The Magdalena Young Poets’ Prize Judge’s Report, written by the lovely Fiona Benson
Winner: ‘Not all Bombs get Dramatic Conclusions’
Second Prize: ‘Maceration’
Third Prize: ‘Slump City’
Dragonfly Prize for Potential: ‘I thought the feminine experience’
Dragonfly Prize for Potential: ‘ripening’
Honourable mentions: ‘Am I clean enough?’
‘My Bedroom Has Started to Look Like the Bathroom I Lost My Virginity In’
‘A Poem for my Baby Sister as she Heads Off to University’
‘Does it hurt?’
‘Entry from Noah’s Diary’
‘Mistranslated Serenade For Every Kind of Love’
‘And then the lights turn on’
Judging the Magdalena Poetry Prize was at first joyous, and then agonising. Joyous because of the sheer abundance of brilliant work, crammed full of emotionally acute observation, lucid imagery, surprising reckonings, technical savvy, and many different sensibilities and musicalities. Agonising because, having narrowed it down and narrowed it down again, I realised how many truly deserving and villainously brilliant poems were going to miss out in this judging.
I wanted to say to the poets whose poems do not appear on this list: don’t be disheartened. I was reminded of my own experience at eighteen and then nineteen, entering my tiny college’s annual creative writing competition – along with perhaps three other undergraduates – to lose, and lose again. I remember my terrific tutor, who was also the judge of this competition, saying “I felt your subject matter and diction was rather stuck, Fiona…” (ouch). I would be lying to say it didn’t hurt my confidence. Even though I won in my third year of trying (pity vote?), I carried with me that sense that I wasn’t truly gifted, that I’d finally won simply by persisting. That I was a try-hard.
And here’s the thing; no one can tell at that early stage who’s going to be a good writer and who isn’t. Because what will bear out in the end is more to do with compulsion, and a love of language that is forever deepening. If you must write, you will write, and by writing you will improve. It is a vocation. And yes, we writers are try-hards, because we want to be able to serve the poems that are given to us as best we can. So trust the process: keep writing, keep trying, keep serving the poem, and the poems will continue to come. And if they are anything as beautiful as the poems I read in this Magdalena Poetry Prize submission, they will be glorious.
Having said all that, here are the five poems that particularly dazzled. ‘Not all Bombs get Dramatic Conclusions’ is a discomfiting poem of survival, spiked with hallucinogenicly vivid observations of a hospital ward. It borders on the surreal – the ceiling stains that double as a Rorschach test, the nurse’s uniform bright as an unread email – but has a sustaining emotional core, an empathy for pain and its inhabitants. Empathy for the kid worried about particles of shit up his nose, for the nurse with the stubbed toe, for the woman on dialysis, for the man with dementia. I love the simultaneous yearning for beauty and knowledge that none of this is beautiful. And I love the bravery and stubborn endurance of that line “Hundreds of people have died on this mattress, I say, and I am not one of them.” Amen.
‘Maceration’ is a different poem, a close observation of bone findings from under the soil – “things that were meals”. I love the details, and the surprising celebration – “these are the joys / that are bones.” It is a peculiarly sensory poem, the laundry powder the bones are cleaned in making them “linen scented’, the chime and chock of the bones when they are dry. I loved the metaphoric power of the laundry powder bath as an “open stomach”, and the idea of piecing together new, “heavenly bodies”. I also loved the assuredness of statement – “You’re never whole in the next life” evidenced by all these disparate pieces of skeleton, the two jagged edges of the wishbones longing for each other in the dark.
‘Slump City’ is a tour-de-force of language and description, as its professional skaters knife through children in the skating bowl. It is rife with the hard bite of concrete, split scabs, cracked coccyges, shredded faces and bleeding knees. The language is gorgeously textured, with its hard consonants (“he fucks a kickflip”) and moments of unbiddable grace (“carving out gazelles”). Perhaps I missed a little emotional investment, but I was blown away by the sheer bravura of the language.
I have chosen two Dragonflies, when I should have chosen only one, and hope the organisers will forgive me. ‘I thought the feminine experience’ is an acutely sensitive poem of self-realisation. I loved its tone – that self-knowing voice, its shrewd assessment of cliches – “A hole in you that the light can’t touch but maybe seventeen Quorn nuggets and a salted caramel milkshake can” – and that moment of sincerity at the end – that jolt of contact “our arms touched in bed and that was it for me”. This poem also has one of the best last lines I’ve ever read: “I imagined the small movement it would take for our mouths to meet and it broke the nose of everything I thought I knew about being a girl.” It left my eyes smarting.
‘ripening’ is an intimate poem about a mother and daughter preparing food. I adore the image of the pomegranate seeds as garnet teeth, and the gorgeous space of love that this poem conjures up, woven out of the mother’s humming music, the harpist’s fingers, the sense of faraway landing in the location of the now, the feast under glowing lanterns. What a beautiful room this poem creates. There is a sweet symmetry between the glowing paper lanterns and the glowing orbs of the fruit with their papery pith. The poem’s ending is simply joyous. “I asked her is we should throw the shell away, / and she said no, we should dance.” There is so much need in the world for poems like this, that honour sacred moments of human tenderness.
There were other poems that made my job incredibly hard; gorgeous high points of language that made me startle. The devastating hurt, fear, and suffering of a tyrannised child in ‘Am I clean enough’; the tawdry, beautiful, girl-as-rundown-seaside-resort imagery of ‘Misery Guts’; the concern with social media and inadequate communication – “The thing about bad sex is it never texts you back / in a satisfying way” – of ‘My Bedroom Has Started to Look Like the Bathroom I Lost My Virginity In’; the “carnival heart” of ‘Stasis’; the terrific sonic rush of ‘Samphire Hoe’; the sticky coming of age and tender humour of ‘A Poem for my Baby Sister as she Heads Off to University’; the wry humour and tongue-in-cheek sacrilege of ‘Pillow Talk’; the sore humour of ‘Alexa’, so courageous in its confrontation with grief ; the grey evocation of depression in ‘October’, with its promise to “keep living”; grief again, and a perfume-doused ship-burial in ‘Does It Hurt’; the co-codamol overdose that makes the stomach lining a “punk scream” in ‘Mixed Episode’; the last lion in ‘Entry from Noah’s Diary’, who could “eat an entire species in one bite and barely feel it go down”; the disassociations of ‘Mistranslated Serenade for Every Kind of Love’ with its lilac lanterns, overwormed jackfruit, and prayer beads jawed down; and the dissection of the lover in ‘And then the lights turn on’ – “I’m plucking their eyebrows / with my teeth / I’m flossing with their hair” which made me shudder and squirm. Such an amazing cornucopia. Thank you for letting me read these poems, for inviting me to the feast.
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