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  • Cadence Chung

Judges Report: Poetry

Cadence Chung 

I wasn’t sure what to expect when judging the inaugural Salient poetry competition, so I really enjoyed being surprised by new poetic voices. One thing that always stands out in my experiences of editing and judging is how much of a privilege it is to read people’s work. When entering a competition, there’s a lot of disconnect: you write something, send it in, get a politely automated response. But for the judge on the other side, it’s an incredible chance to connect with someone’s art.

The theme of this competition was “By the Campfire”. For me, a campfire is a deeply intimate setting. I’m sure many of us can relate to the experience of sitting in the dim light with friends, perhaps a little tipsy, and suddenly feeling like all of your secrets can now be revealed. The campfire is a place to gossip, to weep, to argue about what should go on the Spotify playlist next. It’s a place that creates endless vignettes to slip into your pocket and keep.

The three poems that I selected as first, second, and third place stood out to me due to their concise, well-formed scenes. The winning poem, Unfinished Ritual, blends cultural and personal concepts in a biting way, each sentence short and perfectly placed, ruthlessly enjambed. I especially love the almost unexpected associations it creates, such as “You watched Lilo and Stitch last night, and thought / of my thighs.” It captures the bite-sized essence I love about poetry, its simple surface hiding a great undercurrent of ideas.

The poem that I chose as second place is sixteen minutes. Its first line, “sixteen minutes into saturday / and my arm is unbroken”, was instantly attention-catching, a strong beginning to its rapid unfolding. The pace of this poem is quick and speech-like. It maniacally runs through explanations and images, creating a montage of a night-time scene that brims with friends and desire and love.

The final poem in the winning three is Katipō. I smiled as I read this one—the sense of voice is so charming. Instead of using direct dialogue, interjections such as “āe” build up distinct characters in the poem. It’s a work full of fondness and joviality, clarified by its lyric turn in the final lines.

I also picked a shortlist of commended poems—there were so many outstanding poems submitted that I wanted to highlight more than just three. The poem Waikawa Beach is another great beach-themed poem, with striking lines such as “The sea is charcoal black / It froths like a rabid dog”. The poems Backfire! and The Fourth Day stood out to me for their strong sense of pacing, alternating between long and short sentences for maximum effect. The commanding voice in Backfire! was equally interesting and confronting (and it’s also the first poem I’ve read that has a Rango reference), while the last stanza of The Fourth Day ends the poem with the fascinating image of taking “a toothpick to a cardboard box”. The poem Mirror Burn, inspired by Louise Glück, is a flowing cascade of phrases such as “I kindle those green vowels”, while 8:00am in khandallah is a visceral and honest account of a Wellington scene.

Congratulations to everyone placed and shortlisted in this competition. It was a huge pleasure to read your work. And to those who weren’t placed, please don’t be discouraged—my job was very difficult, as I honestly found that every single poem had something unique to offer. Keep writing, keep submitting, and keep noticing the beauty of the world. There can never be enough poets.


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