There is an all-female shortlist for this year’s Moth Poetry Prize, one of the most sought after in the world for a single unpublished poem, with €10,000 awarded to the overall winner and three runner-up prizes of €1,000 by the publishers of The Moth, an international art and literature magazine based in Ireland.
Another striking feature of the international shortlist, which includes two poets from the US, one Canadian and one Irishwoman, is that two are based in Toronto and three of the four have have moved abroad.
The four shortlisted poems are A Gun in the House by Natalya Anderson, Fortune Reshuffled, Reshuffled by Audrey Molloy, Shirtless by Cheryl Moskowitz and In what way are forests black or white. We saw them blue. With forget me nots. by Teresa Ott. They all feature in the current issue of The Moth.
The prize is judged anonymously each year by a single poet. This year it was Daljit Nagra, the first person to win the Forward Prize for both his debut collection and its title poem. Nagra recently published his third collection of poetry, British Museum, with Faber, and teaches poetry at Brunel University London.
“This was a hugely entertaining prize to judge,” said Nagra, “because there were so many deeply serious poems, both in terms of poetic craft, but also in terms of global politics. My winners include poems about gender identity, corrupt authority and the treatment of women – but also the role of poetry in shaping the imagination, and the joy of writing poetry.”
Natalya Anderson is a former ballet dancer from Toronto, and founder and curator of The Poetry Extension, which aims to forge cross-Atlantic relationships between poets and dancers. She won the Bridport Prize in 2014. It’s not Anderson’s first time on the shortlist. In 2015, the US poet Billy Collins chose a poem of hers as one of the four finalists in the prize (then known as the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize). She is married to an Irishman.
Every line in Anderson’s A Gun in the House “takes on a dark nuance,” said Nagra, “as it seems that the person charged with saving the girl in the poem may have been the source of her undoing. A succession of sensually unsettling images drives this nervous, ironic poem forward. The girl 1cocks her head like a confused coyote’, ‘Her throat / burns like gunpowder’.”
Audrey Molloy, the only Irish poet on the shortlist, has lived in Sydney for the past 20 years, where she works as an optometrist and medical writer. She has been shortlisted for numerous prizes, including the Australian Noel Rowe Poetry Award and the Judith Wright Poetry Prize, the Bridport Prize and the Over The Edge New Writer of the Year. She is one of Eyewear Publishing’s Best New British and Irish Poets 2018.
In Molloy’s Fortune Reshuffled, Reshuffled, three versions of a similar event are playfully reimagined. “One of the most exciting elements of the poem for me,” says Nagra, “is the sestina style embedded in the prose form, with certain words being repeated in each section. I looked forward to the way in which words such as ‘Hank’s’ and ‘Walt’s’, from the TV drama Breaking Bad, become ‘Hanky’ and ‘waltz’, or the way ‘kleptomaniac’ and ‘Sancerre’ took on a new relevance.”
Cheryl Moskowitz is originally from the US but has lived in Britain since she was 11. Previously an actor and therapist, she has led courses for the Poetry School and teaches on the Creative Writing BA at the University of East London. Publications include a collection of poetry for adults and one for children, and a novel, Wyoming Trail, published by Granta. She is developing a writing project with the Cotton Tree Trust, a new charity working to benefit refugees, asylum-seekers and their families.
Moskowitz’s Shirtless is a “deeply upsetting poem about a girl who is discomfited by her gender”, said Nagra. “The simple style and setting, of a front garden and bedroom, show us the poet’s compassion for the girl’s distress. The casual ending carries a rich set of possibilities, but all of them deprive the girl of comfort. A quiet and brisk yet devastating poem.”
Teresa Ott grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives in Toronto, with her six-year-old daughter. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a National Magazine Award, shortlisted for Arc Poetry Magazine’s Poem of the Year Award, and placed as a finalist for the Bread Loaf Katharine Bakeless Nason Award. She recently completed her first collection, which explores the interiors of two women linked across a century.
“I love the way the lines run on, with passing details shed along the way, before we get to the glimmering point of each sentence,” said Nagra of Ott’s In what way are forests black or white. We saw them blue. With forget me nots, (a line taken from Gertrude Stein’s Geography and Plays). “This poem has a marvellous fluency that corresponds to the motion of travelling back and forth in memory. A considered poem about loss and its reinforcing powers, and about all that’s memorial remaining fluid.
“I loved all the winning poems,” said Nagra. “I hope the reader will be similarly moved and dazzled by the winners.”
The overall winner of €10,000 will be announced at a special award ceremony at Poetry Ireland in Dublin on April 26th, as part of the Poetry Day Ireland celebrations.
A Gun in the House
By Natalya Anderson
Our daughter's nose won't stop bleeding, Father.
Come in. Welcome. Sit at the head of our table.
Would you do us the honour of blessing this
meal, Father? Upstairs, in the highest chamber
she won't eat. Her nostrils are raw,
crusted. Bread, Father, break it
with us. She tells us she's too hot, says
it's as though she is trapped
inside her own mouth. Her throat burns
like gunpowder. Help yourself
to beef, potatoes, veg, Father.
At night she gnarls into floorboards, her fingers
rooting for something she calls cool peace.
We hear her hissing. She says her moons are heavy.
Please enjoy an extra helping, Father. Around her waist,
she digs her nails until the wounds scab, complains
she cannot remove the scent of gawking. Custard
now, Father. Cake. Repossess her,
Father, protect us. We are terrorized
by her fear. Her hips are creaking, she whimpers,
cocks her head like a confused coyote.
The backs of her legs are splintered. Cream,
Father, please take more. Our daughter's blood
is everywhere, her refusal to pray
a metallic pox on our family. Before dawn she fires
off her walls, feet, fists blasting up a chalky outline.
Bring your cognac, Father, go up to her, you
remember where we keep her locked.
Fortune Reshuffled, Reshuffled
By Audrey Molloy
Take off your rings. They are clues to your story.
I’m getting a strong signal. You will survive an avalanche. When it comes, you’ll be prepared. Keep your hand near your face to clear an air space. Many suffocate. Make sure you know which way is up.
This is the easy part: dribble the spit out from your mouth and see which way it runs. Now, dig, dig in the opposite direction.
I see something else coming through here: you’ll give him a kidney. (He is dying, you see, in the physical sense.) Worst-case scenario, temperance - you’ll have to cut back on the Sancerre. Best, a scar and an empty comma on one side of your mid-spine. Still, each cluster a small lung, breathing life into the glass husk of him until he pinks up. Then he’ll ask for the other, the fool …
He’ll ask you which one you are - in the show, I mean: Hank’s wife or Walt’s; the pretty, bored house-bound mum with the new baby, who knew about the drugs, or the Type-A kleptomaniac sister. Your love will die but you cannot live with another monkey on your back. Ho! Mind you heed my warning. Honour is nothing. They stole your fucking poem. Don’t sign anything.
I see a case of your best Sancerre, coming from cluster to glass. Is your wife a fool? you’ll ask him, mid-fuck. And the other scenario? An empty life. You’ll have to give him a pink lung, one side dying. He’ll cut up your back, scar your spine in the husk sense. Not physical (comma) worse - something else you’ll see through.
Another strong signal from you: this is Space. In which direction is Survive? Be prepared to dig when the air runs out. Will you know which way? I’m getting an avalanche of drivel: Dig, the opposite of Easy. Face it; you know your part will suffocate many, but each kid’s still breathing. See the way your spit comes up clear now? Keep your hand near your mouth.
A warning sign: At 4 a. m. your mind’s a monkey house. You cannot live with your sister, the kleptomaniac honey who stole the show. She’ll waltz in here and type you a poem or love you back. Keep mum! Don’t heed anything the pretty ask. They are bound to be mean, bored with the new drugs, which, on my honour, I knew nothing about. The baby will die in this one. Hanky?
III. The Fool
See the way your mum keeps coming up? She’s a pretty mean type. She’ll suffocate you, cut off your breathing with a hank of judgement you could sense. Heed your kid sister, the midwife, who’s bound to love you. Your baby digs you, honey. He’ll waltz you back to the monkey show, give you space to spit. You’ll ask him to dribble Sancerre into your mouth until your mind clears. (No temperance here.)
Another warning sign: your honour is the kleptomaniac that stole the pink from your face. Will the strong drugs put a comma in your near-dying? In this scenario, you survive. Many know your hand. The husk of a lung is bored from your back, a scar on your spine. Keep it in a glass in case the air runs out.
I’m getting a signal. Something else coming through I knew nothing about: you live in a new house, one you cannot empty of poems. You give each other the best life, a physical side. But don’t ask of him. The worst part … Not prepared for anything, you see. Up this way. Easy! And then, cluster-fuck from the opposite direction … 4 die in an avalanche. They’re still now.
By Cheryl Moskowitz
Back then when she believed that being a boy or even a dog
was preferable to being the girl that she was,
she used to go shirtless on the front lawn
perfecting those sad eyes of hers, and imagining that if she stood
still for long enough the day would take her with it into the shadows
or wherever it is that days go at the end of the summer.
She said she didn't care if people stared - No one knows me anyway -
and that everyone is entitled to their own idea of what makes
a good picture or who they will stand next to in a crowd.
I’m happier on my own.
And when the evenings got cooler the girl wore her shirt again
and went inside where she practised standing still in front of
the lengthways mirror next to her bed. Once she spoke quietly
to the glass reflection - You are too easily broken.
By this time the evenings were darker and colder
and no one played outside any more except for the occasional boy
with a ball, or a dog.
In what way are forests black or white. We saw them blue. With forget me nots.
By Teresa Ott
Before Harold Incandenza, the parrot we have now and have had
for the past eight years, the one that outlasted our marriage -
there was Emmylou Harris, a tiny blue bird
that died in my hands, inexplicably and suddenly, only months after
we had gotten her, while my ex, then my fiancé, was overseas,
and Lyle Lovett, a green conure that lived with us for one week
before my brother died in a car crash, and while we were away
for the funeral, and he under the supervision of our upstairs neighbours,
drowned in our toilet.
We’ve never been able to speak of Lyle since.
Yesterday, while walking the path that leads around the house to the door
of my apartment, I glanced down and saw on a stone
the carcass of what I assume was a robin that had lived
in the nest outside my window in the spring - a robin that, for a while,
was an oval blue egg so small it seemed impossible it could fit a whole bird.
Perhaps it was pushed out of the nest, which for four of them
really was too small, or it tried flight and couldn't quite get it in time.
Now, months later, the leaves and cold beginning to descend,
it must have been dragged out of the brush by some other animal.
On a rainy day nine years ago, my brother flew
from a car driven by his friend. I like to think he circles the globe
and sometimes comes to rest near our mother.
When something is taken away, or ceases to be, it seems almost
a fiction, as if it had always been imaginary.
Before it was mine, the sapphire my husband gave me for our wedding
belonged to his great-grandmother. She is only a story now, too.
The nest is still in the tree. What was visible both has
and has not become invisible.
My dumb hands, the size of birds, can still make a church and a steeple.