Open Competition Judge’s Report 2017
It was a great pleasure and honour to be asked to judge the Kent and Sussex Open Poetry Competition – a competition that has been running for 30 years and to which, this year, over 1400 poems were entered. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who entered one or more poems, because entering a poetry competition is an act of courage; who amongst us enjoys being judged, with the real possibility of being ‘found wanting’? We have done our best, offered up a piece of writing we feel demonstrates not only our original idea and vision, but, perhaps, an actual, raw experience from our lives, as well as our skill with language, our choice of imagery, our knowledge and appreciation of rhythm and cadence…..and yet, very few of us will be publicly rewarded for that effort. So to put our work up for judgement is a risk, and it might be reasonable to ask – why do it? I don’t think it’s because every poet who enters a competition believes they are a genius; I think it’s more to do with a sense of community – we are poets, and poets take risks every time they write: risk being misunderstood, or ignored. But poets will carry on writing poems however few or far between the financial rewards or plaudits; for most poets, the act of writing a poem is an affirmation of their humanity, of their desire to place ‘the best words in the best order.’ So, thank you.
Reading such a large number of poems can’t be done quickly, and my approach was to make sure I had a sufficient supply of tea, and to read each poem twice. In each case, I asked myself – what’s going on here? How does this poem use language, structure, tone and rhythm to reach me – how is this poem challenging me, and what is it teaching me? What fresh insights has it given me about the world? In terms of themes, certain subjects recurred frequently. Many explored death, particularly the deaths of relatives. Painful personal experiences can be difficult to explore in prose/non-fiction, and my feeling is that (with some honourable exceptions, such as the Death Café movement), contemporary Western society hasn’t got its head round encouraging people to talk about death – and so poetry, with its linguistic compression, its quest to find imagery to explore this inevitable but still oddly taboo area, is where many turn to reflect on their experiences and feelings. Other themes that cropped up regularly included difficult, often violent relationships; absolute poverty and homelessness; the plight of refugees; Nature, both benign and ‘red in tooth and claw’; monsters, hybrids and surreal creatures.
My original ‘long list’ contained over 90 poems – poems which intrigued me for a number of reasons; often because I was struck by the originality of the idea, the skilful extension of a metaphor, the evidence not only of craft – but also something less easy to define – I came to think of it as ‘heart’; beyond technical competence, or even excellence; a sense, reading the poem, that the poet absolutely believed in their poem. It wasn’t a technical exercise; it was a necessity. I whittled 90 down to just over 60, apologising to each of the poems which didn’t ‘make it through’, and from there, to a more manageable longlist of 40 poems. Please be assured that this next phase was particularly excruciating, and caused me to stay up long into the night, wild-eyed and muttering. Why was I passing over a particular poem – what on earth had it done to be treated in this way? Well, sometimes, on third, or fourth, or even fifth reading, there was just one ‘wrong note’ – something a little forced – or an ending that too neatly ‘rounded off’ the argument, and provided a cute, ‘suitable’ final image/thought. (Even so, I felt mean.)
So from a longlist of 40 to a short-list of 20. And for several readings, none of these 20 poems would let go; they were tenacious not just in terms of their technical strengths, but because they were so interesting. Each one was considerably bigger than the sum of its parts; each one took me somewhere I hadn’t been before – invited me into a new world, down a metaphorical rabbit-hole where anything – sometimes dark, scary things – could happen.
Eventually, I arrived at my final list. Seven terrific poems. The ‘four fourths’ – each of which would, I’m sure, have risen right to the top in a competition where fewer superb poems had been entered:
Dead Things I Have Seen While Walking. I was immediately drawn in by the high quality and originality of the imagery: ‘A colander of skull with leery grin,/a splay of raven like a flattened prayer.’ The poem uses a ‘list’ device to build up detail, but the ending is surprising – another character enters the narrative – ‘my love was there, beside me./He mustn’t know how very cold I am.’ A terrific ending, re-casting the poem. The narrator’s cool, dispassionate observations are secret; the narrator does not want her morbid fascination to be known to her ‘love’…so now, this becomes a poem about a relationship – how we hide ‘unacceptable’ parts of ourselves from others.
The Confidant’s Shadow This poem – seeming to promise a mildly-told tale of suburban infidelity – rapidly becomes both strange and sinister; the use of repeated lines is so skilful and confident, so deftly stitched into the poem’s imagistic fabric and meaning, that each repetition forces the reader to consider a new slant, an increase in the narrative jeopardy. The dramatic tension builds steadily – despite, or perhaps because of, the salmon paste sandwiches (which made me think of Agatha Christie novels) the reader is aware that this the narrator is observing – and by the end, unable to escape – a viciously dysfunctional relationship.
The Dream. As a poetic form, the dramatic monologue doesn’t always work. This poem, from the perspective of a grieving father reflecting on a dream of his tragically drowned son, could, in the hands of a less skilled poet, have been a clumsy appropriation of another’s grief, mawkish and arch. But from the first powerful and dignified stanza, with its emphasis on strong, unfussy nouns and verbs, I felt this poet was channelling an authentic voice. I loved the poignancy of the blunt, raw statements – ‘grouse and venison/left to ruin’ – and ‘so black you couldn’t see.’ This seemed to me to be a generous ‘reaching out’ across many decades, to give voice not only to one individual, but to ‘bear witness’ to a tragedy affecting a whole community, the repercussions of which were enormous, and which shouldn’t be forgotten. I’d love it to be translated into Gaelic, too.
A Stone – What struck me immediately about this poem was its sureness of purpose; the language is plain, clear, the rhythm emphatic, sure-footed, without calling too much attention to itself. The reader is invited into a free indirect discourse – one woman’s modest hope – for a dog to accompany her on walks. But beneath the seemingly calm surface, the skilful and beautifully judged imagery leads us into deeper, more complex territory; ‘protected from the east wind’s bitterness’ is a marvellously compressed description of weather, but hints at personal vulnerability, and the introduction of the stone as an image was perfect – a stone that would hold ‘the scent of her hand’ which a loyal (and perhaps odd-looking) dog would search for and retrieve. This sensuous poem seemed to me to be about loneliness and longing, about unspoken pain, but ultimately hoping for redemptive joy – the dog ‘flying back to her alone.’ The need to be loved, to be thought worthwhile, is universal, and therefore difficult to write about in a fresh, original way; this poem’s subtlety in its clever and restrained use of metaphor impressed me at once, and kept drawing me back.
Third prize – The Book of the Bones. From the first reading, this poem struck me as technically highly accomplished – I’d go so far as to say dazzling – with its relentless, forward thrusting meter, its extraordinarily assured handling of repeated lines within each stanza. It stopped me in my tracks; I had to read it aloud, three times. With its dark, murderous premise and a pitch-perfect unreliable narrator, it’s both a dramatic monologue and a demonstration of the power of carefully chosen form to unite the poem’s themes and to ‘box in’ the reader so that there’s no escape from the final message – ‘So they say. So they tell me. That that’s what I did.’ It’s too glib to describe a poem as ‘haunting’ but this is one I’ll never be able to forget.
Second prize – The Sound of Hooves. This is, in many ways, a quiet, even ‘private’ poem, where the reader is invited to observe the subject of the poem – ‘you’ – but also to follow the actions of ‘him’ – who is he, who are you, why such a seemingly detached perspective? From my first reading, I loved the way the poem drew me deeper into the layers of the action – a child has left their bed and occupied ‘your mother’s spot.’ And then there are hints of a deep, lonely strangeness, where the sleeping child is framed by silver lines, and has dressed in their mother’s pyjamas. I loved the intriguing descriptions here – the ‘flaccid’ arms and the child’s ‘supplication to the mother God’ – a subversion of traditional imagery; and then, directly, the poem transports us from the domestic setting to the Iberian coast, where there are horses – symbolically complex and powerful. The final image seemed pitch-perfect to me; this is a poem, set at night, that hints of loss and absence, of what cannot be said or acknowledged. It works particularly well read aloud, as the imagery builds steadily, and the breath is tested.
First prize – Braided Wire. This poem intrigued and unsettled me immediately – the narrator claims ‘I wasn’t there’ – and then refers to the ‘methodology’ by which dead calves are delivered. There’s no soft focus here; calves die in utero, and the consequences must be dealt with. But this is also a poem about the complex power dynamics within families, how knowledge is power and imagination is central to the human experience. This poem offers the most extraordinarily precise, authentic and unflinching imagery, and succeeds in playing off the parallel narratives against each other, the tensions building steadily; there are no false notes in this poem, not a word out of place and a viscerally powerful ‘last thought.’
Warmest congratulations to all the winners.