Judging the Poetry London competition was like going on a journey. Sometimes I recognised the terrain; often it was over-familiar. Then suddenly I’d get a jolt and wonder where I was. I’d try to get my bearings, feeling the excitement that comes from reading a poem where each line is a surprise, and a new world is in my hands. Those poems went straight into the ‘yes’ pile. Since this competition has an eighty-line limit, a high percentage of entries spanned two to four pages. I asked myself did the poem merit its length? Many were over-wordy. Some were trying too hard to be clever, but didn’t feel as if they had to be written – were maybe not about something that really mattered to the author. There were plenty of good poems, but they needed to be distinct to stand out.
Ultimately I went by how much a poem haunted me. The seven winners all did this. But which was to get which prize? I read each one into my iPhone voice memo and listened back, to get a feel for the sound as well as sense and shape. Then I put them aside for a few days so I could return to them afresh. I weighed them against each other. I shuffled them about and they kept changing positions. In the end my first love, the one that gave me most pleasure on the first reading, resurfaced on top.
‘The Letter Always Arrives at its Destination’ by Niall Campbell enacts a ritual with the sea. The images of notes in bottles wrapped in steady tercets propel me forward like waves, towards that heart-stopping last line ‘I had sent all the light I knew’, which gives me goose bumps. It makes me think of our relationship to the planet, and the relationship of land to sea. It also encapsulates a longing for ‘my dreamed America’. That the letters in bottles always arrive at their destination, the self, as the title implies, adds a further dimension: the loneliness of the self, sending out communications to the world only to have them returned like a mirror. In its reach and compression this had to have first prize.
The second prize-winner, ‘The Wolf Man’ by Abigail Parry, is a hypnotic monologue in the voice of the actor Lon Chaney Junior, charting his obsession with his dominating father. From the outset, with lines such as ‘to have the blood // bark backwards through the heart’, I knew the poem was taking me on an adventure with language and sound as well as possession. Its power intensifies as Chaney becomes more wolf-like. With the very different third prize-winner, ‘Gianfranco Faustino defends his Machine for the Extraction of the Soul’, I also felt that sense of being taken to a new place. The ludic tone and metaphysical theme vibrate against each other like complementary colours. That tension between the tone and the theme gives this poem its enticing aura.
All four commended poems have an engagement with language as well as subject, and still linger in my mind each time I read them. ‘A Dictionary of Having Been Prey in the Voice of the Grandmother’ is weird – I never quite got to the bottom of it, but love the way the poet merges the three characters in the Grimm’s Red Riding Hood fairytale to create a collage of fractured identities. ‘Joe Boy Learns his Words’ gives a convincing portrait of a boy who meets ‘the buzz of numbers and words’ and speaks in a startling manner, seeing the world askew, showing it to us through fresh eyes and a fresh tongue. There were a number of ekphrastic poems submitted but ‘The Hands Washing Us’, after an installation by Teresa Margolles, is outstanding, and is to be praised for taking on a theme large as crime and murder in Mexico, seen through the lens of morgue water. ‘Becoming Sei’, about the author of The Pillow Book, is full of stunning images and lines, from the arm ‘smooth as a stamen / inside the flower of your sleeve” to the perfect ending “soft as a pillow, / sharp as a paper cut’.
Thank you to Poetry London for inviting me to judge their competition, I would recommend all these seven poems as excellent companions for any journey.