Maine poet Lee Sharkey won the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize on Thursday at an award ceremony in Dublin, Ireland, for a poem about her husband’s dementia that the judge described as “something true and hot of life.”

“Letter to Al” was chosen from thousands of entries to win the prestigious 10,000 euro prize (about $10,725) in a contest run by The Moth arts and literature magazine. Sharkey, 72, attended the ceremony with her husband, Al Bersbach, 71, and read her poem along with three other finalists before learning that she had won.

“I fell hard and fast for this poem – its headlong music, its restlessness of heart, its heat,” the lone judge, Deborah Landau, told The Irish Times. Landau is an award-winning poet and director of creative writing at New York University.

“The form allows for obsessive circling of the poem’s subjects – the intersection of history and personal history, passion, loss, the passage of time – and the result is prismatic and spellbinding,” Landau said. “Here is something true and hot of life.”

This is just the latest award for Sharkey, a retired University of Maine at Farmington professor who has published 11 books, including last year’s “Walking Backwards,” a collection of poems on the Jewish experience throughout history. A former Vienna resident who now lives in Portland, Sharkey also leads a creative writing workshop for adults recovering from mental illness and is senior editor of the esteemed Beloit Poetry Journal.

“I’m deeply grateful to have been awarded the Ballymaloe Poetry Prize and for the opportunity it has given me and my family to visit Ireland,” Sharkey said at the ceremony. “Because my poem concerns the effects of dementia on my marriage, the award has a strong personal significance for me. I hope ‘Letter to Al’ invites others into a world too little explored in contemporary literature.”

Before flying to Dublin this week, Sharkey said she had never entered a contest until she wrote “Letter to Al” last summer during a weeklong retreat at the Hewnoaks Artist Colony on Kezar Lake in Lovell. This poem was different, both for its personal importance and its relatively rare subject matter.

“It was a poem that wanted to come out,” she said, “but I had avoided writing it because I knew it was going to be painful and I thought it was going to be a bit of a betrayal of Al to write it.”

Diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment in 2010, Bersbach is a retired computer specialist who has a doctorate in high energy physics. He said “Letter to Al” allowed him to connect with his wife’s poetry in a way he never had before.

“This poem really moved me,” Bersbach said. “After a while. It took some time to understand it.”

Runner-up prizes of 1,000 euros each went to Katie Hale of England, Greg Geis of Texas and C. Mikal Oness of Minnesota.

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