Montana Poetry Awards – the last hmph

The Rocky Shore coverI had to share this little gem, courtesy of the New Zealand Society of Authors’ newsletter. It is the official guff that accompanied the announcement of Jenny Bornholdt winning the Best NZ Poetry Collection 2009 award for The Rocky Shore:

In this collection, Bornholdt, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated poets, ‘disobeys the rules that poetry should be compressed rather than sprawling, that it should avoid the personal, that it should eschew ‘unpoetic’ elements, that it should not include digressions or speculations about imponderables,’ says 2009 Montana New Zealand Book Awards judges’ convenor, Dr. Mark Williams.

‘Bornholdt uses speech as we know it in everyday life, not lifted into the poetic, but made poetry by all that it is allowed to contain.’

Let’s just look at that again, with a quick translation into English. The three judges (Dr Mark Williams, journalist Margo White and novelist and reviewer Jane Westaway) consider that this collection:Aaron Burrrrrr by Kristin Smith

  1. is physically prose
  2. doesn’t use poetic devices
  3. deals with mundanities
  4. does so in flat language

So, in other words, they agree with me. (?!)
The difference is, they’ve decided that this is the best example of a collection of New Zealand poetry published this year.

Ouch.

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8 thoughts on “Montana Poetry Awards – the last hmph

  1. I don’t believe it can be considered spiteful to dissent from the judges’ opinion and to formulate that dissent on the basis of analysis of i) the comments made by the judges against the official judging criteria; and ii) a prior indepth review of the work in question, including against those same criteria. I do believe that Joanna is being brave, particularly in such a small poetic community, in stating so forthrightly and publicly that she believes the emperor has no clothes on, but I am aware (although I have still not read the work in question myself and obviously must do so!) that she is far from the only person who has read the work who thinks so.

    Rather than “accusation”, I would be interested in seeing a reasoned response from the other side, constructive poetic debate even as to why others hold an alternate view to Joanna and believe that the emperor is not only wearing clothes but that they are simply the very best clothes, poetically speaking, that have been seen in NZ in the past year.

    (And no, unfortunately I don’t see the judge’s decision as the end of the discussion, given the way judges decisions so frequently seem to go!)

  2. I think Joanna is courageous in her outspoken opinions. I don’t happen to agree with her most of the time (e.g. I really enjoyed ‘The Rocky Shore’), but enjoy reading this blog because it is thought provoking.

    Most people in the NZ writing scene feel too nervous to speak out about any writing related issues because the person we critique today is probably the person deciding if we get grants, win competitions etc. tomorrow. Most NZ writers turn down opportunities to review NZ books because they don’t want to be in a position of not liking an NZ book and saying so publicly. I recently agreed to review NZ books for Bravado, and most writers I mention it to tell me how ‘brave’ I am. How sad is that?

    It’s not healthy – in fact, at times it feels like living in East Germany before the wall came down…a kind of literary Stasi.

    • Thank you. I keep wincing slightly whenever people call me “courageous”. I don’t feel it. And yes, it is absolutely tragic that people feel reviewing requires bravery, rather than just a willingness to read, think and report. And, dear god, if people think my reviews are tough they have no idea what real ruthless reviewing is like! My reviews would be considered virtually puff pieces in some US and UK mags.

      I think an article about reviewing is called for. Hmm.

      But on another subject – I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Rocky Shore.
      What did you like about it, and why? (I promise I won’t hold ‘don’t happen to agree with her most of the time’ against you … lol! ;-))

  3. I think ‘courageous’ or ‘brave’ is a euphemism for ‘a reckless, naive, bridge-burning fool’ – at least that is what I take it to mean when people say I am ‘brave’ to take on a reviewing gig for a lit-journal. Ha, ha.

    I once engaged in a lively debate with a well-known writer in the comments of a well-known NZ lit-blog and then a few days later bumped into another well-known writer I vaguely know in the park with her kids. I said “hi, how are you?” and she said “Omigod, was that YOU fighting with ***** on ***** blog?” I was more than a little taken aback, firstly that a debate about literature was seen to be ‘fighting’ and secondly, that she clearly found it so controversial. To me the discussion was about words and ideas, not personalities. It made me rather paranoid, actually. I have refrained from doing that again – except that now you have drawn me back in, Joanna…dammit! Ha.

    Now, regarding ‘The Rocky Shore’. I can’t reply in any depth because *blush* I borrowed it from the library (sorry, Jenny, but I’m a broke poet. This is why I have taken on reviewing – free books!) so I don’t have it here to refer to.

    Firstly, though, I was pre-disposed to like it because I have read and enjoyed JB since the beginning of her career. Her early poem ‘Make Sure’ is one of my top ten favourites.

    Secondly, I didn’t love it initially. As I started to read it, I found it a little flat in tone and content…however, as I read on I became more and more absorbed. I think the appearance of ‘artlessness’ that you see as a negative thing, is actually very hard to achieve well and she does it beautifully. She has a way of taking on the big themes in a quiet, zen-like manner – sans histrionics.

    As I finished the book, I felt that it is a book you have to sit and read from front to back, preferably in one sitting and read in this way – I found it a very moving exploration of loss and grief and aging and the quiet integration of these things into daily life.

    There you go – that’s why I liked it. In fact I liked it so much I do intend to buy it when I have some spare $$, and would probably buy it as a gift for any friends going through grief.

    Cheers,
    Helen

    • Thanks for this Helen. Maybe a few more people doing this sort of thing will help everyone understand that it is possible to disagree – even passionately, vehemently disagree – without feeling under attack. So please, don’t lurk and shake your head when I say something you disagree with. As far as I’m concerned, the only reason for having A Dark Feathered Art as a blog rather than a straight website is so that these sorts of conversations can happen. So keep telling me I’m wrong! Keep the passion blooming!

      Putting the above to the test – I’m still not convinced about The Rocky Shore as a book of poetry. Memoir, yes. And I suppose that’s my biggest issue with the collection – the feeling that the book fits too well into another genre, that calling it “poetry” doesn’t make sense. It’s not a matter of the material she’s writing about, it’s what she does (or doesn’t) do with it. The ‘how’. I’m sure it would make a very good gift for someone who was grieving. But what would it lose by not being called poetry? What might it gain by being sold as memoir?

      I acknowledge the possibility that it may just be something super-subtle going on – maybe she’s writing ahead of her time, and readers like me haven’t learned how to appreciate what she’s doing, but … at which point do you decide that the emperor really is naked? (Thanks Helen Lowe for the metaphor.)

      Ah well. To trot out the old cliché – time will tell.

  4. Well, I am enjoying the discussion and appreciate your thoughtful comments, Helen, both on commentary and on The Rocky Shore–and I agree that it is a great pity if many feel that they dare not comment openly and honestly. My own view on review is that the purpose should be evaluation of both positives and negatives and that the criteria being used for evalutaion should be transparently articulated … but I read few reviews that seem to do this. As for The Rocky Shore, really must read … (find out what all the fuss is about, either way!)

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