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UC prize-winning poems focus on powerful personalities

Kristyn Comino

10 September 2015: A poem about an iconic war-time photograph of a woman in Adolf Hitler's bathtub has won the $15,000 University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor's International Poetry Prize for 2015, with a piece on waitressing for famed former cricketer then politician Imran Khan claiming the $5,000 runner-up award.

Judged from 1,206 poems submitted by 724 poets worldwide, US-based Elisabeth Murawski won first prize for Iconic Photo: Lee Miller in Munich, April, 1945. Byron Bay's Lisa Brockwell was awarded runner-up for Waiting on Imran Khan.

Ms Murawski said she was "honoured and delighted" to have won, adding: "it still doesn't seem real because I haven't told a soul."  In her piece, she describes a black and white image of former model turned war photographer Lee Miller as she bathes in Hitler's bathtub, supposedly taken the same day he committed suicide on 30 April 1945.

The image was captured by Miller's partner David E. Scherman, with the couple living in his house while they documented the horrors of the Dachau concentration camp for publications like Vogue and Life.

"I first saw the image years ago either in an exhibit of her work or in the book I bought at the exhibit," Ms Murawski, who has written several works inspired by World War II, said. "I couldn't imagine anyone wanting to bathe in Hitler's tub! Too creepy. Bad vibes. I didn't seem ready to write about it until now. I grew up during those war years and they've left a lasting impression." 

"Writing has helped me to cope with the loss of my son Alex two years ago," she added. "It's likely that grief, and mourning him, enabled me to write that Lee Miller poem."

Originally from Chicago but currently based in Alexandria, Virginia, Ms Murawski, 78, was the first in her family to attend college, going to De Paul University to study English literature, where she wrote her first poem for their literary journal. She later went on to obtain a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from George Mason University.

She said she didn't turn to poetry seriously until after her third son, born in 1968, was two and his brothers were both in school. She then balanced being a poet with working at the US Census Bureau until her retirement in 2005. Ms Murawski has had two books published: Zorba's Daughter (2010 May Swensen Poetry Award winner) and Moon and Mercury, as well as two chapbooks, Troubled by an Angel and Out-patients.

The runner-up entry Waiting on Imran Khan accounts for a now 44-year-old Ms Brockwell's rather unpleasant experience of waitressing for Pakistani former cricketer and later politician, Imran Khan, when she was 18.

"The idea for the poem just came to me a couple of years ago, but it's a real account from when I was a waitress at Pizza Hut in Sydney in 1990 at 18. I'm a huge cricket fan and I was a bit disappointed at the behaviour of the captain of an international cricket team, I never forgot that experience," Ms Brockwell said, adding that she was "honoured and happy" to have been recognised for the piece.

Now based on a rural property near Byron Bay with her husband and son, Ms Brockwell, 44, has been shortlisted for several Australian poetry prizes as well as the Montreal International Poetry Prize and highly commended in the Bridport Prize (UK). Her poems have appeared in The Spectator, Australian Love Poems, Eureka Street and Best Australian Poems (2014).
Her first collection, Earth Girls, will be published by Pitt Street Poetry in 2016.

"I have a particular interest in writing about what it is to be a woman in Australia now," she said of her work. "Before women were published as widely as they are today, I think the experience put forward in poetry was seen as universal, but it was actually a man's experience."

The University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor's International Poetry Prize, now in its second year, is facilitated by the University's International Poetry Studies Institute. The winners were announced on campus last night (9 September) as part of the University's inaugural 'Poetry on the move' poetry festival.

This year, 65 per cent of the poets who entered the competition were based in Australia, with others entering from as far as Ghana, Nigeria, Poland, Greece, England and various countries all around the world. Writers were asked to submit a previously unpublished poem, in English – translations were not eligible – and up to 50 lines in length.

Vice-Chancellor Stephen Parker said that the competition is designed to celebrate the significance of poetry as an art form worldwide and thanked all the writers who entered their work.

"The University of Canberra is committed to creativity and imagination and this competition is a fantastic way of celebrating the art of poetry, which is a creative pursuit we research and teach at the University as it remains of high importance to world literatures," Professor Parker said.

"I am thrilled that in its second year this prize has attracted more entries and more writers to the competition from all around the globe, with the calibre of works being outstanding. Congratulations to the two high-quality poets who won and all the entrants for their submissions."