The Hamish Canham Poetry Prize 2008
Winner: Gill Learner

Carole Satyamurti, Chair of judges, on the judging process

Thanks to the generosity of Sheena and Hugh Canham, this is the fifth year in which the Hamish Canham prize has been awarded for the best of the members’ poems appearing in Poetry News during the previous year. Well over 100 poems are submitted on a different theme each quarter for publication in Poetry News so, in effect, the winning poem has swum to the top of a pool containing in excess of 500 poems.
At the judging meeting, each of the panel nominated their own top three poems, and this resulted in a collective shortlist of seven poems. We then read each poem aloud and discussed each separately. This process always results in slight shifts in the impact a poem makes, compared with the way it strikes one on the page, and some of our initial preferences were revised as a result. Finally we voted between the three poems we felt were the strongest.

The four shortlisted poems that didn’t make it to the final cut were, in alphabetical order, as follows. Anna Bendix’s ‘Undercover Conversations With Storybook Heroines IV’, despite its occasionally inverted syntax, endeared itself to us by its lively and immediate voice – Florence Nightingale rejoicing in having found a purpose in life larger than arranging flowers, and waiting for the curate to call. Diana Brodie, in ‘Above Golden Bay’, writes of an ostensible memory of childhood in which a family goes on a fortnight’s holiday, and never leaves the house, from which they can hear the waves breaking on the beach. The mysteriousness of this, and the experience of finally going to that beach as an adult, are memorably conveyed.

Michael Swan has a quirky imagination that enables him to conjure ‘A Sort of Ark’ in which he and selected companions could leave this world behind (a seductive thought for many of us, I’m sure), and escape down a “whale-hole”. The informal way in which the poem is written is jaunty and entertaining. In ‘Cut My Motor’, Barry Tench captures a difficult moment between two people sitting on the beach. Speaking seems impossible between them. Their condition is tellingly reflected in their natural surroundings, the writer’s beloved looking like “an outcrop for cormorants” in her obduracy.

Down to the last three. Heidi Williamson, in ‘France, 1941’, evokes what we took to be a situation in which a German soldier is billeted on a French family. The haunting poem is in the voice of a young girl who refuses to acknowledge his presence in any way, while at the same time being intensely aware of him. The fourteen line shape, though not in conventional sonnet form, carries the shadow of a love poem, which beautifully suggests what is being resisted. We liked, too, her ‘A Level Text’, which also appeared this year.

We had great trouble choosing between the last two poems. Phuoc-Tan Diep’s ‘Portrait of Death as an Artist’ is a powerful evocation of the aftermath of war. Through the metaphor of Death as a painter, we are invited to reflect on how, even long afterwards, the melancholy aesthetics of death persist. Through still and spare language, the pathos and loss of war are wonderfully evoked.

But, by a narrow margin, we decided to award the prize to Gill Learner. She has two poems in this year’s batch. We liked ‘Quartet for the End of Time’, but chose ‘About the Olden Days’ (published in Poetry News, Spring 2008) for its original perspective and arresting language. It puts an ironic spin on the clichéd request which a child might make of a grandparent. In a parched world, rain has become something literally fabulous. The language enables us, for whom rain is commonplace, vividly to imagine a situation in which only the words for it are left. 

Gill Learner
About the Olden Days

Tell me how water magnified the surfaces of leaves
or skittered off. How it spilled from tiles, gargled
along gutters, dropped into echoing butts.
How earth absorbed and hoarded it in lightless caves,
returned it at springs where women left offerings.
Talk about cumulus, cirrus, stratus,
and watching thunderheads approach: how light
thickened from gold to green; how water felt
slipping down cheeks to dusty lips; of cycling
in a yellow oilskin tent, head bent against the sting.
Describe brollies, wellies, puddles and the smell
of dampened soil; how you would hunt for newts,
pick meadow-sweet, try to spot sundew trapping flies.
Explain drizzle, scattered showers, cats-and-dogs.
Please, before we burn, tell me about rain.