It’s such a pleasure to award prizes, thank you to the organisers for inviting me to judge this one and for all their hard work organising it. My process started with a treasure hunt through almost fifteen hundred entries, a trawl that lasted weeks. The general standard was very high so I read carefully, not wanting to miss a masterpiece in a style that I might not instantly recognise. Would the winner do things I don’t even know a poem can do and would I spot it? Judging competitions makes me aware of my limitations as a poet so I was extra vigilant.
A fair number of entrants seemed to have submitted multiple entries, over twenty in some cases, or at least I thought I recognised a run of styles and fonts, but the work was anonymous which made it all the more intriguing. All I had to go on was the poem. There were so many good ones that went into the long-list that the next stage of judging was hard going. I had to ask myself: is this a potential winner? If the poem remained magical for me after several readings it made the shortlist. But I only had seven prizes to give, so once I’d narrowed them down to twenty it became even harder. The poems that made the final cut now had to compete for three main prizes.
The one that rose to the top was ‘Kigali’ by Andrew Soye. This astonishing sonnet reminded me of an installation I’d seen at the Musée de la Chasse in Paris. That piece had featured a hawk and a dove, connected by a flash of neon in a dark room, symbolising the reconciliation of raptor and prey. ‘Kigali’ miraculously seems to do that – merge the predator/prey relationship of a sparrowhawk and dove. In this poem the image symbolises the horror of the Rwandan genocides, when Tutsi were rounded up in churches and massacred, but it also offers us a “blessing / like slow-motion confetti, like snow”. The poem places this devastating image at the sonnet turn, where the sparrowhawk attacks a dove above the wedding of “hope and despair”, and the final slow-motion fall of feathers is chilling but also transformative – horrific violence become revelatory art.
The second prize-winner, ‘Cigar’, by Grevel Lindop, came a very close second. This exquisitely textured poem contains ‘crushed spirals’ of pleasure. From the first reading I felt in sure hands, surprised, as each stanza unfurled, not only by the gorgeous images, but by the delicious sounds, “brittle / and crisp as a chrysalis”. The poem taught me the history of the Cuban cigar, and how to write on myths about the tobacco god. I’d encountered some myths about this god on my own travels in Latin America, but Grevel’s description of him “with scarlet plumage / and mother-of-pearl eyes” with his four attendants, conjures him lucidly. The whole poem seems made of cigar leaves, fire and coloured smoke, swirling on the page.
‘Shibboleth’, the third prize-winner, by Jo Bell, is a very different kind of poem, not so airy, much more earthy, but it too ends in fire, with its stunning ending that made me gasp each time I read it. The whole poem works towards that incandescent finale, of a stopped river and “ me / naked on the bank in flames”. Even in the first stanza there’s a fiery edge to the sexy down-to-earth-ness, as the lovers talk about their shibboleths of secret names.
The four equal fourth prize-winning poems were close contenders for the main prizes.
I loved ‘blue whale’ by Caroline Carver, for the inventiveness of the descriptions, the fresh sonic imagery of whales erupting from the ocean “like a burst of geese”. There’s a generous, almost Les Murray-like expansiveness to the list of attributes, with an underlying sadness about the plight of these creatures, but the poem remains upbeat: “why tell him he’s as long as a football pitch? / his ‘fields’ reach skywards.”
‘Night and the Song of the Light on the River’ by Daisy Behagg is full of lyrical grace. This lyric paints a night cityscape on a river with the barest of brushstrokes. The impressionistic light has “each nerve molten”. I felt as if I was learning a new way of looking, and of thinking – this is poetry at its most elemental and spellbinding.
‘Pinochet’s Orphan by Lindsay Fursland, like ‘Kigali’, takes on a dark theme, this time about the brutal Chilean dictator Pinochet, but it’s more personal, told in the voice of one of Pinochet’s orphans. The orphan becomes an astronomer, and it’s this juxtaposition of the search for lost parents with the search for stars, “raking the dark like a sniper taking aim”, that manages such a huge and difficult subject with consummate skill.
The surreal extravaganza of ‘Piano Lessons for Adults’ by Claudine Toutoungi is a tour-de-force. A child swallows a piano and resonates with all the sounds of the world. Claudine manages to pull off this unlikely scenario with a few realistic touches and much bravado, ending with the stunning line: “Nothing inside, but resonance, tremulous and / not one string is false”.