Svetlana Sterlin wins Australia's richest poetry prize

The 2023 Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award
Svetlana Sterlin, a Brisbane poet, has won the 2023 Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award for her book-length unpublished manuscript called If Movement were a Language. The prize includes $40,000 and publication of her manuscript by Vagabond Press.
photo of svetlana sterlin, a young woman in a red t-shirt smiling at the camera

Brisbane poet Svetlana Sterlin.

Presented by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney, the 2023 Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest Award valued at $40,000 has been won by Brisbane poet Svetlana Sterlin for her book-length manuscript, If Movement were a Language. As part of the prize, her manuscript will be published by Vagabond Press. This is the fifth biennial award made under the bequest, for a collection of poems by a female poet reflecting Australian culture.

Svetlana Sterlin said: “This is an incredible honour. To be among such esteemed company and to have even made the shortlist is such a proud achievement. Now, the opportunity for my debut collection to be published with Vagabond is a dream come true. I cannot wait for the ripples of my poems to reach the shores I've been swimming towards for so long.

The 2023 judging panel of three award-winning poets and academics, Cassandra Atherton, Jeanine Leane and Maxine Beneba Clarke said If Movement were a Language is: “... captivating in its evocations of swimming in literal and metaphorical terms, and in its characterisation of the complexities of a family life at once supportive and salutary. Each of the poems is striking as its own self-contained sigh and collectively they develop a powerful narrative arc mapped out in language that is fresh, lyrical, stylish and brave. The collection confronts ideas of displacement, mortality, human intimacy and self-knowledge in challenging and engaging terms.”

Winner: Svetlana Sterlin

Born in New Zealand to Russian/Jewish parents, Svetlana Sterlin is a swimming coach and poet, based in Meanjin (Brisbane). While her early writing was based in the world of fantasy, her recent work is based on her lived experience – much of it around swimming, her other big passion. Sterlin says swimming was one of the only constants in her life as she grew up in a family which moved often. Her father is also a successful swim coach. Many of her stories take place poolside, including her winning entry in this prize.

Her writing has recently been recognised in the 2023 Richell Prize and the State Library of Queensland Young Writers Award. She has poetry and short fiction published in Island, Westerly, takah?, Meanjin, Cordite, and elsewhere. Sterlin also edits with Voiceworks and is the founding editor of swim meet lit mag.

As an emerging screenwriter, Sterlin has participated in various programs and initiatives run by Screen Queensland and Queensland Writers Centre.

The shortlisted poets were Holly Friedlander Liddicoat, Angela Gardner and Anna Jacobson. The judges were Cassandra Atherton, Jeanine Leane and Maxine Beneba Clarke.

About Helen Anne Bell

Born in 1947, Helen Anne Bell was admitted as a mature age student at UNSW, where she graduated with a BA in 1981. She completed an MA by coursework at the University of Sydney in 1984 before undertaking a Postgraduate Diploma in Adult Education.

She worked widely in the areas of Adult Literacy and Aboriginal Education and was a Member of the NSW Adult Literacy Council, Australian Council for Adult Literacy, NSW Teachers Federation, Committee to Defend Black Rights and the Australian Association of Adult Education. She was a keen traveller, practiced yoga, drawing and writing and had a number of poems published during her lifetime.

Her generous bequest to the University allows us to continue supporting Australian literature.

About Vagabond Press

Vagabond Press is an independent press, established in 1999 out of a desire to open a space for new writing. Vagabond’s books have won many of Australia’s major literary prizes, and it has published many key emerging poets of the last decade.

Through the creative partnership with the University of Sydney, funded by the Helen Anne Bell Poetry Bequest, Vagabond published three poetry collections, Fiona Hile's Subtraction (2017 winner), Melinda Bufton's Moxie (2019 winner) and Emily Stewart’s Running Time (2021 winner).

22 March 2024

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