The Prize Addiction

by Michelle

I have a theory you can tell when a writer is copying. A poem is like a favourite jacket or mascara. If it doesn’t fit you already know.

Some weeks ago whilst reading entries for the Blake Prize I read a poem that was striking in its imagery; it seemed to draw me into its vortex until I came to a line which belongs unmistakeably to Sylvia Plath. On closer examination much of the poem copied from “The Moon and The Yew Tree”. I thought it may have been cobbled together by a poet whose work has been recently discredited as largely plagiarised. This has been disconcerting and has raised an awful ruckus in the poetry community in the form of trial by social networking, Twitter, various blogs and Facebook.

But in fact the poem I read was written by someone else.

I’ve also been contacted by two younger poets, both distressed by the accusations that are rife. One sought advice on the protocol for copyright as his poem had been accepted by two separate journals. The other writer just felt alone because he had been mentored by one of the plagiarists and he needed to talk.

This raises concerns about the pressures and expectations on young poets to be successful and for prizes to be a measure of that success. A tendency has been nurtured for writers to succumb to a prize addiction. This has been enabled by the internet with its infinite networks and capacity for electronic submission. It also raises the issue of just how much responsibility judges exercise. If there is an underlying agenda ultimately it is going to be poetry that suffers. Rewarding serial offenders encourages other writers to take risks. If we observe the rise of an addict, we can almost predict the fall. And yet a rigid ethical framework for the judging of prizes is quite impractical.

All of my creative life has been a gamble, a risk that I can’t measure. Reminding myself of this has been useful. I’ve gambled and lost, but allowing myself to feel the pain of this I have no lasting regrets. Having begun a yoga practice after almost twelve months it occurred to me that there really is only one path – every thing else is a detour.

I was glad that I convinced the organisers of the Blake Prize to enable the female judges to participate in the official shortlist announcement. My first instinct was to say nothing, but then I decided to quietly protest. That felt empowering. It felt good. (And it has been a privilege to work with Robert Adamson and Eileen Chong.)

Every time we are given a voice and a presence we shift from ambivalence to self-determining. We provide an alternative to the male ethnocentrisms which perpetuate their dominance and agency. What a shame that our newly elected government has so drastically undercut gender equivalence. Women are not destined to be stenographers, cleaners, housekeepers or mythical elves in ‘an ethnic fairyland’ to quote, or misquote, whatever the case may be.

We are intrepid, intelligent, capable, visionary, speaking and writing, acting against silence and the many forms of violence.

Blake Prize, College of Fine Art UNSW

Blake Prize, College of Fine Art UNSW

A short-list of Blake Prize poems by Amanda Joy, Anthony Lawrence, Chloe Wilson, Lizz Murphy, Ross Gillett, Christine Paice, Jennifer Harrison appears on the NSWWC website ~