The New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition – 2017 Results

NZPS International Poetry Competition 2017 (1)


Open ~ Junior Open ~ Haiku ~ Junior Haiku

Open Section judged by Cilla McQueen

First Place: ‘After the Cyclone’ Alexandra Fraser, Auckland

Second Place: ‘Sea Glass’ Margaret Moores, Auckland

Third Place: ‘Seeing Red’ Nicholas Williamson, Christchurch

Highly Commended (no special order): ‘Frank’s Reading His Paper’ and ‘Watching Venus’ Rob King, Wellington; ‘Escher at the Salmon Ponds’ Catherine Fitchett, Christchurch; ‘solace’ Catherine Moxham, Palmerston North: ‘Pearls’ Janet Wainscott, Lincoln; ‘Fireflies’ Lynne Kohen, Nelson; ‘Bonzai Daughter’ Caroline Masters, Auckland; ‘Angel Road’ Johanna Emeney, Auckland.

Commended (no special order): ‘Car Wash’ Rob King, Wellington; ‘Snow Job’ Barbara Strang, Christchurch; ‘Uncut’ Heather Bauchop, Dunedin; ‘Palmistry’ Jess Fiebig, Christchurch; ‘Edith Sings’ and ‘At Gardiner’s Falls’ Catherine Fitchett, Christchurch; ‘Maungakaramea’ Ilia Smith, Whangarei; ‘Postcard from Würzburg’ Jeni Curtis, Christchurch; ‘A New Razor’ Lynne Kohen, Nelson; ‘Uncle Ray’s Garage’ Nicholas Williamson, Christchurch; ‘Swallows On Dominion Rd’ Anita Arlov, Auckland; ‘Kereru’ Amanda Hunt, Rotorua.

It was fascinating to read this collection of 556 poems, from poets of all ages. Each had been written with the attention and emotion that initiates a poetic response: to put a significant thought into words, and further into the compressed, vivid, musical language of poetry. Each poem represented a mind engaged in the difficult task of expressing some facet of human experience.

There was much love and grief in this work. Subjects ranged from personal insight and epiphany to philosophy, politics, prayer, loss, history and place. Family provided many sympathetic portraits, elegies and laments. Many writers drew from the well of memory.

Whatever the topic, the writing interested me. A wide range of verbal and linguistic ability was evident. Most poets were comfortable with a relaxed style of prose-poem. Several attempted verse forms of technical difficulty, with varying degrees of success. In traditional forms a common fault lay in over-used or clunky rhyme and rhythm, to the point of doggerel, the effort undercutting the overall effect of the poem, while the ideal would be for technique to be almost invisible. Some poems were overloaded with words, some too slight to make an impression. I didn’t find much lyric; there were however many effective images and vivid details.

In selecting a long list and then a short list I looked for work where attention was paid to both the sound and shape of the line. I sought a freshness of imagery and approach, an interest in taking the lines beyond spaced-out prose, the ability to focus and reflect which can render a personal experience universal.

Where is the poet in relation to the poem, I wondered. At arm’s length, or close up? A degree of objectivity attends to control of the poem’s form; a subjective viewpoint frees up its sensual and imagistic qualities.

The focus and reflection of ‘Sea Glass’ made it a clear finalist. In this poem there’s a fine balance between observer and observed. The language is well controlled, flowing through long lines, the photographer/poet’s thinking cogent and measured as he looks at the print and then the negative of a photograph. The lost beloved woman almost makes contact with the poet – in the negative held to the light a ‘gauze-like whorl’ might be the print of her index finger. His intense gaze could almost – but not quite – reach her. It’s a moving reflection on time and grief, framed between images of evanescence.

Another finalist was ‘Seeing Red’, a short and quite plain poem containing not much more than the vivid image of a man’s face full of barely suppressed emotion. The young poet sees this face in sharp detail; a few well-chosen words produce a magnifying effect. There’s a very effective contrast between the boys, literally ‘red-handed, brushes dripping/ like knives after a massacre’ and their pink-cheeked

uncle, the intensity of whose emotion is so great that language fails him. Extraordinary restraint renders him almost speechless, reduced to a single word.

Both the above poems succeed in drawing the reader into the world of the poem.

My next finalist was ‘After The Cyclone’, which achieves a feat of imaginative projection whereby the the reader is drawn into not one world, but two. At the beginning we see what the poet sees – flooding fields after a cyclone, a river that has burst its banks, a group of stranded cows. The placing of the initial lines gives a feeling of rapid water flowing past, bringing with it ‘branches … clumps of flax and pukeko nests/ swift drifting islands.’ Watching the cows, the poet worries that ‘they won’t swim for it/ not till they’re nearly drowning.’ Then the viewpoint flips: ‘my vision distorts// I see what I don’t remember’ and the reader is flung, along with the poet/observer, into ‘heart-deep’ cold flood water, staring at an uncertain ‘fast-moving’ shore and – having become the observed – inhabiting the bewildered consciousness of a cow.

This encounter with the unexpected, the flip between viewpoints, set this poem apart. I gave it first place. I placed the quiet reflection of ‘Sea Glass’ second, and the compression and repression of ‘Seeing Red’ third. At this level of excellence it was very hard to choose between such different, idiosyncratic creations.

Open Junior Section judged by Joanna Preston

First Equal: ‘hidden figures’ Joanna Li, Diocesan School for Girls, Auckland

First Equal: ‘This Is Just To Say’ Jett Fa’amalepe, Arrowtown School

Runner-up: ‘A City Built On The Forest’s Grave’ Pieta Bailey, St Andrews College Preparatory School, Christchurch

Highly Commended (no special order:) ‘entitlement’ Libby Witherford-Smith, Queen Margaret College, Wellington; ‘brother’ Joanna Li, Diocesan School for Girls, Auckland; ‘The First Christmas Poem’ Siena O’Dowd, Homeschooled, Rangiora

Commended (no special order): ‘My Piano’ Cameron Doherty, Kohimarama School, Auckland; ‘How to make a sunset’ Isobel Melhuish, Cobham Intermediate School, Christchurch; ‘Being’ Samantha Jory-Smart, Burnside High School, Christchurch; ‘Coral’ Anna Doak, St Margaret’s College, Christchurch; ‘Fresh-faced, hopeful’ Bon Turner-Buchanan, Wellington High School.

Having edited the NZPS anthology a few times, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing just how rich a harvest of poetry there is in New Zealand schools. The standard has always been high, with a regular handful of poems that would probably have made the shortlist in the adult competition. So when the postbag of entries arrived on my doorstep, I settled down expecting, if not a feast, then at the very least a mighty fine meal.

There were poems about Big Things like war, love, loss, death, heartache, environmental catastrophe and questions of self-worth. But the ones that went wrong tended to stay mired in the personal, and were essentially saying war is bad! flowers are good! breakups are really upsetting (sadface) without making the reader – who is, after all, a complete stranger – feel anything more than a mild oh, yes, I suppose so. The most successful poems either dialled back the drama and used some really well-crafted images and phrases to make their points, or took smaller subjects and made them shine – humour, a quirky twist, the realisation that there’s actually a whole other poem just under the surface, or just a really well-executed formal pattern that worked with the subject matter.

I spent a few weeks with the poems, reading and rereading in batches to give them my full attention (you’ve put the time in to writing them, so the minimum politeness on my part is to read them carefully) and assigning them to piles – a quizzical Hmm, maybe pile, a regretful No, I don’t think so pile, and a few – a very small number, as it always is – into a Ooh, yes! pile. By the end of all the rereading and resorting I had come up with my list of definite contenders. There were surprises – a couple of poems that had been hovering towards the middle of the Hmm pile actually stacked up quite well when I compared them directly to their rivals. A couple which I had been inclined towards in the first read-throughs didn’t seemed as interesting when I came back to them. From 153 entries, to a shortlist of 18, to a final selection of just a few winners, including two that I just could not separate.

The first of my joint winners is a good example of how to deal with Big Things without the poem turning into the Shouty Man On The Street Corner. ‘hidden figures’ is a deceptively quiet piece that deals with the issue of racism. It’s a first-person lyric that has tears in the back of its throat without ever overdoing the pathos. This poem isn’t asking for pity, just telling it the way they know it to be. From the double meaning of the title (“Hidden Figures” is also the name of the movie it references) to the deftly-judged irony of the last line (‘this cannot be real’) it’s a poem that just works. Not flashy, not packed with lines that stay in your head for hours. It manages the even harder trick of almost erasing itself, so that it’s the idea you remember, and the words themselves withdraw. “hidden figures” indeed.

‘This Is Just To Say’ was a poem that made me smile right from the moment I first read it. There were a number of variations on this theme, so much kudos to the teacher who is introducing primary students(!) to the wonders of William Carlos Williams. As previous judges have noted, the downside to classes entering poems written on a particular theme is that they tend to diminish each other’s impact. And
Williams’ “This Is Just To Say” is such a staple of twentieth century poetry that it’s hard to use that pattern to say anything new. But this one does, which on its own earns the writer bonus marks. It’s perfectly balanced between saying too much and too little, with that lovely ambiguity of the final stanza: ‘You must forgive me / but you are / not the answer / to all of my equations.’ Is it addressed to a parent? A sibling? A friend? A boy or girlfriend, imagined or real? What’s the story behind this? I could assign probabilities based on the writer’s age, but that would be missing the point. It is pitch-perfect, and I’ve been quoting it to myself and chuckling every other day since the entries arrived. Is it funny? Yes. But not just funny. It is, like the IgNobel Prizes, something that makes us laugh, and then makes us think. Earthshaking? Maybe not. But small tremors can have just as big an effect. I wish I had written it. Well done.

The Runner-up: ‘A City Built On The Forest’s Grave’ is another poem that manages the difficult trick of working with emotionally charged material – in this case, human’s degradation of the natural environment, spoken in the voice of a dead forest. There are many way this poem could have gone wrong, but the poet avoids all of them. There’s no sentimentality, loads and loads of images that Archibald MacLeish would have been proud of, and some fabulous lines – ‘they made friends / with destruction / and it pulls them places’ and ‘ the trees sway / in the garden / I keep in my head’ being my favourites. A poem to linger over.

Highly Commended: ‘entitlement’ is very brief, very simple in its language. But there are so many undercurrents here – the last few lines (‘father sky showed / how well you / fared under storm clouds’) feel comforting one minute, threatening the next. Trying to decide which sends me back to the title, which is yet another mystery. Is this poem about the things we are all entitled to, as living creatures? Or is it about the things we greedy humans assume as ours, and take anyway? It’s haiku-esque in its brevity, and earns its mystery.

‘brother’ tells a sad story in plain language. The key to its success is in the details, and the way the poet uses the linebreaks to keep energy flowing in the poem. But the most impressive part is the ending – full of emotion and sadness, but never dipping into being sentimental: ‘dammit, just come / back. just come home.’ That took a good ear and good poetic instincts. Well done.

A limerick about religion, that manages to be both funny and provocative? How could you not go for that? ‘The First Christmas Poem’ scans almost perfectly, rhymes well, and makes me smile. It also makes a valid point about belief without being rude or nasty. Good work!

Commended: ‘My Piano’ is a quirky list poem, that goes beyond the obvious. I very much like the idea of a piano that ‘thinks like Einstein”.

‘How to make a sunset’ could easily have been just another recipe poem, but lifts out of the ordinary with a penultimate pun (‘stir thoroughly and leave to set’) and then a laugh-out-loud last line that pokes fun at itself.

‘Being’ takes the How To poem even further, with some really lovely bits of imagery, and some seriously clever linebreaks, especially in the last few lines.

I liked the imagery in ‘Coral’ a lot. “… lungs that play / a pale accordion” is a great example – strange, and very apt once you get beyond the strangeness.

‘Fresh-faced, hopeful’ almost feels Anglo-Saxon in its use of rhyme and a two-beat line. I could imagine someone rapping it. I like the way it works through the experience and then circles back to the beginning.

Thank you to everyone who entered the competition. Living with your poems has been fun. Keep reading, keep writing, and keep entering competitions – who knows, it might be you next year!

Haiku Section judged by Sandra Simpson

First Place / Jeanette Stace Memorial Award: ‘sowing mustard seed’ Margaret Beverland, Katikati

Second Place: ‘night driving’ Katherine Raine, Milton

Third Place: ‘whale migration’ Simon Hanson, Australia

Fourth Place: ‘our boots’ Jan Dobb, Australia

Fifth Place: ‘long wait backstage’ Catherine Bullock, Waihi

Highly Commended (no special order): ‘ghost suburb’ Barbara Strang, Christchurch; ‘breaking waters’ and ‘plovers landing’ Katherine Raine, Milton; ‘the squeal’ Cynthia Rowe, Australia; ‘winter sun…’ Catherine Bullock, Waihi; ‘death of a friend’ Vanessa Proctor, Australia.

Commended (no special order): ‘night camp’ Nola Borrell, Lower Hutt; ‘things’ Margaret Beverland, Katikati; ‘old gardener’ Jan Dobb, Australia; ‘gravel road’, ‘clearing skies’, ‘southerly change’, ‘over the swede paddock…’, and ‘april lake’ Katherine Raine, Milton; ‘abandoned swallow’s nest…’ Cynthia Rowe, Australia; ‘this wet spring’ Catherine Bullock, Waihi; ‘morning frost’ Ron C Moss, Australia; ‘retirement village’ Karen Peterson Butterworth, Waikanae.

The standard among the 401 entries was high and so the poets who have been given placings, highly commended and commended have every right to feel pleased with themselves. The competition was stiff. Walk around for a few days with your chest puffed out and a little smile plastered to your face, you’ve earned my admiration with your first-class work.

The poets who haven’t had work placed shouldn’t lose heart. I hope reading the commentary on the five winners will provide some tips for future success. Particularly important is the ‘show, don’t tell’ essence of haiku. Each of the top five haiku can be read literally, but each can also be mined for other meanings and so reward several re-readings.

Haiku have the ability to speak across national borders, across language, across oceans and across time – and all of these haiku do exactly that.

‘sowing mustard seed …’ – Margaret Beverland, Katikati, First & Jeanette Stace Memorial Award

This arresting haiku well deserves its First placing and Jeanette Stace Memorial Award. The poet has subtly indicated a season – it’s up to the reader to decide which it is (mustard as a green manure crop is sown late autumn/early winter; or if being grown to harvest, mid-spring). Here in Tauranga, bumblebees are active throughout the year so that’s not so much of a help for me, but it may lead others to pick spring. In any event, there is a broadcast of seed followed by an ellipsis, a lovely visual representation of that seed fallen on the earth. Unlike honeybees, bumblebee bodies are covered in thick, fuzzy hair, allowing them to work longer than honeybees (earlier and later in the day and in colder, wetter weather) and collect pollen all over their bodies, thanks to the electrostatic charge they build up as they work. ‘Bumbling’ from flower to flower, it isn’t surprising they bump into things, including humans – and what a sensation when one brushes past bare skin!

A beautifully observed haiku that lets us stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the poet in his/her garden but which also hints at how all living things on this wondrous planet are connected. Without pollination we humans would have a pretty difficult time. Our self-destructive behaviour – pollution, wars, overpopulation, etc – must seem like the worst sort of foolishness to a bumblebee. The natural world will always be here. I wonder how much longer we’ve got?

‘night driving’ – Katherine Raine, Milton, Second

The poet has this just right. A road (or track) at night, the world outside shrunk by the rain hitting the windscreen and what little the headlights illuminate of the bush closing off sight to the sides. The windscreen wipers, white lines and dashboard lights are all there is. No wonder the lonely driver has retreated even further within his/her ‘tin box’ and gone inside the self.

We can use our marvelous brains to problem solve but, equally, we can use them to beat ourselves up and fall into dark despair. Are the driver’s thoughts useful or is s/he mulling old hurts and past injustices? Is this someone contented with the moment, happy to be surprised by what’s around the corner or someone longing for company and fearful of what lies ahead? The darkness, the rain, the wall of trees, the introspection and the lack of punctuation suggest to me the latter and lend this a haiku a decidedly claustrophobic, if not gothic, air.

‘whale migration’ – Simon Hanson, Australia, Third

Whales migrate to polar areas in summer (to feed) and warmer waters in winter (to breed) with different types having different summer destinations. For instance, in the Pacific it may be the Philippines, Hawaii or Mexico; or the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. The repeated use of ‘dark’ leads me to suspect that winter is coming and the whales are off to warmer climes. How do we know whales are passing? By spotting their backs or tail fins for sure but, and this is a particularly subtle use of a sensory element, also by their sound as they shoot super-heated air out of their blowholes. Sometimes hearing this whooshing sound or spotting the spout is the only way to know whales are nearby.

The poet’s location is wide open – on the water or on land? At any rate we know that colour has gone from the sky, but again the poet is leaving the interpretation open – is it a storm brewing or night falling? An elegantly crafted haiku that ends with an echo of ‘wine-dark sea’ from Homer’s masterpiece about another epic sea-voyage.

‘our boots’ – Jan Dobb, Australia, Fourth

Have you seen a wild orchid? Sometimes they’re hard to spot even when in flower. My companions were singularly unimpressed by a Pterostylis australis (greenhood orchid) flowering right beside a track near Mt Ruapehu (I was thrilled and down on my knees trying to photograph it!). Sometimes the only way you’ll know Earina autumnalis (ruapeka) is close by in the bush is by a waft of gorgeous perfume when it’s in flower. Most of New Zealand’s native orchids are pretty small and yes, it can feel like we’re too big, clumsy and noisy as we pass by unaware or as we lumber over for a closer look. The poet is also quietly drawing attention to how humans bestride the world, for better or worse.

A true story from the world of NZ orchid conservation: Corybas carseii , the swamp helmet orchid, is hanging on at a single wetland. In 1991 a team of scientists wallowed through the peat bog for 4 days without sighting a plant, paused for lunch … and realised they were sitting on what they were looking for!

‘long wait backstage –‘ – Catherine Bullock, Waihi, Fifth

The mark of a good senryu is not the smile it brings on the first reading, but the pleasure it still brings on the fifth or seventh or fifty-seventh reading. The poet has a light hand with the humour making this more than just a ‘punchline’ read – and while I find the last two lines amusing, they could also be read with a more serious take, given the prevalence of domestic violence in our society.

The choice of the fairytale-sounding ‘evil giant’ is genius. Evil giants sniff out Englishmen, make life hell for Greek seafarers, scare small children silly – but they also meet particularly nasty ends, often thanks to someone called Jack. This evil giant (or at least the man under the greasepaint) is not kicking up bobsidi, or even kicking over the scenery, at the long wait but putting his time towards figuring out how to change his ways for the better. Hope for us all.

Junior Haiku Section judged by Nola Borrell

Thank you Poets, especially first-timers, for your entries, and congratulations to the award-winners. Many haiku showed great imagination, a keen sense of fun and a love of adventure. I do like your concern with environmental issues.

What was I looking for? Key things: A striking, original and focused image of a personally observed moment, concisely worded, and with resonance/ emotional impact. My sub-text: Surprise me!

When I judged this Competition in 2008, there were 1064 entries. This year only 175: 120 from Primary/Intermediate students, 55 from Secondary. I was disappointed. Apart from other reasons, there’s something very cheering about reading haiku on a midwinter day stilled by fog. The more, the better! The good side was the improved standard of primary/intermediate haiku. Most of the highly commendeds and commendeds are to primary/ intermediate haiku.

The overall winner and winner of the Primary/Intermediate Section evokes the excitement, high adrenalin and noise of a sportsground. Even the dog is dizzy/caught up. The word ‘pitch’ not only refers to the soccer ground but also the tension. (Very clever!) The haiku also suggests the possibility that newbies are out there, still getting to know the rules. It’s fun too. A well-written haiku.

‘soccer pitch’ – Tristan Barclay, NSW, Australia

Second in this Section, ‘tornado’ (Phoebe Donald, Christchurch), is a concise, evocative haiku which captures a particular moment/ image out of all the possible images within a tornado. It becomes representative of the unexpected.

The third-placed haiku, ‘winter’ (Aine Molony, Christchurch), readily evokes the bleakness of this moment, elicits sadness.

Some entries were stories rather than moments; others delightful little lyrical poems. Haiku tend to use plain words. This is true of the haiku winning the secondary section.

‘tsunami’ – Amy Wells, Christchurch

Only seven words, and a jolt for the reader. The haiku is simply expressed, immediate (present tense, note), the implication eliciting alarm, panic. The poet has concentrated on one vivid image, and leaves the rest to the reader. Simplicity and depth. Well done.

Second in the Secondary section, ‘beneath the soil’ (Tobias Paul, Christchurch), has an important pivot line “my dog”. The writer avoids saying what he feels, but the haiku conveys a strong emotion – subtly. The reader knows and can empathise.

And third, ‘The huddle of black’ (Emma Uren, Auckland), is an immediate graphic image with inherent surprise.

But, some en route tips: avoid repetition, omit unnecessary words, use plain words, delete capitals (usually) and other punctuation. Keep reading haiku, good haiku. You get a feeling for the rhythm. But be careful you don’t use exactly the same image or one very very close. No need to tell the whole story. Avoid clichés. Control what you can. Leave it to the reader to respond to your poem.

I recommend two websites: Learning to Write Haiku – A Teachers’ Guide K. Raine on the NZPS website.

‘A Haiku Workshop – Guidelines for writing haiku by Quendryth Young’ There’s always an element of subjectivity in judging. Keep writing even if your name is not on this year’s list. Stay alert to those aha moments. Keep reading. Next year, another competition, another judge! And, you know, finding and writing haiku is fun itself. It’s a great way of seeing. Thanks again, Poets, and also supportive Teachers and Parents, and especially long-term Competition Organiser Laurice Gilbert.