2023 Ethnographic Poetry Prize: Judges Report

Prize Committee: Susan Wardell, Abigail  Chabitnoy, and Kali Rubaii

This year we were honoured to read ethnographic poetry submissions from 34 people, all around the world. As per the competition rules, these people were able to submit between 1 and 3 poems each, with an accompanying 400-word ethnographic statement.

The poetry, as usual, was diverse in content and style. Last year we shifted the criteria of the competition to specify that we were open to experimental poetry forms, and a major positive feature of this year was to see a variety of poets submitting work that really took up this challenge, particularly leaning into the use of form to communicate. The top two poems this year both did this in incredibly innovative ways.

Entries also came from people at all stages of their career, and we were particularly delighted that 3 out of 4 of our awards this year went to graduate students.

In this report we share comments from the judging committee on the winners and some of the additional comments and thoughts that emerged from the judging process – in hope this will be a help or encouragement to this working in this area, even if they were not successful in this year’s competition.

Overall comments and winning poems

First place was awarded to a set of two poems entitled ‘Two Row Repair II” and “Two Row Repair III”, and written by Debra Vidali, a settler scholar and activist from Emory University. The judging panel were drawn in to the effective experimental form used in these poems and their clear links back to the poet’s work on indigenous sovereignty and allied solidarity.

Focusing on “a journey of attempted recovery and repair”, each utilises a potent visual form that not only created interest on the page, but connected it directly back to the ethnographic context being described – that of the Haudenosaunee territory in the Hudson valley.  The experimental form can be read up to down and left to right.  The wampum belt was used in a poignant way both as metaphor and the basis of the visual form of the poems; with connection not only to the general concept, but to a specific ‘woven document’ from 1613. In this way, the poem not only speaks about, but embodies, decolonial praxis, in a historically-anchored way.

Second place was awarded to ‘A Cootie Catcher to Recruit ‘English Native Teachers’ to Teach in China’, a poem by Yixuan Wang, whose digital ethnographic research focuses on experiences of precarity among US transnational teachers who work in China.

This poem was a creative visual one, that requested the page be printed old, and folded up into a schoolyard ‘cootie catcher’ form, so that the poem itself could also be read in multiple different ways.   Both the content and the form of the poem played with questions of representation.

Making use of ethnographic artifacts and analysis, the contents were also composed based on an analysis of job advertisements and discussions in online communities; using these in combination to explore and challenge problematic concepts like the ‘native speaker’.

Third place was awarded to an extended multi-part poem entitled ‘Two Lovers, God, and Everything-in Between’, written by Febi R. Ramadhan, a PhD candidate at Northwestern University, whose work among Muslim communities in Indonesia focuses on the production of religious knowledge on same-sex sexuality.

This poem was impactful, using both narrative and lyric, using different voices in the space of the poem to give it an internal dialogical quality that echoed a research interview in some ways, but also went well beyond this to create a space of reflection on localised meanings, the life course, and religious identity, in relation to sexuality. It showed technical control, including an effective use of repetition, where each return revealed new and shifting implications to the chosen words, to create a sense of journey through time and the life course. It offered what felt like a string of moments in a bigger story without needing to share all the plot points, and thus leaving a lot for the readers themselves to find or offer.  

An honourable mention went to ‘Anti-trauma’, a set of three poems by Susan Haris a doctoral candidate at IIT, in India. These are lush, lyrical multiple-species poems, exploring Nilgais in an urban forest in Delhi, and which the judges felt were “written from a place of discovery”.  They had a multivalent quality, unravelling cosmological layers, taking a storytelling approach as a different entrypoint to exploring myth and tradition. The judging team felt it encapsulated a comment on how oral tradition was adaptable and malleable depending on the needs of the audience; with poetry to, despite having fixed qualities, needing to adapt to what the audience is bringing to the experience

Other reflections, observations, and advice…

The judging team share their thanks to everyone who took the time to share their poetry with us this year.  

There were many strong and compelling entries.  In general, the poems that used concise language and had emotional resonance, stood out. However there were a variety of poems that were extremely adept, and potent, and which we loved, but that we felt did not as well fit the criteria of the competition, in terms of working to “locate the reader in the context of the ethnographic study and reveal anthropological themes associated with any of the fields of anthropology”.

There is much debate in the field about what makes a poem ‘ethnographic’. For us, this was about opening a window into how an experience or narrative is situated in the particulars of a specificcultural, social, or political context. It is hard to write poetry that is both beautiful and doing ethnographic work. There is often a tension between these two, and right at the razor edge of this is where, in rare moments, you get very special pieces of writing.

On the other hand, and more common with poems that were trying very hard to be ethnographic, a poem was often weakened when it became didactic – working very overtly to teach or convince the reader, rather than trusting the reader to understand the nuance of what was being communicated.

Another criteria we applied to our judging was the question ‘why the poem?’ In other words, between all possible mediums available to the writer, was it clear why they felt a poem was the best or only way to communicate this story or topic. This was seen in the way some poems were able to take advantage of line breaks, spaces between lines, ambiguity, and the lyric… to evoke, and to create emotional resonance with the subject, not just to communicate information. It was seen less in poems where it felt that the same content could have been formed into a paragraph, and found in an article or essay, with little change.

Not unrelated to this, the judging team also had fruitful discussions about the role of political critique and political standpoint in ethnographic poetry. Tying in with the above comment, we appreciated poems that used poetic form to do something subversive, not just say something subversive – i.e. doing the political work of ‘breaking grammars’.

We are encouraged by the genuinely creative, innovative work we have seen and awarded this year. We thank everyone who shared with us, and encourage you all to keep pursuing the challenging and rewarding work of ethnographic poetry, for all its potentials.

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