Ken with Helen on Tuesday, 17th. April 2018
Kent & Sussex Poetry Society Open Competition 2018
Helen Ivory – Judge’s Report
It was a huge honour to judge the Kent and Sussex Poetry Competition. I read over fifteen hundred poems and behind each one of those was a person who has felt something or thought something deep and significant enough to compel them to write. In many senses everyone who writes a poem or paints a picture or does anything creative at all, is winning against the dogged march of time. You make your mark in the earth – you say: I am here. I have lived. I want to thank everyone who entered this competition; who sent their vulnerable words out into the world. All art depends on such bravery and the world would be a bleak place without art.
Reading so many poems enables you to gain a good insight in what kinds of things that drive people to write. There were many poems which were built on nostalgia, an ache for those people and times past. There was a fair few poems about dementia and about adult children nursing vulnerable parents. That words can conjure anything and anyone on a page into a reader’s here and now is one of the most moving things about poetry for me. It is true that I can be moved by a poem emotionally before my rational brain notices the poem has flaws in its crafting. It is very hard for me to put these poems aside and sometimes I did so with a real sense of betrayal. Other things I noticed is that these were very much poems from people who live on an island. There was so much sea! There were also lots of cups of tea and a remarkable number of creatures.
A poem, on a very basic level, pays close attention to words and the music they make. A poem builds cohesive images from words and uses robust metaphors to carry over its weight of meaning. A poem is a distillation of the world, it is elegant, and it carries no more words than it needs to translate experience from writer to reader. And so, with this in mind, I read a clutch of poems every day over a two-week period to draw my first longlist of around a hundred poems.
For the next part of the process, I was listening close for originality of voice. I was looking to see which poems had taken a familiar subject in an unexpected direction, or those that offered something completely fresh. I read and reread the poems – really worried I would miss something (what a responsibility!) until I had my shorter longlist of forty poems. I then left the poems alone for a week. I think this latter part of the judging process is pretty subjective. Another judge would very likely get the poems down to the same hundred – those poems whose writers have spent time honing their craft, who read contemporary poetry and so on. But the last part is I suspect, very personal. The poems I chose as winners of the competition are those that burnt themselves into my imagination like light on photographic paper.
First Prize: The Train has Rushed to Us with a Precious Cargo/ of Gifts from Far Away. Ken Evans
This poem takes its title from a 1919 Soviet Poster and is testament to the fact that the title is a working part of the poem, not a tacked-on afterthought. I was hooked into the poem by this dynamic and intriguing title – a title that takes up two lines! The title does not outweigh the poem visually on the page – here are four, four-line stanzas anchored firmly to the paper. Being a visual artist, I am very tuned in to the visual aspects of a poem; how it occupies space and performs itself on the page. I admired the elegance of this poem, its repetitions and simple telling. The poem both disassembles in language and explains what it’s like having suffered a stroke, as it goes on. It begins in the aftermath of ‘since’, and allows the reader to piece things together, as speech and light fade, only mentioning the word ‘stroke’ in the last stanza. And then the word falls apart, reforms: stroke/stoke/streak. The poem ends in clouds. And then on the next reading, the title feeds itself into the poem – these gifts, they are coming through the clouds from far away with their precious words. Despite the weariness of the narrator, this is not a poem without hope. I kept coming back to this poem again and again, as it unpacked its cargo in my head and took up residence there.
Second Prize: Sting. Kathy Miles
A celebration of the much-maligned wasp – a poem that fizzes about the page like an apocrita in an upturned jar. A fantastic example of the poem as a visual art, using the white space of the page to take the eye for a ride. And also, the silence of the white space – as the wasp stops humming, hangs in air – ready to strike – will it be you?
The language of this poem is very exciting: ziplining/ hurdy-gurdy/ gaudy as a costermonger, all in the first four lines. That a wasp might dream of exotic sherbets/ boiled sweets sucked from their coats/ and left in ashtrays is both exhilarating and trashy! The poem is fireworks pretty much all of the way through, but it comes beautifully in to land in the final stanza, asking the reader to reach into ‘the origami of its nest . . . see how your fingers grow wings/ how the sting of your hands/ is almost a blessing’. Now that took me completely by surprise – the thought of blessing and wasp, of pain and being under God’s protection, spun my head around! I also hurtled straight to St Ambrose, the patron saint of bees, and felt sorry for the wasps who are so rarely celebrated – so I admire the chutzpah of this poem.
Third Prize: The Photographer Observes. Simon French
An ekphrastic poem or perhaps this is notional ekphrasis. Either way, this poem conjures an extremely vivid image of a photograph of a parentless bride waiting for her groom in a psalmhouse. Visually, it is one block, like a photograph hung on a page. There are no stanza breaks in a photograph.
This poem feels like a fairytale before the fairytale collectors have prettied it up and Disney has sparkled it. There is the dark edge of a folktale, the hint of domestic abuse, the clutter of a backstory of the time before the photograph was taken. There is a cigarette burn in her dress, there are lipstick smears on a tin mug. The voice of the photographer talks directly to the reader almost half way through the poem – We have spoken of this before – which makes the reader feel part of the story, as if collusion is involved. I enjoyed this direct address and also the little jaunt into what sounded to me like a nursery skipping song: ‘where is he – / creeping through the cottongrass/ kicking off his shiny shoes?’ A hint of Jack be nimble. This poem insisted its way into my head and haunted me as folktales do.
Kitchen Sink. Clare Kirwan
I very much enjoyed the domestic and the profound in this poem. The first line I found God under the kitchen sink one Friday, drew me into a poem which weighs the lightness and wry humour of everyday diction with the heavy heart at the centre of the poem. This is essentially a poignant poem about the loss of a child and how each parent tries to endure it – the neat and tidy kitchen sink of the narrator/mother, or the garden shed of the father where things are broken and lost. The narrator talks to God who says nothing: ‘but I know what he is thinking: ‘I am everywhere, but have you seen the shed?’
Clothing the linen-cupboard. Lucy Watt
Another poem which juxtaposes the domestic and the profound – I think these two would sit well next to each other in an anthology. This poem begins with the very strong image of the narrator’s father’s tail-shirts: ‘Archangels hung from the washing line . . . rigid with frost.’ The narrator draws vivid and visceral details of a childhood wrought with parental argument where the only escape was the linen cupboard, which takes on hallowed significance. My child-self sat next to this child in the linen cupboard and so the poem lodged in my heart.
Octopus Tank: Torbay Aquarium. Cheryl Pearson
I enjoyed the close-looking, humanity and wonder of this poem. The intricate details of the octopus’s ballet and its ‘colour coursing. . . like a weather map crawling with storms.’ The poem is made of thirteen couplets and looks airy on the page which evoked for me a sense of light and floating timelessness. ‘Imagine the hunger of a creature with three hearts’ asks the poem – and so you see the octopus for what it is – a captive, ‘with the intelligence of a three year old.’ The poem resumes the celebration of octopus-ness at its close, its affinity with something beyond this prosaic existence with the uplifting final sentence which sings ‘How once the moon drew the riddle of her.’
In My Next Life. Catherine Bateson
This poem drifts between a real and imagined life. At the centre is a spinster beekeeper mother, the narrator, raising daughters who are destined to leave home: ‘their rooms are as empty as plundered cells’. There are gorgeous details: ‘Lovers woo me with amber, / bright honey drops for my fingers and wrists’ and as the narrator falls ill ‘before the long winter . . . timber hums and the fever-soured air/ is as heady as mead.’ I was really taken by the otherworldly world this of this poem, and how I imagined it casting a honey light on my hands as I held the page.