It has been a pleasure and an honour to judge the 2016 Judith Wright Prize for Emerging Poets. While reading the entries, we kept in mind Wright’s words on the central cultural role poetry plays:
I think poetry should be treated, not as a lofty art separated from life, but as a way of seeing and expressing not just the personal view, but the whole context of the writer’s times.
This year’s shortlisted poems experimented with modes, moods and discourses to engage with various political and cultural moments. These poems made us return again and again to uncover more within their meanings and structures; to interrogate their ideas, line by line. Each poem had its particular vitality, its seductions, its pull, its hook. We continued to challenge each other about those that stood out and our lists kept changing. Some poems took weeks to emerge from the group. Others faded. In the end we were forced to acknowledge that we were not going to be able to decide on a single winner; that in fairness to our process we had two winners, and a number of other terrific poems as well.
The winning poems
Each of the winning poems has a considerable political and critical edge: the poets have clearly pushed their respective forms into surprising new shapes that seem necessary and important for poems written in and of Australia at this moment in time. They synergise the personal and the political in distinctive and deeply felt ways, speaking of and to the contemporary moment with wit, abandon, gutsiness and a healthy criticality.
In Alison Whittaker’s ‘MANY GIRLS WHITE LINEN’, which placed equal first, the plight of First Nations peoples is front and centre. Through its torsional rhymes and rhythms, the poem eviscerates the iconic whiteness of Picnic at Hanging Rock and stuns with its own iconic imagery: ‘amongst gums collecting grit / where blak girls hang / nails’. The poem is, to quote Whittaker, ‘raw rousing horrifying’.
Holly Isemonger’s ‘OK cupid’, the other equal first-place prizewinner, is a dark, post-digital love poem in which the words of three stanzas are recombined to tell a warped tale about the split-second decisions one makes in the world of online dating. The poem could be seen as a nocturne: the words rotate almost musically, but the recombinations also deconstruct the events within the poem. ‘OK cupid’ shows how repetition is really, in Gertrude Stein’s sense, insistence.
Lachlan Brown’s ‘Self-division: little song selections’, this year’s runner-up, is a series of playful but moody sonnets set in suburban Western Sydney, structured around the prime-numbered tracks of what could be a hoax record by an unknown band. Brown’s breathtaking enjambments (‘those ads you accident- / ally click on before the world / explodes’) give the malle(y)able sonnet form yet another lease of life.
The shortlisted poems
Shari Kocher’s ‘Absent Self Portrait’ tumbles out through its rhythmic unpunctuated block-like poetry ‘scenes’ and journeys through childhood and adult life, full of things, dangers, revelations, places. It also gestures toward a kind of spirituality of both emptiness and beyond-ness. Its form counterpoints this airy idea with its flush of language that looks like a prose poem yet, in its unpunctuated state, contains no prose sentences. It is its own shivery enigma.
In ‘Creature Quatrains’ Toby Davidson ensures it’s not the humans who get to speak, as this series of deft, slightly twisted, ironic quatrains allows all kinds of organisms a point of view or place of regard: birds, insects, mammals, living fossils, and, inevitably, a thylacine. His series works cumulatively through image, witty address and aphorism: from the snail we get ‘parthenogenesis is next to godliness’ and the lyrebird ‘back to the wings, ye minor player’, while ‘two stink bugs mate, reversed, on a leaf’. The poems, literally, teem with life.
‘Languages I learned in Hell’ by Audrey Molloy ingeniously shows how the conceptual idea of a series of lists of words, phrases and acronyms can offer narrative and emotional insight into loss, the absurdities of modern life and language, and simply getting on with it. Her lists come from the vocabularies of medicine, law, managerialism, even IKEA-speak, covering everything from ‘tussy mussy’ to ‘pre-marital assets’, ‘foetal demise’ to ‘friends with benefits’, along with an ‘allen key’. This is adroit, sharp and affecting all at once.
Dave Drayton says his poem ‘life cycle’ is a sestanagrammatina, which immediately signals ‘challenge’ and it is challenge well met. Its six thin stanzas are interlaced in a tightly controlled oulipo-style tour de force, full of the ‘erotic tug’ of love and poetry playing out amongst ‘rips in corrugated heat’ as desire is parched along ‘indiscreet or-/gans’. And in all this, the poem goes ring-a-ring-around, as a ring of romance combines a ring of language in a ring of systems. Which was ever thus, as Drayton keeps us on our toes, producing ‘a heartstring / sputtering’ as he ratchets the enjoyment and danger.
‘River of Crumbs’ by Sumudu Samarawickrama wrestles with the media images we confront daily, the too-frequent horror of destructive war. The poem begins with the image, the photograph, and acknowledges that ‘the photographs proliferate’; they solve nothing, offer no food, nor peace and are, in fact, part of the perpetration of horror. Yet they record people who are alive even in the ashes. Its repetitions enact the constant rain of destruction but its startling images and compassion allow selves, ‘dimensional and recognisable’, to emerge.
KA Rees’s ‘Thin Veil’ explores memory and embodiment, using the conceit of the holiday weekend. Thus, she acutely gets under the skin of that most Australian situation, from the apparent banality of its beginning – ‘where’s the bloody panadol’ – then proceeds through a series of images and admonishments around the unveiling of recall and place, in ‘the cracks in the wall’ or forms of bodily numbness. However, the poem wisely refuses to resolve, leaving us with the grounded chill of ‘cold earth to sun’.
We congratulate all the poets for the strong and challenging work they have made and for giving us the many pleasures of poetry during that process.
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