Judging Ver Poets Ten-Liners Competition

Owning to a family emergency, I was unable to attend the prize-giving for this year’s Ver Poets Ten-Liners Poetry Competition. Nonetheless, it was a pleasure to judge the entries, and a delight to discover who-wrote-what upon publication of the anthology (since I judged it blind).

What follows is my adjudication report. If this piques your interest, I am sure the Ver Poets will be happy to supply you with the fifty-page, staple-bound prizewinners’ anthology for a modest three pounds.


“A short poem need not be small”
 —  Marvin Bell, from “32 Statements About Poetry”

The short poems I like best feel longer than they are — not as a penance, but in the way that the poem seems to open out while, and especially just after, reading it. By this I do not mean that a good short poem necessarily tackles big topics with grand language. Consider, for example, one of Bashō’s most famous haiku (translated here by Jane Hirshfield):

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.

There is not too much difference between judging a prize like this and editing an anthology. The main thing is to play a little game with oneself, first selecting a longlist, then pretending the editorial requirements have changed and now you can only publish a short list, and so on — until you must ask that terrible question: “If I could only put forward one poem, which one would it be?”

If I were to hand over this year’s excellent competition entries to half a dozen well-established poets and ask that question, I am sure I would get at least three — if not as many as six — different replies. So, reading the poems under a variety of circumstances, in different orders, and at varying degrees of caffeination, helps this judge to feel that he has done service to the collective hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of hours that have gone into writing these poems. In the end, though, no matter how much we try to deceive ourselves about objectivity, selecting from amongst poems of this standard and quality is always to some extent a matter of personal taste.

Let me say that again: this year’s entries were all poems of quality. The theme of ageing — both facing mortality and reconciling with the past — was at the fore, and that is certainly a topic that focuses one’s efforts on addressing humanity in a meaningful way. I know no better language than poetry for doing so. Yet these poems were far from morbid or self-pitying. They were all of substance, and those that made the long list were poems that felt like they mattered to the poet, and this essential quality transmitted across the page.

It seems to me that no small amount of influence from Wendy Cope, Carol Ann Duffy, and Billy Collins made its way into these poems. Humour and pathos sit side-by-side, and in the most successful instances, sit either comfortably, or make that awkward contrast thrilling. Above all, in the tussle between ideas, images, and music, it is music that always wins. Rhyme, both end and internal, features appropriately and intelligently throughout. These are poets who have read their Tennyson and Wordsworth, and then moved on.

The commended poems range widely in theme: the loss of a partner, near-loss of a child, seasonal melancholy, and a twelve-days-of-Christmas-style countdown. Whether deeply felt or tripping lightly along, each has been carefully pressed through the editorial wringer, crafted and considered, and thus made to stand up on its own.

Our highly commended poems all lead up to a conclusion that stays with you, but they do so sure-footedly, line by line. They are also relatable. Who hasn’t tasted the chagrin of enduring “A [NHS] Waiting Room” only to be prescribed both “paracetamol” and “water”, mistaken a patch of sunlight for something more (and therein found a poem), watched Red Kites in rapt amazement, or resolved to be a bit more neighbourly in response to our ideologically-polarised world?

The two runners-up couldn’t be different from each other. “Perspective” makes use of the quiet music of everyday speech to meditate on the “sliding doors” nature of one’s past. “Pastorale” is an eco-political poem that never loses sight of clear imagery, strong language, and the insistent present tense. In both cases, it is the ending, its “ring of truth within the medium itself” (as Seamus Heaney put it) that clinches the poem.

Finally, the winning poem stood out from the rest for its sustained and taut imaginative focus. We are promised a goblin, but it never arrives. Instead, we are led on a chase through the clues and minor wreckage it leaves behind, as much a catalogue of the marvellous quotidian as it is a hunt for the creature itself. The real journey, of course, is a sifting through memory that leaves us with a smack of wistful nostalgia for the cosy and mundane.

There is neither a word going spare here, nor is the poem stilted and over-compressed. Our goblin “parachutes with an umbrella” and “muddles the gloves”, conscripting nouns into verbs. Truly, how could I resist a poem that ends (successfully) on the image of a mildewed sandwich? Here, perhaps, is a cousin of Lorca’s Duende or Milosz’s Daemon, an anarchic spirit that nudges a welcome bit of mischief, wonder — and above all, poetry —  into our everyday lives.

It has been my pleasure to read and re-read each and every poem, a wrench (as always) to be forced to select only a few, but also a privilege to put forward those poems that leapt off the page at me, in hopes that it may do the same for you. Ten lines is not a lot, but as so many of these poems have shown us, it’s enough to make a world.

Robert Peake
Whitwell, Hertfordshire
January 2018


Jellied Eels (Film-Poem)

I had a great time reading poems at the Poetry Cafe in Soho tonight as part of the Southbank Poetry Competition awards. Valerie and I also collaborated to turn my third-prize-winning poem, “Jellied Eels”, into the following film-poem.

<a href="http://vimeo.com/84169213"><img src="https://www.robertpeake.com/files/2014/05/jellied-eels-300x168.jpg" alt="jellied-eels" class="alignnone size-medium wp-image-6013" /><br />Click here to play the video</a>

Process Notes

I recorded the poem through a pair of walkie-talkies to achieve the desired vocal effect. When then paired Valerie’s piano composition with morse code sounds. With so much going on auditorily, and because the poem itself is quite visual, we opted for a simple pan-out on time-lapse footage of light on water, which ends with a serpentine blur-cut that seemed to converge upon and reinforce the ending image of the poem quite well.


Troubadour Poetry Prize Reading

OwlI made my way to Earls Court on Monday night, to participate in a very special installation of Coffee-House Poetry wherein I was awarded one of twenty commendations in the 2013 Troubadour International Poetry Prize. These were selected, along with first, second, and third prize, by George Szirtes and Deryn Rees-Jones from more than 3,300 entries this year.

Particularly special for me that evening was being asked to also read the third-place poem by Tim Nolan of Minnesota. I found his poem, “Red Wing Correctional Facility”, about teaching poetry to young men in prison, very moving, and was honoured to be able to lend it my voice that night on my countryman’s behalf.

In second place, Mona Arshi’s “Bad Day at the Office” was a funny and affecting surrealist romp through the domestic details of a very bad day indeed. To accept her first-place award, Hideko Sueoka joined us from Tokyo. Even as her poem, “Owl”, deconstructed the sounds of English, gradually reassembling them into the language of owls, so too did Hideko herself seem to transfigure before us.

It was a great pleasure to hear Deryn Rees-Jones and George Szirtes read their own work in the second half. As George was reading, I was reflecting on our Transatlantic Poetry broadcast in August, and thinking how nice it was to be able to hear him read without having to worry myself with any of the technical details. At that moment, one of the stage lights blew. In any case, it was a pleasure to shake his hand — something not possible over the Internet.

Congratulations to everyone involved, and to Anne-Marie Fyfe for seven years running of this notable international poetry competition and the delicious evening that goes with it.

Read all of the prize-winning poems at Coffee-House Poetry.

<a href="https://soundcloud.com/peakepoetics/still-life-with-bougainvillea" target="_blank">Click to hear an audio recording of the commended poem "Still Life with Bougainvillea"</a>


Why Sharon Olds?

Sharon Olds

“You must revise your life.”

-Wiliam Stafford

 

The audience at the T.S. Eliot Shortlist Reading were the real winners. They were treated to Gillian Clarke’s quiet tenderness, like a swan navigating a near-frozen lake. They relished the sweet sibilance of beekeeper Sean Borodale. Julia Copus gave visions of ova during IVF as ghost-like “luminous pearls.” Michael Schmidt wove Jorie Graham’s linguistic basketwork into their ears. Simon Armitage read out passages of “the British Illiad”. Kathleen Jamie let us witness how she, like her “Roses”, “haggle for my little portion of happiness.” They gasped overhearing Jacob Polley’s conversation between a mum and her stoic stabbed son. They were dogged by Deryn Rees-Jones into regarding “man’s best friend” a little differently. And wisecracking Paul Farley made them all laugh out loud.

Then a girlish woman with long grey hair, pinned back by three small sparkling barrettes, took to the stage. She seemed to read for the shortest span of time — just two poems. Yet what was remarkable is that just as these poems, in their simple, plain-spoken way, were getting good enough for most poets to consider them complete, hers go further. An impressive meditation on breasts transcends the obvious observations, as the poet tells us that, just as this one part of them was once adored by boys when they were teenagers, what all women really want is to be as adored in their entirety this much.

This is the mature Sharon Olds. This is the winner of the 2012 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry. She joins Mark Doty, another poet of intense observation, as one of just two Americans to take home this prize.

Yet this American poet, who pushed the envelope of confessional poetry and inspired a generation toward the genre in its heyday seems at first a somewhat unlikely choice for a British award. Continue reading…


Long-Listed, National Poetry Competition

I came home from a long weekend in rural West Sussex to a letter from The Poetry Society informing me that one of my poems had been long-listed for the National Poetry Competition. This means it was selected as one of 130 long-listed poems out of over 11,000 entries to one of the UK’s top prizes.

Unfortunately, it also means that it did not progress further to a commendation or award. Still, it is nice to know the poem made it this far along. And I suppose if we are still living in the UK around this time next year, I will have a chance to enter again. Looking forward to the announcement of winners next month.


Pushcart Prize Nomination II

On my way out the door this morning, I nearly stomped on a thin letter posted through the mail slot bearing the logo of Pushcart Press and notifying me that I have been nominated by one or more members of the Board of Contributing Editors for the 2011 Prize. I recognise a number of the names on the Board, and am deeply honored to be considered again this year. Last year one of my poems was nominated by Paul Fericano of The Broadsider. This year, I will once again be watching out for the announcement list, but this time from across the Atlantic. Between this good news, and layers of snow dusting London tonight, it has been quite a special day.