The 2012 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize

The winner of the 2012 Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets is Luke Fischer for his poem ‘Augury?’. Second prize goes to Fiona Hile for ‘The owl of Lascaux’. Third prize goes to Myles Gough for ‘The watchmaker’s wrath’.

Sometimes it’s just about an honest, well-crafted poem.

Throughout the summer, while reading for the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets, and as a terrific heatwave bled fire and brimstone across the land, the sentence ‘Sometimes it’s just about an honest, well-crafted poem’ leapt over and over through my thoughts like a cool dolphin springing from waves in an apparition of a distant inland sea.

An honest, well-crafted poem can appear anywhere at any time, in any genre and from any one of the hundreds of poetry schools or sub-schools or bloodsucking poetry cults that are today found in most modern societies. The challenge and skill of the judge is firstly to dig the poet’s real context and then to keenly apprehend whether or not the poem to hand actually goes the distance demanded by that context.

Sometimes it’s a tough call, especially when a poem only properly reveals itself after a number of readings apportioned equally between the study and the kitchen and the garden, and I find myself carrying batches of poems while chasing kids and cooking meals, reading and re-reading and re-reading like an old-school surfer riding endless sets of distraction. Sometimes a poem just gets you right between the eyes first go, whether you’re dicing onions or working to the pumpkin hour. In either case, when a poem arrives, it definitely and definitively arrives. I was grateful to be reminded that this is where it’s really at, this poetry business – to find the right form for the exact intelligible juncture and then open it up to the max.

My process was first to wade twice though the 382 entries. This took a few arduous weeks, after which a group of about twenty-five somewhat honest and well-crafted poems clung to me like crustaceous residue. I loved them all for a while, it’s true to say, each for their different ways. Some poems were perfect except that, hidden deeply in the system, a fatal error or two saw beautiful stratospheric reaches prematurely thwarted by explosions of silence. Some, even after careful reading, fell sideways into shadows of dissipation, asymptotes of intention and linguistic fervour widening into swirling pools of nothing. There was a group of good, well-meaning poems that said fine things about fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters, grandpas and grandmas, newborns arriving or new-blooms leaving. They were accompanied by poems celebrating love or the Game of Thrones-style apocalyptic ruination of love, replete with costumes, well-rendered scenery and a reasonable enough script.

I won’t mention the crazy poems.

But I always come away from judging a prize with a renewed appreciation for poetry as a magnificent dream shared by an extraordinary group of modest but excessively interesting human beings from all over the planet. As poets, whether we believe our task is to look as deeply as possible into the eye of whatever abyss might be sidling up close and friendly and then to report back with intelligence, sassy linguistic fetish and fatal good humour, or whether we believe it to be about finding happiness amid the cosmic maelstrom, or whether we think nothing of the sort, everything between absolute beauty and absolute noise is being said out there all the time in the swelling chatter of homo poeticus.

This year’s fine winning poem, ‘Augury?’, by Luke Fischer, begins ‘I’m not sure if I’m following a trail / left by goats or on the human path’. A walk in the hills is put into perspective by a wonderfully overt sense of uncertainty. ‘I’m not sure’ gives a contemporary (and ethically acute) spin to the ‘ramble’ poem, a genre central to environmental literature, in which observations and impressions collected on outdoorsy treks are traditionally enumerated. ‘Augury?’ balances epistemological certitude on a hinge of doubt, first announced by the question mark in the title and then followed through in a finely composed event where the complexities of human ambivalences are made ineluctably central to the experience of nature. At first the poem grabbed me because it is fundamentally ‘honest and well-crafted’, making no bones about wanting to be easily read and demonstrating an excellent grasp of romantic, modern and post-modern environmental poetry and poetics, all the way from Goethe to Gary Snyder. Is it a goat or human path, back there in Greece? ‘Augury?’ is a marvellous example of a radical poetry that draws its energy more from progressive intention and scope than, for instance, displays of formal experimentation. It’s a big bad world out there, and we need all the good poetry we can get.

Fiona Hile’s ‘The owl of Lascaux’ has been awarded second prize and Myles Gough’s ‘The watchmaker’s wrath’, third prize. They lead a small group of new poems that also deserve attention. Both place-winning poems create deep and free archaeologies of the life of the psyche, all the while demonstrating an adroit grasp of genre. ‘The owl of Lascaux’ maps a slow filial apocalypse, a ruinous psycho-geography whose ancient inheritance is to guard the tragic conception of representation itself. ‘The watchmaker’s wrath’ resolves a kaleidoscopic narrative of moments of intense cinematographic affect, from ‘cold case’ gothic turning to interplanetary forensics turning to roadside memorial, where prolix ‘built fictions turn slowly into histories, and ease with glacial steadiness into truths’. All three winning poems are inspired inquiries into the nature of history and truth, the relation between memory, language and place.

The vital spark of inquiry is also shared by the group of commended poems: Corey Wakeling’s ‘Monarch of the good’ and ‘The tar fires’, Joel Scott’s ‘A stitch up’, Gareth Thomas’ ‘Back fence lost’, Dusk Dundler’s ‘the ether comes’ and Marty Hiatt’s ‘the report’.

All the poems stand out for being ‘honest and well-crafted’, and they each go the true distance demanded by the poem’s immediate and projected context. To witness such aesthetic authenticity in the writing of new and emerging poets is the great gift of the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets, and I invite you to enjoy the poems and wish the poets every future success just as much as I do.
Malcolm Robertson Foundation logo The Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets is made possible by the support of the Malcolm Robertson Foundation.

Peter Minter

Peter Minter is a leading Australian poet and writer on poetry and poetics, and Overland’s outgoing poetry editor.

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