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Minn. woman's poem wins Garrison Keillor's contest

Kristal Leebrick took first place in Garrison Keillor's poetry contest. Photo special to Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- Kristal Leebrick's poem "New Year Love," inspired by her first kiss in junior high school, has won Garrison Keillor's Common Good Books second poetry contest.

Leebrick, who grew up on Grand Forks Air Force Base and attended Minnesota State University Moorhead, read her award-winning poem Sunday during a celebration of poetry in Macalester College's Weyerhaeuser chapel. The event was hosted by Keillor, who owns the bookstore and sponsored the competition, which had a "love poems" theme.

"I certainly didn't see this coming," said Leebrick, who was vacationing in Florida when Keillor left a phone message telling her she'd won the $1,000 prize. "I hadn't written a poem for a long time, but when I read about this contest I thought, 'What the heck. I'm going to do it.' I wrote it just for me, as an exercise to get back into poetry. I knew it was a good poem, but I didn't expect any recognition."

The competition drew 1,100 entries from poets around the country who responded to Keillor's call for "a paean to your favorite person, place or thing."

Learning from the best

Leebrick lives in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul and edits the Park Bugle community newspaper.

"I took a lot of writing classes in college," she said.

As she "wandered through three public universities to get a degree in journalism," she was fortunate to study with poets William Pitt Root at the University of Montana at Missoula and Tom McGrath at MSUM. She also attended the University of North Dakota.

"Tom McGrath was my mentor," she said. "I learned from him how to capture imagery quickly and concisely. He was very encouraging to me."

Leebrick worked at newspapers in North Dakota and Minnesota and wrote four nonfiction books for children as well as "Dayton's: A Twin Cities Institution" about the Minneapolis-based department store.

She and her husband, Don Stryker, have two children.

Although Leebrick said she will probably use her prize to pay for the laptop she just bought, the money isn't as important as her feeling of validation as a winning poet: "I'm so proud of myself."

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

New Year Love

I remember our breath

in the icy air

and how the northern lights gathered

in a haze at the horizon,

spread up past the water tower

then vanished into the dark.

I remember that January night in North Dakota:

We left the dance,

the hoods of our dads' air force parkas zipped tight,

our bare hands pulled into the coat sleeves.

We ran

into the wind

down the drifting sidewalks of our eighth-grade lives

to the brick-and-clapboard row houses on Spruce Street.

We ducked between buildings

and you pulled me close.

A flickering light from someone's TV screen.

A kitchen window.

Your fingers tracing my face.

Your hair brushing my eyes.

Your skin, your lips.

My legs.

My heart.

I remember that January night in North Dakota,

but I can't remember your name.