Arts & Culture

Pen Is Mightier

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

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

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.”

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