Poetry competition results 2013

Congratulations to all the winners and place-getters in this year’s competition. Select each section below to see the results and read the judges’ comments.

Open Section  I  Haiku Section  I  Open Junior Section  I  Haiku Junior Section

Open Section

Judge: Vincent O’Sullivan
1st: Carolyn McCurdie, Dunedin: ‘Making Up the Spare Beds for the Brothers Grimm’
2nd: Laurice Gilbert, Wellington: ‘Interview with an assassin’
3rd: Greg Bartlett, Wellington: ‘Postcards’
Highly Commended – John O’Connor, Christchurch: ‘Lollipops’, ‘Jungle: A cryptic enigma’, and ‘The brief Value of Life’; Bonnie Joy Etherington, Palmerston North: ‘That Summer’; Tim Roberts, Paraparaumu: ‘Two’; Sandi Sartorelli, Upper Hutt: ‘immerse me’; Amanda Hunt, Rotorua: ‘Three dozen excuses for touching’; Catherine Moxham, Palmerston North: ‘bright’
Commended – Greg Bartlett, Wellington: ‘In Paris I shaved my head’; Rob King, Wellington: ‘Waiting for Birds’; Natasha Dennerstein, Wellington: ‘Breathing in petrol’; Johanna Aitchison, Palmerston North: ‘Psychotherapy’; Margaret Vos, UK: ‘Scene from a boat’; Wes Lee, Wellington: ‘Fortune’; Cherry Hill, Christchurch: ‘A way with words’; Carolyn McCurdie, Dunedin: ‘The Best Thing Since…’; Suzanne Frearson, Auckland: ‘Teller of Stories’.

Judge’s comments: Vincent O’Sullivan

In approaching what at first seems an Everest of poetry, with more than six hundred pages to be scaled and assessed, one soon realises the judge too is under scrutiny, quite as much as those he sets out to rank as fairly as he can. It can hardly be otherwise. These hundreds of writers are faced with one’s own taste, one’s own prejudices even. There are some poems one simply is not going to find appealing – poems, say, that exclaim too loudly about nature, or about being in love, in ways that have been rather conventional for a long time; poems that assume you will be interested simply because someone is confiding in you, irrespective of how that confiding is done; poems drawing on a language that is never heard outside what the writer thinks verse calls for, as if the reader is opening a book a hundred or more years old. Poems after all arise from lived experience, and they have to convince of that. Or there are those pages which assume that so long as lines are broken up and arranged in a way that obviously isn’t prose, then this must be poetry. Not that a judge questions the sincerity of what a poem attempts. But poetry, like the proverbial road to hell, can be paved with good intentions.

I know it’s a big generalisation, but how important it is to keep in mind as we write a poem, that its language and form has to earn the reader’s interest, quite apart from the fact that it may be emotionally fulfilling to write. The excitement has to be there in the lines you have crafted, which by the time the poem is read, are going to be a long way from where or why they began. After all, readers can’t experience what the writer does. What they do respond to is the effectiveness of how you talk about it in writing that does not record so much as make something quite new that must stand by itself – which means how you put things to engage us, and the images you select, and the range and variety and freshness of the words you use. Just how various that can be, poem after poem made clear in so many of these entries. There are many ways to define good poetry, but mostly they come down to something like this – it gives us a delight and charge that can only come from language itself, and how it is arranged. In however modest a way, a successful poem gives you something that is not quite expected, and that you have not heard said quite like that before. And there is this too about poetry, which at times we too easily forget. Even the most serious of poems, poems brimming with desire or religious praise or anger or regret, are also something of a game, in the sense that they are written simply because we choose to, that we find it satisfying to find patterns and expressions that please us, with no-one compelling us to do so. However much poetry may instruct and delight, as an old Roman saying puts it, there is no convincing argument to think poetry isn’t also fun.

What came home to me time and again as I read these poems, as well as that variety I’ve just alluded to, is how there is no subject which is intrinsically ‘poetic’, or ‘unpoetic’. Anything we experience or that interests us can stake its claim. And so you’ll find in my commended lists that there are poems I admired for their stark grimness, because they were ‘made’ in that sense all satisfying poetry is – they tell us something in ways that may not have occurred to us, and that hold our interest, even if the subject, if presented without that skill, may simply have disturbed. But there are poems here too of frank celebration, like the simple act of making bread, say, linking us in an endless human chain. There are poems whose effect depends principally on wit, or on how to turn a moment of pathos so the commonplace shines out as unique. Among the Highly Commended there is a simple list declaring an entire life, and another poem whose unevenness is turned by a fine set of lines on the moon, among the hardest things surely to write of freshly. There are love poems that side-step cliché and come at us with compelling force, and poems that succeed because they move what may seem a traditional subject in slightly unexpected ways.

And so to the final three poems. What I admired in ‘Postcards’ was its putting so neatly that experience many travellers have had yet are wary of speaking of, that sense of intense loneliness that may be part of overseas travel. Here are place-names that usually carry the frisson of being in famous places, but the ‘magic’ is drained from them by the distance they insist on from the people, the places, that more deeply matter to us. The weighting of the lines, the situation, is tonally spot on. The concluding lines of each of the two stanzas are tellingly direct about that unlikely topic, disappointment.

I liked the similarly hard-edge, hard-eyed ‘Interview with an assassin’, and the way its question and answer format rocked our assumptions about what, at first mention, we might quickly label disturbing. It reminds us that what we are dealing with, in Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, is ‘the banality of evil’, the fact that the perpetrator can be so close to what we might say about ourselves. The conventions of interviewing are deftly turned on their head, and the last line, which in fact is not a line at all, shifts the burden back from the questioned to the questioner. And how impressively controlled the precise language is – no melodramatics, no stage effects of the kind that evil so easily carries with it, but low-key clear-thinking with its own troubling turns, its witty undermining of what we expect. It is a poem as contemporary and unsettling as what we watch so often  on TV News, but with a chilling thrust of its own.

Then what a leap we make, to the brilliant ‘Making up the Spare Beds for the Brothers Grimm’. It tells a story we may have thought ourselves at ease with in its early stanzas, but this impression is so adroitly undermined by the poem’s end. The dark uneasiness of Grimms’ so-called fairy stories seeps into the telling, the foreboding, the details lifted from the tales themselves, the stanzas infused with their own casually ambiguous sense of dread. The rhythmical finesse of the lines I found stunning, the sheer force of a long poem so beautifully controlled.

She brings extra blankets. Snow is forecast for later.

This is the room where weeping lives in the darkness,

like a child, soft, surreptitious. If the weather

keeps its word the sound will be gathered in by

the moans of the midnight wind. But the light

in the hallway – she could leave it switched on.

Only a very good poet writes lines as effectively as that. Or so direct and elusive at the same time. In one sense, everything is so in place. Shift focus a little, everything carries threat. And that sense of apparent domestic order – there are cracks, stains, puzzles, that don’t allow us to believe a word of it, even as we cannot rationally say why. All we are sure of is where the poem entirely directs us – the world is not as we see it, even when it is.

Haiku Section

Judge: Nola Borrell
1st Prize, and Winner of the Jeanette Stace Memorial Award: Ernest J Berry, Blenheim: ‘scimitar moon’
2nd Prize: Sandra Simpson, Tauranga: ‘drought year’
3rd Prize: Katherine Raine, Wyndham: ‘from my hand’
4th Prize: Earl R. Keener, USA: ‘dawn light’
5th Prize: Kirsten Cliff, Matamata: ‘drifting evensong’
Highly Commended – John O’Connor, Christchurch: ‘6.40 a.m.’ and ‘outdoor caff -‘; Marion Moxham, Palmerston North: ‘mound’, ‘snow on a sheep’s back’, and ‘blue sky before dawn’; Margaret Beverland, Katikati: ‘Kaimai mist‘; Katherine Raine, Wyndham: ‘prison skin-heads’ and ‘rising wind’.
Commended – Scott Mason, USA: ‘a ladybug’; John O’Connor, Christchurch: ‘rock climbing’; Ernest J Berry, Blenheim: ‘trackless desert’; Thomas Powell, UK: ‘dandelions’; André Surridge, Hamilton: ‘sharing the hilltop’; Amitava Dasgupta, USA: ‘job interview’; Kirsten Cliff, Matamata: ‘full morning moon’; Cynthia Rowe, Australia: ‘kayaking’; Seren Fargo, USA: ‘eviction papers’; Sandra Simpson, Tauranga: ‘autumn wind’; Barbara Strang, Christchurch: ‘bird survey’.

Judge’s comments: Nola Borrell

Decisions! At first, all runs smoothly: I divide the nearly 500 haiku into the traditional three piles, reading, rereading, getting smaller piles – but the ‘these-are-pretty-good’ pile remains too thick. I read again. I leave haiku on the table to see as I walk past. I look again the next day. Does this haiku still have impact? What about this haiku which was immediate laugh-out-loud – but maybe isn’t as gripping fourth time round?

Indeed, your sense of humour is flourishing, and there was a strong bias to senryu. How you like weather, how vividly you experience weather – particularly watery weather in the form of mist, snow and rain. There was more weather in more haiku than any other subject. The next most acclaimed subject was birds – not that I minded – though I do like birds to be identified (i.e. sharpen the image). You’re fond of animals too, and especially insects and other small life. Spring crept in but was well outplayed by adverse weather; that may reflect the time of the competition for Australasians. A sprinkling of moons and stars, a quietening of sickness and death. New Zealand featured somewhat, though not as much as I expected: Pukekos and moreporks, rata and Kaimais; but an international competition after all. On the low side, haiku indicating smell, sounds, children.

Most were three-liners, but I was surprised that two-liners (28), a challenging format, outnumbered one-liners/monoku (18). About 17 could be said to be experimental, attempting to use shape, spacing and punctuation to reflect or sharpen the image. This is commendable innovation, but really tricky: The rearrangement must enhance the haiku moment; otherwise there’s no point. Five made it to 4 lines, and two to five lines.

Frequently, haiku used an attention-catching moment, but did so with too many words, or in a prosaic fashion. Other points to watch: strive for fresh/original images; or use a traditional image in a new way. Reading both contemporary and classical haiku helps a poet to get a sense of rhythm, poetic quality and tone. Incidentally, skip the title; it’s not needed for a haiku. 

Warmest of congratulations to the place getters. Your haiku were a particular pleasure to read.
First Place:

scimitar moon
the widow’s shoji opens
and closes

‘scimitar moon’ quickly made its way to the top five: sharp image, resonance, sudden shift in reader’s thinking, concision, certain rhythm – things I’m looking for. Another moon, yes, but not just any moon. Here’s the grief – obliquely expressed – that takes courage and dares to look at the outside world, but soon retreats – especially when given a sharp reminder. A large story, a tragedy in eight words.

Second Place:

drought year
the ground in the cemetery
opens up

Here is a very different haiku, but it also plunges away from the image of dry ground breaking up to suggest the association of drought with death. An ominous, tragic subtext: how many have died through lack of food caused by extreme weather? And not just ‘drought’ but ‘drought year’. A slight jolt each time I read this haiku.

Third Place:

from my hand into the parted earth small seeds

This monoku is beautifully simple in expression, but large in its implications for the dependency of human beings on seeds, even small seeds, the earth a partner in ongoing life. I like the circularity, rhythm, poetic quality and especially the quietness. Each time I read it, I fancy I read it more slowly.

Fourth Place:

dawn light
driftwood becomes
a heron

Is this enough, I kept thinking – but then I would read it again, and feel the same delight. Perhaps, with my own less-than-perfect eyesight it more often happens the other way around! So precise, focused, surprising, credible, with the countless possibilities of driftwood.

Fifth Place:

drifting evensong
pine needles cloistered
in fresh snow

Stillness, peace and a sense of the sacred are evoked in sound and image; the delicious word ‘cloistered’ was inspired.

The Highly Commended haiku were a pleasure also. ‘prison skinheads’ is finely cut, carefully written, with each line supporting the other lines. It’s a vivid image, with the contrast between imprisonment and freedom. ‘snow on a sheep’s back’ gradually gripped my interest as I realised that the melting snow would run off the very hard ground. The splash of yellow in ‘Kaimai mist’ kept attracting my attention, and that haiku steadily climbed ‘the ladder’. ‘blue sky before dawn’ has a beautiful image, the moon doing what it does, but containing that human interpretation/ colloquialism. And here’s this bird-lover choosing a cat haiku, ‘mound’, with originality ever so precisely expressed, and with the bumping of the cat door obliquely conveying the owner’s sense of loss. ‘outdoor caff’ has concision to fit the subject, the word “frozen” freezing at the end of the line; not a time to be expansive. ‘6.40 a.m. has another fine image with its redness and the words “hauls in the light”, the imaginative extension of the viewer. And ‘rising wind’ has that breath of tension, possibilities, and focused image.

My appreciation to all poets who submitted work  As always, keep in mind that any reader/judge brings their own experience to each haiku. You know that. “A text exists only in its interpretation”, wrote Patricia Spacks (2011)*, indicating the necessary relationship between writer and reader. Keep looking, writing, reading and enjoying the possibilities of haiku.

*Patrica Meyer Spacks (2011) On Rereading

Open Junior Section

Judge: Frankie McMillan
1st Prize: Grace Lee, Auckland International College: ‘Ginsberg’
Runner-up, Primary/Intermediate: Greta Balfour, Arrowtown Primary School: ‘Home’
Runner-up, Secondary: Anna Doak, St Margaret’s College, Christchurch: ‘My Brother Builds Whale Song’

Highly Commended:
‘The Value of Oblivion’ – Molly Crighton, Columba College, Dunedin
‘Studying Shakespeare’ – Leah Dodd, New Plymouth Girls’ High School
untitled (First line: “He will walk”) – Isabella Hadlow, New Plymouth Girls’ High School
‘Edelweiss’ – Grace Lee, Auckland International College

‘Night Time is for Dreaming’ – Cherie Braakhuis, St Mary’s College, Wellington
‘All That’s Left’ – Samantha Jory-Smart, Burnside High School, Christchurch
‘Dad’ – Amelia Kendall, St Cuthbert’s College, Auckland
‘WillowSide’ – Angus Forrest, Arrowtown Primary School
‘Would you feel the earth?’ – Beth Cooper, Kilbirnie Primary School, Wellington
‘Stimpy’ – Lilith Sangrouber, Cloverlea School, Palmerston North


Judge’s Comments: Frankie McMillan

There were 305 poems in all and they were my constant companions for several days. I read them in the morning, went for a walk in the hills to clear my thoughts then read them again in the evening.

At first I read for pleasure and then moved to the more analytical task of assessing and ranking the poems. Several bundles were arranged and re-arranged on the kitchen table. Some from the maybe pile found themselves plucked out and put in more illustrious company and some in the top pile were demoted after closer scrutiny. What marked poems down were clichés, poorly chosen words, clunky rhymes, too much ‘wordiness’ and the accidental repeating of words. Some poems started well then galloped wildly off course as though the rider had lost control of the reins.

All of the poems had something going for them; some had specific images. From the primary/intermediate – “and chocolate rabbits produce that white tarnish that no one wants to touch”, “a white fox winks through emptiness”, and “when we had wild dandelions on your grave and all the other horses came …”,  “The musky smell of smoke wraps its arms around me”.

Others had great titles: ‘I want to shoot you with my gun’, or end lines: “I give up, let the morning slowly tear me apart”. Sometimes it was a single line: “The scent of my brother’s bad breath clings in the air”.

I read a poem about an angel who takes salty water to a lamb, poems about climate warming, whales and sharks, the life of wasps, cats, budgies, grandmothers and of a Levytrewy bird with seven eyes and a green beak. Several poems in this section seemed to be about waking in the morning and I could easily imagine the whole class settling down to the task. A small, cheeky poem that seemed to break free from restraints described a praying mantis “doing its twiggy thing”. I also enjoyed the diverse forms and the attempts at more formal poems such as the sestina and villanelle.

In judging the poems I had to re-examine my own ideas of what makes a successful  poem. Poetry is the most exact, precise kind of writing there is. What is left out can be just as important as what is put in. I find poems are more interesting if they make their way forward into the unknown, taking their writers with them. It is said that the thing you already know is the last thing you ought to want your poem to record. The Canadian poet George Bowering said: “If you write about what you know, you will keep on writing the same thing, and you will never know any more than you do now”.

The secondary section (138 poems) explored a wide variety of subject matter and form. The first twenty-five poems showed a mastery of language, a sense of rhythm and evidence of careful editing. These were the most difficult to rank. Finally, I had to give up walking in the hills, make cups of tea and just knuckle down to being ruthless. It was an odd task; poems aren’t written to be judged, they are written to be read, spoken and to remind us what it is to be human. But I went at it and here are the results.

First: ‘waiting for the sun’

When reading the lines,  “you have always wanted to take apart a piano

but there is no music in watching

something fall …”

I felt myself stilled. Good literature and art have the ability to draw us up short so we are present with the work. I like the way the poem ‘ journeys’, the different turns it takes while keeping the integrity of the text intact. This is a questioning poem; there are no ready ‘answers’ here but the specific images: “you have grown out of your shoes”, “the bus doesn’t stop on this side of the road” carry an emotional weight. The sun that “rises and sets” reinforces the theme of time passing and also acts as a structural device. The language is simple and eloquent and the conversational tone draws us close to the writer.

The Secondary Runner-Up also stood out with a stripped down style free from adjectival phrases. caught’, in a prose poem format, has a breathless tone well suited to the topic. The lower case and unpunctuated text add to the highly charged atmosphere of the show. The ending, “the hopeful ones caught in a lightning bolt of here and now”, is excellent.

(In the Highly Commended section time differencewas hot on the heels of the runner up. This is a poem I returned to many times as it yielded different meanings yet still maintained an inner consistency. I particularly like the mysterious ending, which does not detract from a sense of the poem’s completeness.)

The Runner-Up in the Primary/Intermediate section was handwritten and illustrated. There were no marks for this, rather Ideas blossom’ succeeds on its simplicity and central image. I also liked the exuberant language: “nothing will stop the words being thrown onto the paper”.

A big congratulation to all that entered and to the teachers for their encouragement. I hope you all keep reading and writing poetry.

Haiku Junior Section

Judge: Kirsten Cliff

1st Prize, Secondary, and Winner of the Jeanette Stace Memorial Award: Harry Frentz, Tauranga: ‘sand dune’
2nd Prize Secondary: Hannah Hudson, Christchurch: ‘in shallow water’
3rd Prize, Secondary: Ruby Murray, Christchurch: ‘after the storm’
1st Prize, Primary/Intermediate: Philipp Hoeper, Christchurch: ‘rainfall’
2nd Prize, Primary/Intermediate: Ema Xharra, Auckland: ‘sitting on the edge’
3rd Prize, Primary/Intermediate: Anna Doak, Christchurch: ‘midnight’
Highly Commended – Harry Frentz, Tauranga: ‘a ladybird’s spots’ and ‘rain in his cough’; Zoe Smith, Christchurch: ‘mother’s day’; Gabby Dodd-Terrell, Christchurch: ‘anzac sunset’; Chloe Harrington, Christchurch: ‘poppy’.
Commended – Haro Lee, Auckland: ‘the charcoal on your canvas’; Jake Parsons, Christchurch: ‘a church steeple’; Gabby Dodd-Terrell, Christchurch: ‘autumn wind’; Nathan Penrose, Christchurch: ‘shadowed moon’; Meg Longley, Christchurch: ‘full moon’; Moe Gath, Christchurch: ‘ foggy morning’; Ashwini Raazesh, Christchurch: ‘windy morning’; Kane Xie, Christchurch: ‘midnight’; Isaac Heaps, Christchurch: ‘I open my violin case’; Stella Hoeper, Christchurch: ‘I scream’.

Judge’s comments: Kirsten Cliff

I was delighted to receive the parcel of over 400 haiku entries and began reading through them immediately. Some stood out straightaway as winners, and stayed at the top of my list after repeated readings. Others were lost in the strict 5/7/5 syllable count, although I’m pleased to say that these made up less than half of all the entries. I marvelled at the bold use of form: one- and two-liners with experimentation using spaces and indentations. My congratulations to all who took up the challenge to enter. I enjoyed reading your words, and living my life for a while through your senses.

My choice for the Jeanette Stace Memorial Prize (Overall Winner) and First Place, Secondary is:

sand dune     the width of the wind

Such a strong and well-crafted one-line haiku. I fell for the alliteration of ‘width’ and ‘wind’, as well as the ‘d’ sounds running through its length, just like the movement of the wind. I was drawn in to the sights and sounds of the moment because of the form it has taken on the page, and the words used to express it. A stunning piece of poetry that I wish I had captured myself. The next best thing is being able to choose it as the winner. Congratulations!

Second Place, Secondary is also one that stood out as well written, and this helped pull me in emotionally:

in shallow water
the young stag’s
last steps

I can see this happening, and the moment is expressed here flawlessly, even down to the way it’s presented on the page: the narrowing down to the “last steps”. I can see the stag slowly folding into a lifeless heap; the sound of the water, the gasp of the animal, the echo of the gunshot still in the air. Again there is a young writer here who knows how to use language: the ‘s’ sounds flowing through is part of this haiku’s magic. Excellent work.

Third Place, Secondary is a simple and yet powerful two-line haiku:

After the storm
the homeless man

It is stark. Maybe a thought or image society as a whole would rather turn away from. These six words say it all, and leave nothing more for me to say except a hearty ‘well done’ to the writer.

The Primary and Intermediate School writers kept pace easily with their older counterparts. First place is another one-liner:

rainfall his draft letter

This hit me: like the rain falling, like the shock of devastating news, like bombs dropping during war. I was excited by the juxtaposition and its many layers. This would not have happened to the young writer, of course, but it forms part of his or her life experience through seeing it on film, reading it in a book, or hearing it from a grandparent. A fine haiku showing an understanding far above the writer’s years.

Second Place, Primary/Intermediate nearly slipped by me as it was difficult to read through the Gothic font used:

                     Sitting on the edge

The motion of cascading leaves

I was so pleased to discover it on my second read over. The first line intrigued me and I wasn’t disappointed with the follow through. There are so many possibilities of ‘Sitting on the edge’, and the placement on the page adds to that wonder. Great job!

Third Place, Primary/Intermediate was one that crept up on me: 

my kitten
remembers the earthquake

This haiku seems to hold the innocence of childhood, and yet, also the harsh reality of dealing with the consequences of a disaster that has rocked the whole of New Zealand. Well done, and kia kaha!

My advice for next year’s entrants:

  • Read lots of good haiku, at least as much as you write. The NZPS anthology that these winners will appear in, is a good place to start.
  • Make sure your entry is readable: no fancy fonts or pictures, please. The judge doesn’t want to be distracted away from what you’ve written.
  • Proofread your work for spelling and punctuation errors, then get a second person to check it over, too.
  • Keep writing: one of the best ways to learn and improve is to do.
  • And remember: It isn’t important for English-language haiku to be written with a 5/7/5 syllable count. What is more essential is to have the elements that honour the haiku spirit: a seasonal reference and the juxtaposition of two images. This is not the only form that haiku can take, but it’s the easiest place to start.

I’m very happy to see that haiku is thriving in our younger population. Haiku on!