We had a lovely afternoon, today, at Mocca Moocho in Wakefield, for the prizegiving, and readings of the winning poems. Brilliant to know that there were entries from as far away as the West Country, and lovely to have poets coming over from Sheffield, from up Wharfedale, from Merseyside…and their friends, like Michael Brown, who seem to travel miles from Middlesbrough on a regular basis. It was great that last year’s judge, Julie Mellor was there to keep an eye on me. It was great to be able to read some of my stuff, and then to listen to such a range of work from the shortlist and the eventual winners. There’s not enough time to give everyone feedback on the day, but there’s always time to write it and share it via the Currock Press site, and via the Cobweb. So here it is: my very first report on a poetry competition.
Let me start with repeating what last year’s judge, Julie , wrote in her report:
“John Irving Clarke at Currock Press does a phenomenal job of promoting live literature in Wakefield and entering the competition is a great way of supporting the work he does.”
In fact, the entry fees for The Red Shed Poetry Competition ensure that a whole season of poetry readings is funded, and that guest poets are properly paid for their readings. This is a Good Deed in a naughty world, and I take my hat off to John Clarke and to Jimmy Andrex for the huge amount of work they do. Thank you, John and Jimmy.
There were more than 250 entries this year: this competition keeps on growing, and so it should. When I sat down to read the entries (and I read all of them aloud, and read all of them at least twice) I’d already sought the published advice of Carole Bromley ( judge of the Yorkmix Competition) and particularly I read and re-read what Julie Mellor wrote ahead of the 2015 competition:
“So, what am I looking for?
I ask myself the usual questions: has the poem got pace/ drive/ energy, is it revealing something new in every line , is the title doing sufficient work, do the line endings feel right when I read the poem out loud?
A winning poem can make you feel as though your work had been validated, but it’s worth remembering that not all good poems will be winners. ”
In earlier posts on the great fogginzo’s cobweb, I riffed on my own reasons for entering competitions. First comes the dream. What next? I look out for competitions run by small publishers, because when you pay for your entry, you’re in a win-win situation. Your entry fee is going to keep these small concerns alive…I’m thinking of ones like Prole and The interpreter’s house especially. Or you may be helping to promote a small festival, like Havant. The point is, you’re not wasting your money. And then I went on to say what I’d be looking out for:
They don’t win competitions but they can snag the attention. Ones that explain exactly what the poem is about don’t do that. But this one does:
Sometimes you think of Bowness
It holds your attention even more because it’s also the first line
First lines (which may also be the title). It may not have been where the poem started in its first or later drafts. Basically you know what the poem’s ‘about’, so you’re playing to get an uncommitted reader’s attention. At the same time you don’t want to give the game away. A good first line will certainly make me pay attention.
The moment. Of late I’ve found myself going again and again to Clive James’ beautiful Poetry Notebook and his insistence on the memorable, the hard-to-forget. Here’s the thing that strikes me as the heart of the memorable poem, the one that sticks, the one that may just win the prize. ‘Everything’ says James
depended on, and still depends on, the quality of the moment……whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in.
Technique, form and structure. Clive James talks about ‘the spectacular expression that outruns its substance’. It’s not about formal structures or freeform or rule breaking or experiment. It’s a question of whether the words and their arrangement are doing their job, that they have to be as they are, rather than being flaunted to make an impression. Sonnets, sestina, terza rimas, rhymed quatrains, couplets, tercets, villanelles. Just so long as they’re not like that to be decorative.
Endings This is a personal thing. But I like to know that a poem’s finished. And it’s not always the case. It doesn’t have to be a rhyming couplet. And I like to be brought up short by endings that surprise, that turn the poem on its head, that make you reconsider what you’ve just read.
There’s an art to an ending that encompasses and goes beyond the neat sign-offs of the rhyming couplet, or the rhetorical tying-off of a well-crafted sonnet.
So, with that in mind, here’s my thoughts on the winners, and the might- just –have- been -winners.
Highly commended poems
Turning the tide : A K S Shaw. Templecombe, Somerset
I was heartened that there were a number of poems exploring the business of prostate cancer. Women poets, I think, are more in tune with the business of their own bodies. I think of Shirley McClure, Wendy Pratt, Fiona Benson and others. So I’m glad that more men are joining them. Though that wasn’t the reason for the time I spent on this poem, it was what caught my attention.
What I liked was the formal control of its 8 line stanzas, it half-rhymes, its diction, its rhythm, and the way it elides the narrative of the end of a day with the ending of a life. And one line that stopped me and made me think: ‘we’ve come a long way since King Canute’
Tom : Jack Faricy, Slaithwaite
This is an artful short poem which expects you to do a little bit of work; it assumes that the reader knows his or her ‘Waste Land’. It’s a deftly handled sonnet with a clever final couplet. The pivot of the poem is a conceit : if you’d not noticed that T S Eliot is an anagram of toilets, then neither had I.
It’s not that I don’t believe in ghosts : Jo Peters, Otley
First lines! It was that that hooked me. ‘I just can’t see them / my mother could’
This is a haunting poem in so many ways. The narrator’s mother did believe in ghosts, in a matter of fact way, and could see them, too. But can she, the narrator asks, see the living from ‘the other side of the thin wall’? Apparently she can. The last stanza will stop you in your tracks. Well, it stopped me.
Dream thief: Genevieve Carver , Sheffield
I found this intriguingly unsettling. I’m not normally interested in the detail of other people’s dreams (nor, for that matter, of their sex lives…there were quite a lot of them in the submissions) but an argument about whose dreams are whose, and how a partner might borrow the narrative of the other’s dreams snags the attention. I like the voice of this poem. a rueful accusation, direct to the dream thief him/herself.
The Gadarene swine : Pamela Trudi Hodge, Plymouth
On the very first reading, this one went straight into the envelope marked ‘probables’.
The title? Tick. First line?‘The vicar’s wife pious in thick stockings’ Tick. The memorable image or moment? ‘felt hat hammered to her head with a jay’s feather’ Tick. Three boxes ticked
It’s a disturbing narrative, with the familiar trope of a disturbed and dangerous mind; I thought it didn’t quite hold its nerve to the end, but still manages a filmic finale
2nd Prize : Maria Isakova Bennett, Liverpool
I hop you are well
When I was a child I played by myself
in a room without books,
talked to my dressing table mirror.
I typed letters on a pea-green Petite,
hated board-games, and hated sports but loved
slow cooked rice pudding with burnt skin.
On my typewriter, I made spelling mistakes
but my letters were full of wishes,
I hop you are well.
Miss Elmore told me I lacked imagination
so I copied out pages from library books –
images of ventricles; and I coloured veins
with a one-and-four Platignum felt-tip pen.
I practised swimming on a stool in the kitchen,
breast stroke and frog legs, held my nose
and ducked my head in a bowl of water.
But at Woolton Baths, I shivered on the pool-side
afraid to swim in case I drowned,
ashamed of my legs that touched at the top
and peeled apart. Now I know
what it is to bathe in the Irish Sea,
my ventricles pumping, what it is
to have a head full of stories, and what it is
to hope but not to know if you are well.
Here was a poem that hooked me with its title, as did the apparent plainness of the opening stanza
‘When I was a child I played by myself
in a room without books,
talked to my dressing table mirror’
It’s a familiar trope, but lifted out of the expected by that image: a room without books. And also the business of the teacher who might have crushed a lesser spirit…I loved the surprise of the child copying, from library books ‘images of ventricles’. No one will see that one coming . I loved the ‘moment’ of practising swimming on a stool in the kitchen. And I liked the ‘that was then and this is now’ structure of the poem that gives it its edge and purpose as it ends with a wistful return to the hopeful title. Lovely.
Ist Prize : Sarah Wimbush, Leeds
Things My Mother Taught Me
So, know how to recognize a female brown crab?
Hens are by far the juiciest and most delicious, naturally.
Cock crabmeat leaves a slight aftertaste, like ammonia,
Mum would say. And a bacon sandwich is best cut
with a pair of dress-making scissors and if you see black steak
in the reduced section at the supermarket, buy it quick.
Except pork with a rainbow glaze, avoid that like the plague.
A spoonful of sugar or cake helps a fire to catch
in place of firelighters and wrapping paper can be re-used
at Christmas and birthdays by removing the sticky tape
– forget the scars, no-one would dare to complain.
Left-over Dulux mixed together makes an interesting wall colour
and the best thing to feed the kids after swimming is pancakes;
first with orange, then treacle if you have it, or more sugar.
A pair of pants on top of your tights (as well as underneath)
keeps them up all day and a silly green bobble hat will
stop you catching that cold, and washing-up liquid cleans the bath
almost as well as Ajax but without the itchy residue. Never
cross on the stairs, do not touch wood, or open an umbrella indoors,
and if Copydex turns to rubber in the middle of a school project
flour and water is a good stopgap, even with the lumps.
On Doncaster Market you can buy crab in all sorts of ways.
Brown paste, arm-and-a-leg white meat or a hotchpotch of both.
Or from regiments of ceramic croissants with pie crust edges –
boiled into pink oblivion next to the uncooked – wide-eyed
and numb on their bed of ice. Antennae twitching. Touching.
Males have pointed bellies and by far the larger claws, whereas
the female has broader shoulders. Her heart pinned to her chest.
I had serious difficulty in choosing between Maria’s poem and this. At the end of the day, you can’t rationalize it. This one caught me early on and stuck. The title – a cliche- lays down a challenge to itself. How will this be fresh, new, surprising? It’s answered in a brisk, no nonsense way, in the very first line:
So, know how to recognize a female brown crab’
That did it, I guess; the unexpected question; the moment that gets you into the poem, followed by a cornucopia of stuff, a great gleeful jumble sale of advice and nostrums, but beautifully curated in well balanced stanzas, and sure-footed diction. It’s a pleasure to read aloud. And the last line does the job I like. It answers the question of the first line, and it changes the whole colour of the poem. So, for its extra richness of detail, finally, this is the winner.
the Wakefield Postcode Prize
I don’t know why it should be, but there was a higher incidence of nostalgia in this tranche of entries than in the entries overall. I’d just say that there’s a nostalgia that’s like someone showing you their family photos and expecting you to be interested or connected in the same way that he or she is; this is not made better by starting at the beginning of the album and working through, chronologically. It’s simultaneously predictable and exclusive. All imagination is rooted in memory, but your own past has to connect with the reader’s present if it’s to be to any purpose in poetry. (Advertising is different, as Hovis successfully proved.) On the other hand, there was any number of poems that I was happy to read and to re-read, and a great variety of forms and themes that I think is represented in the short-list.
Highly Commended poems
Skaters glass: Judith Ashton
What caught my ear and attention, perhaps because, technically, it’s not quite sure-footed, was the authentic broadsheet ballad quality…which reminded of me of why I like Charles Causley so much….the wistfulness and the the repeated questions of the refrain. And the mystery of John Benn. I knew I wanted to hear the poet read it aloud.
Thanks to Einstein: John Dart
This poem sold itself to me in its first and last lines: ‘there’s a ripple in gravity like the wind’. and ‘Finally we have reached the stars / they are soft like daisies’. That last image sticks and sticks. I’d like to see what happens if we override Word and remove all the capitalisation at the start of each line so that it all chimes with the deliberate lack of punctuation, and makes the line breaks do that little bit more work. But the last line is lovely, nevertheless.
Northern Rail : David Herdson
This is an exuberant rant of a poem which takes on the rhythm of Auden’s ‘Night Mail’ and gives it a real run for its money, right up to the last line..the only point where it falters. But this is a great open mic. poem, an oral poem, a performance poem, and I enjoyed it a lot.
Ancestors : Laura Potts
This was one of two shortlisted poems that wrong-footed me; I was sure it was written by a man. I can’t say why without dropping into inadvertent sexism. It’s muscular, the diction is chunky and dense, but the voice of the poem is that of the women ‘who wore the eyes of the damned’ and went through hardship and deprivation as harsh as that of the men on the Front. The last line is memorably bleak. ‘Don’t say I am nothing at all.’ I think that a sympathetic editor could have made this a winner.
White Air : Deborah Robinson
I really did have to read this aloud to get past the way the poem appears on the page. It appears fragmented and lyrical, but it’s more substantial and narrative. And it ticks all my myth-lover’s boxes. A poem of forging, of fire and ice and silver and gold. And a Smith who creates a woman and ‘slid her into the furnace’. Another poem that needs an editor, but one I loved listening to.
If you arrive home now : William Thirsk-Gaskill
This was the other poem I misattributed through the crass assumption that because the narrator was waiting for a partner to come home, and was worrying about the dinner spoiling, then I was listening to the voice of the wife. Perhaps I am, in which case the poet has done a very clever job. What I liked was the the repetitions of ‘if you arrive home now’ that build and build the increasing anxiety of one who wonders why someone loved is late home.
The Wakefield Postcode Prizewinner: : Linda Burnett
Whit Walk promise from Horbury Bridge
Our legacy was Sabine Baring-Gould’s vexatious hymn,
penned to spur young Christian Soldiers onward on their march.
From Horbury Bridge he’d trailed his children, singing as they walked
through wind and rain, parading banners at St Peter’s Church.
This only claim to fame meant our Whit Sundays became locked
in tracing those historic steps with chiming leaden limbs.
But our reward! We’d worn white shirts and gloves with long white socks
and pumps (some hid their hats) to march behind emblazoned flags,
shushed by taut Sunday ladies who got harassed when we laughed.
We’d no idea what it was all about, but promised bags
of treasure lured us through the streets; no matter how daft
we felt, those church hall tea-bags called us to the collection box.
We licked white icing melded to the bag, released the smack
of soggy paper tamped between our teeth, eager to suck
each honeyed drop. Dishevelled Sally Lunns were set aside
while this first ritual was performed. We’d hoped to find, with luck,
our jam and potted meat exchanging fluids, lax applied
and mingling in a clinch, stewed for hours in its pack.
And when we’d had our fill, the dust and marge smells hovered there,
a pall of hazy disappointed mist above our heads.
The Whitsun cloud descended like a fug and drained the mood.
We’d had enough of this damp squib, routinely fraught with red
handprints on legs and frazzled scoldings served up with the food.
We’d paid the price with blisters, song-sore throats and unheard prayers.
The winner on points, just ahead of ‘If you arrive home now’. I’d have liked the poet to rethink her title, but once past that, the first line sticks a hook in: Our legacy was Baring-Gould’s vexatious hymn. I thought I might have been in for full-on nostalgia, but that one word : vexatious swings the whole poem in a different and more interesting direction, the Whit Walk being a trial for children ‘routinely fraught with / red handprints on legs, and frazzled scoldings served up with the food’. There’s a relish for the sound and texture and heft of words, and an assured technical control of a rhyme scheme that’s spot-on for the time recalled, and which never puts a foot wrong. Splendid.
Thank you, John Irving Clark and Jimmy Andrex, and thank you, the Currock Press, for the Red Shed Competition and for the Red Shed poetry nights. Thank you to everyone who entered this years competition, thank you to everyone who came and listened and read today, and congratulations to everyone on the shortlist. Thank you for a lovely afternoon.
There will almost certainly be some sort of lull for a couple of weeks while I head off on what has become an annual jaunt to Alicante, and a week of writing and walking and staring at limestone mountains and stony ridges. When we come back we’ll be having more gems, and even more gems revisited. In the meantime I shall miss you.