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judge's report - 2018 annual award

Photograph of Derek Sellen

Derek Sellen lives in Canterbury and has written poetry over many years. He has written on a wide range of topics from Spanish painters to Chinese street vendors, from medieval legends to fake news. His poetry has been recognised in many competitions, including first prizes in Poets Meet Politics 2014, O'Bheal Five Words 2015 and 4th prize-winner in Poetry on the Lake 2017. Details of his recent collection of poems inspired by Spanish art, 'The Other Guernica', can be found at: www.culturedllama.co.uk

Thank you for the opportunity to judge this award; it was a pleasure to read poems of such vitality and character. It is worth saying, although it's a commonplace, that any judge has his or her personal tastes and prejudices, so nobody should be discouraged if not among the prize-winners.

The most difficult task was deciding third prize as there were multiple candidates among the poems, each with its own qualities. I would like to mention especially: Alive by Success Akpojotor, an innovative free-flowing poem; When I Haunt the World by Christie-Luke Jones, a poem in the voice of a 'passive-aggressive phantom' which injects humour into the story of a suicide; Drums of War by Peter Chigbo, a directly political, heartfelt plea for peace in Biafra; The Hero's Wife by Anna Cornish, a poem which places an exploration of a marriage in the context of an epic; Breakfast Time by Geraldine McCarthy about a father-daughter relationship; and The Loktak Fishers by Mahesh Mayanglambam with its memorable image of fishermen 'mending nets in dim lantern lights'.

However, after much deliberation, I decided that third prize should go to Fiona Mukherjee for the poem An Ordinary Euphemism. It feels as if something important is being said about the temple rituals and their lack of inclusiveness and understanding. The voices of women who would rather be sacrificed than continue their harassed lives are evoked:

                    We are condemned to live.
                    They won't let us in.
                    If only because we are so ordinary.

Second prize goes deservedly to Sophea Urbi Biswas from Bangladesh for the poem Lily of the Nile. This is a rumbustious poem, a dramatic monologue gradually revealing that the voice is that of a grandmother observing her own funeral. There is humour, both wry and frank, as well as emotion evoked by the memories of the speaker's husband and his love, symbolised by the lily. What the poem lacks in conciseness is compensated for by its Chaucerian energy and vivid characterisation.

The Award itself goes to Steven John for the poems Dragonfly and Up and Over Bacon Butty. Both these two beautifully crafted poems deal with fatherhood in unexpected ways. In 'Dragonfly', the child growing to adolescence and beyond is compared to a dragonfly emerging from the chrysalis. The metaphor is handled without any sense of artificiality and allows the resolution of the final lines:

                     ... then ascend
                    over these paternal walls
                    wings beating invisibly.

'Up and Over Bacon Butty' deals with an ostensibly commonplace domestic situation, a father constructing a garden swing for his children. The father's pride, 'tying one end to a hammer / and throwing it like Thor over a branch' is evoked together with the fun of the absurd chant 'Up and Over Bacon Butty'. However, the poem sensitively leads us through a darkening tone to the superb final line:

                    only the dull incantation of time took its place.

There is a personal authenticity about the poem which adds to its strength.

Congratulations to the prize-winning poets and indeed to all the winning and commended poems from the poetrypulse monthly competitions, a varied array of inspiring work from several different countries.




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