SANFORD - All the way back to high school, Clare Hayes found her voice in creative writing. This past spring, one of her works earned an honorable mention for The Sherry Pruitt Award at the North Carolina Poetry Society and a reading at their annual awards presentation.
Hayes was inspired to compose "Nine," a vivid, touching memory of her dog's last days, while sifting through some childhood photos. The two-stanza poem opens with the poet and her companion walking through a warm, autumn scene and diving into a pile of leaves. It concludes with an image of his face and how it reminded her of "the freshly fallen snow that covered him the following winter."
"I wanted to start it out as an innocent memory and then coming to terms with the death of that memory," Hayes recalls. "I wanted to capture how you don't see what's coming when you're a kid -- and then it happens and you're left with nothing. It's coming to terms with the first real death of someone you love and cherished. Something's missing in your life and you can't get it back."
Hayes didn't have any intention of entering her poem in the annual contest for student writers until her teacher, Ty Stumpf, made the suggestion. After the poem was submitted, she didn't expect to hear anything at all.
Stumpf had more confidence in his student. The Central Carolina Community College instructor and humanities chair thought the poem worked both technically and emotionally. Emotionally because Hayes managed to recount a highly personal memory and connect with people who weren't there. Technically because a short poem so subtle and quiet -- one that moves from sharply descriptive images to soft reflective moments -- isn't easy to accomplish.
"As poets, we can handle big emotions," Stumpf says. "But when we take a small moment and reflect on that, that can be hard."
Writing hasn't always been easy for Hayes, an experience she shares with many writers. She set out on the path in high school, when she discovered she enjoyed making up stories in English class and was pretty good, too.
Then came a long, tough period when she didn't write at all. She always had ideas, but didn't put pen to paper until she started taking a class with local poet Judy Hogan, which awakened the author inside. Poetry led to short stories, something she finds particularly challenging and rewarding.
Stumpf believes his student has the dedication and outlook needed to overcome the obstacles any writer faces. "She's open to new things," is the first quality he mentions. "That may seem like a small thing, but many writers very quickly find their voice and simply stick with that. Clare is willing to try new things, and that's hard to teach people to do."
Hayes is encouraged by her mentor's assessment.
"I have a lot of ideas. I always have ideas, but I'm not always sure how to put them down on paper," she says. "I'm a work in progress."
My sheltie looked at me with black marble eyes
and herded me along,
never straying from my side.
The golden sunshine warmed us
as I took in the fiery colors of autumn
that stained the trees.
The carefully raked pile of leaves beckoned us.
My loyal pup and I dove in the crisp foliage
and burrowed deep,
listening to the sound of our pulses
and smelling the dry soil.
I held onto my dog.
We were both nine,
but he was wise beyond his years.
The white of his snout
was as soft
as the freshly fallen snow
that covered him
the following winter.
Clare Hayes enjoyed success this past spring, when one of her works earned an honorable mention for The Sherry Pruitt Award at the North Carolina Poetry Society and a reading at their annual awards presentation.