CHANCTONBURY CUP 2012 ― JUDGE’S REPORT
Having been an entrant in many poetry competitions over the years, I have consequently read a good number of judge’s reports and, almost without exception, they have repeated a truism: the process of judging is largely subjective. It therefore follows that a different judge would most likely have produced an entirely different set of results, and I can only attempt to explain how and why I managed to select one poem from a total of 107 as this years winner of the Chanctonbury Cup.
It is hard to define exactly what qualities make for a winning poem, as opposed to simply an interesting, capably-written one. I suppose I was looking for combinations of ideas and choices of vocabulary that stand out for their originality and thought-provoking qualities; a poem that has lines that I actually envy for their impact, and the unusual connections they make for me. I have to admit to enjoying the quirky and surreal, as well as the more formal and traditional pieces. I very much admire the craft of those writers who manage to make the whole thing look totally effortless ― like it just fell onto the page ― those poems full of subtlety that disguise all the hard work that went into them because they flow so well. Rare pieces that stay in the mind. All of which sounds a rather tall order. But there is no harm in aiming high. As it turns out, I wasn’t disappointed.
On my first read through of all the entries, I was struck by the variety of interpretations of the theme ‘Encounters’. This variety, plus the generally high standard of work, made the task more entertaining, and much less of a chore than it might otherwise have been. Every piece had something to offer, which meant it wasn’t easy to make a shortlist without being quite brutal. Having initially whittled down the numbers to 18 (shortlist of these titles included below), I then re-read all 107 just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, and thus discovered how many poems benefit greatly from being read again, allowing their meanings and subtleties of form and language to impact more fully. I found a lot to like and admire in the inventiveness and skill on display. It had crossed my mind that the winner might just jump out at me, and so make things very simple, but the truth was that there were a number of very close contenders, which meant several more read throughs, plus some nail biting. Which seems only right, given the work that went into the poems themselves.
I made copious notes on things deserving of mention, which I have had to somehow condense down, and I hope will be of interest to those who entered. As already mentioned, I was impressed by the sheer variety ― trust a poet’s imagination to come up with such a diversity of possible interpretations for the theme ‘Encounters’ ― the range of subject matter would make an interesting anthology, with poems on wildly contrasting topics such as Love; War; The Devil; Angels; Food; UFOs; Animals; Landscape; Nightmares and Art, plus some less easy to categorize. I noticed some recurring themes, which were possibly generated as the result of ideas begun in workshops. It was good to see a selection of forms, too, both modern and one or two traditional, like the sonnet and rondeau, which were used confidently and to good effect.
I found myself reaching for the dictionary several times and acquainting myself with words I wasn’t familiar with. I looked up words like ‘tupik’ ― meaning a tent of animal skins; ‘podanipter’ ― a foot bath, and the French term ‘Flaneur’ for idler or loafer. So the exercise became educational. Entries were also peppered with literary and artistic references or nods to Shakespeare; Jane Austen; Shelley; Ted Hughes; Thom Gunn; Tennyson and Robert Frost, plus the odd artist or two; a couple of composers; an historian and an archaeologist.
I was very glad to find well-written examples of humour, too ― pieces ideal for performance in the traditional monologue style favoured by performers like Stanley Holloway of ‘The Lion and Albert’ fame. Humour is surprisingly hard to write, and seems to enjoy less success in competition than it deserves. The poem titled ‘Recognition’ made me laugh out loud, which earned it a place in the final six, and why I felt I should give it a Special Mention. Another humorous poem ― ‘A Close Encounter of the Feathered Kind’ ― also made it onto the short list.
I was treated to some admirable opening lines, with a contrasting range of vivid imagery, a few of which I have extracted as examples. I can’t imagine how anyone with an appreciation of poetry could fail to respond to lines such as “My mother, like a brown speckled moth/rests her velvet wings of dust/on the rough bark of an endless day...” or the hauntingly strange “She is a glassworm/in a toxic stream/ transparent and soon/crushed.” Many of these lines have stayed with me, which surely proves their effectiveness. Stanzas such as “Hold your tongue, gargoyle,/you water-spout horror, don’t/ vomit your outlets from gutters on us ―/ we have spasms and spite/ of our own.” dig their claws into the imagination and won’t let go.
THE 18 SHORTLISTED POEMS (Numerical Order)
11 A Taste of Tapas Diana Mitchener
13 Derwent Drive (Highly Commended) Diana Mitchener
17 A Close Encounter of the Feathered Kind Patricia Stoner
25 Thank You Mother David Slade
39 Wunderkammer Yvonne Phillips
112 Recognition (Special Mention for Humour) Marion Sharville
137 Resting Rose bray
141 Winter Ways (for Paul, not Robert) (Commended) Susan Skinner
151 Alive or Dead? David Slade
156 Alienation Audrey Lee
158 Summer, 1984 (Highly Commended) Juliet West
160 Harry Encounters the Blue Mandy Pannett
163 Kiss from the Edge Mandy Pannett
165 Buckland Digs Mandy Pannett
183 Spirit People Clifford Hughes
184 The Gift (Winner: Chanctonbury Cup) Clifford Hughes
186 Waiting to Cross Croydon High Street
in the Rain. (Commended) Clifford Hughes
187 Chance Encounter Clifford Hughes
Comments regarding the final six as follows:
Recognition (Special Mention for Humour)
An after-dinner anecdote related in an upbeat, jaunty manner. Good use of rhythm and rhyme building to the pay-off. A genuinely amusing piece that is perfect anthology material, or a collection if the author has more of the same.
Winter Ways (for Paul, not Robert) (Commended)
Couched in a series of questions, the structure works very well, with its literary nod to Robert Frost and, for readers who are aware of it, fancifully extending the premise of the famous original. The poem succeeds both as a complement to The Road Not Taken and perhaps even more so on its own merits. Impressive, and so very skilful in its use of rhyme and rhythm, the poem contains some memorable lines like “Do you recall a hare like hopping snow/leaping down the path to where you stood...?” and “...the owl with feathers like white fires?” Also the surreal image of “...winter’s finger gods who pick up riff-raff/ sticks to beat the passer by...”
Beautifully written, successive readings reveal the subtleties of controlled composition.
Waiting to Cross Croydon High Street in the Rain (Commended)
This title sets the tone for a street scene recorded in extended metaphor, almost dream-like, which is well-sustained by its choice of water-related language. Narrowing its focus as it progresses, the poem finally hits a whimsical, introspective note, imagining this might be a shared thought, and ending on a meditation ― “Who are we?” Neatly crafted and economical, the poem brings the moment to life and shares it with the reader, like snapshots from a holiday.
Summer, 1984 (Highly Commended)
I love this poem for its matter-of-factness, and its bravery in the face of current media hysteria regarding “children” and incidents termed “abuse” that hog the headlines. Here, the author takes a refreshingly candid and broadminded approach and relates an incident of “flashing” with humour and without embarrassment. Far from damaging, the result proves positive in its outcome. Both personal and social comment, this down-to-earth treatment makes the point well. The poem is funny and entertaining.
Derwent Drive (Highly Commended)
As detailed as a film set moodily lit, Derwent Drive is a road described from memory ― the recollections (possibly enhanced a little by imagination) of a 12-year-old child’s fearful perception of something nightmare-ish and haunting. The description and eerie atmosphere is well-sustained, the disturbing aspects communicated with suitably chilling language. I particularly like the use of ‘peristaltic’ with regard to moving images of people and cars seen though uneven panes of glass ― the strange, almost funfair ‘Hall of Mirrors’ effect. The image of the cemetery wall mentioned in the first and last stanza brackets the poem well, underlining the sense of dread.
The Gift (Winner of the Chanctonbury Cup)
This poem just sings off the page. Lyrical, romantic, wistful ― it flows effortlessly, always in control, and incorporating rhyme so that it falls naturally into the structure, never impeding the rhythm. The sentiment comes across as an unselfconscious love song ― genuinely sweet and simply expressed. Proof that everyday words in the hands of a skilled writer can produce a truly beautiful poem.
Now a word about presentation, and a well-meant piece of advice to anyone entering a competition such as this one: read the rules thoroughly and make sure you abide by them. That way you give your entries the very best chance. Some competitions ― the big ones especially ― are ruthless, and will disqualify any entry that breaks the rules. Slipstream are more lenient, but that doesn’t mean that the judge won’t notice infringements, and this results in a poem getting noticed for the wrong reasons. Anonymity is paramount, so make your entry blend with the others rather than stand out. It is the poem that needs to impress, so let it speak for itself. Coloured ink, illustrations, oversized and fancy fonts are a distraction to the judge and, while not wishing to sound harsh, are more likely to prejudice against rather than influence in favour. Do check and double-check spelling and punctuation. If you can, get someone else to read each piece carefully, as a fresh eye is more likely to spot typing errors than you are. Judges will notice mistakes, and some are less forgiving than others and might dismiss an entry for what they see as carelessness, even if the writing itself is good. Present your work on crisp, white A4; use a black serif font such as Times New Roman or similar, (serif fonts are easier on the eye than sans serif ones) 11 or 12 point; use bold print only for the title. If the rules permit handwritten entries (and few do) then print clearly; your handwriting may not be as easy to read as you think. Always make the effort to give your poems titles, otherwise it gives the impression you can’t think of one, plus a well-chosen title often adds substantially to the understanding of a poem and anchors it in the reader’s mind. If I was able to award a prize for best title, it would go to ‘Wunderkammer’ ― meaning wonder room or cabinet of curiosities ― as the word encapsulates both tone and content, and is intriguing in itself.
I would like to thank all the entrants for allowing me to read their work ― it has proved an interesting and valuable experience ― and I wish everyone good luck in any future competitions they enter.
Jean Margaret Harvey