Rarotonga-based poet Jessica Le Bas is the winner of the Sarah Broom Poetry Prize 2019.
Sarah Broom website here with poems by the finalists and winner
On Saturday I had the honour of mc-ing the Sarah Broom Prize session, having acted as Prize Director for the past year. I welcomed international judge, Anne Michaels, the finalists, Michael Steven, Jessica Le Bas and poet Vana Manasiadis standing in for London-based Nina Mingya Powles, the Prize founder and Sarah Broom’s husband, Michael Gleissner, and their family, and a room packed to the rafters with poetry fans.
In 2014 when Michael established the award he told me he had created a financial prize to support writing time for a poet, as his wife Sarah had enjoyed. But the Sarah Broom Prize is more than this. It allows us to shine increased light on NZ poetry, local poets get to be read by an international judge and the finalists get to read at Auckland Writers Festival. This is a gift for our poetry communities and we are immensely grateful to you, and to the hardworking Sarah Ross and Greg Fahey. The Sarah Broom Trust has launched a new website and new plans for the future. This year there were over 320 entries. For the past six years The Sarah Broom Trust has worked in partnership with the Auckland Writers Festival.
Sarah Broom (1972 -2013)
The prize also enables an annual return to Sarah’s poetry and this is a joy. Sarah’s debut, Tigers at Awhitu, appeared post her Cambridge doctorate, at a time she dedicated her life to motherhood, poetry and managing lung cancer. Her second collection, Gleam, was published posthumously. I have found her poems shine with cadence and craft, exquisite wisdom and subtle movements. She wrote poetry for the well and for the dying; the world is to be cherished. Love is always intensely present. I carry her poetry next to my heart.
I read two of her poems: ‘anchor’ and ‘river come gently’ from Gleam Auckland University Press, 2013.
Nina Mingya Powles, of Pākehā and Malaysian-Chinese heritage is the author of field notes on a downpour (2018), two from Seraph Press Luminescent and Girls of the Drift She is the poetry editor of The Shanghai Literary Review and founding editor of Bitter Melon 苦瓜, a new poetry press. Her prose debut, a food memoir, will be published by The Emma Press in 2019. Poetry Shelf interview
Jessica Le Bas has published two collections of poetry with AUP, incognito and Walking to Africa and with Penguin, a novel for children, Staying Home. She currently lives in Rarotonga, working in schools throughout the Cook Islands to promote and support writing. Poetry Shelf interview here
Michael Steven is the author of four chapbooks and Walking to Jutland Street, a collection published by OUP, longlisted for the 2019 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. He was recipient of the 2018 Todd New Writer’s Bursary. He lives in West Auckland. Poetry Shelf interview
The Judge, Anne Michaels
Anne Michaels, poet and fiction writer, Toronto Poet Laureate, author of the beloved Fugitive Pieces among other splendid things, has produced breath-taking poetry. Poems that take up residency in your body, that savour silence alongside revelation, that tend to musical pitch and luminosity, that take you deep into human experience, both physical and imagined. These are some of her poetry treasures. [I held up All We Saw, Poems (her first three collections) and her magnificent children’s book, The Adventures of Miss Petitfour that I urged Kate De Goldi to read if she hasn’t already]. When I was in A & E on Sunday my daughter brought me Anne’s Infinite Gradations to reread. It transported me beyond injury, beyond hospital walls to the most glorious writing on poetry and art I know, on what it feels or means to write poetry or make art. So many lines felt utterly relevant in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks when we collectively asked and keep asking ‘what good poetry’ and collectively seek kindness, empathy and connection.
Let me share a few favourites.
We write and we read in order to hold another person close.
Sometimes language is the rescuer.
Poetry is the lonely radical precious expression of a single life.
Poetry suspends time. Poetry is time. Poetry gives us time.
We belong where love finds us.
Poetry Shelf interview with Anne Michaels
Anne Michaels spoke on poetry and the finalists entries – she has also selected two highly recommended poets – Jess Fiebig and Wen-Juenn Lee.
Anne told the audience it it was an honour to judge the prize – and that she paid absolute attention to every entry. She said the poems provided a glimpse of New Zealand one could never have in any other way, and that questions arose on home, exile, language, belonging. She saw the poems as kinds of ‘seeking voices’, and that poets are a tribe with a shared love of the word, a compulsion to write, solidarity – and that we are all in it for the enterprise of it.
Anne wanted everyone who entered a poem to understand and feel to their very soul that they are part of this enterprise. She then introduced each of the finalists (I have included her comments on highly recommended):
Jessica Le Bas (winner)
Jessica Le Bas’s poems are alive with detail acutely observed. In the poet’s disciplined language and perception is a kind of tenderness – for the natural world, and for human frailty. It is a poetic vision that understands how inextricable hope and despair, beauty and loss: of a cracked mango, Le Bas wisely advises, “eat it now”. In these poems, the world is passionately perceived.
Nina Mingya Powles (finalist)
These poems express both the power of memory and the grace of a present moment. They are a deeply felt exploration of language – how it separates us and holds us close; how it can become, sometimes, the only home we have. The best compassion is born of clear seeing, and this is the compassion that imbues Nina Mingya Powles’s poems – expressed with a generous, gentle, authority. These are poems of beautiful depth.
Michael Steven (finalist)
These poems speak of intimate encounters, often wordless, and of communions – through music, plums shared along a path, a circling hawk, a gravestone. There is a quietude in these poems that reminds us just how loud the world has become, and how valuable those moments, the “tiny benefactions” that gently restore our attention to what’s important.
Jess Fiebig (highly commended)
By not turning away from a moment, these poems insist on understanding, finding meaning where it hurts. These poems are full of compassionate detail, direct and wondering, and “finding treasures” in plain sight.
Wen-Juenn Lee (highly commended)
These are poems of witness – vivid and fierce, seeking a kind of justice. In their passion to name what it means to live in exile – from a place, from a language – these deeply felt poems assert the right to be seen and known, not forgotten. Their seeking is a kind of restoration. Wen-Juenn reads ‘Prologue’ for Poetry Shelf
In announcing the winner Anne underlined how she loved all three poets, and she urged the audience to follow their careers, to buy their books and to spread the word.
At the beginning I asked, what good poetry? I took up from Anne’s point and finished by saying, as this session so beautifully demonstrated, that we read and write to hold things close: life, love, loss, people, experience, knowledge, connections. Friends and strangers come up to me afterwards and said that this session was full of heart and soul. I agreed.
Grateful thanks to the Sarah Broom Trust and to the Auckland Writers Festival.
I wish you all the best for future years.