Adjudication Report on 2020 Open Competition from Carrie Etter

Carrie’s report is reproduced in full below. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank her for judging the competition this year, and also Marjory Caine and Chris Renshaw who put so much work into organising the competition, which attracted over 1350 entries.

When I was invited to judge the Kent and Sussex Poetry Society competition, I was delighted. Aware of the competition’s reputation, I knew I would receive not only many poems to choose from, but many strong poems in the mix. I also appreciate how much validation and encouragement such awards give poets, as in high school, I received a poetry award for young writers that gave me encouragement and sustenance for a long time to come. I hope all the poets mentioned here, prizewinners and highly commended alike, will feel encouraged when they think of their poems as the strongest out of over 1300 entries. That is a notable accomplishment.

          The first prize goes to Anthony Lawrence’s compelling, skilful poem, “The Flowers of Madagascar.” The first line efficiently establishes the situation: the speaker is a driver offering a lift to a man sheltering from the heat. Where the opening line presents a casual tone, the second enriches it with a degree of specificity that shows the speaker as an attentive observer. The fourth and fifth lines complicate the poem with a rich ambiguity—the speaker can’t remember his passenger’s name, can’t define his smell, and this uncertainty with the speaker’s reaching after fact continues throughout the poem: “His name might have been Edwin or Colin,” he muses in line 8, and in line 24, “His name sounded like Orrin.”

          Reaching after the speaker’s name proves part of trying to articulate the immensity of this experience, how vividly the speaker experienced another person’s humanity during this single journey. Distantly, the poem reminded me of Raymond Carver’s story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” in which two of its characters try to explain their understandings of love through personal anecdotes, struggling to make plain to another what they so deeply recognise and feel. Lawrence effectively conveys the pace of event and memory with his masterful use of line and stanza, and the precision of language and suffusion of imagery result in a consistently vivid, evocative poem.

          In second place, Natalie Whittaker’s prose poem, “Jenga Blocks,” created a comparably powerful while quite different immersive experience. Where Lawrence evokes the physical journey the men share, Whittaker takes us into a consciousness that feels distinctly urban. By using long spaces between the speaker’s thoughts, Whittaker recreates the thought patterns whereby ideas unfold and shift. In the second half of the poem we begin to learn more about the speaker and see their self-consciousness and anxiety, especially when they regard a girl in “an orange faux fur jacket” (so brazen and unexpected the detail recurs), “leopard print skirt,” and “black DMs” who appears “so confident     and real,” pointing up the speaker’s own lack of confidence and sense of irreality. Everything the speaker sees contrasts unfavourably with their own situation, increasing the feeling of unease, and the image of the conclusion underlines the distinction poignantly when they wonder, “where are the pigeons walking      with such purpose.”

          In third place comes Inua Ellams’ moving, world of a poem, “Fuck / Sunflowers.” In this narrative prose poem employing slashes that heighten the tension and contribute to the feeling of dissonance, Ellams tells the story of Tyrone, an inner-city black boy whose experience of the natural, rural world both uplifts and destroys him. By the poem’s end we appreciate not only why “Kelechi hates sunflowers”—whoever Kelechi is, they must have loved Tyrone, but also why Kelechi and the speaker would curse, “Fuck sunflowers.”

          The four fourth place winners are equally strong contenders. Graham Burchell’s poem, “Dead Man’s Fingers,” is linguistically and musically rich in its exploration of the strange plant, and I enjoyed the whimsical trajectory it takes as it imagines the seeming sacs as possible pupae, harbouring life. The quality of precision in the language and the imagery create a wonderfully evocative poem.

          Elvire Roberts’ joint fourth place winner, “Rapid Water Treading,” delights in the play of words and their music as it inhabits the life of a grebe. By using the prose poem form and eschewing punctuation and capitalisation, the poem creates a joyous, vital energy. Implicitly an ecopoem in its appreciation of non-human life, it makes all the more sense that by the poem’s end, human language becomes animal sound: “shlishlip shlub hubber hslush hlup.”

          Judy O’Kane’s joint fourth-place winner, “Pilgrims,” uses shaped quatrains to give a sense of the pilgrims’ lengthening journey and its pace. What’s particularly interesting about this journey is how communal it is, with walkers, car drivers, and boat travellers all making their way, it seems, to Christmas. When “footprints” at last “[come] to nothing”, the word nothing opens with multiple, simultaneous possibilities: the unimportance of the destination in balance with the importance of the journey; the seeming nothing that suggests a completeness, for nothing further is needed.

          Pam Job’s joint fourth-place winner is a prose poem sequence, “The Natural History of Fireflies.” It implicitly relates facts about firefly behaviour to a human couple’s, and that originality resides not just in the poem’s conceit, but also in the unpredictability and specificity throughout.

          I also wanted to commend highly Marion Ashton for “Skitter of Wings,” Kerry Derbishire for “In the Distance,” Elvire Roberts for “She says I have nothing to declare,” Lesley Saunders for “Vacation,” and Natalie Whittaker for her two untitled poems. As I narrowed down the stack of the poems I thought strongest, these persisted, impressing me again and again.

          My thanks to everyone who submitted to the competition and to the Kent and Sussex Poetry Society for the invitation. Reading these poems enriched me, and for that I am always grateful.

Carrie Etter

Bath, England

March 2020

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