ESSEX POETRY COMPETITION: JUDGE’S REPORT
Judging a poetry competition is scary. You don’t know when the winner is going to pop up and you might miss it, if it’s buried inside a pile of poor work your concentration can slip. The standard was high so I had to take frequent breaks to keep focused. I had three stacks: No, Maybe, and Yes. Maybe was for those poems where it just took too long for me to make up my mind, or when I thought that the poem should be reread more carefully, even though it didn’t straightaway grab me.
What was I looking for? What I wasn’t looking for were poems that felt that they were written half-heartedly, or that the poet didn’t have to write them. I guess that’s what I want from a poem – total commitment. Some poems recycled tired ideas and language, clichéd emotions, some were good but felt unfinished. Quite often the last stanza or line should have been cut, or the first. I wanted to contact the poet and tell them this, but of course I couldn’t. Many were good, but didn’t feel, to this particular judge, as exciting as the thirty I eventually long-listed. I hope I didn’t miss any gems!
The long-listing stage was much slower because this was the time to get to grips with those poems I didn’t get on a first or second reading. This is when it got really difficult. I read them all aloud and finally ended up with six, all of which were potential winners. I checked through the Maybe box again, just to be sure, and added one more, which I had overlooked, and which made it one too many. There’s a big drop between £1000 (first prize), £250 (second) and £100 (third), and this feels unfair because all the shortlisted poems could have won. But I had to decide on a winner. I was torn between ‘The Mornings of La Llorona’, which had shone all along as outstanding but had small flaws of clarity, and ‘The Anchor’, which made me go “wow” each time I read it and was perfectly made. In the end I went with my first impulse.
First Prize: ‘The Mornings of La Llorona’
The first time I read this I was swept along with the sheer energy of its watery freight and the dazzling imagery. I couldn’t remember the Mexican legend of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman) but crucially still instinctively ‘got’ what was happening, and was excited by the poem without knowing the story. Lines such as “I killed / a kingfisher, sliced light off blue wings” have an exhilarating vibrancy. This poem feels as if it poured out of the writer, it bristles with life and stood out from the other entries.
Second Prize: ‘The Anchor’
‘The Anchor’ is assured, tautly written, muscular and compact. Images such as “Iron claws that burrowed” are visceral and organic. The last line is thrilling. The more I read it the more layers it yielded about the relationship, revealed through the sea imagery and notions of freedom and constraint. The love between the couple is fraught with constriction and release, both “the drag / of an anchor” and “pulsing like an animal”.
Third Prize: ‘Simpleton’
This is a deeply felt, moving and spare poem, it went straight to the prize-winners pile and stayed there. I love the way it goes beyond the personal and speaks about innocence, with that heart-stopping line: “incapable of actual sin”. It tells me things I don’t know, about being the parent of the “simple” girl, and about the child herself, as well as the serious/playful vocabulary: cretin/Christian and idiot/idio/distinct. I was convinced that this poem was of central importance to the poet.
‘Memorial with Dog’ haunted me with its litany of names celebrating the root of the word magnolia. This was the most emotional poem to read aloud, but the emotion is carefully harnessed in loving attention to language and in the central image of the tree. The final image of “the rain / has poured a small libation” is stunning.
‘On Entering the Eel Catcher’s Workshop’ captures the atmosphere of an eel catcher’s workshop so vividly that I can smell the damp and touch the willow traps and punting pole putting down roots. I admired the way the eel catcher’s daughter herself seems to turn into an eel at the end, glimmering in the depths of the shop. There was another poem on this theme, presumably by the same poet, which was also short-listed.
‘The Secret Heart’ is weird. Its compulsive tetrameter and rhymes give it a mesmerising and mythic quality, like a creation hymn or mad chant. There’s a whole theology buried in the sense and sound but it’s compressed and economic: “a swirl of stars and God was gone”. No word is there just for the rhyme, it’s clever but echoes long in the mind.
I’d also like to mention a seventh poem, ‘The half-life of fathers’, which made me both laugh and cry. If I’d had four commendations to award this would have been included.