Photo of lots of hands holding up colourful books

Australia's richest poetry prize winner announced

12 November 2021
Biennial Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award
Sydney poet Emily Stewart has won the 2021 Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award. It is Australia's richest poetry prize, valued at $40,000 and dedicated to celebrating women poets.

A record 309 book-length manuscripts were submitted for the Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award this year. Emily Stewart’s winning work is titled Running Time. This is the fourth biennial award made under the bequest, which is valued at $40,000.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Mark Scott announced the prize at a ceremony at the University’s Chau Chak Wing Museum on Friday 12 November 2021.

“This award is a new literary landmark in Australian arts and culture,” Professor Scott said. “I am delighted that this is the first public event I have attended as Vice-Chancellor, as we begin to open up after COVID.”

“At a time of shrinking funding and support of the arts, it is important to highlight the importance of bequests such as this one from Helen Anne Bell, University alumna, arts educator and poet. Her bequest represents a significant, future-oriented and very necessary investment in Australian arts and culture.”

Emily Stewart

Poetry Prize Winner

Emily Stewart lives and works on Wangal land in Sydney’s inner west. She is the author of numerous chapbooks (small-sized books of poetry) including Like (Bulky News Press) and The Internet Blue (First Draft).

Her debut collection Knocks (Vagabond Press, 2016) won the inaugural Noel Rowe Poetry Award. Emily’s writing is frequently published in outlets including Running Dog, RealTime, Overland and The Saturday Paper. She was formerly the poetry editor at Giramondo Publishing and is currently completing a creative doctorate at the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University.

Stewart thanked the judges and the family of Helen Anne Bell: “My sincere thanks for this generous bequest, which periodically makes visible the extraordinary creative commitment of women across the country. I am honoured to be in the company of such radiant peers on this year’s shortlist, as well as among the cohort of women previously awarded – Pip Smith, Fiona Hile and Melinda Bufton – three poets whose work has shaped my own in untold ways. This prize will be transformative for my creative practice and has shifted the horizon line of what's possible.”

Judges and finalists

The 2021 judges are eminent poets Kate Lilley, Pam Brown and Melinda Bufton (2019 Helen Anne Bell Award winner).

In their judges’ statement, they praised Running Time as “nimble and light, precise and seemingly casual”.

“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.”

The judges selected seven finalists:

  • Michelle Cahil, Dark
  • Joan Fleming, Dirt
  • Jeanine Leane, Gawimarra-Gathering
  • Claire Miranda Roberts, Kangaroo Paw
  • Emma Simington, Peculiar Times
  • Ella Skilbeck-Porter, These Are Different Waters
  • Emily Stewart, Running Time

“We were as amazed by the avalanche of manuscripts submitted as we were delighted by their quality and range,” the judges said. “A good number should find their way to publication, and we sincerely hope they will.”

Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest

The biennial Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award, Australia’s richest poetry prize at $40,000 for an unpublished manuscript, fulfils the wishes of donor Helen Anne Bell, a former University of Sydney student and poet, to support and celebrate Australian women poets.

“Poetry offers readers reflective spaces to consider complex human stories, feelings and ideas,” said Dr Beth Yahp, Coordinator of Creative Writing, Department of English, and organiser of the prize. “Contemporary Australian poets have been responding with nuance and intelligence to the burning issues of the world we live in. The poets’ manuscripts reflect vibrant aspects of Australian culture.”

The winning work will be published by Vagabond Press. This is the fourth biennial award made under the bequest, which increased from $7000 to $40,000 in 2019.

According to 2019 winner Melinda Bufton: “A poetry prize like this is a rare honour and reward; for poets, it reconfigures the near future, and beckons you to keep going.”

SLAM Poetry Award 2021 Winner

photo of poetry prize runner-up Jeanine Leane

Jeanine Leane

Due to the “stunning shortlist” this year, a special School of Literature, Art and Media (SLAM) Poetry Award 2021 was awarded to the runner-up, Jeanine Leane, for her poetry manuscript Gawimarra-Gathering.

It is the first time a First Nations woman poet has been recognised with the award.

Judges comments: “Jeanine Leane’s manuscript is “a powerhouse of vivid imagery, language and story.”

Jeanine Leane said: “It's a tremendous honour as a First Nations poet to be shortlisted for the Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest and an honour for my manuscript to recognised through the School of Literature Art and Media poetry award.”

Presented by the Department of English at the University of Sydney, the biennial Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award is funded by the generous bequest of a former student of the University – Helen Anne Bell. 
Top image: iStock

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