Judges Notes for Judith Wright Poetry Prize 2021

Judging Notes

From a record number of entries, the judges of the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets 2020—Bonny Cassidy, Bella Li, Anne-Marie Te Whiu, and Toby Fitch—selected these four poems as the winners:


First Place – ‘Border Control: Meditations’

begins and ends with interrogation: a list of rapid-fire questions that might be issued by guards at the Jordan/West Bank border, but increasingly seem to be self-directed by the speaker. The snake-like form of the poem squeezes this voice tighter, curbing its lines with constricting enjambments. At times, the poem’s questions seem banal; at others, they veer into the absurd. Often, they are cryptic as though a correct answer could never exist. And always, they are specific – a personal language made audible by the suggestion of a listener. This tonal line, as ambiguous and precise as a patrolled border, is carefully managed. The questions pile up; the baggage of an identity decided by others. This story appears in slant shards, arranged into the shadow of a chronology. Its climactic final lines turn upon this structure, the speaker’s interrogators having disappeared, leaving their voice stranded.


Second Place – ‘Bidjigal Double Brick Dreaming’

sings an Indigenous suburban 90s story which warmly draws out domestic specifics with each chord reading as a fond memory. The front door of this poem is wide open and the reader is invited into gentle yet unsentimental, intimate moments where class is cleverly explored, love for family is all and a quiet resistance reigns. Nan’s voice is at the heart of this home and the piece pays homage to her humour and strength. The poet has composed a succinct photo-album poem which is humble and defiant, generously honouring and sharing snapshots of life inside ‘Dad’s double brick Dreaming’.


Equal Third Place – ‘sea-tree emblem’

works with carefully placed caesurae, considered enjambment and striking imagery, to create a subtle atmosphere of disturbance. Selected quotes from source texts anchor this disturbance to historical places and people—Seacliff Asylum, the late Janet Frame—though the identity of the speaker and their relation to these historical markers remain pleasingly oblique. The poem evokes unsettling and unresolved absences, which accrue around the eponymous emblem—an unstable sign throughout—becoming itself a kind of ‘ghost-text’, at once concrete and compelling, elusive and haunting.


Equal Third Place – ‘book of hours’

appears to begin with haphazard, slashed-up impressions of a working life under capitalism, but soon hones in on the nauseating ‘being here negates the possibility of being there’ of the hours one puts in for the ruling class. The poet knows their work and their body, their body of work—the poiesis they make when they work for management—is ‘inherently removable’. Like a modern office, this book of hours is ‘post-cubicle’.

This prize is made possible with the support of the Malcolm Robertson Foundation.



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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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Bonny Cassidy

Bonny Cassidy is feature reviews editor at Cordite Poetry Review. She is a poet and essayist living in Melbourne, and lecturer at RMIT University.

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Bella Li

Bella Li is the author of Argosy (Vagabond Press, 2017) – a book of poetry, collage and photography – which won the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry and the 2018 NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Poetry. Her latest collection is Lost Lake (Vagabond Press, 2018), which has been shortlisted for the 2018 Queensland Literary Award for Poetry.

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Anne-Marie Te Whiu

Anne-Marie Te Whiu (Te Rarawa) is a poet, editor, weaver, festival director and cultural producer. In 2019, she co-edited Solid Air, Australia and New Zealand Spoken Word anthology. She has edited Tony Birch’s forthcoming poetry collection Whisper Songs. Between 2015-2017 she was co-director of the Queensland Poetry Festival. Her poems and essays have appeared in Cordite, Te Whē Journal, Australian Poetry, Sport, Rabbit and Ora Nui amongst others.

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