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National Poetry Day 2022

Adult Section Judges Report

Emma Neale —

National Poetry Day Dunedin 2022

Third ‘Losing Myself’ by Sandra Locke

This concise poem is as compact as one of those sweet and sour candies, where your mouth is happily occupied by two very different taste sensations. It also has clarity and symmetry in its two three-line stanzas: this shapeliness is very appealing!

For a Gen X reader like myself, the first line seems to quote a song by The Las; (I know younger people might think it quotes a song by Sixpence None the Wiser: but the Las were there first!); so there is a wryly humorous surprise when it mentions a completely different musician in the second stanza — even though the title itself is a play on one of his songs. (‘Lose Yourself’). The poem not only captures the joy of getting lost in music, but also suggests some generation-gap tension. (I think that ghosting from The Las suggests that the speaker is a parent figure, rather than, say, a sibling with different taste.) The last line, ‘pounding through the wall’, could just be the song volume dialed right up, or it could be narrator of the poem losing their self-control (as the title suggests) and going all classic-grumpy mum or dad as they bang on the wall, essentially to say shut up, hurry up, you’ll be late! There’s also a kind of irony in the parent urging the daughter out; presumably to seize the day, get an education while she can, when the Eminem song is all about taking a one shot, seizing a once in a lifetime opportunity: in a way, both parent and musician are giving similar advice.

I think, too, the way the whole poem is shaped means that the ambiguity of who is getting lost in the moment is actually effective, rather than a grammatical confusion. While the title suggests it could be the speaker losing themselves; the stanza arrangement means it could be the child getting ready for school; and then again the line arrangement means it could even be the musician Eminem, lost in the flow of his own composition.

I think there’s also more wry comedy in the fact that the Eminem song is a lot wordier, hyper-focused on rhythm and rhyme, with ambitiously long, breathless lines: Sandra Locke’s poem undercuts that style, even as it celebrates the impact of the artist. So this apparently very simple, even innocent-looking poem contains more than it might at first seem. It is so challenging to carry off something this succinct and straightforward yet also hint at complexity. I chose this poem for third place above some of the other very deserving entries because it is confident enough to be both linguistically accessible and yet emotionally knotty at the same time.

Second place: ‘A Moment of Sounds’ by Giles Graham

The first thing about this poem that would strike any reader is its visual experiment with spiraling, circular shape: a bold move for a contest where sound, not sight, is the theme — but perhaps it strikes us like a gong. The best concrete poems are much more than just words rammed into a twee or literal picture, though; and this one definitely is much more than that.

I love the use of repetition and variation within the language of the poem: a short refrain is repeated the way it might be in a song. I love the close attention the poem pays to both minute and catastrophic sounds; and the way we can hear echoes between the opening and closing lines, which balance out the metaphorical or abstract in the start, with the sensuous and physical in the finale. (If we read the poem from the outer ring and travel inwards, which is what I did. On National Poetry day, Giles Graham actually read his poem starting with the inner circle and travelled outwards. Perhaps there are two poems in one, here.)

Similarly, the visual component works on several levels. The typographical experiment suggests not just the gong I mentioned earlier, but also sound waves, the ripple effect of a note; perhaps the ‘eye’ of a stereo speaker; and also the way the lineation makes us rotate the page to read it, recalls the spin of an old LP record or a CD.

Overall, the poem shows an admirably alert imagination and an acute sensitivity to, and interest in, language and poetic form.

First Place: ‘Waggle Dance’ by Rachel Sawaya

This poem stood out for its high energy and its gentle sense of comedy; for the merging of science and imagination in its riff on the nature of sound waves; and for the playfulness of its language – which here ranges from onomatopoeia, to what I think is a neologism —so a newly invented word, an adjective which fuses the words mellifluous and mellific. (If it’s actually a mistake, it’s still one that works, as the strange word ‘melliferic’ seems to call on both its parent words in context, and it also creates a bit of echoing assonance, as sits alongside the word ‘net’. In a poem about sound, it seems both very apt and deft that the poet molds a word into an aurally interesting shape!)

A real liveliness in the poem is generated a number of ways. One comes from the side-steps and leaps in verbal register (so, say, from the formality of a word like ‘purveyor’, to the boppiness of ‘blip’). Another burst of vitality comes from the word games which sting a little bit (e.g. the spelling of ‘heard’: at first I thought, is this a typo or a pun?). These are small moments of useful uncertainty, as they keep the reader guessing, and bump us off monotone, mundane reading rails.

Line breaks that I might question or find odd in another poem here help to convey the jangle and cacophony, and also work in a hopping, darting way, a bit like the flitting and zipping around of the bees in the central metaphor.

I love the way the poem also brings in a very contemporary term like ‘vocal fry’ alongside more traditionally lyrical writing (‘drip their sweetness’), and the way it sets a pragmatic, workaday object like ‘the garage fridge’ alongside richly metaphorical expressions of emotion. I also love the whole way the poem progresses, in a kind of breathless run-on of ideas, information and jokes, until the final line releases another possible aspect of the title. Maybe, in fact, the poem itself loops back to its beginning, in a kind of imitation of the figure-eight dance that bees perform when communicating how far away a source of pollen or nectar is from the hive. (Because I first learnt about the waggle dance from Sting, a novel for children by author Raymond Huber, I like to think this poem even acknowledges its inheritance from local literary tradition!)