Monday, May 24, 2010

And the Judge said...

Bank Street Writers Poetry Competition 2010

What guarantees entry to the No pile? Sloppiness, for a start. Inattention to line lengths, inaccuracy. Teeth don’t smirk, mouths do. Faces don’t chew. Clich├ęs won’t win you any prizes, either. Neither will clunky or archaic language, inversions and poems that strive to be ‘poetic’. Poetry is intrinsically poetic. It doesn’t have to be given gossamer threads and veils. Every noun doesn’t need an adjective. A poem with a good title helps. A title is the door to the poem. But the door doesn’t need announcing and the door doesn’t need to be repeated. That’ll only get your poem in the No pile.
So, what gets into the Yes pile? Poetry that is arresting and original. There were a lot of poems about MPs’ expenses, which probably says something about what’s irking people at the moment, but it did little to make me sit up and pay attention. What caught my eye were a striking use of language, atmosphere, texture, good lineation, a real sense of structure and a willingness to trust the words to work. Of course, words won’t work for you unless you choose the right ones and – to paraphrase Coleridge – put them in their right order.
Dance of the Cobblers has some nice detail in it. I liked Mr Boorman’s drizzling fag and the beeswaxed thread and bottles of dye. I also liked some of the detail in Talecrumbs I Left Myself for Navigation (marvellous title!) and the gentle way it explores the ways we find home.
Swingers caught me by surprise with its ending. I’d thought the poem rather ‘usual’ till I read the last stanza. The notion that a silence can lie beneath our clothes is interesting, but it’s the penultimate line that really catches you unawares – Cool, unsteady, I bandage myself – as if the narrator were somehow damaged by the whole experience. The juxtaposition of cool with unsteady surprises, too. This deserves a commendation. Big Fish is a superb poem. There’s a real sense of place. Time is held in the balance here. Two boys are fishing. The ‘howl of school has vanished’ and ‘giant carp/move slow as blood cells’. The mood is still. I can’t help thinking about Ted Hughes’ famous Pike. There are deep things being alluded to here – war, ‘pockmarked Madonnas/with dirty mouths’. The poet says ‘Some stains never come out’ and we imagine degradation and dereliction, death perhaps. But the fish are ‘lavender’ and they ‘whisker the smoky water’. This is a poem about finding peace in a damaged world. The last line is heartbreaking in its simplicity. I just have a few quibbles with some of the line lengths and perhaps mildew isn’t luminous – it’s black or grey, isn’t it? I’m nitpicking. I’m having to. There’s some very strong work here. I like this poem very much. This is a poet whose work I would choose to read.
Grunting Up gets a well earned 3rd prize. I had no idea that sows sing when they’re being suckled. This poem has a nice physicality. The use of ‘plug on’ to describe the way a piglet will latch onto the sow’s nipple is accurate and inventive. It has a good strong sound.
The 2nd prize goes to Acting Blackbird. The use of language is dynamic and the metaphor of the blackbird as an actor is well-sustained. Not an easy thing to do throughout an entire poem. Well done.
And finally, the 1stprize is awarded to The Rambla at Alfaix. This poem is assured and measured. The opening line reminded me slightly of The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket by Robert Lowell and, because The Rambla at Alfaix is such an accomplished piece of work, it immediately made me suspicious. I had to Google a few lines just to make sure it wasn’t nicked – ‘small dark oranges hard as want’ for example. There is so much detail here – ‘livid pomegranates//split open in the dust’ ‘fine dots of rain//sharp as pipa shells’ ‘a single slit of weed’. Small things have a way of bringing larger ones into focus. They contrast with the flood, with the memory of a river, abandonment, injuries. We’re never told what happened and the narrator doesn’t conjecture. We are given the freedom to inhabit the poem, to walk, to experience the season of drought and neglect. Like the previous poem, dereliction and damage and a certain poverty are suggested, but the tone couldn’t be more different. Only one nitpick here – the fourth stanza could be a couplet to complete the overall sense of unity in the structure. But really, this is very good work. I’d certainly be thinking of publication if I’d written this.

Pat Winslow