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CMN Announces Winners of 2023 Justice & Mercy Poetry Contest

CMN is pleased to announce the winners of the second annual Justice & Mercy Poetry Contest for Young Catholics: Tara Thayer, Margaux Mayeux, and Grace Przywara.

The awardees were chosen by a Selection Committee of five passionate and insightful advocates for justice: a death row exoneree, a former English teacher now working at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and three poets — one of them recently released after spending 21 years in prison.

The winning poems were chosen from a collection of breathtaking entries written by young Catholics from 18 different states. Each piece, unique in style, point of view, and emphasis, conveyed the same truth: there is nothing just about the death penalty.

First Place: “Bradley” by Tara Thayer

headshot of Tara Thayer

Tara Thayer, a 21-year-old recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame, who is now completing a year of service with Jesuit Volunteer Corps in San Diego, won first place for her powerful poem, “Bradley.”

The narrator of “Bradley” tells the chilling story of the day he “killed a man” on behalf of the state as a prison official conducting a lethal injection. The poem compels the reader to consider the ripple effects of harm that extend far beyond the execution chamber: “Eye for eye, life for life / I ask myself if justice is meant to feel like this.”

Read: “Bradley,” First-Place Poem

Second Place: “Made from Clay” by Margaux Mayeux

Margaux Mayeux headshot

Margaux Mayeux, an 18-year-old Louisiana native who will be attending Louisiana Tech University next fall, was honored with second place for her poem, “Made from Clay.”

This poem, written from the perspective of someone facing execution, questions the contradiction between the inherent human dignity granted to each person by God, and the value of a life that is determined by the legal system.

“I am a man- / made from clay. / Made by God- / they don’t see it that way.”

One member of the selection committee, who was exonerated from death row, underlined how “Made from Clay” resonated deeply with their experience. “All the words and language spoken during my trial proceedings [were ones] that I didn’t understand,” they recalled. “I was a child when my case happened. I was lost on everything they were saying except: killer, my name, death sentence and prison. That poem tells a story.”

Read: “Made from Clay,” Second-Place Poem

Third Place: “Possibility” by Grace Przywara

headshot of Grace

And winning third place, for her poem, “Possibility,” was Grace Przywara, a 28-year-old stay-at-home mother from South Carolina.

“Possibility” recognizes the similarities between an executed man, Vernon, and the narrator — both poets. The poem evokes the question, What would Vernon’s life have been like if it hadn’t been ended by the state? 

“Texas says that a deliberate crime / and a future threat must merit / death. Close that book, no matter / what chapters could come next.” 

Read: “Possibility,” Third Place-Poem

The selection committee additionally recognized three poets with Honorable Mentions.

Read: Honorable Mention Poems

The written word has the power to transform hearts and minds, as these and all the other young poets who entered this year’s contest have shown. CMN hopes that their words will reach wide and far, inspiring other young adults to lift their voices in opposition to the death penalty.

Together, these young adults beg us to answer the question that Grace Przywara’s poem concludes with: “What do we gain with this loss?”

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