Adjudication Report for the 2012 Open Poetry Competition

Kent & Sussex Poetry Competition April 2012

Our 2012 First Prize Winner, Jemma Borg.


Adjudication Report – Mimi Khalvati


It was a pleasure to judge the Kent & Sussex Poetry Competition again this year – I was a judge many years ago, and have always been impressed by the standard of poetry achieved by members of the Kent & Sussex Poetry Society. Although this was an open competition, I think the overall high level of entries reflects the Society’s reputation and the years of serious work that have produced so many good poets.

I was surprised by the number of formal poems submitted, including a few ghazals – this might be because I write in these schemes myself – and found this encouraging, as for many years formal poetry has been less in favour and has laboured under misapprehensions.  But it seems the tide has turned and poets are increasingly turning back to forms, inventing new ones, or reinvigorating the old.  However, all the prizewinning and runners-up poems this year were in free verse, which seems to prove how very difficult it is to write well in rhyme and metre, particularly metre.

Among the over 800 entries, there was much to like and to admire, but for a prizewinning poem, everything needs to come together at the same time: tone, idiom, syntax; emotional and intellectual power, imaginative freedom and control.  Many otherwise strong contenders slipped away – perhaps the lineation was inert, the closure too pat, the research too apparent, the linguistic interest over-reliant on high jinks or betraying strain at some point.

But my shortlist was in fact quite a long list: it proved extremely difficult to whittle it down to seven, so many deserving a place, and so little to choose between them.  The final prizewinning poems were all immediately arresting, assured, surprising in the revelatory way that good poems are, and in their own ways unusual.

Jemma Borg’s ‘The Way of the Cross’ and ‘Drawing the Ladder’ won joint first prize. They are stunning poems and I loved them both.  For sheer musicality, ‘The Way of the Cross’, sang out from its very first lines. It is a poem about song, sound becoming song, song becoming landscape, landscape yielding a spiritual, almost religious experience.  And as such, the poem enacts its subject and transforms it finally into silence. Reading it, I knew without a doubt that I was in the presence of a singular poet, one who takes risks, who has immaculate control in timing and shaping the verse, who can think intelligently in poetry and express imaginative awe.

‘Drawing the Ladder’, a much shorter poem, is as substantial.  The precision of the sensory images and observation, the metaphorical power, the classical diction and emotional honesty, all struck me with force.  Many congratulations to Jemma, for these two beautiful poems.

‘Lunette’ by Jenny Lewis won second prize, and was close on the heels of Jemma’s poems.  I loved the conceit of this poem – using dictionary definitions of the title word and expounding on them in three short parts, but this is a conceit that could have gone horribly wrong.  Instead, the way each part circles back on itself while also interconnecting with the other elements, as if by accident and not design, is remarkable.  There is both richness in the language and restraint. The syntax is wonderfully supple and allows the train of thought and association to bend every which way.  And best of all, the poem transcends its own conceit and seems to rise on a vertical axis towards that transcendence. This is also a poem that shows an intense and informed love of language and its own diction is both scintillating and plain. Congratulations to Jenny on such an original and achieved conception.

‘Turkish Delight’ by Paul Stephenson is the third prizewinner.  The conceit of this poem is built on the use of anaphora, the repetition of the phrase “What you do” at several points of the poem, beautifully judged.  At the outset, we know that the poem is about the imminent last days or hours of someone close to the speaker, perhaps a father, but the extremity of the situation is dealt with consummate tact.  Whereas a poem like Sharon Old’s ‘The Race’, dealing with a similar situation, is explicit in its tension and drama, this is a much quieter poem, full of emotional undercurrents, but understated, dwelling instead on all the material objects the eye or mind falls on during the journey to get there in time, the waiting and helplessness.  The anaphora here performs a vital function as it embodies the inner panic, the sense of urgency, driving the poem to its conclusion.  And it is a marvellous, unexpected gasp of a closure.  Congratulations to Paul on a sensitive, honest and moving poem.

And many congratulations to the four runners-up.  Edward Doegar’s love poem ‘As if from the Sanskrit’ I found totally fresh and delightful, inflected by another culture as it is, and bringing into the language these delicate approaches to the lyric we are in danger of losing.  Kim Moore’s ‘Hartley Street Spiritualist Church’ made me laugh every time I read it.  The matter-of-fact tone and deceptively casual diction are very clever and the poem is perfectly shaped and controlled, the lineation heightening both the momentum and local effects. Kay Syrad’s ‘Sister’s Lament’ is possibly the strangest of all the poems, and a little more experimental.  But I also found it poignant and memorable, and admired its daring.  Lydia Fulleylove’s ‘At the Top of the House’ is one of those poems that work almost by the sheer verve of its syntax alone.  What a wonderfully spiralling mimetic staircase of a sentence it is, the poem never losing its footing, while retaining a sense of mystery and suspense. Many congratulations to all the runners-up and to everyone who entered the competition with so many enjoyable poems.  And my warm thanks to the Kent & Sussex Poetry Society for the pleasure of judging this year’s competition.

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