2022 Ethnographic Poetry Prize: Judges Report

Prize Committee: Susan Wardell, Ather Zia, Justin D. Wright

The field of ethnographic poetry has a rich history, and the SHA ethnographic poetry prize, founded in 1986, has been a significant part of this: it’s goal being to support and encourage anthropologists to use poetic methods in their work.

Right now there is a sense of renewed interest in poetry, in the field.  This has contributed to an excellent number of submissions for the 2022 competition – despite the pressures we know many people are facing, in this era of work and life.

Entries came from people at all stages of their career, and from many different geographic regions. They included many different poetic styles and forms, and many different topics. Common themes included markets, hospitals, shared meals, and other mundane intimacies – reflecting both perennial anthropological themes, and those made newly poignant in this historical moment. Many were autoethnographic, and deeply personal. Many evoked the sensory and the sensuous. 

The five winners also represented diversity in career stage, nationality, writing style, and topic. But each answered the competition’s call for fresh, vivid, imaginative, and risk-taking writing, that conveys insights into the human experience, or reveals anthropological themes.

In this report we share some of the judges comments on these winning poems, that celebrate what they have achieved, along with some additional thoughts and advice for those who missed out, or who are considering having a go. In this we hope to continue building capacity in this vibrant niche of our discipline.

Overall comments and winning poems

The criteria of the competition asks that poems exhibit “technical virtuousity” and pay attention to “poetic convention, form, and technique, and the sonic and musical qualities of language”. All winning poems showed a focus and control of language.

What they also had in common, were moments of surprise in language and originality, that made the most of the potential of the poetic form – providing revelations not only through language, but in language. Each of the poems awarded a prize, were deeply considered, involved in interrogating knowledge and worlds with the use of poetic language as a tool… not just of description, but of theorisation, and sometime critique.

First place was awarded to a single poem entitled ‘I sing the body ethnographic’, written by Khando Langri, an incoming PhD student at Stanford University. This is potent, memorable, autoethnographic poem, that grapples with decolonial aspects of representation, by drawing the author’s experiences of cultivating kinship with Tibetan objects in British museum. The poem poses many questions about the ethics of classical anthropology that are still prevalent today.

That a short, single poem has won, over many (extremely competent) sets of poems, or longer poems, speaks both to what is valued and what is possibly, in poetry; namely, in brevity and well-balanced lines, it maintains attention through vivid language and gripping visual images – conveying a specific blend of frustration, intimacy, alienation, wrath. It draws of the material and symbolic power of the body to imagine forms of ethnographic refusal, and as such make significant ethical and epistemological points through redirecting the museum gaze.

Second place was awarded to ‘Homelanding’, a set of three poems by Kali Rubaii, an Assistant Professor  at Purdue University.  These poems are richly and in some ways classically ethnographic – evoking people and place (Anbari farmers in Iraq) but also a specific social and relational context (of diasporic return) through vivid imagery.

The poems captures and hold attention through situated, sensuous storytelling, but with an aura of war and danger that contributes to their haunting quality, and enables them to consider the materiality of violence, and the ecologies of war. Leaning into the autoethnographic, the poems also raise the questions of the ‘halfie’ anthropologist in the field; a theme approach gently, but honestly, and embedded in physical intimacies.

Third place was awarded to a set of poems, entitled ‘Magic Cattle’, and written by Kristina Van Dexter from George Mason University. The judges called this entry “extraordinary”– a mellifluous set of poems , rooted in a bilingual tradition, and bringing together English and Spanish in a skillful manner, to make us witnesses to the legacies and urgencies of ecocide, in Putumayo, Columbia. Deeply grounded in ethnography, the experimental nature of the poems works towards evocative ‘world building’, from a multispecies and more-than human perspective, pivoting around several words that illustrating and theorize a history which has life and death consequences on the people in the Global South.

Honourable mentions: There were many other poems we found striking, memorable, or poignant. We eventually selected two, that stood out.

The first honourable mention goes to a succinct visual poem entitled ‘To fellow merchants of experience’, and written by Nomaan Hasan, a graduate student from Brown University.  This poem interrogates the discomfort of ethnographic practice, and specifically the “vulgar asymmetry between ethnographer and interlocutor”. As the author explains, it draws on a single image from field work in Uttar Pradesh, in Northern India – of an elderly Dalit man in a legal Aid office – to consider caste prejudice, by evoking the shape of the man’s spine in the visual format of the poem. Accompanied by fresh and unexpected language, and effective use of repetition, it shows shows mastery of space, rhythm, and form. .  

The second honourable mention goes to ‘four ways to die among the singing people (in less than two weeks)’, by Rodrigo Arthuso, another graduate student, from the University of British Columbia. This hard-hitting poem draws directly on events that occured during the author’s period of fieldwork with the Maxakali indigenous people, in Minas Gerais, Brazil. In a short space, it evokes experiences of change, loss, and disenfranchisement, and the relationship between wellbeing, social destructuring, and state agencies, in language that shows showing restraint and deliberacy, and echoes the harsh themes of the poem.

These winners have all been invited to submit to Anthropology and Humanism and we encourage you all to keep an eye out to be able to read their work in full there, in the future. 

For those who weren’t on this list, or who want to be: some advice to carry onwards

The judges offer their thanks and congratulations to all who took the time to submit this year. There were many strong poems and we wish we could honour more of them; poems that contained rich stories, an enormous amount of sincerity, and vulnerability, exploring what it means to be an anthropologist, and what it means to be a human.

Many of those we liked, but didn’t shortlist, were full of great stories, but needed more time and attention to the technique of poetry. Some entries felt as if they had been taken from a different format, and simply had line breaks added: an act of translation that was partial or incomplete, and not really leaning into, or taking seriously, the potential of poetic ways of communication. Poetry is a unique form, with its own rhythms and rules, its own strength and potentials. Economy of language is key in this, and some poems could have been made stronger purely by trimming back, peering down each line down to its most clean and potent form. A certain bravery is needed, to do this, but it allows the reader dwell more deeply and meditatively on the words that are left – each one carefully weighed and chosen, each earning its place.

At the same time, the meaning still needs to come through. Some poems we read were a bit opaque. The competition sets a convention (mirroring the way poems are published in Anthropology and Humanism) in which poets provide a 400-word ‘ethnographic statement’ that contextualises the poem, or set of poems, they have submitted. However poems shouldn’t need this statement to get their message across, and rather should stand alone as a complete and whole act of ethnographic communication, with the statement adding as enriching context rather than necessary explanation.

Getting your poem into its best form often takes many drafts. Refine, revise, play, experiment, challenge yourself! Set yourself small exercises or challenges to cut back, or to rework poems into different forms, and see what you learn from that. Read other high quality poetry – both that written by anthropologists, and more broadly. Challenge yourself to unpack what techniques the writers are using, in poems you especially like, to achieve certain effects. In turn, having other people weigh in on it can help you see your own poems clearly. Swap drafts and get feedback from others – join writers communities, listen, and learn.

There is a rich and multilayered potential for anthropologists, in working with poetry, as all of this years winning poems illustrate. And there is room for many more voices still. We thank you and encourage you all to continue writing, reading, submitting, and enjoying, ethnographic poetry.  

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