Photo: Martin Figura

Hamish Canham Prize 2011
Winner: Emma Danes

Emma Danes's moving and mysterious poem ‘17’ has been judged the best members’ poem published in Poetry News over the past year.

‘17’, submitted for last autumn’s theme of ‘home’ set by Jane Yeh, was originally written in response to a Cambridge Stanza group challenge and describes the author’s move from London to Cambridge. In typically deft and allusive language, it conveys both the “sudden lightening” Danes experienced in her new home, and the lingering, slightly melancholy, effect of the house she left behind.

Danes, who won the Poetry Society Stanza competition in 2007, described her win as a “huge surprise” but the Canham judges, who have shortlisted her poems in each of the past three years, will feel that the prize represents overdue recognition of the consistent high quality of her work. Danes began to  produce poetry ten years ago; having always been interested in writing she now finds it difficult to understand why it took her so long to try it. She joined the Poetry Society early on “because someone told me it was a good way to learn more” and is now an active member of the Cambridge Stanza.

The concentration of language and thought in her work has developed over time, she says. “I like the idea of poetry being dense but not cryptic, though I started out quite wordy and loose.” Danes has yet to publish her first collection though her poems have appeared in Poetry Wales, Magma, the Templar anthology Buzz, and are forthcoming in The North. She has also been shortlisted for the tall-lighthouse pamphlet competition.  “I’ve learned so much and I continue to learn all the time. It’s a constant process. Poetry really helps me to see and think in different ways.”

So, will she be spending her prize on anything special? “I might do an online course or have a manuscript read. I’ll also be spending some of it on taking my family out – without my notebook! They deserve it.”

Emma Danes

We thought it would be ours – shy-on
to the street, inadequate fence,
blind corners. We learned it by night –
its Braille of angles and doorways,
its patois of rattle and crack.
We dismantled the chimney stack,
offered up wiring and roof slates,
carpentry. We brought it a child.
It bristled with splinters and snagged
nails. We practised to be smaller.
It longed to be empty, tethered
behind the bus stop in the shade
of a constancy of trees. One
dawn we slipped out between the teeth
of the lock we’d fitted, arrived
where even cow parsley’s lighter –
a child’s hands feathered with flour.
Postmen and plumbers attend us.
In the park, no widowed swan guards
the bruise of her reflection.

Judges' choice: Paul McGrane on choosing '17'

Poetry Society members may already be familiar with Emma Danes’s work. Emma was the winner of our inaugural Stanza Poetry Competition in 2007 and a runner-up the following year. Her poems appear regularly in Poetry News, and she is usually prominent in judges’ minds when the Hamish Canham prize is being selected. So it’s a delight and no surprise that Emma has triumphed at last with a poem that judges agreed was challenging and adventurous, with some stand-out imagery and memorable lines. Previous commentators on Emma’s poetry have noted her use of spare, simple language into which the reader slips easily and deceptively. ‘17’, the judges agreed, is no exception.
We start with a home that “should be ours”. “Braille” and “patois” are cleverly deployed by Emma to describe how the inhabitants need to agree terms with their surroundings, personified as “it”. They tried appeasement but still it “longed to be empty”.

In trying to resolve some of the mysteries within the poem, ‘17’ became a unanimous favourite with the judges: why “cow parsley”? Is the poem ‘about’ bereavement, a child’s death perhaps? This view is bolstered by language usually associated with sacrifice and ritual – “offered up”, “brought it a child”, “practised”. (While writing this piece, I took a sneak look back at the autumn 2010 issue of Poetry News, where ‘17’ originally appeared. Selector Jane Yeh describes the poem as a “submerged narrative of loss and mourning”). On the other hand, why is there an image of a widowed swan (a creature famed for forming lifelong partnerships) that doesn’t “guard the bruise of her reflection” once the inhabitants have left number 17? Were we digging too deep? Is the poem a tale of a family who have left a poisonous, but not fatal, house for another where it is they, rather than their home, that are “attended upon”?

‘17’ wasn’t without challengers. The judges agreed that three poems in particular were worthy contenders and might have won in other years: ‘Time Capsules’ by Francis Green; Josie Turner’s ‘In’; and Ilse Pedler’s ‘Autumn Peas’. Whilst all of us agreed that each of these poems was finely crafted and successful in its own right, ‘17’ took just enough risks to make it this year’s outstanding winner.

Paul McGrane is the Poetry Society’s Membership Manager