Seven women poets shortlisted for Australia's richest poetry prize

28 October 2021
Finalists of the $40,000 Helen Anne Bell Poetry Prize announced

The 2021 judges reviewed 309 unpublished manuscripts by Australian women poets to determine a shortlist of seven stunning entries. The winner of the $40,000 prize will be announced at a ceremony on 12 November.

The Department of English at the University of Sydney is delighted to announce the shortlist for the Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award for 2021. The winner will be announced by Vice-Chancellor Mark Scott at the award ceremony on Friday, 12 November 2021.

The biennial Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award is funded by the generous bequest of a former student of the University – Helen Anne Bell. This year the award offers an increased prize of $40,000 for a collection of poems by an Australian woman poet and its publication by Vagabond Press. This is the fourth biennial award made under the bequest, and it is now the richest poetry prize in Australia.

The 2021 judges were Kate Lilley, Pam Brown and Melinda Bufton (2019 Helen Anne Bell Award winner). They wrote: “This year 309 book-length manuscripts were entered in this unique and uniquely generous prize for an unpublished poetry manuscript by an Australian woman."

"We were as amazed by the avalanche of manuscripts submitted as we were delighted by their quality and range. A good number should find their way to publication, and we sincerely hope they will. From a long longlist it was our unenviable task to select just seven finalists. Congratulations to all the shortlisted poets on their stunning manuscripts!”

Judges’ comments on the shortlisted works (in alphabetical order):

Michelle Cahill, Dark

These compelling poems centre the experience of a brown-skinned woman, with skeptical intelligence and intensity: 'What my dark skin has taught me is not to trust white words'. Cahill addresses Australia’s violent, racist, colonial history in its worldwide entanglements, melding private mourning with public accountability, in order to stake out a transformatively ‘wild’ language, ethics and politics ‘with a tongue that pushes and probes/our history’s darkest cavities’.

Joan Fleming, Dirt

Writing and thinking through the place of a 'white visitor' on Indigenous land, Fleming’s project is an experiment in freshly negotiated meaning and text-making with explicit permission: ‘it has been with the generosity, trust, and willingness of my Warlpiri friends and teachers that the poems in this book have been allowed and enabled to come into being’. The resulting work draws the reader into these vital questions of ‘lifelong responsibility’ and emergent possibility: ‘If it is written down, what then’.

Jeanine Leane, Gawimarra-Gathering

A powerhouse of vivid imagery, language and story, Gawimarra-Gathering is a work of personal and collective history. Through eloquent resistance, custodianship and witnessing, Leane offers a poetic path towards healing: ‘restore-regenerate-remember’, ‘wake up every day stronger than all our traumas’.

Claire Miranda Roberts, Kangaroo Paw

In love with restraint and paradoxes of scale (‘the largest eucalypts have the smallest flowers’), these minimalist, phenomenological lyrics in the spirit of Dickinson and Niedecker revere their interstices, enigmas and openings. Roberts explores the poetic interface and in-florescence of subjectivity, language and nature: ‘If I stay long enough/I may become/everything around me’.

Emma Simington, Peculiar Times

Peculiar Times delivers a blast of speculative and fantastic tableaux, infectious in its energy and excess. An exuberant queer, trans, disabled memoir of apocalyptic end-times, Peculiar Times is ‘peculiar’ in all the best ways - uncommon, offbeat, inimitable.

Ella Skilbeck-Porter, These Are Different Waters

Conceptual, droll and formally experimental, These Are Different Waters disposes its wide-ranging materials into an elegant two-part structure: ‘Inflatable pool’, and the substantial visual sequence, ‘Concrete Pool’. Decisive and yet dreamy, its poetic bricolage, ‘a stratosphere of shifting surfaces’, resists closure and passes the baton: ‘The end of my swim, the beginning of yours’.

Emily Stewart, Running Time

A fine-tuned book-length assemblage of dispersed ‘cerebral offcuts’, virtuosically inventing ‘the shape of a mood’. Amid doubt, shame, need and fear, there is courage and insouciance, the subtle pleasure of stretching meaning into a variety of imaginative spaces that open up the limits of conventional language and syntax. Condensed, sharp pops of resonant fragments create their own fresh textures and juxtapositions.

Details of the award ceremony on 12 November will be announced soon.

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