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This report is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.

On Judging Prizes, & Reading More than Six Really Good Books Vahni Capildeo
JUDGING THE LEDBURY FORTE PRIZE, which awards £5,000 to the author of a second collection of poetry, inspired me to search a property website. I selected ‘London’, ‘one bedroom apartment’ (assuming a second-collection poet might need to fit in another person as well as themselves, a desk and some books). The listings hit £500 per month – for shared flats or houses of multiple occupation. What looks like a great lump of cash is not even a year’s rent.

Prizes are not income. They cannot be relied upon. What can be relied upon is the opprobrium which judging attracts. Here are some answers. You can write the questions.

(a) Agitate for writing to be recognised as labour. If you do lots of stuff for free for your mates because art is lovely and the system is fucked – this, too, is an exercise of economic agency, with consequences. Less whinge, more manifestation à la française. Are you participating in local politics, or co-ordinating public interventions (leafleting, graffiti, digital…)? Applying to Teach First or the civil service? Join the Society of Authors. Read guidelines for freelancers.

(b) There is no ‘prize culture’. There are numerous, interlinked, imperfect mechanisms for bringing more, and different, poetry to more, and different readers – including those outside these four nations, who nonetheless happen (who knows why?) to read in English.

(c) If your publisher did not enter your book, it was not considered. Speak to your publisher. You might know that some prizes require thousands of pounds in fees. Do you know your own publisher’s overheads? Could they enter, win, and survive?1

Cast the Amazon Prime subscription out of thy debits before casting the ‘prize’ books off your reading list. Ask the Poetry Book Society, or your preferred book club, about their policy on the discounts they want from publishers, and what ‘sweeteners’ they expect regarding review copies and returns. Get the figures. Do not rest content with a sucralose answer.

Do not hint reproachfully to judges about the merits of your friends above that lucky, pretty girl, or that smooth, privileged guy. Do not corner me in the pub; I am somewhat Glaswegian.

Naturally, the poetry prize judging process consists in leisurely discussion in the enforced luxury of an unnamed resort, while beautiful robots convert conversation to digital notes. Alternatively, for evil awards, black-gowned judges throw books around, roaring with scorn, and pick the winner via perverted party games.

In fact, here were my material conditions of judging. A major worry was receiving the books (not all prizes are set up for electronic submissions). Unemployed since the end of September – winning the Forward Prize having proved a job interview-killer (‘you’ll be busy with your performances’) – I was zigzagging for paid gigs between Ireland, Spain, London, the US and elsewhere, in an unglamorous, economy-class way – a structural, relationship-destroying instability. My Brexitish Cambridge neighbours, who had refused to introduce themselves, would not keep post. So I had to ask a favour from someone with a college address.

Two boxes of books filled my Trinidad suitcase. Luckily I have spare clothing at ‘home’. I failed in Bocas Litfest attendance, staying in reading; failed my mother, alone in the next room, disabled and in pain. My hands wintergreened from the massage gel I used all too briefly on her benumbed or aching limbs. With birdsong and breezes irritatingly fulfilling tropical stereotypes beyond my closed, sea-blue curtains, I worked through sixty-two volumes.

I dedicated time to engage closely only with these books, keeping any other texts, including ‘my own’, at the margin of my attention. Only thus would my brain guard a fair field for comparison. I had to get beyond what I liked and ask, what is this doing?

Technology did not fail. My co-judge, Tara Bergin, kindly met via FaceTime. Given the time zone difference, I was in red-and-white reindeer pyjamas, and attached to a coffee mug. In a triumph for feminism, as well as for flexible working, Tara batted not an eyelid, but conversed with an efficiency that had me rethinking. One of the most exciting aspects of good judging is the back-to-school feeling. A co-judge is not a fellow seminar leader, or a new best friend. However, the deciding conversations, attentive and appetitive, urgent and generous, have a youthful feeling of both ‘all the time in the world’ and ‘this! now!’. It was revitalising to compare personal reactions as well as other criteria; to share note-taking systems, and how much we read aloud.

We wanted ‘good poetry’. We were startled when the natural distribution of our selection was apparently gender-balanced: three designated male, three designated female (we did not check how the authors identify), not London-centric, and entirely from independent presses. I feel almost as nervous about my ‘judgments’ as I do about my own new poems – is this any good, or have I run mad? – and put in just as much work. Yet there was overlap with Tara’s list – both in terms of some titles, and in the kinds of thing we were looking for.

Patterns did emerge. I wonder how much the ‘creative writing industry’ applies a beauty treatment body-wrap, massaging out any heritage-unfriendly toxins. There was a tendency to use an imported structure, sometimes with extra pieces tacked on: x number of poems about paintings, or a scientific phenomenon, or a particular human experience. There was a worrying amount of encoded misogyny. There was a tendency to be safe: male poets often came across as nice guys, while female poets had airbrushed out inconvenient neighbours in their grieving, floral paths. Historical voices, though well-researched, were seldom as badly behaved and diverse as in records, or memories, of the ‘real’ past.

Personally what I found heart-breaking were the few cases when books had similar virtues but only one could be chosen rather than another. What was heartening was how many second-collection, or second-book, authors were alive to the whole world; though they might choose to work in miniatures or monologues, they showed relish and love and indignation about the absurdities of our embodied selves and the weirdness of Internetted consciousness cross-cutting each potentially lyric instant.

I have written often about the scope and non-interchangeability of the terms ‘book’ and ‘collection’. A pragmatic interpretation might be best, when a well-meaning person or institution uses the terms interchangeably. Challenging assumptions and definitions is important. Challenges also need to be made well, to be heard as anything other than ornery. A ‘book’ has coherence, yet might not make much sense or yield its pleasures and illuminations to a reader dipping in at random. A ‘collection’ may have been rearranged by mentors and editors and will comprise roughly equal, publishable or performable, stand-alone pieces.

I would hope that the Ledbury Forte Prize, for a second publication, rewards the difficulty of producing that object which has an ISBN can travel – across borders. It is not easy for a poet to find ‘headspace’ and resist ‘steering’ to break away from – even if continuing – where the first publication left off. It is a fine feeling, as a judge, to be able to redistribute some resources – though not a year’s London rent – to an author who shows this resilience, and whose work seems still to be responsive and evolving.

Here are the shortlisted titles, with my unedited comments from my secret Excel sheet of notes after a first reading:

Sandeep Parmar, Eidolon (Shearsman) – Extraordinary lens on maze-like power structure through myth, war, tech & the ‘female’. [This was the winner.]
Judy Brown, Crowd Sensations (Seren) – Clever, attentive to material & viewpoint; also individualistic, tripping away.
John Clegg, Holy Toledo! (Carcanet) – Clever, with some astonishing lines.
Emma Hammond, The Story of No (Penned in the Margins) – Post-post-Internet smarts. Tough & moving daughter-mother elegy. Rare.
John McCullough, Spacecraft (Penned in the Margins) – Central lover’s-death sequence powerful. Formally playful (good).
Sam Riviere, Kim Kardashian’s Marriage (Faber & Faber) – Witty, pretty, hiding its heart; sharply concerned with the whole ‘globalised’ world.

There is a much longer sheet of comments, not to be given away anywhere. I suggest you read all these books instead.


1 See, for example,­-warn-that-top-books-prizes-are-harming-fiction

This report is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this report to
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