Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Build Africa Poetry Competition, 2012, Results and Judge’s Report

 

The winning poems for the 2012 Build Africa Poetry Competition are as follows:

 

First Prize: Understanding Dung Beetles by ROGER ELKIN

 

Second Prize: Artichokes and an Olive Grove by MANDY PANNETT

 

Third Prize: Stalkers by FAY MARSHALL

 

Two other entries have been selected as ‘Highly Commended’ from a strong list of poems also deserving of such honour. The two highly commended poems are:

 

1.    Titania’s Wood by MANDY PANNETT

2.    Finding Edna by BRUCE HARRIS

 

 Congratulations to the winners. The winning and commended poems will be published in the Excel for Charity News Blog on the 1st of October 2012.

This competition has raised £69.48 for the Build Africa charity. Thanks to all the entrants.

 

Now here is the Judge’s report:

 

Report on the Build Africa Poetry Competition, 2012

  

Judgement in literary competitions is burdened with the expectation of precision in the determination of value. It is of course also burdened with the challenge of perspective. Added to this is the paucity of material a judge or any critic has to work with in determining the relative strength of poems. A novel or short story presents the critic or judge with more material, many pages of information, by which it can be evaluated against another novel or short story. Prose-fiction does have its own challenges, but it comes with significantly less unresolved ‘tribal’ conflict than poetry. The poetry universe is seriously sectarian, with factious practice camps, which sometimes refuse to publish, honour or even acknowledge each other. This does inform judgement in a poetry competition.  

 

Perhaps, I exaggerate, or hope I do, hope indeed there is greater agreement on value between differently persuaded poetry practices and traditions. It may be that the greater quarrel is about form rather than value, though the two issues tend to be conflated. So, if we like a certain kind of poetry we happily attach value to it, but if we are not happy with that way of writing poetry we do not even care that it may be of significant value to others. We just don’t touch that kind of poetry, won’t buy or read it unless we have professional interest in it – as would media reviewers, academics, archivists and other collectors.

 

The good news for those who support and enter poetry competitions is that the qualities by which the best poems succeed and excite interest remain unchanged and roughly same across the tribes. To an extent the bickering of our poetry tribes has complicated perceptions of value and capacity for fairness in judgement, but excellence is ultimately its own way maker, and poems which emerge winners will usually be among the best of any kind in practice. A poem is only fairly judged according to its form – the extent to which it excels in the appropriation or exposition of those qualities germane to its form. If we understand what a poet is doing in a poem we can determine how well he or she has done it, and also accurately compare the quality of what has been done to what other poets have been able to do working with the same material in a similar manner.  If we are informed enough through training or practice, or just as experienced readers, we can also judge correctly that a given poet has done more or less excellent work with a chosen set of poetry material than another poet working on a different set of material. In judgement, it helps to be informed by the history of practice and the movement of innovation. No poetry competition is judged in an ahistorical vacuum.

 

I was thus mindful of our poetry moment, its centred practices and attendant politics of placement, coming to the 2012 Build Africa Poetry Competition. I decided to begin as I intended to conclude, by examining and moderating my own preferences and perspectives. In the end I was able to find clear winners from my shortlisted entries, but I think it is useful to generally remind those who win a poetry competition and others whose poems only made the shortlist that the values of the governing poetics in a competition can in some cases determine the outcome. The triumph of the winners will in such cases represent excellence but also good fortune, especially where there has been performance parity or something close to that among the best entries. For the winners there ought to be joy in the public acknowledgement of excellence by peers, delight with progress in craft, but scant room for triumphalism as in sports competitions.

 

What kind of poems was I hoping to find and honour in the 2012 Build Africa Poetry Competition; that is, what baggage did I come to this judgement with? I find value in all poetry forms and traditions. I like to go beyond the centred poetics of dominant perspectives in recent poetry publishing and creative writing education, and find value in whatever form it is being offered. Every kind of poetry is capable of excellence but not every poem is excellent. I do not insist on showcase poems, the kind that scream ‘Look at us! We are poems!’ at every reader, but I have retained that healthy foundational interest in ambition, eloquence and the personal voice in practice. Poetic difficulty is not for me just a period modernist obsession because there is even more complexity in the cosmopolitan contemporary, more of everything tied together and still unresolved, to complicate the art and unconscious of practising poets. I recognise that what I consider ambition in practice – elaborate or exceptional exploration of craft or subject – some now see as pretentious. However, I still believe in the thinking poet’s poem and consider elaborate thought, histories and mythologies valuable material for practice even in our time, just as valuable as the preferred autobiographical realism of the snap shot here and now, recorded ad nauseam in recent narrative poetry. I worry about poets being the inescapable protagonists of all or most of their poems, but recognise and respect the fact that this is essential fare for much recent poetry. It happens with poets for whom practice is not only art but also confession and therapy.

 

I hoped to find in these competition poems a settled ownership of language, confidence in the application of meaning, because in most cases poetry practice still involves the creative processing of meaning, demanding or demonstrating above average dexterity in the verbal arts. You have to own or know enough of language before you can successfully ‘disown’ it, or attempt to deny it meaning or even presence in your work as some poets have done and some still do. I wanted to encounter the competition poems first as a lay or ‘common’ reader, and so expected to be provoked, informed, entertained, inspired and humoured, becoming so moved by whatever I read that I would want to read it again… possibly pick up a poetry reading habit if I wasn’t already one of the converted.  I was looking for variety and strong individual voices. I hoped the competition would provide in its variety the lyrical and narrative, even commentaries of compelling descriptive and expository power. Poetry is all of these things. It embraces all subjects, nothing off limit or taboo.

 

Thankfully, I did find the variety and robust poetics I was hoping for in this competition. The winning poem, ‘Understanding Dung Beetles’ is not for the squeamish, but the poem’s conversational tone and humour draws its readers to share an interest in what will be for many an unusual and possibly unsuitable subject. For both poet and readers, there is hard work in this informative poem, involving the processing of specialist information, but this is neither obvious nor obtrusive because the poet has masked it with an informal tone, that near conspiratorial voice by which the subject is exposed. In the third stanza there is the kind of heady information on dung beetles by which the poem is mostly constructed:

         

They work arse-over-heels, literally:

though have spade-shaped heads

            use their hind legs to shift a dung ball

            fifty times their body weight: backwards.  

 

There is more rib-tickling erudition in the poem from where that came. But there is also a serious purpose to all that laughter. We get to know the dung beetle, get to know the importance of its life to our lives, and are moved to serious thought, as the poet in conclusion:

 

          Dung is all they own.

            Get high on piles of ordure.

 

            And dedicating their lives to dung

question the testament

that bread is the staff of life.

 

We are on a journey in ‘Artichokes and an Olive Grove’, second prize winner in the competition. It does not matter so much that this journey may be more imagined than real. What engaged me as a reader was how the poem enacts movement as metaphor, imagining progress from brokenness and despair towards hope. There is a Mediterranean theme in the references to Laertes, a name from Greek mythology, and the two land products, artichokes and olives, from which the poem takes its title. The allusion to Greek mythology, in particular Homer’s Odyssey, informs the poem’s interest in place or land as a cathartic as well as therapeutic site for the processing of personal journeys, connecting the past with its present and possible future –physical and emotional  journeys of acceptance and closure, recovery and renewal.  The quiet, persuasive voice of the poem is speaking life or healing or hope to one slumped “like an over-blown poppy” on a donkey of despondency. Instead of staying saddled to that ‘donkey’, or removing to an ‘island’ location, an Odysseyan quest land, only to relive the pain of loss and separation, hope was on offer at a land of new beginning, a restful upland location, with familiar or reassuring olive surrounds, from which to look beyond the moment:

 

          In those hills is an olive grove

            and a plot of land to grow artichokes on

where we shall put that donkey out to graze.  

 

This rich poem has a simple lineal structure, moving from the observation which identifies its conflict early in the first line, ‘’Your spirit slumps in the saddle’’, to the two questions which engage and then resolve the conflict: ‘’What can I offer to make you look up’’ and “A small farm then, in the backhills?’’ A concluding observation completes the frame, identifying resolution of the conflict with the line, “You are starting to un-slump”.

 

I liked the ambition of these first two winning poems and the risks successfully taken in the choice of subject, the referencing of mythology, and use of detail, including scientific data. Mood is a significant contributor to enrichment of reader experience in both poems. ‘Stalkers’, winner of the third prize, as well as ‘Finding Edna’ and ‘Titania’s Wood’, which I highly commend, all demonstrate this impressive use of material, as do a number of other poems. ‘Stalkers’ wins the early interest of its reader by suggesting itself as a detective story. We immediately want to know who the stalkers are, a question the poem only responds to tangentially but never quite answers. Instead it provides descriptive identikits to guide its readers towards own interpretations and conclusions on who the culprits might be – as in police artist drawings of unknown villains:

 

          The first

            is a handsome brute;

            ……………………….

 

                        it swoops from tree-top to tree-top,

            hurdles roads, blazes across horizons,

                        ravager, turning

forest to ash, cropland to desert  

 

Looking at this portrait, we may begin to sense that rogue weather types and ecological disasters are the enemies we seek here rather than human or animal agents, but this is inconclusive. So we seek further information by turning to more of the pictures:

 

          The other stalker

is more insidious.

 

It sleeks beneath sills in serpentine coils,

undermines drip by slow drop,

fragile foundations;

inches up imperceptibly,

sinks islands,

swamps cities;

swallows shores

 

Aha! We think we are now sure about these stalkers, and even if we still don’t know who or what they are we are happier for taking part in the adventure the poem has provided.  

 

It has been a pleasure reading these poems – all the competition entries. I found in them much comfort, and the support to continue celebrating poetry in all its subjects, forms and traditions. I hoped to find excellence in its various poetry signatures and did. I hoped to find boldness in the use of language, adventure in the application of form, and I did too. I would say it has been a successful outing for the Build Africa Poetry Competition and its organisers.

 

Afam Akeh

Oxford, UK.

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