because the medium itself becomes the message. This is the case here. The poem’s longish sentences sway the reader, and allow the music of syntax itself to become the message. The incantation, the repetitions, drew me in. Beautiful.

Jed Myers is the author of two poetry collections and winner of several literary awards, including Edna St. Vincent Millay Poetry Prize.

HEART by Kyle Pritz

It’s so hard to write a narrative poem that also sings to its own music. This is exactly what this poem is doing, to my mind. I was pleased to see how the line-breaks, especially, turned the story into a song.

Kyle Pritz left U.S. Marines in 2012 as a conscientious objector. He currently lives in Brooklyn.


Innovation is especially effective in poetry when a new form is created because older forms cannot communicate the poet’s message. “There are children in cages cutting wings into their arms throwing pretend aluminum furniture at faces blocked by chain-link fences. And I am watching this unfold from my phone” this poet writes. The innovative, symphonic music of this hybrid is impactful, memorable.

V. Ruiz is a Queer Xicana bruja, writer, and artist living in Las Vegas, Nevada. Their debut is In Stories We Thunder (Sundress Publications, 2022)


HEY ALEXANDRA by Moncho Alvarado

This poem’s epistolary form gives a perfect shape to its compelling, disarming tonalities: “Hey Alexandra, when I die, plant me into a guava tree in front of my family’s house.”

Moncho Alvarado is Latinx queet poet, translator, visual artist and educator. They have received fellowships and residencies from Lambda Literary, Poets House, and The Helen Wurlitzer Foundation.

WAS AMERICA EVER…? By Yvonne Blomer

This poem’s free verse divided into couplets formally recreates the stroll the poet takes along the avenues of the country that is, supposedly, free. The imagery and syntax come together to tell us a very different story.

Yvonne Blomer is the author of three books of poetry and one memoir. In 2017, she edited the anthology Refugium: Poems for the Pacific. In 2015-2018, she served as the Poet Laureate of the city of Victoria, British Columbia.


This intricate, gorgeous lyric shares a memory that is both urgent and lyrical; it teaches us that “Greening is grief too, you times two.”

Elena Karina Byrne is the author of four books of poetry. Her work has been published in POETRY, The Paris Review, Denver Quarterly and many other publications. Her poetry has been awarded the Pushcart Prize, and has been included into Best American Poetry.

WHAT TO DO IN THE RAIN by Danielle Hanson

The cento, an age-old form, is given new voice is this brief lyric, wherein the speaker addresses a the great refugee poet, Paul Celan, with his own words, and in a way that is both memorable and revealing: “Where has the day gone? / It is time the stone / made an effort to flower.”

Danielle Hanson is the author of two collections of poetry. She is the Poetry Editor for Doubleback Books and is on the staff of the Atlanta Review.


Sometimes you discover a voice strong enough to woo you: you would follow this voice anywhere. This bold personal pronoun that creates its own myth: “I am from the country you don’t care / to know name of. / I am the people you extinguish.” I found the way this strong voice was coupled with imagery and evocative language to be particularly evocative.

Dyana Lopez is currently a high school student. Originally from El Salvador, she has been living in the United States for the past five years. Prior to that, she was a detained in immigration centers.

I CAME TO VISIT MY FRIEND by Alejandro Martinez

This poem’s formal patterning and imagery make a real impact in recreating the speaker’s experience of visiting a friend in a detention center. The poetic devices make that experience real to the reader.

Alejandro Martinez is a Chicano poet from South Bay San Diego, who was raised on both sides of the border, transiting from Tijuana to San Diego for school. Currently, Martinez teaches photography at The AjA Project in San Diego.

EVACUATED by Nicholas Samaras

“As one expects of a lyric poet,” Louise Gluck once wrote, “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” Indeed. Here, the poem finds apt music for depicting childhood, or memories of childhood, in immigration; of childhood “stitched through countries / like tattered herringbone coats.” This memorable language weaves in both heartbreak and tenderness: “Dispossession / is a couplet for a child who tiptoes through his waking.”

Nicholas Samaras was born in Greece and was evacuated in 1967, after Junta Dictatorship takeover. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Poetry, New York Times, and other publications. He won The Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for his first collection, Hands of the Saddlemaker.

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