Sunday, 24 January 2016

Results and Judge's Report, Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (November 2015)

Judge’s Report
Oz Hardwick

I didn’t think to count the number of poems with which I started – it was the sort of pile I’d
be more inclined to weigh than count, anyway – but after careful and repeated reading of all of them, I was able to edit the initial submissions down to around 30. This was not as easy a process as it may sound because, while not necessarily prizewinners, there was a considerable number of good, well-crafted poems. And this is perhaps the most important point: there are a lot of people writing well – certainly well enough to share work with others – so don’t be downhearted if you haven’t made the last nine here; submit to journals, go to open mics and writers’ groups, and find where your work fits. That said, one or two (possibly three or four) writers should read more contemporary poetry; however well-written, a poem that’s too reminiscent of, say, Christina Rossetti is unlikely to resonate with a modern reader.

Of those that made the slim pamphlet of my informal long-list, probably a little over a third adopted a regular form as a starting place though, as is clear from the sonnets in the final nine, they often played fast and loose with the ‘rules’ – and were all the better for it. Incidentally, on the subject of sonnets and rules, I believe everyone who reads or writes poetry should read the introduction to Don Paterson’s 101 Sonnets: even if you agree with most of it, it’s a worthwhile argument to join. Patterned end-rhyme was quite rare throughout – more so than I would expect – but, as with form, irregular use of rhyme and pararhyme was deployed to great effect in many poems. I habitually read poetry aloud when I’m thinking about it, and there was much pleasure to be gained from this throughout. Which brings me to a personal bugbear: what is it with these poems that don’t have capitals or punctuation? yes i can see how this is sometimes appropriate and i have done it myself on occasions for specific effects but most of the time it is imprecise like a song score without the musical notation so the reader is left slightly lost and breathless thank you.

In terms of topics, the two that particularly stood out were art and, I’m pleased to say, politics. While this latter is notoriously difficult to write without sounding hectoring and possibly self-righteous, it seems that the ever-accelerating conveyor belt of global injustice is giving us more opportunity than we would like to hone our verse in this area. The 1st placed poem here manages the tricky balance by remaining ostensibly objective, giving the reader the information they need to form an opinion and a response, without overt finger-wagging.

A few poems nearly made the final nine: Surrender tells, in two long, slowly unfolding sentences, the gradual capitulation to urban conformity, with the lawn yawning at the mower. Stranded Boat flits from Alto-cirrus to yak scrotums (which don’t feature in poetry as often as they should) in its dense evocation of a profound personal moment in which past and present collide. History also permeates Rain against the window, from the Byzantine empire to suggested personal histories which, like liquid tracks down glass, are patterns never to be repeated.

Vastly different, all of the poems have these elements in common: they have a subject worth expressing; they display an excellent ear for the rhythms and music of language; they say what the reader needs to know, and no more; and they say things in a personal, original, and sometimes surprising way. And I think that’s what poetry should, in broad terms, do.

Commended – The Eel Men and Women by Ewan Park (Glasgow)

This is a poem I’d love to hear the writer read. Having read it aloud myself (more than once), I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The poem’s range of reference is the initial attraction, suggesting both narrative development and free association, generally at the same time; but it is the sinuous sound of the long sentences that particularly entice, along with the surprising punctuation of short, self-contained lines. Other than which is important to them, I’m not sure if lines and phrases elsewhere are found elements – I suspect, though can’t precisely identify, a few – but either way, the occasional shifts in diction, rather than destabilising the poem, provide an effective counterpoint to the main thrust, before the harshly inarguable final couplet.

Commended – The Follower by Dominic James (Chalford)

One of the things poetry can do most effectively is imprint a sharp image onto the reader’s memory which, for all its clarity and precision, suggests all manner of additional information and action that isn’t quite perceived at all. Take dealing out the negatives / from the bottom of his pack / a bag of nails for everyone: practically a haiku (in form, too – just take out a few words), it tells the reader all they need to know, except the images’ full implications. This is so apt for the subject here; the over-familiar visitor who is always a stranger, neatly recounted in unobtrusive, unrhymed couplets.

Commended – Empty Houses of the Fled by John Gallas (Markfield)

What a wonderful opening stanza: that playfully dark opening line, the burgeoning ms and quick snip of drift in the second, the subtle (and all but meaningless) distinction between the shut and the shuttered across the blank page space of indentation, and finally that inverted description vividly reminding the reader of the ennui in the first line: held up by vacuum-cleaners. The remaining stanzas nearly retain this density, though I’m not sure the indentation in the second stanza adds anything, nor the ‘stepping’ of the indented lines throughout; this latter invites me – and possibly other readers – to read these lines almost as a second poem, and they don’t work together like this. Description remains vivid throughout, right up to the peppermint Pontiac which fills the final stanza, but I would like something beyond this: a more explicit hint at a wider narrative, or even just a nod back to the poem’s opening.

Highly Commended – A Breton Girl Spinning by MJ Whistler (London)

The thing about unrhymed verse, of course, is that the language’s music has to work that much harder. Here, the poet sets this up right from the start with that repetition of breadfruit, its solid reflection in fruit of the bread, and that resonant echo in Breton girl – we have the ‘Breton Girl’ of the title, and she is most certainly spinning in more ways than one. The poem, to stick with the idea of music, is like a reel, circling between earth and heaven or, indeed, Gauguin’s painting and the guiding spirit of his painting. I have one concern: it being a long time since my Art School days, I confess I had to look up phthalo, and my unreferenced internet source informed me that it was a pigment developed in the 1930s – 40 or so years after this painting. It’s out of my field, and the use may be justified, but it’s the sort of thing to check – if the writer hasn’t already. Either way, the energy, the piling up of lists, and the exuberant music of the poem are all very well handled.

Highly Commended – Ordinary Love by Noel Williams (Sheffield)

More than a fourteen-line poem, I’d place this firmly in the sonnet pile. I’ll leave it to other readers to look how the form is bent, stretched, and squeezed to fit the less idealised love of middle age – something I think it does very well. Instead, it’s the retailoring of tradition I’d like to note in particular; the love poem par excellence lowering its eyes from the heavenly ideal, not to turn its gaze on politics or religion, as has been done over past centuries, but upon the truth of love as it is lived, the subject’s hair unthread(ing) like a blanket. Yet, as with Petrarch and his first followers, there is a warm physicality, a celebratory eroticism, that permeates the poem and which, even as we are reminded of literary conceits and constructions, emphatically asserts that ordinary love is never ordinary (& sonnets still do the job).

Highly Commended – Wednesday’s Child by Dominic James (Chalford)

Mother Goose meets Miles Davis in this impressionistic (sub?)urban minor tragedy. Eschewing rhyme and regular metre, improvises its own rules like jazz around the reader’s beat. Growth and time compete with static, perhaps even sterile imagery, perfectly exemplified in the central, pivotal empties weeds grow over. Ultimately, I would like something to tie the first and final stanzas together more explicitly but, even as it stands, this is a poem that repays repeated visits to – and exploration of – its intriguing subtleties and suggestions.

Third Prize – Emily Dickinson’s Indian Pipe by Gabriel Griffin (Orta, Italy)

I do like a good metaphor – who doesn’t? But I particularly like a good metaphor which pushes down roots and sends out tendrils so that it creeps into the mortar of a poem to the extent that, at points, one can’t separate the distinct elements which are being likened to each other. It is pure chance that it is the second poem of the ‘top 3’ that, after due argument, and with appropriate tutting, sighing, and glances towards the ceiling, we’d probably call a sonnet. However, it’s a wonderful reminder of what, given a bit of flexibility in the rhyme and rhythm departments, the form my still contain … or release.

Second Prize – a riddle by Peter Oram (Schwabach, Germany)

From the Exeter Book onwards, I enjoy puzzling, riddling, ambiguous texts that suggest and tease, and this mutated sonnet fits the bill perfectly. Badger, spy, terrorist or refugee? The octave begins with human characteristics, but soon enters the realm of the animal, burrowing through / the undergrowth, before donning human raiment once more. He doesn’t care, announces the octave, suggesting that mysteries will be uncovered – but no; the prosaic resting places of the small / but heavy packages strike a chill, but answer no questions. Consequently, the revelation that no one ever turns up to collect them leaves an icy chill. And what is the answer to this riddle? Well, I think it’s

First Prize – Svay Pak Mathematics by Andrea Holland (Norwich)

A political poem that doesn’t let the politics weigh down the poetry is a rare thing. Here, though, although the facts of the notorious traffic in Vietnamese child prostitutes remains unflinchingly in focus, it is the poetry that holds the reader and stops them from turning away. It’s all about the detail – not only the tangible Three green budgerigars and knuckles scraped out – but also the evocative familiar black smell and blood in the lies / he tells. Voices move as perspectives move, from stolen childhood to savage experience still not understood, while the verse itself moves in and out of rhyme. All of these threads draw together into a poem that looks the reader in the eye and will not be forgotten, right up until that sharp, tragic final couplet.

Oz Hardwick

Administrator’s note 
Many thanks to Oz for a job well done. Just to say, he did not count the poems. There were 294 entries this quarter. The poems have been judged blind and I have inserted the names of the winning and commended poets in the Judge’s Report.
Nnorom Azuonye

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