Poetry London Prize 2021: Judge’s Report

by Malika Booker

As a judge, I always ask myself the following questions when selecting the winners: What haunts you? What stands out? What poem made you forget you were a judge and ignited your curiosity, your admiration, your appreciation?

Then, I make my decisions.

Runner Up: ‘Glass’ by Katherine Gaffney

                      When we return for hot cocoa & warmth
& Poppop, she tucks in his hospital bed next to him,

speaks to him in their language. Language my mother
only understands briefly, language I can only count

to ten in, language that in this room belongs to no country,
but to my grandmother & grandfather & the ice she still

shares with him as she traces her shapes on the ceiling.

There is something enchantingly mythical about this migration love poem. I found it both tender and poignant. I was drawn to this sustained narrative epic, reminiscent of a contemporary migration fairy tale. The poem’s strength lies in the effortless and deceptive use of repetition. The repeated words act as a systematic spine alongside the couplet, creating an incantatory effect. I felt as if the poem was navigating a delicate waltz on fragile ice with ease.

Runner Up: ‘Blow Up’ by Jennifer Harrison

He has brushed the trees with a soft dark green crayon
and edged the powdery branches against an ominous sky.

I was struck by the vivid attempts of this ekphrastic poem to capture the atmospheric elements of the pastel hanging in the bedroom. One of the poem’s strengths is the title’s attempt to allude to the 1966 mystery thriller film Blow Up on one hand, whilst crafting a filmic poem that is also portrait and a still life. Here, mystery is juxtaposed with an ever-increasing focalization of multiple worlds at once: the bedroom, the painting, the film. It is stillness and absence conveyed in understated elegance. There is a subtle poetic noir captured in the silence, enacted in these zooming-in lenses. 

Runner Up: ‘Alopecia’ by Jen Campbell

iv

If I close my eyes and
brush my hair, I swear

I can hear the
accidental animals:

a nightjar
            an owl
a woodpecker
  a lark.

I was impressed by the poet’s brave approach to the subject of hair loss. The poet uses laconic terse lines and fantastical imagistic leaps to create a refreshingly humorous lyric. Campbell’s sequential poem is an act of transformation, where the emotive experience of alopecia is described using wonderful phraseology (‘my scarecrow scalp’) and self-deprecating humour:

Before long, I am a petting zoo.

I would say that I mind
but I know that pity is awful
and so, I learn to whistle beast-song.

The wig becomes a sentient creature through extraordinary acts of personification. Yet it is the crisp enjambment and succinct short lines that empower this mocking humour and lyrically beautiful construction of a defamiliarized language for hair loss.

Third Prize: ‘Sango-in-waiting’ by Jolade Olusanya.

I just eye witness from afar.
 a backup cloud
for a toll gate camera.

I see the blood
I hear the guns and remember phlegm
I see men make an auction house out of a street.
time still a body.
photoshop deaths.
blue cascading

Helvetica
   Neue
obituaries.

‘this is how to make a man / clear his throat with a gun’. This opening couplet completely captivated and disturbed me. I returned to it repeatedly, attracted to its compelling nature. In October 2020, a video went viral showing the shooting of a young man by the Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). What followed were two weeks of protest, culminating in mass shootings when the military opened fire on peaceful protesters sitting draped in the Nigerian flag, singing the national anthem. A bloodbath broadcast live via social media.

Now, revisit the stunning couplet and imagine the singing throats petering out as the sounds of gunshots increased. Secondly, note that the title refers to Sango (the powerful Yoruba God of thunder, lightning, and electricity), the God of war whose mouth makes fire. There is a harrowing, hypnotic magnetism about this anti-narrative poem. Its strength lies in the seemingly haphazard yet controlled and disjointed imagery, as well as the formal shape on the page, and the poet’s ruthless, emblematic construction of the throat.

The poem is a cumulonimbus – a cloud pregnant with rainstorm, bursting as the clearing throat is cut off by the thunder fire into stillness. This is political poetry at its best, following a long tradition of Nigerian writers using poetry as testimony, protest, and witness. 

Second Prize: ‘Church Farm’ by Leonie Rushforth

How not confessing my intent
I went one day to find it,
the house that housed my mother as a child,
alone at the end of a lane, afloat
on a sea of field grass bounded
by a moat, abandoned but not ransacked,
the door unforced, the steep roof.
in good repair…

I admire the syntactical feat of this poem: one continuous sentence, with dexterity and control exercised through punctuation, enjambment, and clever line breaks.  The reader is propelled through an onslaught of details and imagery vividly unwrapping a derelict house. This is poetry of place and nature, elegy, and monument. The poem here is a time machine, a vortex pulling the reader past the debris and encroaching landscape into the past. Alongside the sense of place is the strength and richness of the poetic voice, which is frank, bold, and non-nostalgic. ‘Church Farm’ establishes the sensuous characteristics of nature reclaiming the land, dramatized within the profound volta where the poet meets their ghostly mother taking a walk. The imagistic hodgepodge outlines the decay, the abandonment, the missing, and the ongoing grief within the lyric with profound effect.

First Prize: ‘Hollywood Africans’ by Nick Makoha

                             An ultraviolet light lit the room. Basquiat channel surfing looking
for cartoons, while Icarus prodded a canvas to see if the image fit precisely in the
frame. He was certain someone had broken in.

[…]

                                                                                                 The pulp of her lips are flint
and fire. The birds are silent and so is the wind. The rest of the night falls away. In
another magic, she calls my original name.

[…]

                                                                                        in New York City. This is where
the road delivers us towards the edge of difference. Butterscotch drips from my
fingers and falls to the tarmac. A beautiful suspension.

This prose poem haunted me. Here, James Tate’s American Surrealism meets contemporary African Diasporic Afro-futurism. The poem has a filmic aesthetic, where different images are superimposed to create a montage not unlike a Basquiat painting. This poem, like James Tate’s, constructs its own logic, strangeness, absurdity, and sense of the ironic, measured against the mundane. Tony Hoagland calls this ‘contemporary disorientation’; a juxtaposition of discordant ideas and incidences. The poem is a frame, a painting making leaps and forming its own peculiar logic that conflates two dreamers who both died young or flew too close to the sun – Basquiat (via drugs and the art world) and Icarus (the sun). Here, Basquiat is rendered into myth and Icarus into the black body.

The obsessive nature of the poem lies in the framing, the prose frame, the canvas frame, the television frame, almost like a Russian doll; layers within layers. I was seduced by the ekphrastic nature of the poem, its confident voice, its playfulness. The language: ‘Butterscotch drops from my fingers and falls to the tarmac. A beautiful suspension’; ‘I swat a crowd of mosquitos above her head.’

At its heart, it is a love poem. A first date. Magic wearing its trick on its sleeve. Character-driven and tragically humorous, mixed with a sense of the absurd.