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2021 photofinish winner: clara bush vadala

We are pleased to announce the winner of our 2021 PhotoFinish is Clara Bush Vadala’s “My friend tells me sheep are the weakest creature” and the runner up is Elizabeth O’Connell-Thompson’s “Hanged for a Lamb.”

Iron Horse Literary Review’s annual PhotoFinish is an invitation for writers to respond to a photo prompt with a well-crafted and very brief ekphrastic work that pushes beyond a literal read of the image we provide. For her entry, Vadala twists the physical details embedded in the original image into a fable-like narrative that reimagines the multiplicity of sheep into a single entity—a feral ram whose own reflection inspires destruction.

When telling us about the origin story of her poem, Vadala wanted to give special thanks to her dear friend and colleague, Dr. Cayley Burleson for the inspiration (and her distaste for sheep). She explained that their shared experiences in veterinary school quickly sparked a running joke between the two about the fragility of sheep compared to many other animals:

“There are lots of different illnesses that affect different species, but some of them carry over between different kinds of animals. It seemed every time there was something that caused fairly benign illness in another animal, a sheep with the same kind of disease was basically a dead one. Many stories of sheep medicine experiences from clinicians and classmates also highlighted things sheep do that are just pretty brainless. For example, when sheep are spooked (which is easily and often) they basically run blind. So, a flock of unshepherded sheep could, in theory, (and have) run off a cliff without someone directing them. They also frequently get stuck in places they can’t get out of because they all run together if one becomes spooked. Wild sheep (like Bighorn Sheep for example) can also potentially die if you chase them too much (capture myopathy), and people who study them have to be careful when collecting data to not run them too hard because of that possibility."

In spite of sheep’s susceptibility to both internal and external threats, as well as her own distaste for the species, Burleson eventually rescued a ram that survived a difficult experience prior his adoption. Vadala recalls Burleson reasoning that his unlikely survival was a sign that he deserved a second chance. This same ram would eventually inspire Vadala’s poem after shattering a window twice after seeing his own reflection in the glass. Vadala says, “I thought of him immediately when I saw the PhotoFinish image, so I knew I had to write about him! I texted her to remind me of his name again and she gave me his amazing full name: Regis Earl Mulberry. I was so excited when I got to tell her, “you know how I asked about your sheep’s name earlier? Well, a poem about him won a contest!”

Clara Bush Vadala is a North Texas poet and veterinarian residing in Van Alstyne, Texas. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Barren Magazine, Okay Donkey, and Lammergeier, among others. She is the author of two collections of poetry: Prairie Smoke: Poems from the Grasslands, and Beast Invites Me In. More of her work can be found on her website ( or by following her on Twitter @doctorVpoetry.


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