1st #12 Dagwood on Rye - Dorene O'Brien, USA
2nd The Visit - Janey Runci, Melbourne, Australia
3rd Maura's Arm - Emma Darwin, London
Runners up (alphabetical order)
The West Coast - Meredith Andrew, Toronto, Canada
Bonfire - Andrew Campbell, London
The Peppermint Room - Hannah-Fleur Fitz-Gibbon, London
Far Rockaway - Kim Kolarich, Chicago, USA
Howl - Alan McCormick, London
Lighting - Sheila Pehrson, Henley-on-Thames, Oxon
Pants on Fire - Ellie Phillips, London
Sprout - Laura Solomon, London
The Lost Trawlers of Wyke - John Taylor, Huddersfield
Locus Sanctus - Mick Wood, Manningtree, Essex
1st Encountering my first untouchables - William Hampton, Colchester, Essex
2nd Lost in translation - Alex Pestell, Brighton, E Sussex
3rd Sub - Malcolm Watson, Hull, E Yorks
Runners up (alphabetical order)
Poverty - Christopher Buckley, Lompoc, California, USA
Dumbarton - Polly Clark, Oxford
Searching for sleep - Graham Clifford, London
At the Polite Pub, Hanoi - Sandra Hill, Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia
The Hanging Babies - River Jones, Brighton, E Sussex
Wigginton has a donkey called Primus and a hip flask as his companions - Peter Knaggs, Hull
The fighting ox called Sewing Machine - Linda Lamus, Bristol
Channel - Carola Luther, Sowerby Bridge, W Yorks
The Reedbed - Jane Routh, Lancaster
The Gas Poker - Julian Turner, Otley
This year the Bridport Prize for the best short story attracted more than 4000 entries, including some by newcomers, who given the effort, the chance and the good fortune, could well establish themselves as successful, published writers. That's the dream, isn't it?, whenever we submit our Jiffy bags of fiction to valuable and important competitions such as the Bridport, or e-mail our newly finished novel to a publishing house, or chance our arm with a literary agent picked randomly from the Writers' and Artists' Year Book. To make our writing public is to seek validation, not only for the prize money, of course (though that's always welcome, even if the cheque is merely framed as evidence) and not only for the prospect of a little notoriety. No, the purest dream is just to see ourselves in print, to have what we have discovered, felt and imagined and then laboured to express as perfectly as possible set up in black and white and in the hands of strangers. We dream of being published, being purchased, being read. We do not dream of storing all our efforts in bottom drawers, along with those rejection slips.
So it is a chilling but not necessarily a sad fact, that out of those 4000 plus Bridport hopefuls only fifty or so -that's one in eighty- displayed enough of the ambition and risk-taking that make for publishable, prize-winning fiction. But that is no cause for dismay and no reason at all for any of the less successful entrants to throw in the towel. How can it be anything but impressive and cheering when, in this spoon-fed age of television in which we are all encouraged to receive rather than transmit stories, that so many new, inexperienced, hesitant writers who might perhaps never see their names in print were nevertheless keen to test their instinctive narrative muscles by sitting alone for a day or so of imaginative introspection? The least successful stories -like the less tended gardens- are never without interest or beauty. Their readers might not encounter the perfect balance of depth and clarity, the finest of metaphors or the most mesmerising of plots, but there is nearly always sincerity and a charming, unguarded openness which can reveal as much about the way we see ourselves and our predicaments as some Great Works. In other words, even the least of the 4000 is worthy of respect and attention. If it's nearly impossible to write the perfect short story, then it's also pretty damned hard to write a very blemished one. All but 13 writers will regret not winning a prize, not achieving the dream on this occasion, but I am sure that there is not a single unsuccessful entrant who would prefer never to have completed their story. Human beings are by nature narrative animals with unparalleled language skills and consciousness, both of which will atrophy if not exercised. The writing is reward in itself. Besides, there are other stories, other prizes, other chances. It's back to work for Bridport 2005.
But what of the "fifty or so"? I read them and reread them this summer on the cliffs and beaches of the Isles of Scilly hunting for the winners amongst the wind-ripped manuscripts. I had not expected to encounter so many dysfunctional families or so much unembarrassed eroticism or such a high degree of psychiatric disorder or quite so many weird distortions of the everyday - sprouting duvets, ship-filled streets, an all-too-human wolf. If these fifty stories could be taken as fifty snap shots of Our Times, then the world would seem a very troubled, isolating, dispiriting and sexually active place indeed. So unlike the Isles of Scilly! But that is as it should be, of course. Narrative is drawn to the cracks and blemishes. "Happiness writes white," according to the essayist, Montherlant. We turn to fiction for the greys and darker tones. The finest of stories expose us to -and so prepare us for- the fear, the failure, the despair. And love gone wrong, of course. And death.
The best of these fifty stories, then, for me, were those which were the most testing and the most threatening, and which displayed their seriousness of purpose and their writerly achievement by taking the most narrative risks - the awkward, ugly, violent grief of Alan McCormick's Howl, for instance, or Meredith Andrew's atmospheric and original response to post 9/11 America, or the wistful, loving heartlessness of The Peppermint Room and the eloquence of clocks and ferris wheels in Third Prize winner, Maura's Arm by Emma Darwin.
In the end there was a tussle for first and second prize, the US versus Oz. Both Dorene O'Brien's #12 Dagwood on Rye and Janey Runci's The Visit are very fine stories indeed, the first an entirely convincing, slow-burning, complicated tale of depression, medication and anxiety, the second an unblinking, compassionate and uncomfortable account of how we let ourselves and our parents down when they are too old to help themselves and we are old enough to know better.
Finally, it was the odder story of the two which took First Prize. Oddness has its strengths, in literature at least. Congratulations then to Dorene O'Brien, and to the other dozen prize winners who were the brightest but not the only points of light and inspiration in this constellation of 4000 stars.
Picture the scene: with the first cup of coffee of the day, I've wandered, still in shorts and T-shirt, into the spare room. There are four thousand poems stacked in boxes on the floor. It's raining: this is the wettest August anyone can remember. I roll a cigarette, then take up a handful from the box I'm working on. I used to imagine - perhaps like you - that judging a poetry competition involved a study, a desk, a pool of lamplight, in-trays, organisation. At the very least, I pictured the judge fully clothed. It isn't always like that.
I'm writing my judge's report in medias res, on the eve of making my final decisions. I hope this sheds some light on the difficult business of single-handedly selecting thirteen poems from four thousand (I'm down to twenty-five, and struggling). Reading individual poems in a competition like the Bridport alters the experience of reading. This democracy of anonymity also places an industrial stress test on a poem's individuality. Soon after the first boxful arrived here in North Lancashire from Dorset, I began to miss the pleasures of reading the longer poem, the sequence; I missed the slow lyric accumulation of a collection, the evidence of growth or change you sometimes detect when looking at a known writer's latest book. I was aware - much more keenly than when I've judged other competitions in the later, sifted stages as part of a panel - how much of a context the single, anonymous poem has to generate for itself in all the noise. I began to fear for the quieter, less insistent work.
However, the rewards of reading like this are plenty, and the good poem is still able to mug you. Blurbless and undressed, so to speak, you take the work as you find it. Every now and then, a poem has simply declared itself, already cooking on gas and electricity, formally best equipped for the job, surprising, memorable - in terms of the way some phrasing or syntax stayed in the mind, as well as the use of a striking image or simile - and sometimes rhetorically or idiomatically inventive. I've been cheered by the amount of work that draws from the well of English as it is variously spoken, and - even more exciting - work that can manage this while being allusive, and aware of deeper resources.
Other things I'd like to report: the judge should never, ever, listen to music while working (I wasted a morning sifting through one batch with a combination of Christian Fennesz and James Brown, spoiling all the papers in the process: I went back and did them again); end rhyme seems to be going through something of a lean period, while the sestina is very much in the ascendant; acrostics just aren't funny any more, if they ever were; and paper cuts can bleed for ages, especially on that flap of skin between the thumb and forefinger. Of course, drink should never be taken while judging, though I admit I was tempted to test the Gothic custom of debate, as reported by Sterne in Tristam Shandy, of looking at everything twice, once drunk and once sober: 'Drunk - that their councils might not want vigour; - and sober - that they might not want discretion.'
I've enjoyed being judge and jury a great deal. There's a wealth of fine work out there, and I could have awarded many more prizes, had I been able to. Tomorrow morning, making the final cut, I hope I can do justice to those poets who are best responding to the demands of the art, writing in and of their moment, but also alive to poetry as an archive, a vast resource. These final twenty-five poems feel as though they've come through something together: they've bonded, and it's going to be difficult splitting them up. I've particularly enjoyed selecting - and, I hope, rewarding - poems that have been made with a singular vision and élan. It's depressing reading work that seems to have been written with tick boxes close to hand, work that pushes all the right buttons. Remember: today's buttons are tomorrow's sci-fi set consoles. The best poems really push their own boats out.