From a field of many hundreds and a remarkable shortlist of nine poems, the judges of the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets 2021—Keri Glastonbury, Grace Yee and Toby Fitch—have selected these three poems as the winners:
First place — ‘are you ready poem’
‘are you ready poem’ takes the form of an introspective monologue on the grand themes of art and life by a (we assume) 30-something Turkish-Australian man-of-letters/bookshop worker and his fatalistic dreams of setting up an alternative economy: ‘black mountain and co-ops and unions and aris and zines and a koala logo’.
When the local imam tells his father (who is desperate for his son to become a teacher) that ‘poets write the world into being’, this is contrasted with the increasing impossibility of living off a poet’s wage, despite the Bowie-esque refrain that ‘maybe we could become imams / just for one day’.
‘are you ready poem’ is a generational reprise around the theme of how to reconcile art and work. The poem’s use of prose form, eschewing all punctuation besides forward slashes, cleverly holds all its ideas and associations in the air, mimicking the work of a life lived precariously. Its final phrase, which bookends the poem and obliquely harks back to Plato’s banishing of poets from his Republic, is a killer.
Second place — ‘the national debt’
‘the national debt’ is an extraordinary poem written in a ‘jazzy’ improvisational style that deftly interweaves sociopolitical critique with personal observations and reflections on the everyday. Appeals for the excision of social ills (‘incarceration’; ‘conspicuous plunder’) are braided with (what appear to be) random memories, wry observations and desperate ironies (‘the economy loves you more than you could ever love yourself’). Ordinary phenomena give rise to epiphanies (‘bright blue day and I just saw bubbles / a man is a finite resource’), and existential crises are triggered by life’s most mundane props (‘why milk? why today?’). In this world, in which the superficialities, excesses and absurdities of life in a soul-sucking neoliberal economy are rendered barely tolerable, the value of everything—including poetry—is interrogated, and the only way to survive is to keep moving.
Third place — ‘stones’
‘stones’, in its condensed evocation of a mother’s illness and despair, makes great use of colour, imagery, tactility and emotion. With some stunning lines, such as ‘mineral compensation for an empty womb’, each tercet crystalises experience for the speaker until the standalone last line hits home with a new, heartbreaking understanding of her world.
This prize is made possible with the support of the Malcolm Robertson Foundation
If you enjoyed this piece, buy the issue