2018 Ros Spencer Poetry Award


First Prize

Wild Olives by Melissa Harrison (WA)

Second Prize

The World is Not Unkind by Debi Hamilton (Vic)

Highly Commended

The Reading Room by Davide Angelo (Vic)

The Theatre of Time-On-Sky by Shey Marque (WA)

Train Trip from Rome to Florence 13 December 2017 by Kim Waters (Vic)



Snow in the Park by Max Merckenschlager (SA)

Sea Walk by Rita Tognini (WA)

Patternicity by Shey Marque (WA)


Judge’s Report                         Rose van Son  July 2018

It was a pleasure and a privilege to judge these 149 excellent poems in the 2018 Ros Spencer Poetry Award 2018.  Thank you to WA Poets Inc and to Geoff Spencer who provides this prize in memory and honour of his late wife, Ros.

I was awed by the incredible quality of these poems; so many poems, beautifully written, with so much to say but how to choose the winners?

Eventually, I chose the winners for different reasons:

  • some for clarity
  • some for metaphor
  • some for where they could take me
  • some for their touch on my skin

I read them over a period of three weeks: 149 excellent poems, and each poem to be savoured, acknowledged, understood.

Poetry is alive and well in this country: so much passionate language and thought, so much sound and resonance.  Many poems spoke of world issues, delved into the personal or looked forward to possibility. Many carried me out of my backyard and into pleasures of nature; others relegated me to the centre of self.

I wish I could have given 20 prizes, but eventually, many excellent poems on the long list, poems that could have won prizes, were put aside, and the number reduced to just ten. That’s when the real difficulty began.   There are so many ways of considering a poem: form, language, space, meaning, narrative, silences.

What was I looking for? At first, poems that spoke to me: poems where I could hear the notes, the music, the internal rhythm of the lines, the silences, could see the reasons for writing. I was looking for flavour and texture, language which had the freedom and capacity to transport both poet and reader into a memorable space.  I was often reminded of poet Robert Frost, who wrote not with the end in mind but to discover something new.

So the last ten poems were read and reread, shuffled like cards, and, over days, rearranged in a new order.   The overall quality of the entries for the Ros Spencer Poetry Prize 2018 made my job very difficult.  I commend all entrants.  There were many worthy entries but, in the end, I chose eight.  Warmest congratulations to all the winners.

Commended    Patternicity by Shey Marque (WA)

Lovely form and use of metaphor on the swarming of bees:  ‘a thousand little engines stalling / at my feet’

Commended    Sea Walk by Rita Tognini (WA)

I loved the alliteration in this poem. Sounds play an important role in this diver’s journey; a letting go of solid earth and shifting into the sea. ‘til the sea licks the bell’s bib / gurgles at my neck / and with one gulp / ingests me’. There is fear yet there is gentleness here.

Commended    Snow in the Park by Max Merckenschlager (SA)

It is the cold you are first aware of in this poem, then the clarity of memory. The poem moves along very quickly to a startling ending.  Memorable lines:  ‘the barber clipped / my childish thoughts / a jubilee ago’

Highly Commended   Train Trip from Rome to Florence 13 December 2017 by Kim Waters (Vic)

and allowing your thoughts to follow the overhead wires // which stream like typewriter ribbons across the dawn of a winter sky’

This poem takes you further than the train carriage from which it is born; it is a journey of contemplation and reflection.  Each three line stanza adds continuity and momentum to the poem’s story.

Highly Commended: The Theatre of Time-On-Sky by Shey Marque (WA)

Here there is dance, drama and movement; the sound of music takes readers jigging to the surprising final lines.   So much colour yet, ‘the remains of voice just a letting of air’   

Highly Commended: The Reading Room by Davide Angelo (Vic)

In the Reading Room, // the sky is paper, the moon hides in a fold / ‘

Written in couplets, this poem celebrates beginnings; it questions what is important – its associations connect past with present. Beautiful metaphors hold this poem together.

Second Prize: The World is Not Unkind by Debi Hamilton (Vic)

I found this to be a mysterious and unusual poem. ‘Paint yourself into a thousand corners / but do not ever wait for them to dry.’   I chose it for its repetition, for its overall metaphorical stance, its rhythmic qualities, its philosophies, its sounds, its insight.

First Prize:      Wild Olives  by Melissa Harrison (WA)

This poem brought together so many images: the olives, the silence, the river, Aristotle.  I loved it for its hindsight and insight, for its flavours, for where it had been.   It is a simple poem of observance and acknowledgement and uses all the senses to tell its timeless story. Above all, it questions.     ‘Perhaps a man planted homage.  Longing for groves lost / forever, he would not see Athens again’  … ‘His Aristotle said Time / crumbles things, but now the trees / belong to the river’ .

It is said you do not choose a winning poem; the poem chooses you. This one certainly did.

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First Prize

 Wild Olives

I was stained purple, rich and bitter
Soft fruit and small stone
What it was to gather wild olives
warmed in winter sun
Quiet stillness. They made peace of the branches

How are they here? Trees of ancient kings
grown one hundred years
by the Swan, the Derbarl Yerrigan
Perhaps a man planted homage. Longing for groves lost
forever, he would not see Athens again
His Aristotle said Time
crumbles things, but now the trees
belong to the river. The river woven into the
Dreaming. Athen’s trees are still here
all these years on

In the fifty year flood we paddled our backyard
in bright orange kayaks, drifting
through vineyards and fields. Thousands of insects marooned
on crowded branches, stared silent
at an endless sea. It was quiet and strange
I felt I was dreaming
the stroke of oar and dripping water.
ghostly vines trailing, drowned in surprise
with fences and rainwater tanks. We kayaked in leafy rows
eating grapes still sweet
still above water

Aristotle said Time crumbles things and it does but
Athen’s trees are still here
so is the Derbarl Yerrigan, still and

Melissa Harrison

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Second Prize

The World is Not Unkind

Begin, not as you intend to go on,
with a brush loaded with expectations.
Begin here by painting out your parents,
gently, with an undercoat not chosen
by you, because you are not yet ready.

Begin at the bottom of the ladder,
applying masking tape to skirtings, the
sun coming sideways into the rawness
of rooms through whose windows you might witness
the campaign of thistles and tradies’ vans.

Begin with your brush, bristle by bristle,
stroking steadily through the dull hours
until there are coats between the mystery
of who you were and who you will become,
and you are flecked beyond knowing yourself.

Paint yourself into a thousand corners
but do not ever wait for them to dry.
These are the long days of apprenticeship.
It is not up to the men in the next room,
with their brutish voices, to define you.

You can go towards your work steadily,
with the rhythm and wetness of the paint,
the distance between you and the other men
standing in for the world you really want.
Begin with your attention to the small

things you are not paid to notice.  A moth
blunders into a wall you have just blessed
with Cashmere, exchanging powdery cells
with the wall until the wall looks flighty
and the moth, paint-freckled, lies down to stay.

Or on your way to work before the sun
comes up, calculate the colour of the
east sky as it moves, moment by moment—
one impossibility to the next––
how could you ever name this with a brush?

Begin, and go on beginning, because
there may be ten thousand hours of your
sturdy ladder, your stippled work boots, your
patient, pliant brush, before you burst through
into your new realm, recognise yourself.

Debi Hamilton

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Highly Commended

Reading Room

When you sleep, feel the earth tremble
– lay your hand instinctively on its hip.

Study your hand against the glass, less
woundable – memory in your palm,

along the lifeline, shallow pool in a cave
– water clock beneath your feet.

Your thoughts are for others – now is the feeding
time, devouring of books –  movements analogous

to a King Penguin. Don’t build a nest, resist
an imposed order, incubate your life on your hand

where a poem is diagrammed.
Give the world your full face,

your hair the colour of unearthed bone.
Remember a secret tree, a dream of life,

the treehouse you built in your sleep,
and filled with books.

There’s an artist making lanterns
under low hanging colour temperature

luminaries that alter between green,
yellow and red. In the Reading Room,

the sky is paper, the moon hides in a fold.
Traverse the solid timber angles of spotted

gum, sit at the edge of the bamboo laminate
and kiln dried hardwood that rises up – a riverbank

meeting your feet. Along the horizon, hinterland – green
chairs of uniform width arranged along an arc, bow your knitted brow

–  leave the new library, skillfully inserted into its new shell with a smile,
the colour of a pearl. Lick the tip of your thumb, start at the memory

of your palm, rub it along the lifeline, wash it clean
– out of existence.

Davide Angelo

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Highly Commended

In The Theatre Of Time-On-Sky

The afternoon sun leaves rufous rags
_______ fallstreaks folding and unfolding
______________ deft like wanderers riding on the ship’s sail
there’s a woman giving an impromptu jig
mouth held just so the lips
______________ still seem to open and close
the remains of voice just a letting of air
_______ and if I lean on the rigging a beat
_______ has me dancing in the way of a dockside gypsy

she does a sideways little step in red
_______ shoes not built for climbing
thumb and fingers taught to click thread beads
_______ never touch the ropes that lift the mainsail
______________ a cinnabar moth to the mast
beckoning and waving from up there
her tin bangle falling to the deck
_______ I reach forward to pick it up straight-kneed
_____________________ extending a leg behind

to the sound of waves clapping
her embroidered skirt spins in the wind
_______ a couple of seabirds wheeling in the eddy
______________ my arabesque flung open
_____________________ tiny bells tintinning
then in the random way of buskers
_______ the birds leave the ring
_______ inspect the contents of their nest for bread
she disappears into the rescinding light

Shey Marque

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Highly Commended

Train Trip from Rome to Florence 13 December 2017

When you’re travelling on a silver arrow, passing by ruined
buildings still holding tight to their Fibonacci principles
and allowing your thoughts to follow the overhead wires

which stream like typewriter ribbons across the dawn of a winter sky,
you get to thinking about the news lying in gridded patterns
on your lap, each non-partisan box providing a voice-over,

on this day, of a Republican’s defeat in the Alabama Senate,
a protest against a World Trade meeting in Argentina
and the opening of the first Saudi Arabia theatre in thirty-five years.

As the stitching between the pre-fab buildings comes undone,
making way for free-standing houses on untidy blocks of land
surrounded by trees that look like empty hall stands, you wonder

about the effort it takes to believe in a cause that will change
people’s lives. Snug within your railway compartment you look about
and try to guess which side of each cause the occupants would fall,

while outside the sunlight sneaks over the horizon’s brow
casting coat-hanger shadows where it sees fit on a field of wheat bails.
And although we may all be travelling towards the same destination

at one hundred and fifty kilometers an hour, there are different ways
to pass the time. But still, we can’t predict when the next tunnel
will pitch us into the darkness, separating each of us from one another.

Kim Waters

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Snow In The Park

A cold snap in October.
Woolly blankets spread
on beds of Spring.
Park Rangers ran feral
through Wilpena
with snowball missiles
in blood-drained hands.

The barber clipped
my childish thoughts
a jubilee ago.
“Short back and sides?”
he clicked.
Outside on suburban
Adelaide pavement
a man of
Lofty Mountain snow
commuter in a carboot
sagged against the barber’s
candy pole and I
turned up my collars
as his fleeced
and powdered jumbucks
had for years.

A cold snap in October.
Rangers larked
I reminisced
and in the drought-struck
Murray Mallee four hundred
fresh-shorn lambs
were caught in it
and froze.

Max Merckenschlager

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Sea Walk
(Green Island, Great Barrier Reef)

E ‘l naufragar m’è dolce in questo mare.
Giacomo Leopardi


beach               boat                 pontoon
sea bed


sheathed in black vernix of wetsuit
head belled in glass and plastic dome
hands gloved               feet slippered
I take the first
backward step
the ladder
pass through
a vitreous ultramarine swell

by careful
‘til the sea licks the bell’s bib
gurgles at my neck
and with one gulp
ingests me


on ocean floor
I anchor knees
deep into sand
resist the sway
and swell of currents
that would lift me away
as lightly as coral spawn

I kneel to my new element
defer to its rise and fall
its restless amnion


clutching our scuba-guide’s silver bar
—a lifeline—five sea walkers
track along the sea bed
black beings suspended in azure         bubbling CO2
dabbled by the ocean’s arterial slosh and slurp

Spanish flag fish flutter stripes as they pass
perch, yellow-tailed or mauve, swoop for fish food
spaghetti coral waves
from sprawling plate coral beds
and giant clams gape serrated shells


I watch the others ascend
push up against the weight of all the ocean
break through to air

waves of damsel fish
swerve towards my bell
lips puckered as if blowing kisses
how sweet this pleasure

how sweet
to drown
in such a sea

Rita Tognini

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On a beach track by the rocks, a stone;
———– its lime weighs down the sudden
minute. I watch sand swarm like bees

———– that I once saw in a market town.
They sent people running into buildings
———– for keys to lock their windows,

some woman with a goose was saying
———– just because they’re stripy
doesn’t mean they are robbers. Honey

———– bees covered the back of my shirt,
tangled in my hair, me not seeing much
———– caught in that apoidean storm.

Still the sand spirals against my legs,
———– its rough manner of being
stings me into knowing again that day

———– and the hazards of sap-feeding
on nectar from the hibiscus flowers
———– sun on my face, buzz in my ear.

Now the swarming grit stops mid flight
———– a thousand little engines stalling
at my feet. A specimen of limestone rock

———– its interior carved out like a hive,
the walls lined with tiny cavities, a nest
———– abandoned, as if the sand had wings.

This poem was published, post contest, by Overland 232, October 2018

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