Ethel Webb Bundell Literary Awards 2012
Having judged the Ethel Webb Bundell Literary Awards for the short story in 2010, I was pleased to be asked to judge this year’s poetry competition: 201 poems from 174 women (85+%), 20 men and 7 “indeterminates” from right across Australia, up from 118 in 2010. There were 9 entries from the ACT, none from the Northern Territory, 52 from New South Wales, 3 from South Australia, 25 from Queensland, 4 from Tasmania, 36 from Victoria, and 82 (a healthy 40%) from Western Australia, 4 of them shortlisted in this competition.
The 200+ entries were distinguished by two things: that the “top” and the “tail” of the entries were quite close together, and that the average quality of them was quite high. There are a number of publishable poems in the collection.
There were fewer histories and memoirs about the good old days, fewer anecdotes of uncles falling down dunnies and birds eating the crusts off pies cooling on the windowsill, fewer bush ballads too. That is a markerof an evolving population of contributors.
More of the poems read as if written by dedicated readers of professional poetry, perhaps amateurs in the sense of lovers of poetry but professionals in the sense of hopefuls who submit poems to journals against the possibility of seeing them published. Importantly, they appeared to know what Aristotle meant when he said, “The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor.” And they had a good command of prosody—rhythm, meter, rhyme and kindred elements of verse—such that they were skilled in yoking the sense to the sound of their poems in a meaningful rather than mechanical way. The majority of the poems were, in other words, challenging and gratifying to read.
I commend Ruth Reid, Patron of the Society of Women Writers, for serving as an inspiration to its members, as she was to another writer I am especially interested in, ElizabethJolley, when they were friends in the University of Western Australia community. I admire your President Helen Iles for continuing this important competition and again inviting me to judge it. As well, I thank your Vice President Frances Richardson for liaising with me: a fine writer, she is also a good organiser, one (as I discovered again) with a firm but helpful hand for making me adhere to my deadline. And I thank her in advance for reading my Report since I cannot be present at the award ceremony.
For decades I have held the Society of Women Writers in high regard for the activities and services it provides to women, including country women. So in 2010 I immediately agreed to judge the short story competition out of respect and affection for Ethel Webb with whom I worked for many years, on the Executive of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA) and later in founding Perth’s International PEN Centre for poets, essayists and novelists.
I was thrilled when I saw Ethel at the 2010 awards, unchanged in the ways and virtues I associate with her: making a special effort no matter the odds; outspoken in her praise and inflexible in her standards; passionate in her commitment to creative writing and her encouragement to other writers and would-be writers. Some of you might know of her belief in the therapeutic or self-improving capacity of writing, such as rehearsing her darkest, most painful moments in her own writing and thereby gaining the perspective, resolve and ingenuity required to see her through them. Not just any writing, that would be morbid and self-absorbed; but quality writing, outward- as well as inward-looking, she would insist.
Before I left for overseas, I visited Ethel whom I had not seen since the 2010 awards. She was as bright and engaging as usual, if less mobile. During the course of our late-afternoon chat, she showed me a poem she had written which she agreed to my sharing with her SWW colleagues. I think it is remarkable for its sober wit, a poem that typifies her attitude toward writing as I have described it in the paragraph above.
Room Thirty Tree
From my hospital bed
I can see the stairway to Heaven
Nobody uses it
The doors above are locked
Heaven is closed.
Hell is not far away
The entrance is blocked by a heavy metal grill
The sprinklers put out the fires
Hell is closed.
All the hospital patients can do is struggle through
In search of a better life.
The 2012 Ethel Webb Bundell Literary Awards for Poetry
The three winning poems, as well as the commended ones for that matter, are about memories, glimpses, aperçus, melancholy insights, sad realisations, velleities...
“Wishful neighbouring” (Helen Thurloe of Avalon, NSW)
In the warm jasmine dusk they sit on the deck drinking Moscato, middle-aged, each as if someone else “talking about things we both know we know/but have pretended not to notice/Like your dead brother…/…like our children,/who were friends,/for a while…” After seventeen years, sitting in the dark, one of them laughing aloud, the other—perhaps each of them—would like “to not regret—/once more—this endless futile reaching.”
“1969” (Paula Jones, of Darlington, WA)
Where were you in 1969? Perhaps ironing in the kitchen, up to your knees in kids and dogs, cricket- and frog-song, himself dozing in front of the blurred TV screen, when the eldest calls, “There’s a man on the moon!” And so there is! “Somewhere on the Esplanade/a horn sounds like a stranded cow/and the lights flicker and fall,/turn out for just one brilliant second.”
“Imprint” (Madeleine Tingey of East Victoria Park, WA)
A woman who has lost something, perhaps her child, carefully avoids walking down a street that crosses the railway track until, having to buy bread, she does so. As the gates jerk down, “Suddenly I saw you/upright in your pram/small hand raised, finger pointing…”
Highly Commended (alpha order)
“Long Way Down” (Maria Freij of Newcastle, NSW)
“Measuring Loss” (Renee Pettit-Schipp, of West Island Cocos (Keeling) Islands)
“The Woman on the Bus” (Kevin Smith of Maleny, Queensland)
Commended (alpha order)
“when they fell” (Kevin Gillam of Daglish, WA)
“Addiction” (Marilyn Humbert of Berowra Heights, NSW)
“Any Place” (Helen Iles, of Oldbury, WA)
Emeritus Professor of Comparative Literature