Some advice for would-be poets: Judge’s Report, Glen Phillips Poetry Prize 2012

When the Peter Cowan Writers Centre asked me to be the judge for their recent poetry competition, I was pleased, but a bit hesitant. I don’t often enter poetry competitions because choosing one poem as the ‘best’ from a whole field of entries seems kind of arbitrary. But I’m always up for a new experience, and they wanted me to commend twelve poems altogether, so I agreed. Besides, getting paid to read poems and write about them was too good to pass up. On Sunday I made my way through the rain to Joondalup to present my report and announce the winners. Thanks to Sue, Susan and Pedro of Peter Cowan Writers Centre for a nice lunch and a very enjoyable afternoon.

I believe the poems are to be published in the next few issues of the Centre’s members’ e-newsletter.

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If my count is correct there were 348 entries. Reading them all was fun, like exploring a new English-speaking city: at first it seems familiar but it soon reveals quite a few surprises.

Several times I recognised a poem from a reading or workshop, but rarely did I remember who’d written it. When I did, it was difficult to be objective and judge the poem without thinking about the poet, but I did my best.

126 of the entries went into the reject pile on the first reading. I wanted to tell these writers, you are not Keats. Be yourself! Stop trying to be ‘poetic’: it isn’t working. Listen to your own 21st-century voice and write down its words. In many cases I wanted to shout, for heaven’s sake, drop the rhyme! It’s crippling you! Rhyme can be entertaining; rhyme can increase the impact of a poem by highlighting and unifying ideas. But it must be done skilfully or it’s a fast-track to dreadfulness. If your idea of a poem is a string of clichés with lame or painful rhymes at the line-ends, you’d be better off to spend your entry-fee money on…

poetry books! If you want to be taken seriously as a poet, read widely. Familiarise yourself with all the ways in which poetry has been written during the past 50 years or so, and let this cornucopia of styles influence you. Perhaps start with a recent anthology aimed at students. A ‘poet’ who doesn’t read new poetry is like a ‘painter’ who never goes near a gallery.

118 entries went into the ‘meh’ pile. These poems were reasonably well-written and often expressed worthwhile ideas, but lacked the ‘X-factor’, the ‘grab’, the originality or depth to draw me back for a second and third reading.

52 entries went into the ‘frustrating’ pile — poems that contained some original ideas or language but were not well-written enough to shortlist. I felt like writing to each of these poets individually to say, you’ve got something! Keep writing! Keep reading! Go to workshops!

52 poems were interesting enough for a second look. At this stage my left brain wanted to help with the judging, so I made a spreadsheet. I gave each poem points for six aspects of specialness — impact, appropriate tone, aesthetic quality, originality, economy of language, depth — and deducted points for weak spots. A numeric sort floated up most of the poems my right brain had already picked. After that it was fairly easy to choose the winners and highly commendeds, but I agonised over the commendeds and the encouragement award. There were about ten more poems I would have liked to commend or encourage! Choosing the overall winner was difficult, too, like looking at the fruit-bowl just before shopping day: there’s one apple, one orange, and a weird tropical thing that no-one’s dared to try. Which has the best flavour? It depends who’s tasting.

Encouragement Award: ‘Poems are gifts’ by Nicholas Langton

The title and first few words of this seem bland, and I find the ending weak, but I really like the imagery and the unforced tone. Poems about writing usually leave me cold but the humour and insight in this one made it stand out. I particularly like ‘languages stumbled across / going round corners’ and ‘pain pinned down / so it cannot spread’. Judging from this small sample, this poet has a good ear: a sensitive mastery of rhythm and linebreak.

Commended

‘Days’ by Keren Gila Raiter

This poem has a hypnotic combination of striking imagery (‘the world is the chain come off my bicycle… hands covered in cuts and black grease’, ‘a big black bear looming over a beetle’) and meditative philosophical exploration; its concerns are both personal and political; and its tone is finely balanced between conversation and cadence.

‘For Jean’ by Jerry Dolan

I like this poem for its effectiveness – it does a great job of showing us, using a natural tone, how it might feel to have Alzheimer’s. It’s refreshing to have a poem on this topic that just describes what’s happening and doesn’t descend into lamentations. The poem is economically written and well-structured, with each stanza exploring one image. I particularly like the sustained metaphor of the birds and mayflies in the first stanza.

‘The Fall’ by Carmel Summers

This poem captures the shock and strangeness of tripping and landing flat, and in doing so asks deep questions about the meaning and nature of aging and death. The voice is authentic and human (‘mid-sentence it happened’, ‘lying there / your foot caught / in an awkward hole’, ‘oomph’).

‘Under the Jacaranda’ by C Millner

This poem is questioning, paradoxical, Zen-like, speaking of both naming and unnaming, of both the individual and her or his human and ecological context. I enjoyed the recalcitrance — the grumpiness! — of part II, where the speaker complains, ‘But I’m down the garden’ and ‘Besides, I’m not finished’. This recalcitrant voice contrasts nicely with the meditative voice of parts I and III.

Highly Commended

‘An ugly convalescence’ by Rafael Scomazzon Ward

This is one of those poems that make you go ‘ewww’! But life can be ‘ewww’, especially for carers, and this poem uses plain-spoken description to make us see, smell and feel the squalor and desperation of not quite coping. The present tense is well-chosen here, evoking a sense of endlessness. This is a really good example of how to ‘show, don’t tell’. Poetic devices are used sparsely but effectively. (By the way, you clean handkerchiefs by soaking them in salty water before you wash them.)

‘Passing Through’ by Giancarla Curtis

I think a poem is a text whose form is at least as important as its content. As the only shaped poem that was submitted, and one of the very few that departed from traditional sentence structure, this poem states that boldly. Like its shape on the page, like the conversation it narrates, this poem is so deceptively simple that it’s difficult to talk about. I read it aloud several times, enjoying the economy of the parataxis, which creates a space, a silence, into which the flower names cascade, and in which the dialogue arises comfortably and naturally.

‘sonnet breathing’ by Kevin Gillam

Reading this poem is like visiting a small gallery of colourful, playful paintings. ‘The shag-piled silence.’ ‘Gills of dawn.’ The rhyme is subtle (‘allemanded… sarabanded’) and the rhythm and patterning are masterful, as they should be in a poem that is about rhythm and pattern. Are we breathing, swimming, dancing, playing the accordion, writing a sonnet, or just coming home, going to bed, getting up and going out?… Yes.

‘They came’ by Rachel Freebury

This poem is an example of how traditional metre can be used effectively and appropriately. The tone is plain and dignified: there is no florid language or thunderous rhyme, no ranting or emoting. The relentless rhythm evokes the driving assault of the colonisers, as does the repetition of ‘They came’. The linebreaks after each ‘They came’ slow down the poem so that it doesn’t become singsong, and, if you read slowly enough, they create a menacing quality.

Third: ‘On Final Things’ by Christopher Race

I love the way this says so much without appearing to say anything at all. One of the poet’s jobs is to record the here-and-now and show us the way our ordinary dailiness connects and contrasts with our wider context, and this poem does that extremely well. The speaker reads the paper and goes out to look at the world, with all its creation and destruction, but is perhaps more concerned about his or her own body and mortality, just as the kookaburra is hunting for its own ‘hot lunch’. Appropriately, this poem’s speaker, even when talking about a ‘they’, is full of ‘I’.

Second: ‘Tenebrae’ by Alison Flett

I thought this was the most beautiful poem that was submitted, and also one of the deepest and most poignant. ‘Tenebrae’ means ‘shadows’ or ‘darkness’. It also refers to a Catholic ritual in which candles were successively extinguished, and I suspect the poet knew that when she chose it as the title of a poem inspired by the rituals of a household at the gradual coming of dusk. The shadows slowly blot out the natural world until we close the curtains on it, leaving us with only the lights and noises of our machines… until we remember and — in a while! not just yet! — part the curtains. At the point of remembering, the poem, appropriately, abandons its tidy mechanical layout to jump around and crisscross the page like the tracks of the nocturnal animals. This poem has a striking precision of imagery — ‘the plain / and purl of their trunks, ribbing the dark’, ‘wi-fi rustling in the folds of our brain’, ‘the spindled / pinpoints / of their insect / legs’ — but the overall tone is restrained and dignified, as befits a poem centred on ritual.

First: ‘Domesticity’ by Jim Murphy

This might be a controversial choice, but I couldn’t resist giving it first prize. It so perfectly renders the flat voice of a long-married and probably retired man* who seems to have forgotten how to feel. He speaks of the dog or cat as if it’s a machine. Its death is merely an inconvenience. He doesn’t care that his book and TV program are mediocre — they’re less of a challenge than talking to his wife. The one-word rhymes thud each stanza closed like a fridge door. The rhymes, and the description of the pet (‘leaking — at both ends!’) add a touch of levity: we suspect the character is quietly having a laugh at himself. The title, ‘Domesticity’, seems to imply that the character thinks this state of affairs is inevitable. The only glimmer of hope comes at the end when he hears his wife saying she has no-one to talk to. We are left to wonder what he — or she! — will do next. The poem is stylishly and economically written: there is nothing missing and nothing superfluous. To put it another way: there’s no bullshit.

 

*OK, this poem could be about a lesbian couple. But I suspect not.

What do you think?