by Maram al-Masri, trans. Theo Dorgan





Arts Council




Cork City Council




Foras na Gaeilge




Cork County Council




2015 Gregory O'Donoghue

International Poetry Competition


Statement from judge Matthew Sweeney


Matthew Sweeney



Reading almost two thousand poems takes some focussing. One has to be constantly alert for any little surprises that might get thrown up. These surprises can be linguistic, or formal, or tonal, or more than any of these—can be an unexpected way at looking at the world. For this is what all truly fine poems manage to do. When a poem fails to do this it is not a very good poem. The ordinary does not make for scintillating poetry unless it is shown to be extraordinary. That great American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, spoke of the surrealism of everyday life, although her work could rarely be described as surrealistic. Needless to say, the majority of the poems entered in this O’Donoghue competition, as in all poetry competitions, did not provide me with the surprises I was looking for. When I had assembled my shortlist, however, all of the 36 or so poems had something to recommend them, sometimes very strongly indeed. I would say in fact that the overall standard of this shortlist would compare favourably with the shortlists of most of the competitions I’ve judged. And the range of the topics covered in the poems was quite striking.


For example, there was a poem written in the language of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky; another animated a picture in a book depicting a sick young lady ‘waiting to be well’. A third poem called ‘Bags of Words’ took a fresh, even cheeky look at CW classes. A fourth, called ‘The Sound Of’, dealt with the noise of rain slushing round a Buddha being carried indoors for the winter. The fact that poems as inventive as these are only among the commended shows the high standard of the poems entered in this competition.


Moving on to the shortlisted poems, I’ll deal with these alphabetically by poet.


Devreaux Baker's ‘Conquistador Fragments’—this presents itself as a report back to Spain, listing the strange beliefs of the people encountered in the New World.  "These people believe rivers are their parents/ sky also their mother/ and earth their father". I found this very persuasive, letting us see the huge divide in the way life on this common earth was viewed by the inhabitants of countries on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean.


Michael Fleming’s ‘The Merry Dancers’ is a portrayal of the bleak, inhospitable, sparsely populated terrain of northern Canada, and the suggestion is raised of someone attempting to hitchhike there—"not a single car to flag down, not a truck/ pulling logs the size of ships, not a thought/ of such a truck slowing, stopping… " Altogether, very evocative and deftly organised.


Rachel Galvin’s ‘Arab Spring’ begins with a mention of fratricide on Uruk’s alluvial plain 3500 years ago, and goes on to discuss a breed of golden hamster local to the region that "given propitious circumstances / devour its kin, often asphyxiating/ both parties in the process." We gradually realise the sly way the poem connects with its very contemporary title, reminding us of Emily Dickinson’s injunction to "tell the truth, but tell it slant".


I must confess, I’m not sure what’s going on in ‘A Whoop of Gorillas’ by Simon Jackson. The poem is clearly accomplished, with a series of vivid images from a stock series littered through the past—the chimps at the teaparty, or the picture of the lipsticked gorilla in the bar, or the golliwog on the jam label. Are we being made to think of racial stereotyping—are we in the metaphor zone? Or does the ending suggest real monkeys, or gorillas, having to leave a forest that’s been set on fire?—"emerging silent, powerful, regal / nostrils flared at the alien reek of petrol/ from the last fronds of forest standing."


Stefanie M. Lipsey ‘Ghazal for Streets Named Mawar’—this dramatizes a hunt for accommodation in an Arab city or further east, and captures very well the dislocation of being in a strange place, where one is unfamiliar with the language, the customs, and the local ceremonies. "An elder waves incense on streets, Dancing tonight?/ raises a brochure to entice... " As the poem shows very well, one learns to adapt.


With Jim Maguire’s ‘After the guests have gone’ we are much closer to home. The poem is a sharp and witty look at a run-down hotel—it begins with these caustic lines "The lights give up on the knitwear / outside the ladies, the terraced jewellery display" and goes on to list the mounting woes—"Only Buddha overseeing the sea/ spa is doing his bit to dam up the leaks", then the decorators move in. The poem ends with the plaintive "Just let us have our lives" and we realise the bits and pieces of the hotel are talking. Though we are doubtlessly in the metaphor zone again.


Michael Lee Phillips’ ‘Fireflies’ is a small domestic drama involving a young American man and his Aunt Paralee who gives him a cheap, heavy antique mug, also three shopping bags of fireflies to soak in water when he gets back to the desert, and let fly in the hope they’ll interest the young woman whose bedroom window is visible from his back yard. An enchanting piece written in a lovely colloquial that Frost might have approved of.


Karen Skolfield’s ‘Quake Kills Hundreds, Creates Island Off Coast’ reads like a spooky film, focussing on new islands "populated only by the dead"—"Goodbye, goodbye waved the hands of the dead", as they floated in the water. The poem conjures up a very vivid and strange world.


Theresa D. Smith’s ‘You Died Among Oranges’ is a fine, sure elegy for a friend (maybe) who was murdered in an orange grove. "Oranges burst// under your soles. Not blood oranges, just citrus rubbing through your blood." The way the emotion is transferred to the oranges is a lesson in how to control the writing of an elegy, one of the hardest types of poem to get right.


Anthony Watts ‘A Proper Fire’ kicks off with a literary reference—"I light the crumpled TLS" and continues with a nice fresh tone, while extolling wittily the joys of a good fire. In the process it manages to be inventive about the fire –"Enthroned in the grate, / the crazy King of Fire is trying on crown / after crown – none of them fits" – and salamanders are seen scuttling there. Later the point is put bluntly – "A room without a fire / is a boat that’s slipped its moorings, it drifts without purpose." A feisty, enjoyable poem.


Third Prize went to Jane Satterfield for her ‘Radio Clash’ where an old sound booth back at college is remembered where the speaker and her companions spun vinyl, blasting tones through dorms and dining halls. It brings back very poignantly that whole student world, and the music of the Clash, and the hopes of the rebellious young.


Second Prize went to Caitlin Pryor for ‘Love Meter’ which is a deft and oblique look at a relationship, incorporating an antique love metre in Japantown in San Francisco. Written in beautifully flexible couplets, the speaker says she is "an anthropologist / who tempts the lightning with umbrella spoke", and after buying erasers shaped like animals, sees the seals she and her partner watch later as "made things, too". The poem is full of little unexpected details like these, and adds up to a sympathique and unsentimental love-poem.


First Prize was awarded to Breda Wall Ryan for her strangely titled ‘Self Portrait in the Convex Bulge of a Hare’s Eye’. The poem that follows is very compelling, and for all its strangeness, it proceeds with the inevitability of a lived story—"I met her today / where seven hare-sisters grazed / a scrawny field in Renvyle." There follows an exchange with the hare(s), and the whole piece has strong elements of a dark fairytale, while managing to light up in some unexplainable way the life of a woman, everywoman. All in all, a genuinely surprising performance.


©2015 Matthew Sweeney



More about judge Matthew Sweeney.







©2009 Southword Editions
Munster Literature Centre

Southword 6 Southword No 7 Southword No 8 Southword No 9 Southword No 10 Southword 11 southword 12 Southword No 14 Southword No 15