Pen Is Mightier

Local book of King Arthur-inspired poems wins literary prize.

By Michael Yockel - February 2014

Shelley Puhak wins Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize

Local book of King Arthur-inspired poems wins literary prize.

By Michael Yockel - February 2014

Shelley Puhak -Photo by Sean Scheidt

A few pages into her new poetry collection, Guinevere in Baltimore, Shelley Puhak drops her first local reference: “O say, can you see?—from 95 North, the swath of city from stadium to incinerator smokestack.” That poem, “Lancelot, En Route, Stopping Off at Fort McHenry,” not only unmistakably establishes the Baltimore setting, but also introduces the third-wheel member of the troubled love triangle at the core of her book, a modern-day take on the venerable Arthurian legend.

Winner of the eighth annual Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, Guinevere in Baltimore unspools as a linked series, with King Arthur recast as the cuckolded CEO of an overseas shipping corporation; Queen Guinevere as his adulterous, ennui-ridden wife; and self-doubting Sir Lancelot as the firm’s top salesman, Arthur’s best buddy, and Guinevere’s lover. Puhak deftly nestles the trio into a landscape of Baltimore landmarks (Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, The Walters Art Musuem, Fells Point wharf) and history (Great Fire of 1904).

“I was inspired by the medieval troubadours’ use of love stories to explore political and economic themes,” explains Puhak, a professor of English at Notre Dame of Maryland University. “I was also looking for a legend that contained within it the seeds of its own destruction.”

Via her three principals, she conveys that tragedy both personally and professionally, characterizing the poems’ overarching theme as “an examination of selling out, of settling. It’s also an exploration of how the metaphors we use change the arguments we have.”

Puhak lives in Catonsville with her husband and their 6-year-old son. Her poems evince an intimate knowledge of Baltimore, its streets, buildings, and sensibility. “Baltimore offered me concrete evidence for how ideas and biases are etched onto landscapes,” she says. “I’m drawn to how layered it is: asphalt over cobblestone, bike lane over old streetcar rails.”





You May Also Like


The Chatter

Red Bull Amaphiko Festival Returns to Baltimore in August

The three-day event will feature live performances and workshops to celebrate social innovation.

Arts & Culture

Music Reviews: July 2018

The latest from the High & Wides and ​Lafayette Gilchrist & The New Volcanoes.

Food & Drink

A Day in Annapolis

Just a stone’s throw from Baltimore, our state capital is a great day trip getaway for everything.


Arts & Culture

Learning to Thrive

A new zine uses its pages to empower and heal.

Arts District

Roberto Lugo Taps into Personal and Collective History in Work at The Walters Art Museum

The ceramic artist will present an interactive performance piece inside the Walters' new 1 West Mount Vernon Place.

Arts District

Culture Club: Cirque du Soleil, Sondheim Finalists, John Lingan, and Artscape

Our monthly roundup of openings, events, and news from the art world.

Shelley Puhak -Photo by Sean Scheidt

Connect With Us

Most Read


Scalawags Pit Meat Brings Barrel-Smoked Barbecue to Local Pop-Ups: Gnocco general manager Sam White launches a pit beef project.

Bike Share Stations Out and Dockless Bicycles and Scooters In: Struggling bike share program cancelled as City shifts to new technologies.

Social Media Creates More Accessibility in the Art World: Platforms like Instagram provide all patrons a front row seat to art exhibits.

Center Stage Names Stephanie Ybarra as New Artistic Director: With an interest in social justice and inclusivity, Ybarra will come to Baltimore from New York's Public Theater this fall.

Where to Find the Best Co-Working Spaces in Baltimore: Find free parking, complimentary coffee, and even child care at these shared spaces around town.