Judith Nangala Crispin wins Blake Poetry Prize

The Blake Poetry Prize 2020 winner: Judith Nangala Crispin.

The Blake Poetry Prize 2020 winner: Judith Nangala Crispin.

Charlotte, Grandmother of my Grandfather, I am Judith, and these are my scars.

That is the final line of Judith Nangala Crispin's winning entry of the $5000 Blake Poetry Prize titled On Finding Charlotte in the Anthropological Record. It was also the end of a 20-year journey.

The Canberra Times's poetry editor, who lives near Lake George, is a poet and visual artist of Bpangerang descent and the author of two published collections of poems, The Myrrh-Bearers (Puncher & Wattmann, 2015), and The Lumen Seed (Daylight Books, 2017).

Her winning poem is about her real-life story about trying to track down her family's lost indigenous ancestry.

The winning poem: On Finding Charlotte in the Anthropological Record.

The winning poem: On Finding Charlotte in the Anthropological Record.

"I guess it's a story that thousands and thousands of Australians have," she said.

"Before the last couple of decades there was still too much stigma around it and people who knew that their families had concealed Aboriginal ancestry didn't necessarily go look for it but it was important for me to find it because I felt like a lot of my privilege had depended on my family erasing somebody from it.

"I felt like there were ghosts out there that needed some peace by telling the truth about it but you never really think when you have one of those truthful moments it will appeal to anybody.

"Whenever you do anything that is hard in your life and you survive it, you realise there are other people out there who are trying to survive it too and if you can just put something out there in the world that says I'm still alive - even if it's just a post on Facebook or a poem - then you feel maybe you're contributing to somebody else being able to keep going in their own journey."

She spent 20 years driving around from Aboriginal community to Aboriginal community trying to work out the "truth" of her family history. She spent a lot of time in the Central Desert and Tanami Desert before essentially giving up.

"I kept looking, but I pretty much gave up...I didn't think I was going to find anything and I had a lot Aboriginal friends who were helping me and they said you have to stop this; you're driving yourself crazy, you gotta let it go," she said.

"It's really hard to piece it together from the white record because it was created to conceal Aboriginal ancestry so relying on things like birth certificates or even DNA tests is only going to get you so far.

"If you really want to know the truth you have to go out into the communities to talk to people and find out what is in our oral history to get to the bottom of it.

"I went across the whole country and in the end, even though I prided myself on my research skills, even after 20 years I didn't find my displaced relatives, they found me. They had also been looking for missing branches of their family tree and I was tracked down."

That was two years ago and she drove down to the Wangaretta area - and as she describes in the poem - meets her 'Grandmother of my Grandfather' on the 'surface of a photograph.'

"I felt relief....If I told the truth, it's not going to have any power over me anymore," she said.

Crispin was awarded the prize in a virtual ceremony on Tuesday which was announced by Liverpool mayor Wendy Waller.

The Blake Poetry Prize challenges contemporary poets to explore the spiritual and religious in a new work of 100 lines or less. It is run by Western Sydney literacy organisation WestWords and Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre.

The judges for 2020 were playwright and poet Julie Janson, Charles Sturt University lecturer Lachlan Brown and 2017 Blake Poetry Prize winner Julie Watts. This year, the Prize attracted more than 480 entries from across Australia and internationally.

The judges said, "Charlotte, a prose poem about identity stood out with its form, imagery, importance and its truth. It is a poem about a meeting across boundaries of space and time, weighted with the erasure of identity and song lines, of a legacy of broken families, racism and discovery."

"It's pretty awesome; It's quite surreal....You send these things out into the universe and don't expect anything to come back," Crispin said of winning the award.