The winner of the Hamish Canham Prize 2008 was Gill Learner, for her poem ‘About the Olden Days’.
Judges’ choice – Carole Satyamurti, Chair of judges, on the judging process:
“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.”