My “landmark” poems

I started to write regularly/seriously round about 2012/early 2013. I’d been going to Poetry Business Writing Days for several years before this, but not writing in a committed sort of way. Tinkering, if you like. I was nearly put off for life by a residential course in 2012…the course and I were not made for each other…but took a punt on another residential in Spain in May 2013. Partly this so I could visit my oldest friend, and partly because the course was to be tutored by Ann Sansom. The tragic death of one of the Sansom’s sons meant that Ann couldn’t be there, but Christopher North took up the job of running the workshops; I fell in love with the hills around the Old Olive Press in the Alacant village of Relleu. I met people like Hilary Elfick who told me I could write and should write more. It was a game-changer and a life- changer. I went again and again, as well as to residentials run by Kim Moore and by the Poetry Business, and I wrote and wrote. I sent poems off to magazines and entered competitions because they gave me deadlines and targets.

In a purple patch between 2013 and 2016 I won first prizes in some big poetry competitions. Validation in bucket-loads. Each winning poem represents a landmark. Here they are.

2013 The Plough Poetry Competition. Judged by Andrew Motion.

.Julie was written for our friend Julie Child, who loved her adopted town of Whitby with a fierce, all-embracing love. And Whitby returned it. The church above the town was packed for her funeral. Standing room only.



According to the specialists you died six months ago

and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife

as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird

up on your kitchen top beside the angel

that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.


Your fridge’s crusted like a wreck, with magnets

and pictures of Bob Dylan, and you show me

your programme that Patti Smith had signed, for you,

not knowing you’d been cheering  from the Underworld.


You make me laugh each time you tell the phone

it can get stuffed because it’s your mad mother

who will not believe that you’re not with us any more.


Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,

then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks

up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles

tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares

from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft

goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off

far away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,

and shoals of cod, and all the grey North sea.


2013 Camden/Lumen Pamphlet Competition Judged by Andrew Motion.

.Camera Obscura is a poem that started off as a sort of sonnet in 1983 (when I wasn’t really bothered about writing poems) and which I kept revisiting and worrying at like a loose tooth, until I finally sat down and sorted it more than 20 years later. Never throw anything away!


Camera obscura   

(Emily Wilding Davison. June 1913)


The reasons for your being here

are out of sight. They can’t be seen –

your Cause’s colours- sewn inside

your decent coat: white, violet, green.


The camera sees the moment you began to die:

the jockey,  trim in silks, is doll-like

on the grass and seems asleep;

his mount is spraddled on its back;

its useless hooves flail at the sky.


Your spinning, flower-trimmed hat 

is stopped, distinct, mid-flight;

your hair’s still not come down;

you’re frozen, inches from the ground;

your boots are neatly buttoned,

take small steps on the  arrested air.


You’re stopped in time. No sound,

no texture, no sour odour

of bruised grass and earth. Just

silence and the alchemy of light.


How did you comprehend

the shock of muscle, hair and heat

in that white moment

when the dark came down?


The camera cannot tell;.

its business neither truth nor lies.

It shows a fallen horse. A woman falling. A crowd

in hats and blazers staring down a long perspective;

the field intent upon the distant fairy icing 

grandstand. The waving flags. The finish line.


Until the image blurs, dissolves in silver flowers,

it’s there on celluloid in shades of grey;

the camera only says that in that instant     

you are dying, and everyone has looked away.


2014 : The Plough Poetry Competition Judged by Liz Lochhead

At Tarskavaig is an anecdotal poem about a chance encounter in one of my favourite bits of the Isle of Skye. I was told by an influential and much-lauded poet that anecdotes are not the stuff of ‘real’ poetry. So the success of this poem gives me much pleasure.


At Tarskavaig

Washed up on a rucked-rug  shoreline;

floats, fish-boxes, trawlermen’s  gloves,

fertiliser sacks, kelp, clots of wool,

and the cockle –pickers, peat-cured, 

leathery, with ruined teeth,

long, dirty nails, eyes as dark as iodine.


They tinkers. Och. says Effie. You’d do well

to look to the barns, and count the spades,

and what did they ask you for,

those women, old coats belted with rope,

rubber boots patched with gaffer tape,

hair like seaweed, when they tapped

on the windscreen, brown as selkies.


For a light only, the bright ember,

blue smoke blown on the wind, the spit

of rain off the sea, and thanks we’re away 

down the road and done with the day,

with turning stones, and bladderwrack,

browsing the cold shore for cockles,

to fill a knuckly net…iron, amber, cobalt, rust.


What’s to be done with Tarskavaig tinkers

who come up out of the peat or the sea?

And when the light goes, where do they turn?


2015 The McLellan Poetry Prize. Judged by Simon Armitage

Bheinn na Caillich is another poem that comes out of my love of the Isle of Skye, and, in this case, one of its many legends. “The hill of the old woman” is one of the Red Cuillin group that rises behind the village of Broadford. There is a cairn on the hill’s top, and the legend is that it’s the burial of Mad Mary, a Norwegian princess, who was notorious for demanding a toll for passage of the Kyles. The poem was triggered by my reading of Robert MacFarlane’s The Old ways.

.Bheinn na Caillich
Because they had the mastery of iron,
because the land was thin and hard,
because the sea was the way to everything,
because nothing could gainsay
a well-caulked, lapstraked boat
with a flare at the bow that perfectly
fit a space the water would make for it,
because their oceans were swanspaths, whaleroads.
because they wrote their maps in the wind,
in the run of the cod, of the herring, of the cloud,
the way the gulls would go; because of that
they sailed out from granite fjords; 
cargoed with amber  and jet and beaver pelts,
red river gold and wolfskins;
over the Dogger, the mouth of the Rhine,
round Cape Wrath, to the Irish Sea, Biscay,
the gates of the Mediterranean, 
its hot shores, its painted boats
and whitesailed dhows as bright as ghosts,
and all for the lapis, amethysts, white gold
they spun  into knotwork dragons swallowing their tails;
bracelets, cloakpins, breastpins, clasps and rings.
Who counted the hours of tillage,
the scantlings of barley and oats,
the frozen sleet on longship shrouds,
skin torn on intractable nets,
or how many million herring and cod
shrank in the wind on racks of spruce?
Who told how it was 
after all the work of hands and years,
they could fashion chests of black bog-oak, 
bind them with ironstrips ,
lock up the lapis, the gold, the bright enamels
and bury them high in the eye of the wind
on a red granite summit over snowfield and scree
in a grave with a princess anointed and shrouded,
how they might raise a great cairn,
with chockstone and boulder,
and no one would touch it.


2015. The Ilkley Festival Prize. Judged by Blake Morrison

Short back and sides needs no commentary. I wrote it as a tribute to my father-in-law, Stan Rogers.


Short back and sides


It’s fine, Stan’s hair. His wife, Vera, says:

“He gets it from his mother.

They were all fine haired, her side.”


He’s soft-skinned, too. Big hands

with liver spots. They tremble, agitate

an invisible test tube, like a chemist.


Big ears, lobes like small ox-tongues.

He likes his hair cut short.

Curious to be holding his head still,


gentling the clippers in the back of his neck,

hearing the buzz, feeling light hairs fall.

I’ve eaten snake, he says. A python.


He could butcher anything the lads brought in.

He’ll not eat curry. When you smell that

you know you’re closing on a village.


On Recon. they’d take the headman’s son.

Shackle him on the bonnet of the Jeep.

See, if no one made a fuss we’d know


no Japs was up the trail. Drive him for a bit

then let him off. The skin of his scalp is fragile,

scissors cold on the pink of the skull.


His goalkeeper’s hands beat a soft

tattoo against his knee, When he remembers

he clasps them like a handshake, or a prayer.


In jungle once, he came upon a pal

pinioned to a tree, opened up from throat to groin,

his piled entrails at his feet, a black buzz of flies.


I’ve never told our Vera that.  I tidy round his neck.

I’ll shake the teatowel outside on the step,

watch the hair blow, like dandelion clocks.


His hand have freed themselves.

He has forgotten them.


2015/16. The Poetry Business International Pamphlet Competition : Judged by Billy Collins

Obviously, this one isn’t a single-poem competition. Additionally, Ann and Peter Sansom chose to offer me the chance to expand the original pamphlet to a full-sized collection. I’ve chosen the title poem to stand for all the rest. Much Possessed is a tribute to the work of Polly Morgan which I first encountered via the BBC series What do artists do all day? Polly Morgan is, quite simply, fascinating. Her art is precise, painstaking and unnerving. A combination of skilful surgery and surrealism. Astonishing.


.Much possessed
[for Polly Morgan: artist and taxidermist]
She keeps mynah birds and fledgling sparrows
in the freezer. Knows just how feathers lie
in a wing, the small fine down of the breast,
the jewel scales of thin reptilian feet,
the pitch of muscle, all its give and stretch.
She knows about incisions, scalpels, cuts,
how skin can tear, how to tease it from the skull
like a latex glove from a surgeon’s white hand;
translucent films and also oysterish flesh,
the strength of tendons, elasticicities,.
She is comfortable with the smell of alcohol,
the sweetness of decay and thaw, the sharpness
of formaldehyde. She is deft with waddings,
patient re-clothings, fine stitching, the smoothing
of plumes, and the way a beak must sit, just so.
Sometimes she looks at the backs of her hands,
imagines the bones she has never seen; imagines
the spongy maze of her lungs, the ruby kidneys,
the packed grey intestinal coil, the lens of her eye;
she thinks of her plump-muscled heart.