Prose Poetry: Michael Loveday’s thoughtful judge’s report..




I was delighted to be the second prize winner of the Tongues and Grooves Prose Poetry Competition, with my prose poem, Crossroads. I also was long-listed with another prose poem,  Moss Eccles. 

Here is the information about the launch

Prose Poem Competition Results and Award Ceremony – March 2018

Here are Micheal Loveday’s, thoughtful comments:

Tongues & Grooves Prose Poem Prize 2018 – Judge’s Report

It was a huge privilege to judge this competition; it was also a difficult task. Not only were there over 500 entries (arriving from all over the world, so I’m told), but there was a great variety of styles and subjects on display – and some remarkable creativity too. To somehow filter this down to acknowledge just ten poems seemed impossible. In the end it felt necessary – and fairer to the poems – to produce a shortlist and longlist too.

One big surprise, on first read-through of the entries, was how daunting it proved to ask the simple, crucial question: ‘Could this be a winner?’ It felt far, far too early even to consider this. I decided that the best initial measure was ‘If I were a magazine or anthology editor, would I publish this prose poem?’ Some 150 prose poems made it into the ‘Yes’, ‘Yes/Maybe’ and ‘Maybe/Yes’ piles, just on first read.

Many of the prose poems that never got a ‘Yes’ or partial ‘Yes’ didn’t have enough that was special going on in the language – they were lacking that hint of electricity that’s needed in the sentences – if it’s a prose poem, after all, it should use some of the strategies that poems use – rhythm, assonance, metaphor , implication, etc. This was a common reason for falling short. Other prose poems didn’t quite escape their autobiographical origins and connect to common experience. And some entries didn’t have enough sense of purpose, an evident reason for being written. Some, too, contained what might be labelled ‘snags’ – word-choices that rang false. Sometimes it might only be one word that blocked the success of an otherwise very good poem.

Many prose poems, including some of otherwise exceptionally high standard in the 3 ‘Yes’ / partial ‘Yes’ piles, hindered themselves by including typos, punctuation errors, grammatical imprecision, or seemingly unintended repetitions of words in close proximity. Some of these things, depending on the context, might be set aside if the poem is laced with genius, but it does mean that your poem was fighting with one arm tied behind its back. It shows how crucial good proofreading is.

What this means overall is that there were a number of prose poems not among the winners, that could, with a bit of further editing, achieve competition or publication success in the future. So don’t give up hope just because your writing wasn’t chosen this time. Revisit the writing, and edit, edit, edit over days, weeks, months, until it’s perfect, or as close as you can get it. Then send it out again.

The entries that really stood out as memorable were either extremely creative in their language, or took a unique or unusual approach with their subject matter. But the two chief criteria I applied were: Is there linguistic creativity? And, crucially, is there emotional impact? No matter how inventive the writing was, I felt it must leave the reader changed in some way. The combination of these two things became a kind of critical holy grail. Some prose poems had grabbed me on first reading. Others rose towards the surface gradually – linguistic creativity can mean aptness and understated conviction as well as flair. One other measure was to read the work out aloud. Although my priority was to assess these poems as poems on the page, this certainly was a secondary factor – prose poems deserve to be heard as well as read.

As I re-read and re-considered, whittling the lists and rankings down, several of the prose poems changed places. And all ten of the final winners and commended poems made a strong case to be the outright winner. The final decisions came down to such fine, subjective margins; my heart goes out to those writers who didn’t quite make the top prizes.

What an honour it was to judge this competition – so inspiring to read good prose poems and feel envious of the quality on display. It seems to me that the prose poem is in very good health.

1st Prize – Bird Count, November 
This prose poem, a quiet lament for environmental changes, combines apt creativity of language with real emotional impact. As judge I was considering both the quality of the writing and the choice of subject matter – the what, as well as the how. No matter how brilliantly a poem is written, some subjects have less impact on the reader. But the narrative here resonates effortlessly with a gentle sorrow that deepens with each re-reading. Is the change described by the poem a simple seasonal shift, or is it the result of human activity? The poem itself offers no explanation, leaving us with a troubled, ambivalent anxiety. The entire emotional movement of the piece is very skilfully worked. After a matter-of-fact beginning, there is a down-to-earth relish in the physical vocabulary (‘sucked’, ‘wobbled’, ‘frost-brittled’, ‘stabbed’, ‘ooze’) that allows the poem to risk moving towards more sentimental phrasing at the mid-point:  ‘skydance’, ‘cloudwrack’, ‘heaven of birds’. But then this new, seemingly ethereal mood is undercut wonderfully by the prosaic, unemotional response from the expert. Then there follows that further, final shift, where the poignant last line does its work so succinctly.

2nd Prize – Crossroads
This prose poem was one of the few entries submitted that dared to tackle a socio-political issue head on. I liked how, from its very first sentence, the poem seems to be looking back at our current era of divisiveness and difference, then gradually carrying readers towards a position of hope, reaching a rhetorical climax with the beautifully expressed thought: ‘Any wall begins in the mind, but my mind and heart can dissolve this hardening…’. Although the poem is rooted in the historical, linking our current ideas of ‘borders’ – whether physical or intangible – back to the barriers at Greenham common and the walls in Berlin and Belfast, its assured sentences explicitly and implicitly celebrate the use of language and the imagination.

3rd Prize – The Cave on the Moon
Unpunctuated prose poems are a risk – the hindrance to readability is not always justified by the narrative context. But here the choice is organic to both the material and the voice, creating a feeling of oppression and relentlessness. This moon-journey narrative is impressive for how it speaks obliquely to contemporary political, economic, and environmental issues – an unusual satire about the way we are compromised by power and technology in the name of progress, as well as simultaneously being an inventive riff on the now-stock phrase ‘fly me to the moon’ from the 1954 Bart Howard song, where it was used as a metaphor for falling in love. (What place for romance as we approach the apocalypse, the poet seems to ask?) This poem’s unconventional conceit is compellingly executed, drawing playfully, and with raw energy, upon the language of law, government, and business. I laughed and was afraid in equal measure.

Michael Loveday



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