Jason Eng Hun Lee, our distinguished judge for this year's competition, offers us his final decision:
"It was my great pleasure to judge this year’s shortlist of eighteen manuscripts, which showcased a dizzying array of styles and registers. The collections covered a vast swathe of poetic landscapes, stretching from the Arabian desert, across Cherokee homelands, to California’s Atlas Peak, and encompassed issues ranging from ecological and other human-induced disasters to postcolonial legacies of identity, migration, belonging, to liberatory or suppressed erotic desires, to ongoing systems of oppression and domination. Such a remarkable coverage speaks well to the collective strengths of the submissions and the diverse backgrounds of its many poets, many of whom I have no doubt will go on to publish successfully elsewhere in the future.
After several weeks of reading the shortlist, I arrived at a much smaller list of five finalists; these were the collections that to me had acquired fuller volume, were more thought through in their content and arrangement, and ultimately, had generated enough momentum so that when I turned over the last page I felt an added clarity in their work and was able to grasp the full force of what the poet had set out to do in their collection.
Breaking that list down into a winner and runner-up was harder still, as each submission now stood on its own merits. I tried to read each collection more dispassionately, judging them on their own terms, weighing up the level of difficulty, the risks they took, and then putting myself in the shoes of a prospective publisher. In the end, I narrowed down my choice to two contenders. Having read and re-read them both over again, I was struck by the way each hit similar notes, but in vastly different ways. Both held the reader in an intimacy that was hard to pull away from, and there would be days where I would dwell within the poetry, soaking up the language and ambience of each volume, hoping that one of them would save me the trouble of deciding by declaring themselves the winner. Eventually, the difference came down to just a handful of poems. Both poets are worthy winners in my opinion, and both merit further acclaim as they continue to advance their careers in the poetic craft.
First Prize Winner – Racecar Jesus / Travis Mossotti
Travis Mossotti’s Racecar Jesus made an impact from the very start with its immediately accessible voice and engaging style. The poems veer unpredictably, rather like a “Buzzfeed” channel, or a high velocity poetic consciousness careening headlong through 21st century Americana. There are lurid ruminations on God and spirituality, quirky, phenomenal imageries that provoke and delight, but there’s equally an eagerness to reach out and connect, to break through the habitual, the mundane, and to become more aware of “the catalogue of human sorrow [we] touch and withdraw from.” Mossotti has mastered the art of the confessional-conversational, combining wit with devastating juxtaposition, like an F1 jet-engine-fuelled Billy Collins on fire.
Runner-up – Horse + Bird = Everything / Vanessa Haley
Taut and refined, Vanessa Haley’s Horse + Bird = Everything expresses a keen poetic sensibility and an artist’s eye for detail. Like a painter’s brush, the layers of Haley’s poems build gradually, allowing the reader to dwell on the small details with each revisiting, and there are riveting ekphrastic poems written in reference to George Stubbs, Mary Spencer, John-James and Lucy Audobon, as well as the old masters in van Gogh, Bosch, Toulouse-Lautrec and Breughel. Yet, in “Holding Hands with Diane Arbus,” Haley shows she also has “a penchant for the dark / side of things” and provides an equally unrelenting gaze through her own poetry of witness. This is a collection that rewards close, attentive reading, with its richness and variety underlying a tenderness that speaks back to the reader via the treasure house of real and recreated memories."
Congratulations to the winner and runner-up! Both will be offered publishing contracts, and the winner also receives a $2000 USD advance. We will say more about the winner in a forthcoming blog post.
Jason Eng Hun Lee (b. 1984) is a mixed British and Chinese-Malaysian poet, academic, reviewer and editor currently based in Hong Kong. He completed his B.A. and M.A. at the University of Leeds and received his doctoral degree at the University of Hong Kong. His academic research and creative practice fields include global anglophone literatures, postcolonial and diasporic Asian writing, and global, multi-media Shakespeares. He lectures in English and Comparative Literature at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Lee's debut poetry collection Beds in the East (2019) was a finalist for the Melita Hume Prize (2012) and the HKU Poetry Prize. More recent poems, articles, interviews and reviews have appeared or will appear in Wasafiri, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, World Literature Today, Stand, Under the Radar, Acumen, Envoi, QLRS, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Voice & Verse and in the following anthologies: Meridian: The APWT Drunken Boat Anthology of New Writing, Atelier of Healing: Poetry about Trauma & Recovery, The Best New British and Irish Poets 2016, The Poets Quest for God, Quixotica: Poems East of La Mancha, Desde Hong Kong: Poets in Conversation with Octavio Paz. He has been featured in the Poetics of Home: A Chinese Diaspora Poetry Festival, The Hong Kong International Literary Festival, and The Singapore Writers Festival. His poem '45 Belgrave Square' was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Additionally, Lee has guest judged and curated several initiatives in the Hong Kong literary community. He was a co-director/co-editor of The Hong Kong Budding Poets Award Anthology 2015-16, and an occasional guest judge for Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. He currently serves as a literary editor for the academic journal Postcolonial Text and is the chief organizer for OutLoud HK [隨言香港], Hong Kong’s longest-running English language poetry collective.
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