Thunderbolt Prize winners: P.S. Cottier, winner of the Poetry prize

Penelope Cottier

The New England Thunderbolt Prize for Crime Writing is a respected national award for unpublished short-form crime writing in three Open categories: Fiction, sponsored by the School of Arts, University of New England; Non-Fiction, sponsored by The Armidale Express; and Poetry, sponsored this year by the New England Writers’ Centre and the Armidale Dumaresq Memorial Library. There are also three special awards: the New England Award for a writer resident in New England, sponsored by Reader’s Companion bookshop, Armidale; the Emerging Author Award, for an unpublished writer over 18, sponsored by Friends of Tamworth Libraries; and this year, the inaugural Youth Award, for writers under 18, sponsored by Granny Fi’s Toy Cupboard, Armidale.

The Prize, which in 2015 is in its third year, is run by the New England Writers’ Centre, of which I’m Chair, and as the results of the 2015 Prize have just been announced, I thought it would be interesting to interview each of the winning authors, and ask them about their stories, their writing careers, and what they hope winning an award within the Prize will do for them.

Here’s the first of the interviews, with P.S. (Penelope) Cottier, winner of the Poetry category in the Thunderbolt Prize.

First of all, Penelope, congratulations on your win! How did you come up with the idea of your winning poem, Criminals who are no longer criminals?

Thanks Sophie.  I was thinking about the way we incarcerate asylum seekers offshore, including children, and whether this would be classed as a crime in the future (it may already be in breach of various agreements, and lead to inarguable crimes such as murder and rape).  From that I started thinking about laws that had once seemed necessary, at least to some, and which later seemed cruel, pathetic, or simply very odd, and which are now repealed.  These laws include those against homosexuality, witchcraft, eavesdropping, and laws about found treasure which I vaguely remembered from studies in first year law.  Finding out that just walking around at night was once a crime was a total bonus, so far as the poem was concerned. I had a vivid image of all those who had been subject to these laws meeting, as ghosts, outside a court room.

The poetry judge, Les Murray, commented on the evocative nature of your descriptions. How did you go about creating that texture?

I try to put aside too much thought when writing a poem.  I like to have a fairly strong idea of what I will be doing before I start, but when I am writing my best work it is as if I am taking dictation from someone unseen.  Not automatic so much as going through the gears in a manual car without thinking about it.  You only become conscious if you miss a gear.

This intense cruising was more difficult here because of the law lurking around like a bore at a party.  (The sort of bore who wears a ‘funny’ bowtie and can’t wait to assail you with stories of his most awesome success.)  But the poem contains more than a whiff of smell, has some sounds I like, word play, and an element of surprise, co-existing with a strong sense of sorrow.  I think I avoided being too preachy or tedious, despite the research wedged in there.

I’m glad that Les liked it!

Have you written poetry themed around crime before? What attracted you to do so?

I was about to say ‘no’, and then I remembered that a poem that was the joint winner of the Arts ACT David Campbell Prize dealt with a father who had murdered his children.  Again it had a element of the dreamlike to it, while dealing with an unfortunately real situation.  It was called ‘Visitation’ and the dead children appear to the mother in her dreams.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and writing career?

I was born in England, raised in Melbourne and live in Canberra, a place I now love, after a long and intense struggle.  My latest publication is a pocket book called Paths Into Inner Canberra, which is an essay with two poems, looking at notions of nature and the way that wild animals can be found a few kilometres from Parliament House.  (Insert politician joke here.)  It gives me great joy that a piece of writing can be produced and sold for as little as $4, and that Ginninderra Press produces this type of publication.  This book can be ordered here.

Of relevance to this award is the fact that I have a law degree.  I go months without remembering that!  I also have a PhD in Literature from the ANU, written on images of animals in the works of Charles Dickens.

I write as P.S. Cottier, which sometimes stands for Post Script, as I started seriously seeking publication relatively late. (I almost forgot.)  I have had three books of poetry published, co-edited an anthology of poems, and have even stooped to prose fictional and non-fictional, as noted above.

What do you hope winning the Poetry prize will do for you as a writer?

This may sound a little cute, but writing poetry is an end in itself, particularly when someone gets to read it.  I am pleased that the poem is being published, and that I managed to write a poem about law reform and the cruelties of the past (and by extension, the current limitations of the law).

I try my hardest not to think in terms of a writing career.  That probably means my view of poetry is hopelessly romantic.  If I want to have a poem I have finished read, I will post it on my blog at as often as submitting to a journal.

But I will certainly buy something cool with the prize money.

As a reader of poetry, what do you look for in a poem? Which poets have influenced your own work?

Invention and surprise are my favourite aspects of poetry.  I like unexpected combinations of words and play.  Huge slabs of self reflection, or emotions thrown at the reader like sodden hankies, are not my favourite things.

I love Emily Dickinson because she avoids easy translation into a single message.

Byron is a favourite because he lurches between tenderness and sarcasm.

I read as widely as possible in contemporary poetry written in Australia and elsewhere.

5 thoughts on “Thunderbolt Prize winners: P.S. Cottier, winner of the Poetry prize

  1. What an interesting story. I have similar problems about what I can read an when. I can’t read literary journals in bed because it’s too much like work. I much prefer to read them first thing in the morning when my mind is fresh, but who gets to read then?


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