The topic of food has long been a lively muse for the creative mind – think sensual stimulation, social ritual, folk traditions, nourishment, and its converse, deprivation. The inaugural SecondBite Poetry Prize was an opportunity for Australian poets to muster their talents around this theme, in competition for a generous cash prize.
The award winner, announced at a ceremony on July 22 at St Mary’s House of Welcome in Melbourne, was Simeon Kronenberg for his poem ‘Tea and salak and bubur ayam’. Simeon, a Sydney-based gallery director and curator, has been engaged in writing poetry for only three years. While several of his poems have been published in journals and anthologies, the SecondBite Prize is his first poetry award.
In the winning poem, he portrays a young man going about his daily chores in the relentless Bali hospitality industry. A vibrant series of images evokes the disparity between the life of the tourists – the “clattering macaques” who receive the platters of sumptuous food he prepares – and his own reality of dawn-to-midnight labour, far from his family. The poem avoids the polemical while calling to mind the award’s origins in the jarring comparison between the lifestyles of the affluent and those in poorer circumstances.
The SecondBite Poetry Prize was conceptualised as an experiment by competition founder, Melbourne poet and visual artist Anne M. Carson. Discussions with friends on the potential of the arts to contribute to social justice led her to the idea for a competition with dual aims – the raising of funds and awareness around food inequality issues, coupled with the showcasing of excellence and originality in Australian poetry.
Anne sought partnerships with Australian Poetry and the food rescue charity SecondBite, which collects surplus food from commercial food handlers and suppliers – supermarkets, produce markets, farmers and caterers – and redistributes it to organisations supporting the struggling members of our population.
Distinguished elder of Melbourne poetry, Chris Wallace Crabbe, offered his services in shaping the project and judging the entries. Donations were sought and obtained for a significant cash prize, while all entry fees were to be donated to SecondBite.
St Mary’s House of Welcome is a major beneficiary of SecondBite’s food distribution network. Each day, eighty homeless or precariously housed people are given breakfast at St Mary’s, while another forty to sixty arrive for lunch. Because a high proportion of the organisation’s food is donated through SecondBite, St Mary’s can use more of its scarce resources on other services to impact the lives of those it supports – services such as education programs, a health clinic and accommodation assistance.
The charitable aim of the competition was met with significant success. Stuart Lowe, representing SecondBite, gratefully accepted a cheque, which will enable the provision of 5,000 meals to needy people through the charity’s activities.
The mouth-watering job of judging the 160 entries from food-smitten poets was undertaken by Chris Wallace Crabbe, along with fellow poet Judith Beveridge. They were joined by eminent former restaurateur and award-winning writer, Gay Bilson.
The achievement of the competition’s literary ambitions was confirmed by the reading of the nine shortlisted poems. Together, they presented a stunning smorgasbord of reflections on food in a variety of cultural settings.
Chris Wallace Crabbe’s comments on the three runners-up gave commendations to ‘Expectation’ by Antony Lawrence for its intimacy as well as its finely plucked details, simplicity, strength and modesty; ‘Harbour’ by Eileen Chong was praised for its lyricism and its ability to bring tears to the eyes while condensing family history from a biscuit tin; and ‘The Apricot Tree Never Strays Far from its Mother’ by Ben Oost, written in the challenging terza rima form, was commended for its reaching-out to disparate fields of experience.
Speaking of the winning entry, Simeon Kronenberg’s ‘Tea and salak and bubur ayam’, Chris Wallace Crabbe applauded the poem’s range, noting how “it succeeds in moving out from the intimate food-sharing between lovers, and into a consideration of a character in a specific economic and cultural location. It subtly takes on social responsibility.”
Gay Bilson presented the award and spoke of her own changing relationship with the culture of food. At seventy, she has left the competitive world of haute cuisine behind and now works at Liberation Larder in northern NSW, cooking meals for people in difficult circumstances twice a week using donated food. Her closing remarks were an apt reflection on the competition’s theme of food accessibility: “Agriculture, like language, is as plentiful as you want it to be. It is the infrastructure that needs fixing. If we really cared, good food would cost the least and bad food would cost the most.”
Competition founder Anne Carson has many plans for the Prize’s future, including the possible publication of a volume of poems in subsequent years. It is anticipated that the Prize will be a biennial event, with fundraising and promotion in alternate years.
Tourists maraud his island like clattering macaques,
demanding but oblivious. He is used to them and steeled
for the season. Each morning he works with mops
and brooms, washing in graceful arcs, shining floors,
flooding a tide across tiles and wood, not looking up to see
the quick ascent of the sun as it hurls off the night.
At evening, light slants through green palm shadows –
and he peels mangoes, pounds chilli and turmeric for sambal,
steams rice, fish and snake beans – making platters fit for greedy
princelings. Sometimes, he is garrulous and shows teeth and pink
gums in a laugh as white as a crescent moon as he talks of his mother
and sisters, working in a timber shack on a muddied road in the tea
mountains of Bandung, where they make soto ayam and nasi goreng
and lumpiah for neighbours, handing orders through a window
to the rutted street, for workers, toughs and school boys, who
wait, drinking sweet red tea and smoking clove cigarettes, their smoke
drifting up into the night from half-lit, stick-legged tables.
But, alone at Pantai Saba, under a sky as blue-deep as a Bedegul
lake, Agus watches stars crash whiter than waterfalls.
Tomorrow, he must prepare food for guests: tea and salak
and bubur ayam. After prayers, he stretches for bed, fluent as a wild cat.
Salak – snake fruit (named for its snake-like skin). Most popular fruit in Bali.
Bubur ayam – chicken, rice porridge (like Chinese congee).
Sambal – spicy (usually) hot condiment, served in small portions with food.
Soto ayam – Indonesian chicken noodle soup.
Nasi goreng – fried rice.
Lumpia – fried pastries (like spring rolls).
Vivienne Blanksby is a Melbourne writer.
Anne M. Carson is an award-winning Melbourne writer of prose and poetry. Her work has also appeared in Going Down Swinging No. 24 and No. 33.