Dangerously Poetic Byron Bay Writer’s Festival Poetry Prize- 2011

Judge’s Report.       Robyn Rowland

Theme: A Passion for Nature and our place in it

As always, as a working poet, it is great to get a chance to read an array of poetry where writers explore their way into a theme. Each judge, of course, is idiosyncratic and brings to their reading their own experience of poetry and its forms. Each time I judge a prize I am hoping for a poem that will take me somewhere I have not been; will evoke that sense of wonder that poetry can create. Often I find a strong narrative thrust helps and of course, the transforming power of metaphor and imagery. There needs to be an immediacy that takes the reader into the experience of the poem, rather than just being asked to observe; a sense of going somewhere that tells us that the writer knew where they wanted to end up and that it was a important place to be, so we should listen to this poem.

As I have written elsewhere, poetry is the consummate art: it comes out of silence and returns to silence. It involves an intimate relationship with the reader, without whom the poem falls to its death. It can animate everything, so that life itself breathes through the line. It can make us alive to something new or remembered. Coming out of the ordinary or the mystical, it calls us to ourselves; drawing into view the inner working relationships between the conscious and the unconscious; the passionate intensity of the feeling life as well as the corrugated pathways of thought. Using image to speak, it inspires awe at the way the poet can condense experience on the page.

If we are lucky, and we have worked at poetry for some time, a poem will also have a ‘voice’: that enigmatic quality which is idiosyncratic and often makes a poem strike and stick with us. Seamus Heaney spoke of ‘voice’ as being a way of saying a poem that no-one else would have. It is voice really that determines deep connection in poetry, a sense of veracity that speaks to the reader.

The theme: This was a tough topic, embracing as it does the need to capture something of nature, as well as doing that with passion or inscribing or inspiring a passion in the reader. It also calls for a noting of our relationship to nature; or an exploration of that relationship. So the theme had two strands to it.

Here was an opportunity to observe, reflect on nature itself and to explore within that, our relationship to it. Notably many poems spoke of our destruction of nature. Few encompassed a real awe or an appreciation of the extraordinary complexity and beauty of nature. Therein surely lies our passion: in entering with a kind of openness, the reality of the natural world around us.

I think of Robert Frost’s poem Birches, which moves from a naturalistic description to an imagined explanation of why the birches are bowed, and it concludes with a philosophical exploration of a person’s existence in the world. Here the observation of frosted birches bent down towards earth is beautifully described; so close in its perfection that we can touch the ice. Then the nature of our own relationship with the birches comes in the form of a boy who might live too far from town and finds his exercise in climbing the birches so that they bend down to earth. Yet Frost’s poem moves us into a reflection on that itself, pointing out that no matter how great would be the desire to swing off the earth, there is no better place than here for love. A truly realised and complete exploration of a passionate observation and awe of nature and a recognition of the value of life itself even in the darkest of times.

Frost said of a poem:  ‘It begins in delight and ends in wisdom.’

‘It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects or cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.’

My process was to read every poem twice and try in the second reading to cull poems than would not be in the final selection, rather than those which would be.  Exclusion was based on a preaching tone, prose pieces with no poetry in them, a telling rather than an inclusive drawing of the reader into experience.

There were over 200 poems from 193 poets, all anonymous of course. The first cull left me with 41 poems. The second cull left me with 24. A third reading left me with 12 and finally, the last 6 poems. This is always the hardest spot to come to. The winning poem kept rising to the top as if in flight. The next 4 poems listed here wrestled together at night and made the second place a difficult decision. I asked the organisers to allow an awarding of Highly Recommended to acknowledge the quality of those poems.  And I made a commendation for three poems which had real promise but were not quiet in the prize-winning list.

General Comments:

Many writers chose to stress the idea of passion and their poem fell by the wayside because they merely told the reader they were feeling passionate rather than showing us or taking the reader into the experience itself.  But passion described is not passion communicated to the reader.

Writing about passion is as difficult as writing about the political. Where the former may become sentimental, the latter may become didactic and preaching. The poems which were intended to instruct us in our ‘correct’ way of treating the earth, often failed to become a poem, by using the transforming power metaphor and/or the subtlety of image to convey destruction. Consistent use of lines such a  ‘we are the raping the earth’ does not convince. A narrative or image needs to convince us.

Forces of nature were used . Some of these were memorable e.g. Cyclone Yasi, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the fires in Victoria. All but one of these seemed to lose their own intention and it was not clear what the poet was striving for us to understand through these works. What as the inherent point?

There were some fine anti-development poems yet they just missed out on passion in nature. A  number of poems dealt with the damage done by mining and de-forestation. But to make the poem live powerfully in the reader’s mind and heart, it needs to bring us right into the experience rather than describe it.

Often poems used a list process. For this to work, the items in the list must move together to create a flow and logical or juxtaposing dramatic relationship. Also, just leaving out ‘and’ and connecting words, does not a poem make!

Writers do need to watch spelling and grammar, plurals, and tenses.  Often a poem’s meaning became confused because an ‘I’ became a ‘you’, or an ‘it’ became a ‘you’ confusing the sense of to whom the poem was addressed or who was the ‘narrator’.

Directives such as to ‘look up and be awed’, ‘marvel at this’, come across as admonitions, putting the reader on the defensive and irritating rather than drawing the reader in. Again, rhetorical questions are hard to use in poetry without losing the confidence of the reader that the poet knows where they are going and often become just another way to moralise.

Sometimes a fine poem is lost by using a couple of lines which sound good but lack real meaning. A metaphor gone wrong or just a run on sense of rhythm that hasn’t held. Sometimes the theme wasn’t touched upon. At others the poem lost energy, the last line falling away or becoming clichéd.

First Prize:

Legacy, Alison Thompson

A beautifully achieved coalescence between the nature of our natural world and human nature without being harshly didactic, this poem brings us close yet inscribes our alienation. There is a true observational calm and a craft that takes us in close to the thing itself, and the ability to reproduce the moment yet comment upon it in that reproduction. Here the colonial painter holds the dead bird in something ‘he might if pressed     have called reverence’, assessing, ready to paint the bird as if alive. Yet all the birds will have a ‘resigned blankness’ of death. The description of the birds is exquisite: detail fine and lovely, with the brush of metaphor delicate and striking. Our relationship to nature is encapsulated in this moment. Part two explores further the theme of attention yet alienation. The ‘Pest’ begins in a very domestic way, yet turns the observation back on us in that we ourselves become, along with the fox and lantana, the pest. The question of who deserves the poison is lightly posed and begins a questioning in the reader that we carry away with us.  The legacy of our admiration yet alienation for Australian landscape is achieved.

Second Prize

Glass Sponges, Debbie Lim

It is wonderful when a poem takes you into a knowledge you did not have. I love being sent on a chase. Glass sponges were not on my list and now they are. So too are shrimps with claws (yes I checked!). Amazing! This again is a delicate poem that almost sways with the seabed sponge itself in a gracious admiration. The rhythm flows like a current.  The first part of the poem makes the sponge a real plant with a life that is worth replicating. Later, contained, a antiquated version of it sits in the corner of a bedroom still maintaining a captivating power to invite love and closeness, ‘unmooring’ the bed and allowing an ethereal drift of the lovers.  Here the poet takes us into nature and joins us in a wedded intimacy. Its tone carries a gentleness, an amazing set of connections that leave us floating strangely accompanied; not alone.

Highly commended:

Shifting sands, Kathryn Lomer

An original exploration of the sand sculptor’s craft, the poem carries a lovely movement of sand from filling of sails of a sculptured boat with imaginary wind to the a final resting place in a ‘rare wild river’. The link with the mandalas of the Gyuto monks brings us to the idea of life’s movement.

The Death of the Angophora, Andy Kissane

Again a fine poem where controlled craft brings us close to the death of a loved tree.  Images within the poem are often striking and dramatic. It is a poem that takes a re-reading to allow it to burrow in and convey the yearning for that ‘arboreal Lazarus’ to rise again.

Legacy

i. Extinct

These birds have only paper wings now           deft delicate strokes painted by a man

with an eye for detail   a precise individual      delighting in minutiae

A man who marvels at the complexity of each feather            the fragile shivery quality

of each individual barb            at how the tiny iridescent shards of colour                  stitch in the light

and make the whole wing shine

How gravely he holds the still warm corpse    turning it from hand to hand   extending each wing

examining the underside                      the belly                       the curled feet

the flaccid neck

How gently he places it on the bench before him                    to tag weigh and measure

recording each detail in the notebook he carries                                  before he turns aside

with an emotion he might if pressed    have called reverence and sets to work

colouring the creature before him back to life with pen and brush           omitting

the smudge of crimson on the pale breast feathers                   omitting

the fall of the bird to the ground                     that very morning

when Thomas(his shooter)      had dropped it with a single shot

On paper, they all have the same expression of eye                 these colonial birds

a resigned blankness

(as if they knew in their dying they were they last of their kind)

destined now to be two dimensional   ever beautiful              and dead

to the world

dead to the world

dead     to    the    world

ii. Pest

This morning it all seems very English in my garden    what with the overcast sky,

the chickens on the back lawn and the fox                  who stared straight at me

through the kitchen window   as I rose half-asleep      to see what had set the chickens off

And I, colonial to my bones, forgot he was more than the villain of fairytales            forgot

he was vermin, feral, noxious  not belonging to this land        destined to be culled

and held my dog’s collar as I held his gaze

He stood assured         not even hungry          just checking things out

never doubting his right to belong       in this place     in this time

and take what is offered to him           willing to adapt

Remembering the chickens I let the dog go     but the fox was long gone

loping lazily up the hill to his home among eucalypt and lantana         yet another new arrival

that has made its place here     without asking                        without shame

And of the three of us fox         lantana          European         I wonder who

least understands this land       who has rendered the most harm                     who most deserves

the poison

Glass Sponges Debbie Lim

I

They live from a position of faith

that the weight of water will not crush them –

or sweep them away. Levitating

off the bottom of the ocean like vases,

they grow upright in the darkness:

minutely swaying and absent of flowers.

They will never see a sunrise

but light takes other forms here: pulsing

the small bodies of transparent beings.

Speaking through spicule, silica,

and a lattice of glass, technology aspires

to their lacy transmissions.

II

In our bedroom, a glass sponge

suspends in a vintage test tube. Inside

the hollow atrium, two tiny claws

swim loose: what’s left of a pair of shrimp

who lived out their quiet lives within its hold.

After dark, the walls melt and move,

the bed unmoors from carpet.

All night we drift in the current

as it floats in the corner: a pale finger

inviting us to love.

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