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Judges summary for 2014

(click here for winning poems)

Joanna Skelt

Thanks for all the poetry submissions and for inviting me to judge the competition. I have endeavoured to make some useful and meaningful comments below having come to my decisions for the winners and runners up.

In my role as critic and judge, I had to interrogate myself about what I prioritise when I select certain poems over others. I realised I am interested, mostly, in being moved or affected in some way by reading a poem. I also favour interesting and/or unusual images and enjoy a certain rhythm or movement which carries me through the piece as I read. I first selected around 20 poems that caught my attention and made me want to return to them. I then re-read them, sometimes several times, and considered how they contribute to these criteria allowing, too, for that extra quality that just appeals and makes you say 'yes'.

Reading through the submissions initially, I found certain dominant themes emerging such as loss and love, remembrance and the sea - an inevitable preoccupation of land-locked poets (myself included) and a considerable challenge to tackle with a fresh voice and perspective. It is perhaps noteworthy that the winning poems explored less popular topics - a lemon, satellites and elephants (though the latter related to grieving and loss).

Many poems are tightly sculpted, some of which manage to move formlessly between lines whilst others are interrupted by awkward phrases (or phrasing) which disrupt the overall rhythm and momentum. For this reason, I found I struggled sometimes with one stanza or section yet liked the rest of the poem.

Unsurprisingly, it was hard'to come to' a decision for the three main winners yet I am happy with my choice of Citron for 1st prize. This poem reminded me of a more grounded version of a poem called Peaches in one of the Bloodaxe collections - a poem I love. Citron stayed with me as I walked along Selly Oak's streets one evening. I could see the texture of the lemon's skin as if it were in front of me: 'its humble surface etched with blemishes' and 'blunt end scarred with a scab'. I could imagine myself around a table in Birmingham gazing at the lemon reminding myself to be radically astonished by all things in this world and I could see that same lemon in its natural Cretan setting. By the way the word 'gulled' in the penultimate line of Stanza 2 made me question my decision temporarily but I decided that rarely used words (for which we can surmise meaning) do overcome their initial awkwardness if appropriately placed.

Winner number two goes to Counting Satellites. This is a lovely piece with a slightly mesmeric quality. The limited commas at the end of lines help the reader to move easily through the poem and the partial rhyming completes the naturally falling rhythm. The use of origami connects the past with the contemporary, the spinning universe above us to a football game or text beamed by satellite.

Winner number 3 goes to Elephants. I liked this poem very much but in the end I found the other two winning poems'flowed better'when reading and re-reading them. The first stanza is a superb depiction of how elephants revere the ground where 'one of their kind has fallen' as if to 'mingle with the dust of this dry place' and the second stanzas goes on to echo our similar needs. Interestingly, I am in the middle of reading Elif Shafak's newest novel 'The Architect's Apprentice' which charts ancient Istanbul through the story of a boy who cares for an elephant and it had mentioned a unique sense that elephants have around sites of death.

I selected a variety of poems for the runners up prizes. I enjoyed That Fridge Thing [59] particularly for lines such as 'hat soft Samsung / hum breaks the silence of your still reverie'. I think it is admirable when an everyday object such as a fridge is addressed in a poem and then, in this case, used to describe something else entirely e.g. the behaviour of teenagers.

Butcher Boy is a well-crafted portrayal of the hard grind of men's lives working at home while soldiers 'simply hired/and fired, planned each round, and took the spoils in'. For Elie Wiesel depicts a particularly disturbing hanging and then asks the reader 'Where is God now?'

Images of the dark 'crawling on its belly' and 'dismembered' in Paul Nash: The Ypres Salient at Night are juxtaposed with a 'celestial' flare and the silence of the snow making for a gentle yet, nonetheless, disturbing poem.

On more familiar everyday territory, Recycled provides a glimpse of a life through a one-favourite coat or, more specifically, a 'purple maxi leather coat' which the author addresses: 'I shaped you and your mellowed skin caressed/my body, wrapped it, made a perfect mould'.

Death of the Swan pounds out its rhythmic meter at slight odds with the sensitivity of the subject matter yet softens towards the end 'where waves surge and the bank's ridge sinks/Beneath closed lids. So I have seen your storm-filled eyes/Turn back to swan... This softening allows you into the deep beauty of the poem's title and helped the poem to work, for me, in entirety.

Although I don't feel pulled towards poems about menstrual flow (note that I am already drifting into lunar allusions), I do believe that there is a place for all topics in poetry if approached in a right way and I enjoy poems that deeply engage and celebrate nature. I gave Gaia a runners up prize because I felt it had the makings of something very strong (perhaps without the 'red vulval effluent'). I liked the language of 'dark crevices, groyned and grained' and 'viridian growth/spreading green weed across surrounding shales'. I found echoes of a poem by a Sierra Leonean author, Tom Caurray, called Healing Wounds which I looked up and reproduce below. Tom died very tragically in 2009. This was his most positive writing in response to the civil war years. Sadly, it might also be read in the future as relating to recovery from the ebola epidemic.

Prize winning poems for the year 2014




First Wendy Klein Citron
Second Emma Simon Counting Satellites
Third Gordon Gibson Elephants
Commended Adrian Shaw Butcher Boy
Commended Jill Munro That Fridge thing
Commended Caron Freeborn For Elie Wiesel1
Commended Tracy Patrick Paul Nash: The Ypres Salient at Night
Commended Margaret Gleave Recycled
Commended Tina Negus Gaia
Commended Tista Austin Death of the Swan
Sonnet or Not
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