Dangerously Poetic Byron Bay Writers Festival Poetry Competition 2013

Judges report

Lisa Owen and Cate

I’d like to thank contributors for the opportunity to read and absorb your work over the cold months of winter down south. I’m only sorry that the caveat for this opportunity was also to JUDGE the poems, because when it came to rating and assessing and comparing this abundance of diverse voices I found the task much more daunting. Judging blind – having only numbers on the entries – meant that my task was very focussed. I could not be influenced by ‘names’, by thoughts of gender, ethnicity, age or track record of publication. All I had to go on were the words on the page and whether they could somehow create that catch or connection that refused to dim even after reading dozens of other poems vying for that same connection in the reader’s mind. Reading blind also meant that, even more than usual, the poems arrived in my consciousness like voices in the dark – I’d find myself remembering them in the middle of the night, thinking over the effect they had had on me and sometimes, continued to have. There were a few basic things I was looking for, or should I say hoping for – writing that was absorbing and distinctive, that ‘snapped’ with its own purpose, that used language in a confident and bold way – but mostly I found myself coming back to this same fundamental measure – how did the writer use all these skills to create something that stayed with me, that amplified and illuminated something, that made me want that illumination somehow?

Subjective as our experiences and our responses are, poetry is an art form. It is artful, and it is a form, a kind of discipline. ‘Form’ reminds us that the skill does not lie in noticing the sunset, but in conveying the idea of it so that it blooms, through language, in the mind of a reader. In other words, it’s not having the emotion, it’s transmitting it. If our emotional response is a river, full of energy and potential power, the form of poetry is like a sluice gate, narrowing and harnessing that power, turning wheels, making all that energy into something. Anyone who has ever written a poem will know that feeling of discipline and resistance, shaping the running force (which sometimes feels overwhelming) and trying to narrow it down to give it the greatest impact and power we can muster. Conveying is a good word because it reminds us that the poem is almost literally a vessel that carries something. What it can carry is usually a great mystery, even to us, until we start to write it. Occasionally, if we have our antennae tuned to noticing, we come across this singular thing that seems to work, quite organically, as that sluice gate – to shape and encapsulate and contain an idea. The American poet Mark Doty says: ‘Sometimes it seems to me as if metaphor were the advance guard of the mind; something in us reaches out, into the landscape in front of us, looking for the right vessel, the right vehicle, for whatever will serve.’

Metaphor can give us this jolt, sometimes with a startling sensation of recognition. Within a metaphor, a moment is amplified and crystallised. Again, that term can seem like the literal truth when it comes to a good poem – something is made gemlike and hard and shining through the use of language. We turn it like a prism and see some dazzling refraction of light. (The ability to recognise and render this moment always seems, to me, one of the crowning miracles of human evolution. We may share 98% of our DNA with other primates, but only we can utilise the dazzling potential of the remaining 2% for metaphor, story and meaning. It’s not about opposable thumbs, it’s about opposable thoughts.)

Flowing underneath everyday language is this living, breathing world, flexing and heaving and breaking the surface every now and then. These small glimpses of inspiration are ephemeral and intense, but a poem is a daring little rush of energy, and a poet can show how audaciously the small and momentary can suddenly shift to signify the large and universal.

The entries for this competition were full of such beautifully-rendered insights.

A woman waiting to become a grandmother, remembering with aching precision every movement required for safely buckling a small cherished child into a car, illustrated perfectly how a poem, in noticing and amplifying an ordinary moment, can say the unsayable about love, longing and mortality. A woman seeing an apparition of her recently-dead brother tasting honey in a supermarket, where the poem twists suddenly and perfectly to where it needs to go, stuck like a burr in my subconscious, and still does. Then there were the poems about walking to the beach with your kids, thinking. Waiting for a lover to come home. Evading and not evading terminal illness. Being startled by an owl at night that appears like a harbinger from another, darker world. Friends who are not wary or wiser. Diving into someone else. Finding your way to a party when you thought you were lost.

All these ordinary little miracles, passed into my cupped hand from yours. I’m carrying them now, with great pleasure and gratitude.

Thanks,  Cate Kennedy

First Prize- Owen McGoldrick  for

Little Boy Muse

snapping turtle
on hot summer’s day,
a bowl of squirming
maggots in a meadow.
On the shell,
a monarch butterfly
gently flapping its wings
in syncopation
to some calm drum
i know nothing about
but am beginning to
Second Prize, Lisa Brockwell for
This morning my heart was a pumice stone,
dry and riddled. By lunch time I was fire
and tinder.  Where have you gone?
Now, when the last light of the day pours
its whisky gold over the grass, I go outside
to chivvy my son, to bring him in. I hear
them before I see them: red-tailed black
cockatoos suspended a metre above my head.
Rare around here. Floating like the hulls
of boats viewed from a lake, and cresting
over invisible waves, they stop and drink
from our troughs.   I look up again, a rainbow
is arced over our house so horseshoe perfect
it could only be a cliché. But my heart opens its beak.
Highly Commended
Helen Thurloe
memory circuit
Audry Bunn
For my Teacher
Susan Bradley Smith
There’s space, and oddity, and you and me
Richard James Allen
how many umbrellas or love letters
Victoria McGrath
Perfecting An Ordinary Day
Sue Fielding
Phase of the moon
Nola Firth
Jane Symonds
the view from here
Lesley Synge