Judith Wright Poetry Prize: judges’ notes

Toby Fitch

The three winning poems, as with those on our shortlist, are vastly different in their aesthetics, but what unites them is a shared ethics of seeing the world and its sociopolitical constructs anew, and a searching for patterns that might make sense of what’s impossible to resolve – our shared, though disparate, existence in the Anthropocene. Or, as Judith Wright wrote in her poem ‘Patterns’:

… we have not found the road to virtue.
I shiver by the fire this winter day.

The play of opposites, their interpenetration—
there’s the reality, the fission and fusion.

Impossible to choose between absolutes, ultimates.
Pure light, pure lightlessness cannot be perceived.

First-placed ‘Acacia Land’ is a wild and wildly deserving winner. It combines a gnarly car-drive syntax with a suspense-filled narrative; awesome imagery of Country with the ghosts and waste lands of colonial invasion. In second-placed ‘nadelstich’, abstractions of language establish how shaped we are by the power structures around us, whether geometric, architectural, legal or social, but then linguistic play opens up to the reader a deeply affecting story of the relationship of the speaker to their mother. Third-placed ‘Surfing at Blackfellas’ is demonstrative, perhaps, of how settler-Australians can reckon with the violent past we inherent and are conditioned to forget – by reimagining the horror of Aboriginal massacres at the hands of white settlers. The imagery in this poem, and in the other winning poems, is difficult to forget.

Congratulations to the poets who wrote these poems, and to all on the shortlist. It was a joy to judge the poems alongside Alison Whittaker and Nguyên Tiên Hoàng.


Alison Whittaker

It was such a pleasure to judge this prize, and I’ve ground my teeth to select a shortlist from all of the poems submitted. For me, ‘Acacia Land’ is a deserving and flooring winner. It takes a cleaver to a region preoccupied with an image of its warmth in tidy townships – around which I grew up – and reveals through small, understated and deliberate undressings its deep atrocity in establishment and maintenance as a colonial force. In the jaw-ruining selection process, this poem was the first to make
me unclench.

It was the slow absorption of ‘Nadelstitch’ as it moves from the general to the specific that really drew me in – I enjoyed the storytelling centred on the construction of a single word and spiralling out of it. While ‘Surfing at Blackfellas’ is a shorter poem, its theoretical focus on the unknown as an expression of the violence of settlement fits its brevity for me.


Nguyên Tiên Hoàng

It was my honour to judge the Overland Judith Wright prize this year. From early December to middle February, the poems, known as the entries, had a special place in my reading routines. Quite often, like forces of obsession, these anonymous entries took over work and other duties, led me back to the laptop for re-reading, note-making, highlighting and underlining, setting my flight over a word, a phrase being fastened to the page; and over allusions and metaphors, lines and stanzas, contortions and evasions, savouring the story again, tuning to the voice again. This surely also happened to my fellow judges Alison Whittaker and Toby Fitch.

And, in the end, perhaps, thanks to these recurrent bouts of preliminary deliberations – done in one’s own quiet time and space – we came to the final rounds of team-deliberations more in agreement than disagreement. Working with Alison and Toby is definitely a joy. I would also like to thank Overland prize organiser, Rachael McGuirk for her unfailing support over the last three months.

I warmly congratulate the winning and shortlisted poets! The natural way of speaking, the strength of the story, the hidden pathos, the demonstrated skills and deftness, all of these have given your poems the winning edge. Having seen the vitality and diversity that come with the abundant bundle of entries this year, I contend that, even though the threat of the ‘market forces’ is real, regardless, poetry is alive and well – prospers, even. I wish all the poets who have sent poems to continue the journeys. I hope to see many poems coming into this prize to appear on the forming leaflets, chapbooks, collections that will be printed in the near future.


Image: Karen Blaha / Flickr



Alison Whittaker

Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi multitasker from the floodplains of Gunnedah in NSW. Between 2017–2018, she was a Fulbright scholar at Harvard Law School. Both her debut poetry collection, Lemons in the Chicken Wire, and her recent collection, Blakwork, were published by Magabala Books.

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Nguyên Tiên Hoàng

Nguyên Tiên Hoàng is a Melbourne-based poet, translator and poetry editor. His poems have appeared in the Saturday Age, HEAT, Cordite, Peril and numerous other publications and anthologies. His latest collection is Captive and Temporal (Vagabond, 2017).

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Toby Fitch

Toby Fitch is Overland’s poetry editor, a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Sydney, and the poet behind RawshockBloomin’ NotionsWhere Only the Sky had Hung Before and, most recently, Sydney Spleen. He is the editor of the poetry anthologies Best of Australian Poems 2021 (co-edited with Ellen van Neerven) and Groundswell: The Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New & Emerging Poets 2007–2020.

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