‘I Is Another’ by Afric McGlinchey
'Dad’s Canvassing Card' by Shirley McClure
'Jacks For Office' by Michael Casey
‘Presbytery Curtains’ by Shirley McClure
‘English Speaks Seductively' by Michael Casey
‘Hawks' by Peter Branson
‘The Diana Mosaic' by Jocelyn Simms
‘The Gun' by Michael Farry
‘Attendant' by Frank Farrelly
'Beara' by Maxine Backus
'First Lieutenant' by Adam Klepacki Bogusia Wardein
'Incognito' by Anthony Watts
'Minutes' by Afric McGlinchey
'Museum Piece' by Joan Michelson
'Photograph of Muriel McSwiney at Cathal Brugha’s Funeral' by Frank Farrelly
'Refuge' by Angela McCabe
'Second Feature at the G.P.O.' by Michael Casey
'Sefton General, Late Seventies' by Annette Skade
'Shock and Awe' by Michael Casey
'Testimony of Pig Three, One, One' by Jocelyn Simms
'The Bingo Truce' by Angela McCabe
'The Black & White Divisions' by Roger Elkin
'The Cry' by Joan Michelson
'When I was Going On Seventeen' by James Finnegan
Judge's report Derek Sellen
Judging this competition has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience thanks to the scope and quality of the poems entered and it has also been educational. I’ve been thankful for Wikipedia! It simplified the task of identifying references to details of political events or movements beyond the limit of my own knowledge. From the first I knew that I had to guard against my political prejudices when judging the poems although in the event there was little that spoke against my own sympathies. There was a great deal of tenderness and humour as well as anger and despair. Skill, the ability to use language and rhythm and imagery in the service of the poem, was important as it must be. But in a competition titled Poets meet Politics, the display of political intelligence and passion and subtlety had to weigh heavily also.
Of course the results are subjective. I am satisfied though that the final shortlist of more than 20 poems, plus those that were on the margin and had possibly equal claims to be included, contains work that is deeply rewarding, skilful and memorable.
I'll try now to give a sense of the decisions I made during the process of judging.
Two very powerful, intelligent poems made their presence immediately known during the first reading of all the entries, ‘Jacks for Office’ and ‘English Speaks Seductively’. 'Jacks' is a political poem par excellence, with its frequent use of alliteration and rhyme to conjure a grotesque televised debate. ‘English Speaks Seductively’, a monologue in the voice of the English language, informs knowledge of the history and scope of the language with the same awareness of its political and economic power that is found, for example, in Brian Friel’s play ‘Translations’. The speaker employs a casuistry and persuasiveness to rival that of the personae of Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues
'The Diana Mosaic' raises age-old issues of 'what is a poem?' - no iambic pentameter or skilful use of caesura here - but the format is undeniably effective in creating a sense of immediacy, of what it might have been like to be a part of nuclear tests in the 1950s. It is also clearly the result of deep consideration of form, of how to cope with the enormity of the subject and how to represent the clash of official propaganda and personal experience. In any other context the ending - 'ask mr death, mr minister' - might seem melodramatic but here, in my judgement, it is earned. 'Hawks' was another poem which dealt with a big subject, skilfully weaving reference to the Brimstone missile into the dense language of the poem. 'Hawks' was not only about ornithology.
There were quieter poems too. 'Dad's Canvassing Card', the quirkiest poem of them all, gives so much pleasure through the intricacy of the form, a pantoum, and rhythm. The father's voice echoes through time. As for the conceit of the reversed photo, it is wonderfully handled, with its word-play on ‘left’ and ‘right’ and its implicit reflections on the fickle nature of democracy. There is humour, nostalgia and nagging insight as well as the skill of making a poem that has so much artifice seem so casual and natural.
There were other poems which chose one almost marginal experience to humanise an event of ‘history’ such as 'Refuge' and 'Photograph of Muriel McSwiney at Cathal Brugha's Funeral' and 'When I was going on seventeen'. Detail tells. I'll long remember the illuminated Japanese-style curtains on the Ormeau Road and the 'fur hat like a manifesto' which Muriel McSwiney carries and Eamonn Lowry who sings ‘The Boston Burglar’. Or the miners and their supporters who look up in ‘The Black and White Divisions’ to see the ‘almost sculpted under-muscle’ of the state’s horses. 'The Gun' preserved its essential mystery while being absolutely specific about facts like the 'marrowfat peas' and the 'public lilies'. Its cool matter-of-fact tone works well to increase the underlying tension.
With the merits of these and other poems I don’t have space to mention, and the different qualities which they displayed, the situation was difficult. I’d never been more aware of the intrinsic paradox of poetry competitions which seek impossibly to ‘rank’ the individual expressions of skilled and committed writers and yet which at the same time contribute so much to the health and vigour of the contemporary poetry world. I shuffled the hard copies, demoting a poem because of an awkward jarring repetition or a brief lack of conciseness, then reinstating it because of its impact. I realised that there wasn’t going to be an epiphany, a moment when the perfect order revealed itself. Having sifted and re-sifted, the time had come to choose.
‘I is another’ had impressed me more and more with its exploration of displacement and its fragmented narrative reflecting the alienation of the speaker. From the opening line - 'I take four trains, through bleary light' - it establishes a tone which will bind the disparate parts of the poem. Many of the utterances are short and jagged.
It hit my back. He chased the car, caught them.
The longest, most fluent lines come at the end when the speaker becomes whole and recovers memory.
And, I say, when a foreign language percolates your own
until its idioms even permeate your dreams,
that’s not just acquisition, but erosion too.
It’s only when I follow the wide river,
and the first real sun of summer
kisses fire to its skin, that I remember.
I like its refusal to be over-specific or novelistic - the identity of ‘he’ and ‘she’ and ‘I’ remains indefinite. Yet it makes the political problems of exile and integration personal, individual. It wins ‘Poets meets Politics’ 2015.
The awards event at The Sarah Walker Gallery, Castletownbere
(Photographs by Mary Anne Smith