Chora: Winner and Runner-up, Judge’s Notes, John Burnside
It is always difficult to compare any two pieces of writing, let alone the chalk and cheese of poetry and literary prose. Reading these stories and poems, I was reminded, again and again, of all the ways we can look at, interpret, discover and lose chora, however we decide to understand the term, whether in the context of passage, or of dwelling, of a specific morality of place or of the duty of mourning, and honouring, those places and ‘spaces’ that we see being misappropriated, denatured or destroyed and what can seem a daily basis. Throughout, I was struck by the several ways that our writers approached the given topic, and it was genuinely hard to settle on only three pieces. That said, the three I did finally choose seem to me marvellous in very different ways.
Our second runner-up explored those most liminal of dwelling places, the homes we make for our dead, and use in so many surprising ways in life, including one place, (the Friends Burial Ground by Southampton Common) that, for this former resident of nearby Avenue Road, came vividly back to life after almost forty years away, (and it is a mark of the piece’s descriptive power that it did come back so vividly). This was an elegant, thoughtful, measured piece on place, memory and belonging that lyrically engaged with the subject matter and I want to congratulate Bridget Blankley on A View from the Graveside, a truly memorable runner-up.
Our first runner-up ‘is a moving story of loss of place and family tensions, as a young woman returns to her old home to help her mother move out just hours before the demolition men move in: at once sad and poignantly funny in its observation of character, it tells an all too familiar story of loss of home place in a fresh and economical way, combining sharp attention to detail, painful irony and a measured tenderness to create a highly memorable short fiction. With
all the hallmarks of finely-honed and incisive fiction writing, our first runner-up is Domain, by Caroline Zarlengo Sposto.
Finally, from two inventive works of prose to a poem that announces its wit and energy immediately in the first lines:
Japanese architects deliberately inserted mistakes into their designs to appease the gods, who believe only they are perfect.
and sustains that energy, and the interrogation of diverse ideas of building and dwelling with regard to earth and sky (the basic ground of ikebana), mortals and the Divinities all the way to the end – no mean feat in a poem that runs to seventy lines. At the same time, the poem brings in a number of Japanese terms and ideas that may well help us all in our deliberations and discussions of chora, as we come together here in this extraordinary place, and we may learn a little more about space and its occupancies from the poem’s resident ikebana teacher, who gently rearranges the chrysanthemums and plum blossoms of her students before congratulating them on their efforts:
She criticized our arrangements, redid them with a smile – kiku here, with space, ume there with space. Space – necessary and good.
I had a hugely rewarding and enjoyable time reading all the entries for this competition, and read several that will stay with me for a long time; but this more than worthy winner nudged my
thinking in ways that sometimes surprised me, and it is my pleasure to announce that the winner of this year’s Alpine Fellowship writing competition is Japan, Autumn, by Emily Franklin.