Martin Figura won the 2010 Hamish Canham prize for his poem, ‘Victor’, judged the best members’ poem published in Poetry News over the previous year.
As an established performer with the touring group, Joy of Six, and Chair of the Café Writers Group (and Stanza), Norwich, Figura is well-known on the poetry circuit. In 1997, after 25 years in the army, he became a professional photographer; his book, This Man’s Army was published by Dewi Lewis in 1998. At the same time he had begun writing – “funny stuff, showing-off really” – which he pursued this more seriously when he became involved with Joy of Six; “now, it’s poetry that’s keeping me busy,” he says. He has published two collections: The Little Book of Harm (Firewater Press, 2000) and Ahem (Eggbox, 2005); a pamphlet of new humorous poems is due from Nasty Little Press in November.
His collection, Whistle, published by Arrowhead in March, and in which ‘Victor’ now appears, marked a major change of direction, however. In it, Figura deals with the murder in 1966 of his mother, June, by his father Frank when Figura was just nine years old. “It is the first time I have broached the subject so directly,” he says.
The story is told in spare, compact poems that pack together anger, grief and bewilderment – “this last film / dark and tightly rolled” of Figura’s growing-up. Figura also ventures into the mind of his father, a German army soldier and POW, who was to become a patient at Broadmoor Hospital. “I wanted to investigate my ongoing relationship with my father, one in which I held all the cards but which power I didn’t always use compassio-nately,” Figura says.
Figura’s MA in Writing the Visual under George Szirtes at Norwich University College of the Arts provided him with both the time and the inspiration to write Whistle and Figura pays a warm tribute to Szirtes for his support. “To produce these poems I needed to be a very different writer and George, with his east European background, as someone who has thought deeply about exile, was a huge source of encouragement.”
Figura, at the time of winning, was working on a spoken word version of Whistle, an early version of which was performed at the Ledbury Poetry Festival.
Judges’ choice: Paul McGrane on choosing (the) ‘Victor’
Unlike the outcome of a certain other recent popular vote in the UK, this year’s Hamish Canham Prize produced a winner with a clear majority – the aptly named ‘Victor’ by Martin Figura – originally selected by Kathryn Simmonds in autumn 2009 along with other poems on the theme of ‘Heroes and Heroines’. The panel agreed that ‘Victor’ is a beautifully crafted and poignant tale. Boys act out their war games with “dramatic death” and pavements “littered with Germans” against a safe suburban backdrop of “avenues”, “teatime”, and the fathers who pick them up on their way home from work. There’s also an undercurrent of the real cost of war in lines with a nod to the WW1 poetry of Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen: “there is no birdsong and the November light / is all but gone” and (the men who) “reach their gates and take their sons / down paths into quiet houses”. The poem, after all, is set in Armistice month.
‘Victor’ produced an interesting male v. female split during the discussions, with one half expressing slight discomfort at boys rehearsing violent scenes, the other fondly recalling their own experiences of ‘playing at war’. The women on the panel picked up on the theme of the relationships between fathers and sons which, by and large, the men had (dis)missed.
Judges Carole Satyamurti, Hugh and Sheena Canham, Judith Palmer, Michael Sims and I were asked to pick our three favourite poems from the crop of 29 selected to appear in Poetry News over the last four issues. With three out of the six judges picking ‘Victor’ as their top poem, we had a winner from the start. However, we tested this outcome by taking turns to read aloud those poems that received at least a couple of points, a process that always reveals unexpected delights. Special thanks goes to the poets who made the selection process so enjoyable: Pat Watson for ‘Meeting Moon’, Suzanna Fitzpatrick for ‘Handwriting’, Patricia Hann for ‘Exit a Princess’, D.A. Prince for ‘Heroes of our Islands’, Emma Danes for ‘A&E’ and Kristina Close for ‘Ghost-Writing the Climber’.
Paul McGrane is the Poetry Society’s Membership Manager