2016 IPC Judge's Report, by John Jenkins
Nov 25, 2016
Firstly, a big thank-you to the hard-working MPU committee!
Judging the 2016 MPU International Poetry Competition was both a privilege and a pleasure, but also presented me with challenges. It’s a truism that when you get down to the shortlist, you start, as the old saying goes, ‘comparing apples with oranges’, which are equally fine fruit. There is usually just the width of a cigarette paper separating all the finalists. Highly Commended and Commended poets should, therefore, know that very little separates them from the winners.
This year, there were 180 entries, which I reduced to a long-list of 44; then to a short-list of 29 poems, from which 13 were winners.
Reflected among the winners… There were some very moving entries, with serious and often fraught subject matter: poems about sickness, the death of loved ones, old age, suicide, isolation, addiction, war and poverty. These poems often expressed strongly held social and political views, views with which I agreed. So my bias – where there was a bias – was likely for, rather than against such heart-felt poems.
Alas, however, raw emotion does not always, and purely of itself, make a winning poem; particularly if the piece might seem ‘in need of more work’. A pity, because just a little more editing, a bit of objective standing back from the poem, might have taken many of these to the next level.
Also reflected among the winners, but in another mode entirely, there was a large batch of experimental, ‘speculative’ and ‘envelope-pushing’ poems. Unfortunately, many of these also fell short – not from lack of ambition, nor from an absence of wonderful ideas at their centres, but again from insufficient regard for fine writing. Many of these poems, with just a little more care, might also have made the winner’s circle.
Overall, it was a very interesting and lively mix of entries, with the sort list fully reflecting their diversity.
There are six Commended poems:
(And, through they are numbered, this is just in random order…)
1. Goblin Valley, Utah, by Brett Dionysius, with its nature conservation theme and pointed aside on human destructiveness, has a crisp narrative, very economical lines and a strong command of the American vernacular. It also has a cautionary stinging barb in the tail, if one cares to see it.
2. Losing, Lost, by Rod Usher, is about an old man in a nursing home; a distinctive poem portrait, very clear, very simple, and real, with no wasted words. It too has a kick at the end, which deftly ties everything together, and links back to its resonant title.
3. In The One Day of the Year, by Jennifer Compton, the poet converses with the reader; it’s a poem-reminiscence, and variation of the narrative mode; also, and not secondarily, a scrupulously honest corrective to any overblown veneration of Anzac Day, and our tireless ‘Anzac PR Industry’.
4. Scrambled, by Gayelene Carbis, is a uniquely ambitious dream-poem; a dream of childhood classrooms; but ‘scrambled’, as dreams are. There is a threatening mechanical dinosaur outside; one shovelling and pushing around the dust of time, with the poem itself an artefact rescued in a dash from the ruins.
5. My Next Life, by Catherine Bateson, is ambitious and potentially ground-breaking. It has a slight lack of focus, which may or may not be deliberate. In the poem, a woman is so close to her hives of bees, she is almost half-bee herself; a queen bee, who see the world as if through faceted bees eyes, yet remains emotionally afloat in the luminous cells of her own keen humanity.
6. I loved the direct, matter-of-fact, and deliberately understated tone of Das Kapital, by Brett Dionysius. It’s about a famous book the poet admits he has never read, yet it summons the hard life of a friend, now sadly deceased, who once gave this book as a gift. It is a poem evoking a slice of recent history; and one that quietly says, as it were, much more than it says.
And, now, there are three Highly Commended poems:
(Again, the numbers don’t reflect any particular order.)
1. Her Singularity, by Gershon Maller, boldly explores a speculative, sci-fi mode. The poem celebrates a time when Artificial Intelligence is so advanced, and the digital world has become so limitless and (metaphorically) God-like, that a new form of virtual humanity can evolve and arise from its endless possibilities. In stanza one this is explained from the human/technological point of view. Dramatically, the miraculous life-form, who has just newly arisen, declares herself fully conscious in stanza two; with her shining new world now seen through virtual eyes.
2. Survival of the Young, by Jenny Macaulay, appears a very matter-of fact poem, in the form of a list: of ‘what we used to do when we were young’. It has a nicely focused, unforced, descriptive clarity, with an ending that firmly lends these childhood adventures a suddenly more serious tone, one that you discover – as it draws its strands together – has been implicit throughout; prefigured by the word ‘survival’.
3. Time Dilation (Dojo St Mark’s) by Magdalena Ball, is a very impressive poem. On one level, it’s an extended metaphor about loss; on another, it seems a speculative-fiction-like journey into a new and uncanny level of reality, in which time suddenly flows backward, sweeping the poem’s narrator along with it. ‘Dojo St Marks’ refers to a famous sushi cafe in Lower Manhattan, while Dojo (a Japanese word) means ‘place of the way’; with ‘the way’ here a deeply intuitive realisation of the pathos of embodied being and one’s tangential place in both time and history.
The Martin Downy Urban Realist Prize:
(Which commands a special category on its own…)
The Boy in the Ambulance is by David Campbell. The actual Boy in the Ambulance recently appeared on world TV news. After the relentless bombing of Aleppo, Syria, a young boy (five-year-old Omran Daqneesh) is pulled from the rubble, caked in dust, face smeared with blood, and taken to an orange ambulance seat. In silent shock, and unsure of what to do, he tries to wipe away the blood. The poet is haunted by this image, and how it both connects and clashes with his own quiet suburban street, with ordinary family life and sense of daily reality. The poem suggests that Aleppo also surrounds us – that is, as an oppressive state of mind, particularly as humanity remains complicit in this terror.
Now we come to the Third, Second and First Prize winners.
3rd Prize goes to…
Talking Back to Jack, by Catherine Bateson. In this conversational poem, the poet tells us that she is on a bus, reading Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road. Reading, that is, in between sneaking looks at other passengers. The poet bemoans that all the women in this famous opus are little more than passive clichés, depicted as sexist stereotypes. Why is there not a vital heroine, somewhere front and centre in its pages? One as vital and dynamic as the beat guys on the road. The poet has a sure grasp of the book’s idiom, which renders this poem deeply sympathetic; a balanced critique. There’s a final twist of irony too, considering present circumstances and how far (and/or how little?) the poet feels we have really come. This poem has terrific directness, and vivid sense of a no-nonsense, straight-talking voice.
2nd Prize goes to…
The Guest, by Rob Wallis. Now, some people in our lives put us through harrowing and confronting times. Sometimes they do. Here, a guest arrives at the door, one he has knocked on before. It might be safer to refuse him, it might be easier to become disillusioned, angry, bitter, cynical, and inured to it all. But the troublesome guest is welcomed inside, given food and shelter. The welcome-er has obviously been through all this before, and must maintain an emotional fire-wall of sorts, free from unrealistic expectations, or risk being doubly wounded. The word ‘redaction’ in the last line seems an odd one here, especially when closely combined with warm words like ‘intimacy’ and ‘hope’. But this word, on reflection, is very precisely chosen, as it puts a careful, though loving, distance between the subject of the poem and inevitable future hurt.
1st Prize is…
Kyoto Autumn Maples, by Andrew Lansdowne. This winning poem is a model of clarity and economy, of descriptive facility and finely wrought imagery. It is about a foreigner who visits maple groves on the hillsides around Kyoto, Japan. (The word gaijin which is quoted, means foreigner in Japanese.) Kyoto is not far from the Kamo river, which threads into the poem, offering unhurried access to well-maintained gardens, temples and walking trails. This is a place of fresh air and pilgrimage, well away from the hurly burly of modern Japan, and the frantic urban world generally. Kyoto, incidentally, was spared nuclear bombing in World War 2, because, as some conjecture, the then US Secretary of War had once visited Kyoto on his honeymoon: traditionally, it remains a place of solace and peace.
The poem consists of six carefully balanced stanzas, all written in Tanka form. Tanka simply consist of five lines, the first three identical to a haiku (of 5, 7 and 5 syllables) and the final two lines consisting of 7 syllables each. So, if you like, each stanza is a haiku, but with two short lines added on.
In the first stanza, the maples are seen reflected in smooth water, surrounded by sun-rise. In the second stanza, the leaves appear like small galaxies, widening our view out even further, while at the same time reverse-focusing closely on clearly defined and separate leaves. So we simultaneously take in both the near and the far, the large and small, in a widening of perspective.
The focus slips down to the ground in stanza three, with people (quote) ‘firewalking’ on an auburn carpet; scattered along leaf-strewn paths.
Stanza four is fanciful, and the sharp edges of leaves are compared to star knives.
Stanza five then reaches further into a much more human world, bringing memories of the poet’s children; their leaf-shaped proffered hands; an added emotional dimension. Finally, stanza six compares the colour of maples with that of the look and feel of un-gloved, cold hands, such that the registration of the imagery becomes not only visual, imagistic and synaesthetic, but also suddenly visceral and internalised.
Thus the maples and maple walk register a range of human senses and modes of perception, all accreting into an elegant whole; though not in an over-studied way, but with a light, almost casual hand. In spite of its exotic setting, the poem has an unforced familiarity, that of a traveller simply describing a journey, someone on holiday who is simply looking on – yet a traveller who, as it becomes increasingly obvious – also has a clear-minded ability to deeply enter and appreciate other cultures.
Finally, congratulations to everyone who entered, whether here tonight or not. Without you, without them, there would be no competition. Everyone… you have made this night possible.
Again, thank you all.