|The Frogmore Poetry Prize Winners 2015|
How did I choose my shortlist from 344 poems? My mood and preferences shift over even a brief period of time so first of all I read each entry twice, on different days. This meant there were two John McCulloughs sifting instead of one. They didn't always agree. Any piece, however, that either felt possessed the required electricity was placed in a stack. The usual themes showed up relentlessly - family, childhood, break ups, thoughts on life as a whole - to the extent that poems launched from less expected angles often arrived as a relief. Like most readers, I crave surprise.
That first stage involved an instant, bodily test rather than a close scrutiny of language and 32 poems made the cut. Narrowing these down to 10 was more tricky. I began to consider the structure of each more closely. Very often what led to a piece being discarded was a weak final line, one that lapsed into worn imagery or phrasing, that failed to give the reader something nuanced on which to linger. Sometimes, other technical features let the side down: a lack of rhythm or compression, imprecise diction, excessive assonance or alliteration. The best poems for me usually don't fling everything at the reader. They use the right tool at the right moment, employing potent devices sparingly, for contrast.
I then had my final 10. Choosing between these was even harder, and the rankings were shuffled an outrageous number of times. I think it's important to stress the subjectivity of the judging process. The Frogmore Press does not own a TARDIS but if it did and I was presented with the same set of poems five years ago or five years hence, it's quite likely the poems and placings would be slightly different.
The shortlist's diversity came about by accident. I didn't choose two poems with an experimental approach to form because I thought I should. 'Woodcock' and 'The blue gate' take large, disparate risks that pay off. I value originality and was dazzled by the central conceit of 'Solution' along with its humour. The phrase-making in 'Ice-Jam', 'The Bison's Idea of Pleasure' and 'She never sits on a blue chair' is exciting and fresh. (I promise I don't automatically shortlist poems about blue objects.) 'Her mother blames Jackson Pollock' is a glorious example of how to gain the most from a title.
And then there are the big three. When judging, I frequently encounter poems inspired by Heaney (and by Plath and Wordsworth too). The Third Prize poem 'Afternoon Tea with Mrs Clarke', though, does something quite unlike the customary exalting of spades and bogs. Its slow pace is beautifully controlled, leading expertly to the imaginary meeting which fuses two worlds. The snatching away of this collision in the circular return to the everyday is both startling and deeply poignant.
'The Substation Takeover', winner of the Second Prize, absolutely fulfils the
The First Prize poem, 'January' uses form to create and complicate meaning in highly suggestive ways. The disjunctions between its stanzas evoke the sudden leaps of a mind actively thinking, the white spaces inviting us to imagine what's going on beneath the clipped surface of the language. Its first line is arresting and it draws much from ostensibly simple phrasing ('Perhaps it's natural...'). It carries on unfolding inside the reader once we have finished: a magnificent achievement and a worthy winner.