EWB Judge's Report
Poetry

 

Almost all poets naturally do wish for speedy recognition, such as may be achieved by the next-to-be-announced winners of poetry competitions. Yet many of us can feel quite intimidated by the thought of risking failure by exposing our work to judgment. This is only natural but poets do need to take such risks. For poetry is a form of communication, not something to remain sheltered in the bosom of the creator. So I welcomed the brave efforts of all who took the risk of entering this year’s Ethel Webb-Bundell Poetry Prize. I knew Ethel very well when we worked together for many years on the FAW Executive Committee and visited her in hospital in the last weeks of her life. I know she would have been delighted by both the number and quality of the entries this year. So thank you all for bringing your poems to me and risking my judgments.

Congratulations especially to those who made my ‘long list’ of 23 and a ‘short list’ of 16 from which I selected the finalists whom I will announce shortly. As judges generally say, it really was a struggle for me to separate out both these short lists from all the other splendid entries submitted. Clearly we do have a plethora of talented poets writing today locally and further afield in the rest of Australia. Congratulations to all of you.

The speeches of judges on these occasions often begin with a list of ‘don’ts’ for aspiring poetry contestants—all the ‘no no’s’ that poets are warned against. I find this a disappointing way to start (or even to end) a report to people who have sweated blood to get their poems completed and to overcome their natural modesty in putting work forward. I say this with feeling, having often been a contestant sitting in the audience. Just like all of you here today. A way to writing great poetry is to focus on the positives to be found (hopefully) in the winning poems. That is why I urge contestants to attend the prize award ceremonies and to study closely the published examples of prize-winning poems. That’s concentrating on the positives. It is especially vital to listen closely to the prize poems when read out—the long history of the art of poetry goes back to its oral origins and better poets write to celebrate language, their national language, in its spoken form. No matter how many times you read a poem on the page you haven’t really got it until you have heard it well read.

But in all judging of poems, finally there has to be an element of sheer luck for your poem to impress the judge enough for it to even be long listed. Yes, competitions in the end are something of a lottery. I say this to comfort those whom I may seem to have overlooked in fulfilling my judgmental task. I know there is always this element in the results for I have been there so many times myself and found different judges accept or reject the very same poem. So we just move on to enter another competition.

And so I must move on swiftly to announce the winners. To maintain some semblance of suspense, I will begin with the Commended category, then to the Highly Commended and finally to the top three. From the final nine ‘winners’ I have commended (in no particular order) the poem “Insomnia” which predictably explores the plight of being wakeful in many and various ingenious ways and with some original metaphors (eg ‘the twisting  moustache of the clock/ marks the years from dusk to dawn’). This evokes cleverly the baffling challenge of insomnia . Though the poem lacks consistency of punctuation, it is a convincing example of the power of free verse poetry to speak memorably to its readers.

A second Commended I have selected is “bird dressed in bark”), a sort of ode to the Australian mopoke (or tawny frogmouth, southern boobook owl etc). I knew immediately from the title which bird the poem would be about. I am sure many readers of this poem will have even sighted a mopoke in their garden once or twice and certainly heard its distinct two-note call in the night in the bush. You might think this is a challenging topic for a poem worthy of such a poetry competition as the Ethel Webb-Bundell Prize—the two notes of the mopoke constitute a musical interval of a ‘third’. The poet goes on—

            ‘like the pizzicatti of night, or the door chime’.

This really is a brilliant piece of wordplay and a precise description of the bird in the woodlands. And so at the end the poet finally names the perpetrator of this song—‘there sits Mr Poke’.

The final one of the three Commended poems is “A Vanishing Spark” and the epigraph to the poem tells us, ‘every year a tiny, tiny bird, the blackpoll warbler/ migrates across the Atlantic for 3 days without stopping’. So we have another bird poem here but not an Australian bird. This brief epic story is of a bird ‘with the mass of a cedar HB pencil’ that flies From Alaska to Venezuela, down the west coast of America for 3000 kilometres. In all, this quite brief poem takes a mere 18 lines to relate this astonishingly brave act of flight. The poem’s success does not lie in clever metaphors or rhyme scheme. It simply offers a pretty amazing story of how less can be more. And the poem illustrates the same principle, in my view with the migration of these tiniest of living birds. The grasp of that fact is the greatness of this short poem.

Now to the Highly Commended entries—in no particular order, I have singled out from the short list “Moon Villages”, a quite ambitious free verse work and also ambitious in its subject. It takes us to Korean cities where in recent times rejuvenated areas (“Dal dongnae being ‘squatter’ housing areas with a difference located on high ground”) have been set up by the government in the larger cities. According to the poet, the walls of buildings in such quarters are brightly coloured and feature art works depicting cartoon-like animals. There are murals of flowers and strange sea creatures. The poet calls them ‘Shantytowns Cindarelled into beauty into art/ learn to navigate these fantasy precincts/ and forget how to return/ before you even start.’ I found this an appealing poem of a most unusual use of escapism into its ‘moonworld…deepworld’ that obviously can be recuperative in this modern world of sprawling new cities.

My second Highly Commended award goes to ‘Unknown Woman’, with its aura of ironic mystery. What I liked most about this poem (apparently a self portrait) is the suggestion of a hidden identity. The free verse form of this poem is pretty relaxed with two stanzas of 12 lines each and one of 10 and then a finale of 3 lines. Its narrative form takes the reader on a journey—‘There is a woman my children do not know’. This quite intriguing opening of course has us curious and we are taken through episodes of childhood memories—fruit stealing, hiding from parents, playing with food, or bullying others. The phrase ‘for she was never young, becomes a refrain throughout the poem, contributing not a little to its unity. And this refrain also becomes the poem’s last lines.

My third Highly Commended is “Nightshift”. I chose this because it is particularly topical with FIFO workers and desert mining sites having become a ‘fact of life’ for we West Australians. Again this is a free-verse offering and the alternation of short and longer lines gives some form to the poem. This is always a help when poetry is to be distinguished from mere prose. In some ways the poem is an unusual lyric for it is all over in eleven short lines yet captures the aura of unreality that must characterise a night-shift worker’s existence in the Australian desert. Yes the verse is robotic like the working pattern, as the poet takes us on a night ‘haulpak’ drive. The endless cycle of the night-shift is clearly expressed—‘I Robot, carry the earth, relentlessly/Until the sun parades above the goldfields plains./ Finally my eyes can close.’

Now to the actual prizewinners—I award Third Prize this year to a very interesting poem, “Post Truth”, a ‘pantoum’ that is an interesting poetic form, with its Malay origins and similarities to the French derived villanelle. I remember once penning my ‘Vile Villanelle’ to illustrate to my writing students how to recognise this repetitive form of poem. It began:

The vile villanelle! We know it well.

Straw for poets to clutch at when all else fails;

Expand your two good lines to make them sell.

However, this pantoum combines its peculiar form with the highly contemporary theme of  ‘Post Truth’, the substitution of emotional argument for logic and any heed to the true facts. A certain world leader has developed this kind of emotionally forceful argument to an art form, as we know. The ‘post truth’ it seems in this poem is the dreadful consequences of the Maralinga nuclear explosions in 1956 and 1963 on the indigenous desert people of that area. The poet writes—

 

Belief is a failure of facts

and truth is just the evidence of acts.

For Maralinga, compensation is not owed.

Say a thing enough, it must be so.

 

With its tightly organised form and bitter irony enhancing the memorability of the key lines of  “Post Truth”, we have here a worthy third prize winner. The line: ‘The truth falls to the ground like an ashy snow’ echoes certain fine English poets of the early nineteenth century. So this entry is an excellent model for poets of today who make use of the many traditional poetic forms. Here there is no intrusion of clichéd ‘poetic diction’ worn out by over use by beginner poets. And the subject succeeds in being topical and in many ways international in its import.

 

I award second place to “Flying WA”. As soon as I saw this poem, I felt privileged to have read it. My own life began in the outback of this State and subsequently I have explored most of it. But really, WA is bounded most significantly by the Indian Ocean and so this ocean (with some help from the Southern Ocean) in many ways defines this State. I loved the opening lines—‘The Indian ocean brings the/abrupt line...aquamarine fades/cut with pale calico…’ As seems appropriate in a poetic mapping of over one-third of Australia, in the manner of a bizarre dance, and referring to a work system as one of the previously mentioned poets has done, this is really a ‘FIFO shuffle’, this poem “Flying WA” . Unlike our third-placed pantoum, this is a free-verse composition but uses large gaps in many lines and certain groups of inset lines to give form that denies similarity to normal prose. The poet’s special creative control of language is thus emphasised.

“Flying WA” predictably gives us vivid sequenced glimpses of terrain that mining has made familiar to us, even its devastation of country precious to the Aboriginal people. Of course those of us used to a window seat in aircraft know such coastline glimpses as—

‘…dark riparian

tendrils snake mangrove green

across my palette red…’

And this is country is, ‘still crowded with/ indigenous knowledge’ and with ‘disconcerting lack of fence lines’. The aerial photograph-style images show the contrast of beauty and devastation resulting from large-scale mining—‘an open-cut’s/cyanic lake deep azure copper green/floods the next. Beside the tailings dam faded/orange bleeds a contrast.’ This sombre note continues even to the poem’s conclusion—‘Lost baseline geology of the West.’

So we have here a very West Australian poem that raises more perhaps than the more domestic issues in many good poems I noticed in the entries for this competition. One technical feature I puzzled over for a time was the use of large seemingly random spaces left in the lines but concluded they were probably intended to echo vast distances on this poetic map of what is a the largest part of a very large continent.

Coming now to the winning poem, I finally narrowed down the choice from my short list to one with a title seemingly unconnected with Australia viz. “Yucatan”. This peninsula which protruded into the Gulf of Mexico is part of the rim of an enormous crater formed by one of the largest terrestrial objects to collide with our planet. It is supposed to have caused the demise of the dinosaurs. Our little WA example, the Wolfe Creek crater near Halls Creek, despite being the second largest crater on land in the world is tiny by comparison. Let us look at the opening lines of the winning poem—

            ‘Yucatan Peninsula

punched in the eye and we all missed!’

The poet immediately establishes the key metaphor for this work which is right on the topic of #metoo. And the metaphor of the ‘black eye’ is extended throughout the whole poem. For the poem is not just about bullying, it is about all violence towards women. Now I know that once all great storms or typhoons were named after women (though that is no longer the case—but can’t forget the song, ‘A Wind Called Maria’ and a Disney movie of similar title). The poet explores many shades of irony where historically lots of ‘battered women’ have endured violence, concealed it with excuses and hoped for deliverance. The poet quotes one of the classics of course—‘I walked into a door’.  Yet women have continued to suffer fractured bones, cigarette burns, torn-up university essays and the black eye of inconvenient doorknobs. In this poem the author seems to speak on behalf of a witnessing family member—

            ‘…at the emergency ward,

            the Doctor slapping x-rays

up on the projector

and naming your situation.’

As you can see, the language of the poem is entirely without sentimental commiseration and instead resorts sufficiently to the image of the Yucatan crater to scale up the enormity of suffering women. As this winning poem concludes—

            ‘But Yucatan Penininsula,

            like all battered women long after the blow,

you understand

it’s not the one you’re wearing that will kill you.’

So, the black eye from a previous violent encounter is the least of your worries in a domestic tragedy that ends in your death. Yet subtly the poet also brings us back to the question of the future of the human race. Metaphorically, as for the dinosaurs, it won’t be the evidence of previous meteor collisions, such as the Yucatan Peninsula, that we have to be concerned about, but the ‘big one’ signalling our ultimate human fate. And so I rank this poem first among all the submissions because it is not only very well made but makes us share a matter a little grander in scale than day-to-day human or domestic concerns.

So there we are, another year has gone by for the Ethel Webb-Bundell Poetry Prize. Over 70 entries for 2018 suggest it remains very popular, especially with local poets. Once again I congratulate all entrants for having the courage to put their poems on the line (no pun intended) and reassure all that their level of competence showed that all of you are real poets. I apologise to those who remained unrewarded by fame on this particular occasion and urge them to try again as soon as possible with one or other of the next poetry competitions to come over the horizon.

 

Glen Phillips,

May, 2018