WHEN I LEFT a comment at the original post announcing this contest, asking who'd be doing the judging, I didn't realise I was answering my own question. But I was happy to say yes to GV's gracious co-managing editor Georgia Popplewell when she asked me to take on the task (and grateful the entries numbered in the dozens, not the hundreds).
There are as many kinds of love poem as there are kinds of love–not quite infinite, but close. Love won, love lost, love hoped for, love despairing, love delayed, love denied, unrequited, unknown, unforgivable, untold, inverted, perverted, sacred, profane, and so on and so on till dawn. The 28 entries in the Global Voices Valentine's Day Poetry Contest include a pleasing variety of both themes and forms, and range from the achingly sincere to the painfully parodic.
How did I choose the winner? Billie Holiday, via iTunes, whispers “Don't Explain”. Wise advice for any poetry contest judge, whose decisions must necessarily be subjective and not entirely conscious–because the part of the brain that responds to a poem, that loves it or hates it or wants to weep over it, is a deep, mysterious, illogical part (such an illogical part of the brain that we often get confused and call it “the heart”).
But in this case, judging was made “easier” by eliminating the seven poems that overlooked a key contest rule on subject matter: that “entries must in some way have to do with … blogging/citizen media”. I'd usually be the first to say that, in poetry, there are no rules, but this is a Global Voices contest, and it seems apt to insist that the winning poem relate in some way to GV's core mission. I was particularly sorry to lose Harinjaka's lovely “l'Amour ‘MoraMora'”, with its gentle Malagasy refrain; also Geoffrey Philp's “Bachata”, in which music is the food of love; Des Donnelly's wistful “If”; Kai C's yearning “A Beautiful Valentine's Day”; Nabeel Zeeshan's passionate poem with its hyperbolised imagery, “The red sun comes out of eclipse”; Sikanda's excerpt from a “saga” about two lovers named Oliverio and Alejandra; and Rethabile Masilo's “A Tourist in Maseru”, with its clever opening lines: “Love from the start was touch and go / when both our hands / at that / bazaar / opted for the sole, ripe mango”.
That left 21 poems, ranging from the concentrated explosion of brotherly love that is Peggy Manfredi's “Realize Our Power” to Taimoorkhan's naughty, sticky-fingered “i wish you were in my room”. Falstaff offers both a haiku suggesting that “Blogging too is an / act of love” and a take-off on Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, in which I lost count of his smartly worked-in blogging references.
Think love poem and perhaps (for English-speakers) Shakespeare comes first to mind, but other entrants looked further afield for models and inspirations. Luis Carlos Diaz's “I don't need / to know / English” reminds me of the lyrics of William Carlos Williams–they even have the same middle name! Juliacaesaris, with her prose poem “El olor de tu recuerdo”, summons the shade of Arthur Rimbaud. Niranjan Srinivas's “Yet another Valentine's day”, its rhymes advancing relentlessly towards their heartless conclusion, has something of the air of James Fenton–especially the stanza that rhymes “hero” with “zero”. And the opening lines of Lilia Mendoza's “Foto en Pixeles o Conjeturas” could just about pass for Paul Célan.
Ph offers a free-verse piece in the form of a personals ad. Revealed offers an ode to his blog and “the thoughts that talk in Times Roman”. In “He who spikes my page”, GV's South Asia editor Neha Viswanathan supplies the contest's sultriest line: “feed my bulging, sacred / opml”. The Nightshift Chronicler plays on the double meaning of the phrase “she calls it”, in a lament over “lonesome love”. Delphine's “The Seventy per-cent Solution: A Valediction” is the contest's sole canine entry–but then, on the Internet, nobody knows etc. It tells the story of an ill-fated inter-species romance; only readers who know that chocolate is toxic to dogs will grasp the final tragic twist.
In “You were loved with all that was there”, Song Lady bitterly recounts a dalliance ended by a lover's selfishness. Juan Arellano describes the pains of a separation caused by a server malfunction: “No hay email, chat o blog….” In “Speak for we all have love”, Gareth Yates offers a hopeful definition of love as “A united army of voices and souls”.
Zz aka Peter Griffin proves his doggerelist's credentials with not one but two entries: “My blog you are a wondrous thing”, with its swipe at Blogger, and “Global Voices, Global Voices”, a shameless valentine to–well, to Global Voices, which even manages to work in a link to the GV manifesto.
OK, home stretch….
I admire the way Firstrain's “Tangy”–nice title!–balances the silly with the sincere, light-hearted- and -handedly suggesting both the new lover's starry-eyed optimism and the ambiguities of a real-life relationship. “As the world screamed, work! in capital mails / A small “heylo” sneaked in” is a line that certainly cuts to my quick. The metre is off in the poem's opening couplet, but the goofy faux-naif final stanza must surely have brought a smile to every reader's face:
“O moi valentine, so I say today
My tangy, imli-sauteed-papri-chaat
Let my tummy complain from now till May
I'll eat you with all my heart.”
But the poem I found myself reading over and over, the one that seemed to do the most with the most economical resources–and furthermore the winner–is Neha Viswanathan's second entry, “Madam I am 28, single”. This is a quietly deceptive and deceptively simple poem, saying much more than the initially apparent sum of its words. It flawlessly captures the Hinglish-accented voice of a bachelor trawling the Web for love, his hopeful tone belied by his confession of loneliness. It proves that you don't need flowery phrases or far-fetched metaphors to summon real emotion in a poem, and that humour and tragedy are not incompatible. This is both a delicately funny poem and a deeply affecting one. In simple, matter-of-fact tercets–erupting into open passion only in the lovely line “Scrap me with your / ladyfingers”–it draws a portrait of both a distinct individual and a universal longing. It is pitch-perfect and spare–you wouldn't change and couldn't delete a single word. That's more than you can say for most poems in the world.
Congratulations, Neha! And many thanks to all the other entrants. Keep writing.
And here's the winning poem in full:
Madam, I am 28, single.
I live alone, and nobody
has my Orkut password.
I have never had a girl
friend. Madam, I think
I am lonely. Are you?
Scrap me with your
ladyfingers. On IM we
will profess online love.
Don’t tell me you are
married. Does not say so
on your very public profile.
On Valentine, I hunt for
empty scrap books. I am
finding your lovely self Madam.