1st Rue de Vaugirard - Elizabeth Dalton, New York, USA
2nd Cold Weather - Katharine Braddick, London
3rd Glad - Kerry Swash, France
Runners-up (alphabetical order)
Feeding Time - Zac Barker, New York, USA
Running Around Without a God in Their Hearts - Jon Bauer, Melbourne, Australia
Metal - Andrew Craigs, Bristol
The Sandwich - Mischa Hiller, Cambridge
The Cliffs at Marpi - Greg Hrbek, Saipan & USA
Under the Table - Elizabeth Koch, New York, USA
Turtles - Richard Lambert, Bristol
Phantoms - Annie McDowall, Surrey
Me and the Motorway - Gerry Ryan, County Durham
Caught - Deborah Willis, Victoria BC, Canada
1st Panegyric - Anthony Snider, Wilmington, USA
2nd The Same Old Figurative - Joel Toledo, Quezon City, Philippines
3rd The took a fall - Jonathan Hadwen, Queensland, Australia
Runners-up (alphabetical order)
Milk and Eggs - Isabel Ashdown, Chichester
Supermarket Girl - Helen Carr, Carmarthenshire
perspective - Claudia Daventry, Amsterdam, Netherlands
First Time Mum - Sarah Davies, Bedford
The Light Age - Christopher James, Suffolk
Deflations in Sad Weather - Cynthia Kitchen, Lancs
Invocation - Shaun Levin, London
Waxwing Bohemians - Devon McC Jackson, Santa Fe, USA
To Friday Evening - John Okrent, New York, USA
99¢ dream - Janet Ward, New York, USA
After the month of reading the longlist for the Bridport Prize I have great respect for those who produced it from the initial 4,800 entries. I had only to choose first, second and third prize and ten supplementary prizes yet the block of MSS that arrived by special delivery at my door looked a formidable heap.
After a worrying drought, when all the MSS seemed alike and I feared that a number of authors were attending the same creative writing class, the desert began to flower and three blossoms sprang up, one of them I felt sure might deserve the first prize. Which it won.
Ten runners-up were more difficult. There was a grim uniformity about the worlds they described. I felt that if I were a Martian I would not want to continue with any space-probe that might take me anywhere near planet earth; a place of malaise, disillusion, infidelity, malice, cowardice, madness, cruelty, marital discord, damaged children with ghastly parents, drugs, booze, child-abuse, war, massacre, suicide and scant religious faith or hope for the future. Humour was in short supply and so was beauty, human or divine, and there was little comfort or notice of the wonders of earthly landscape.
However, when I came to disregard subject matter, as I should, the clouds lifted. It is character that is at the heart of everything and it is character that is being wrestled with in most of the stories. I decided to give my judicial self a rest, live my life and see which of the characters would continue in my mind.
I will remember the girl in Phantoms, a successful accountant who lives for facts and logic and suddenly finds that she has become a compulsive liar inventing for herself and her arid world a populous, passionate life. I will remember the two characters in an eastern-European train in Metal, a story of the holocaust, simply because they live. This author is way ahead of the field in dialogue. She (I guess she?) knows how to do it and I wonder if this could be a playwright? And I shall remember the floundering, ageing woman and her young lover in Caught because the author sees his/her two main characters as prisms, considering their possible alternative next steps. There is a Joycean sense of depth and mystery. Under the Table's wild and wicked heroine, lost to right and wrong, streams through the story in her 'pretty car', lost to her unhappy family. Turtles, set in a quiet London hotel where lonely ageing men stay the night, has three characters in a cat's cradle of intrigue and despair - and all of them redeemable. Me and the Motorway has a dreadful heroine dear to my heart. She is a vulgar slag, the dregs of 'the north-east' where I come from. She is none too clean, size 22, living a thoroughly messy life. Failed daughter, mother, girlfriend, attended by no guardian angel ever, she has done time in prison and will do so (quite soon!) again. Yet she is curiously innocent, funny, brave and constantly astonished by life. The story tells of the day when the gods decide to give her one great bright glorious treat. Feeding Time is the portrait of a damaged child, now a man, who learned of child-abuse within an apparently outgoing, ordinary family. Disgust has made him crazed and cruel. The story is his mad monologue before a psychiatrist. It is accomplished, convincing and horrible. The Sandwich is about a familiar contemporary type: attractive, devious, irresponsible and outrageously immature. He is attending the birth of his child. Terrified and inarticulate he flies from his girlfriend in labour 'to get a sandwich' and doesn't come back. In the background an all-seeing mother-in-law.
Two on the list do not depend on character but should be mentioned. They are about cosmic tragedy. Running around without a god in their hearts has the widowed victim of the great tsunami taking his young daughter by the hand and introducing her about their ruined village to all the exponents of the great religions there who might possibly interest her in the notion of God. And The Cliffs at Marpi is the pilgrimage to death of the hundreds of women and children who threw themselves into the Pacific ocean as the horrified Americans approached by sea, to occupy their island. This one might well have won but there are limits to the short story. This is film or opera.
The three winners. Glad is an interior monologue of a seventeen-year-old girl dying in a hospice, attended by her twin sister. Two twigs on a branch. There is no trace of mawkishness. The sister quietly paints her sleeping sister's fingernails. A tired, cheap bouquet she has brought lies on the bed and fades with the girl.
Cold Weather's title is not perhaps strong enough for this powerful Greek myth of Persephone, the bringer of Spring. This is a timely tale if, as we are told, the world is careering towards the end of Light. It was a relief to read the great story again. It is always new. It was good to be with eagles and not sparrows.
The first prize, Rue de Vaugirard, stood out from the start. Its subject is serious: the aftermath of war. It deals with revenge, racism, insularity. Into the threadbare, scoured post-war Paris of the late 1940's step three Persephones, Californian innocents bringing back the Spring. It is their first time abroad but these bouncing, well-fed babies, full of idealism, air and space are totally fearless. They have strong views on everything (At school they were known as intellectuals because they read novels!) and they descend on a Paris pension and its terrible Madame as if they own the world. The very smell of fusty, skint, ruined Paris is here. It is reminiscent of Katherine Mansfield's In a German Pension, or the Canadian short story writer, Mavis Gallant, but it is much funnier. Paris rouses itself, unconquered, before the brave new world but both are full of energy, argument and fire.
The things I was looking for as I made my way through the entries were either abstract or technical: surprise, precision, imagination and risk; and a proper attentiveness to and use of cadence, lineation, enjambement, metrics, etc. Yet the word that came to me when a poem stood out was alive: that it was a breathing, palpable, energised, shifting creature.
There's a lot of dead poetry about. Some of it is beautifully made. There's poetry which seems to be written to reassure people who don't like poetry, who feel nervous and bored at the thought of it and are delighted to be offered something that sounds like poetry (portentousness, complex) and yet slips down easily and settles the soul. In this age of proficiency there are poems made from creative-writing kits and those whose explosiveness is no more than a tiny fizz of domestic epiphany, like a hangover remedy dissolving in water.
A poem has to become more than that of which it is made. As Robert Lowell said, "A poem is an event … not the record of an event." In that sense, it has to take on a life of its own and so, yes, has to be alive. I've dismissed poetry that is beautifully made and nothing else, but a good poem begins in the beauty of its making. I am not using 'beauty' reflexively. Beauty is a vital part of a poem in terms of harmony, grace and proportion, in the adjustments and balances that bring it into being, that make it work and give it what it needs to run itself. This has as much to do with meaning as with music. In this age of broken metre, there is often too little attention paid to the line - how it works within itself as well as in its place. Much of the intrigue of a poem lies in the way in which its lineation isolates and lights a particular word or a phrase.
I have talked about what I was looking for and what I wasn't looking for, and would now like to say something about what I found. The poems that came first, second and third were provocative. I thought: Oh I like this! But does it stand up? That's a bit risky … Does that big word earn its place? … It sounds good but … Is that just being grand or romantic or does it make absolute sense? … These linebreaks, how do they add meaning? … I like the way it subverts its own argument but what does it add up to in the end? Are there just glittery pieces all over the floor? How do they work aloud?
None of the top three winners are long, but each contained enough complication to repay several re-readings, and revealed more each time. They caught my eye, drew me in, made me want to argue with them and having won me over, pleased me more than some I liked on first reading but which quickly revealed their limits and flaws.The winner, "Panegyric", is a poem with such a singular and coherent voice that its complexities are worn lightly. It risks collisions of concrete and abstract, actual and figurative in ways that are illuminating rather than muddying. The panegyric is traditionally a public address, the fulsome, extensive praise of a person or people, and here it is being used to praise a forcefulness which is as brutal as it is joyful, and whose logic exposes the limits of human judgement. The poem's language ranges across the full compass of such feeling, and each line is properly balanced and measured.
I'm wary of poems about writing poems, yet "The Same Old Figurative" won me over with its argument, and the way in which its voice is shaded by the clever placing and misplacing of the poem's parts. A poem should be in part a disturbance of language, and the point of that disturbance should be to reveal. This poem uses subtle shifts of meaning, agitated further by lineation and cadence, to amplify and encompass its complicated subject. It risks the Poetic with its talk of hearts and music, but does so to insist on what matters without irony or comic relief. Like "Panegyric", it has something real to say, something hard to be pin down but absolute.
The third-prize winner, "she took a fall", is a fine example of form working in extremis in order to serve an extreme subject. It is a remarkable distillation of shock, confusion, helplessness, action and reaction. The hurly-burly of the entire emergency is caught in the fractured language and the ways in which observations and perspectives trip over one another.