Her first pamphlet collection (Fun House, Slow Dancer Press, 1994) was followed by her first full collection, Sweetheart (Slow Dancer Press, 1998), which was a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation and the winner of the Aldeburgh Festival Prize. Her recent limited edition, Formerly, with photographs by Vici MacDonald (the first publication from a new imprint, Hercules Editions) was published in 2012 and was shortlisted for the prestigious Ted Hughes Award in New Poetry.
Ken with Helen on Tuesday, 17th. April 2018
Kent & Sussex Poetry Society Open Competition 2018
Helen Ivory – Judge’s Report
It was a huge honour to judge the Kent and Sussex Poetry Competition. I read over fifteen hundred poems and behind each one of those was a person who has felt something or thought something deep and significant enough to compel them to write. In many senses everyone who writes a poem or paints a picture or does anything creative at all, is winning against the dogged march of time. You make your mark in the earth – you say: I am here. I have lived. I want to thank everyone who entered this competition; who sent their vulnerable words out into the world. All art depends on such bravery and the world would be a bleak place without art.
Reading so many poems enables you to gain a good insight in what kinds of things that drive people to write. There were many poems which were built on nostalgia, an ache for those people and times past. There was a fair few poems about dementia and about adult children nursing vulnerable parents. That words can conjure anything and anyone on a page into a reader’s here and now is one of the most moving things about poetry for me. It is true that I can be moved by a poem emotionally before my rational brain notices the poem has flaws in its crafting. It is very hard for me to put these poems aside and sometimes I did so with a real sense of betrayal. Other things I noticed is that these were very much poems from people who live on an island. There was so much sea! There were also lots of cups of tea and a remarkable number of creatures.
A poem, on a very basic level, pays close attention to words and the music they make. A poem builds cohesive images from words and uses robust metaphors to carry over its weight of meaning. A poem is a distillation of the world, it is elegant, and it carries no more words than it needs to translate experience from writer to reader. And so, with this in mind, I read a clutch of poems every day over a two-week period to draw my first longlist of around a hundred poems.
For the next part of the process, I was listening close for originality of voice. I was looking to see which poems had taken a familiar subject in an unexpected direction, or those that offered something completely fresh. I read and reread the poems – really worried I would miss something (what a responsibility!) until I had my shorter longlist of forty poems. I then left the poems alone for a week. I think this latter part of the judging process is pretty subjective. Another judge would very likely get the poems down to the same hundred – those poems whose writers have spent time honing their craft, who read contemporary poetry and so on. But the last part is I suspect, very personal. The poems I chose as winners of the competition are those that burnt themselves into my imagination like light on photographic paper.
First Prize: The Train has Rushed to Us with a Precious Cargo/ of Gifts from Far Away. Ken Evans
This poem takes its title from a 1919 Soviet Poster and is testament to the fact that the title is a working part of the poem, not a tacked-on afterthought. I was hooked into the poem by this dynamic and intriguing title – a title that takes up two lines! The title does not outweigh the poem visually on the page – here are four, four-line stanzas anchored firmly to the paper. Being a visual artist, I am very tuned in to the visual aspects of a poem; how it occupies space and performs itself on the page. I admired the elegance of this poem, its repetitions and simple telling. The poem both disassembles in language and explains what it’s like having suffered a stroke, as it goes on. It begins in the aftermath of ‘since’, and allows the reader to piece things together, as speech and light fade, only mentioning the word ‘stroke’ in the last stanza. And then the word falls apart, reforms: stroke/stoke/streak. The poem ends in clouds. And then on the next reading, the title feeds itself into the poem – these gifts, they are coming through the clouds from far away with their precious words. Despite the weariness of the narrator, this is not a poem without hope. I kept coming back to this poem again and again, as it unpacked its cargo in my head and took up residence there.
Second Prize: Sting. Kathy Miles
A celebration of the much-maligned wasp – a poem that fizzes about the page like an apocrita in an upturned jar. A fantastic example of the poem as a visual art, using the white space of the page to take the eye for a ride. And also, the silence of the white space – as the wasp stops humming, hangs in air – ready to strike – will it be you?
The language of this poem is very exciting: ziplining/ hurdy-gurdy/ gaudy as a costermonger, all in the first four lines. That a wasp might dream of exotic sherbets/ boiled sweets sucked from their coats/ and left in ashtrays is both exhilarating and trashy! The poem is fireworks pretty much all of the way through, but it comes beautifully in to land in the final stanza, asking the reader to reach into ‘the origami of its nest . . . see how your fingers grow wings/ how the sting of your hands/ is almost a blessing’. Now that took me completely by surprise – the thought of blessing and wasp, of pain and being under God’s protection, spun my head around! I also hurtled straight to St Ambrose, the patron saint of bees, and felt sorry for the wasps who are so rarely celebrated – so I admire the chutzpah of this poem.
Third Prize: The Photographer Observes. Simon French
An ekphrastic poem or perhaps this is notional ekphrasis. Either way, this poem conjures an extremely vivid image of a photograph of a parentless bride waiting for her groom in a psalmhouse. Visually, it is one block, like a photograph hung on a page. There are no stanza breaks in a photograph.
This poem feels like a fairytale before the fairytale collectors have prettied it up and Disney has sparkled it. There is the dark edge of a folktale, the hint of domestic abuse, the clutter of a backstory of the time before the photograph was taken. There is a cigarette burn in her dress, there are lipstick smears on a tin mug. The voice of the photographer talks directly to the reader almost half way through the poem – We have spoken of this before – which makes the reader feel part of the story, as if collusion is involved. I enjoyed this direct address and also the little jaunt into what sounded to me like a nursery skipping song: ‘where is he – / creeping through the cottongrass/ kicking off his shiny shoes?’ A hint of Jack be nimble. This poem insisted its way into my head and haunted me as folktales do.
Kitchen Sink. Clare Kirwan
I very much enjoyed the domestic and the profound in this poem. The first line I found God under the kitchen sink one Friday, drew me into a poem which weighs the lightness and wry humour of everyday diction with the heavy heart at the centre of the poem. This is essentially a poignant poem about the loss of a child and how each parent tries to endure it – the neat and tidy kitchen sink of the narrator/mother, or the garden shed of the father where things are broken and lost. The narrator talks to God who says nothing: ‘but I know what he is thinking: ‘I am everywhere, but have you seen the shed?’
Clothing the linen-cupboard. Lucy Watt
Another poem which juxtaposes the domestic and the profound – I think these two would sit well next to each other in an anthology. This poem begins with the very strong image of the narrator’s father’s tail-shirts: ‘Archangels hung from the washing line . . . rigid with frost.’ The narrator draws vivid and visceral details of a childhood wrought with parental argument where the only escape was the linen cupboard, which takes on hallowed significance. My child-self sat next to this child in the linen cupboard and so the poem lodged in my heart.
Octopus Tank: Torbay Aquarium. Cheryl Pearson
I enjoyed the close-looking, humanity and wonder of this poem. The intricate details of the octopus’s ballet and its ‘colour coursing. . . like a weather map crawling with storms.’ The poem is made of thirteen couplets and looks airy on the page which evoked for me a sense of light and floating timelessness. ‘Imagine the hunger of a creature with three hearts’ asks the poem – and so you see the octopus for what it is – a captive, ‘with the intelligence of a three year old.’ The poem resumes the celebration of octopus-ness at its close, its affinity with something beyond this prosaic existence with the uplifting final sentence which sings ‘How once the moon drew the riddle of her.’
In My Next Life. Catherine Bateson
This poem drifts between a real and imagined life. At the centre is a spinster beekeeper mother, the narrator, raising daughters who are destined to leave home: ‘their rooms are as empty as plundered cells’. There are gorgeous details: ‘Lovers woo me with amber, / bright honey drops for my fingers and wrists’ and as the narrator falls ill ‘before the long winter . . . timber hums and the fever-soured air/ is as heady as mead.’ I was really taken by the otherworldly world this of this poem, and how I imagined it casting a honey light on my hands as I held the page.
KENT & SUSSEX POETRY SOCIETY
OPEN POETRY COMPETITION 2018
We are pleased to announce the results of our Open Poetry Competition 2018, judged by Helen Ivory. The competition attracted over 1400 entries, and the prizes have been awarded as follows:
FIRST: “The Train has Rushed to Us with Precious Gifts from Far Away” by Ken Evans
SECOND: “Sting” by Kathy Miles
THIRD: “This Photographer Observes” by Simon French
FOURTH: “Kitchen Sink” by Clare Kirwan
” “Clothing the Linen-cupboard” by Lucy Watt
” “In My Next Life” by Catherine Bateson
” “Octopus Tank, Torbay Aquarium” by Cheryl Pearson
The poems will be published on our website for you to read within the next week.
Thank you for entering. Best wishes in your future poetry endeavours.
The Train has Rushed to Us with a Precious Cargo
of Gifts from Far Away
(Soviet poster, 1919, Tate Modern, London)
Since, I have to think harder
what I say. Words are pond carp
who, on sipping at the surface,
gobble their own sound.
Since, a nail is harder to hit,
the weight of the hammer-head
needs thought not to shatter
the wood or curl a nail.
Since, I slur, by which I mean,
I’m tired, by which I mean, a part
of my brain is gone; I mean,
I’m losing the light. Soft synapses.
Stroke means to caress gently,
a butterfly applying pressure
to a petal. To stoke is to build-up
from a little. A streak is clouds.
This Photographer Observes
a thorn bride waiting in the psalmhouse,
cigar-burn in her wedding dress.
Outside, blowtorched air huffs. She barely sips,
smears lipstick on a tin mug
given her by the pastor.
She has decorated the kind of eyes ravens
daren’t peck out,
not on a day like this
but her shoulders are wavering;
where is he –
creeping through the cottongrass,
kicking off his shiny shoes?
We have spoken of this before,
his predilection for out-of-town girls,
had hoped he’d find the inner groom
and there’s still time.
Her mother and father are absent
like flags on a windless day
but it’s no surprise, this is no place
for a war-torn impresario and his plastic doll.
It’s the only photograph I take today.
The moment she lifts off her veil
and opens the window to let the house gasp.
He has finished with her and almost finished her,
her mouth like a split of parched earth, skin
like wattle and daub.
She so wants to jab flint in her eyes, learn
how to love the taste
of blackberries she’s not picked.
I found God under the kitchen sink one Friday.
I was just looking for a duster, but after all
isn’t God in everything? In the squeegees,
my yellow marigolds, the bag of rags?
God is in everything; and under the sink
suddenly infinite, compassionate and wise.
It’s funny, I thought, how you often find things
when you aren’t looking for them. If you asked
what I’d like to find, I might say money,
a band of merry house-elves or my daughter
dancing in at thirteen, like she would have been
this year. But God would have to do.
Bob has religion. He has said: ‘Thy will be done.’
I’d hated him for that, wanted to batter him
til my fists bled. Bob goes to church, stares up
with a vacant, trusting look – just like the dog.
Now I soften to his emptiness: poor Bob
has found nothing, or nothing has found Bob.
‘God?’ I ask, sat on the kitchen floor.
‘Maybe you could hang around the shed
with all the seed packets, buckets and pots
so Bob can find you too: properly, I mean?’
God says nothing, but I know He’s thinking:
‘I am everywhere, but have you seen the shed?’
I wonder whether God is as easily
lost as found? The shed is chock-a-block.
Bob hammers for hours with hoarded pieces
of wood, mending or breaking things apart
in that place of lost things, not like my kitchen sink;
neat and tidy, entered with an open heart.
In My Next Life
I am a beekeeper.
Lovers woo me with amber,
bright honey drops for my fingers and wrists,
but I take no husbands for the bees disapprove.
I keep a sweet kitchen ‒ the busy days
step surely to evening when my daughters curl
in breathy dreams and the dark hours sing
to each certain dawn.
One by one the girls the bees and I raise
turn their heads like sunflowers
caught by the glint in a man’s eye,
the gleam of ready coin or their own reflections
in a mirror somewhere – anywhere – else.
One by one my lovers drop out of the race
as the years pile up.
Some days I take news of a marriage or a birth
to the hives, whisper soft names
between the steady frenzy of wings.
Before the long winter when I am ill
the bees swarm into the house.
I hear them through drugged sleep,
leave out plates of autumn honey.
When I move slowly from room to room
the timber hums and the fever-soured air
is as heady as mead.
I lie down and bees surge against me,
a thrumming blanket of sticky warmth.
Oh my daughters, I whisper into the beat
and crush of wings, come home.
Their lives have spun out and away
more miles than a bee flies
and their rooms are as empty as plundered cells.
When finally they come
they’ll open the windows
and sweep out the dead.
Octopus Tank, Torbay Aquarium
She flows away from the roof coming off –
the noise, the punch of light from the torch.
Unspools and re-ravels as we watch. First
fast, then slow. A surge, and a gathering back.
A surge, and a gathering back. It lifts the hairs
on your arms and neck, makes a ballet of the tank.
I saw a ribbon of starlings once – they rose
and fell that same way, tied and re-tied Rome
in a bow, and I thought the knot at their centre
must be God. Here is God again, in this stranger,
the colour coursing her billow and flop like a weather map
crawling with storms. The current of command
from brain to brain, the crackle of travel between
all nine. As the crow flies, we are two hundred miles
from home. She is further. A thousand. An element.
Watch her fling one arm at the plate-glass, roll it
out like a rug – the kind you see in hallways,
long, embroidered – and see how the suckers
work like mouths. Opening. Closing. Imagine the hunger
of a creature with three hearts. For salt. For dark. For crab,
tossed in a tube whose catch she must pick. To keep
her sharp, the biologist tells us. She has the intelligence
of a three year old. He puts the roof on her blue-lit room,
and now she’s a stream, all arms behind her, belly lighting
each mind like a bulb. And see how she tows the tube
to a corner. How once the moon drew the riddle of her.
Clothing the linen-cupboard
Archangels hung from the washing-line – father’s tail-shirts,
rigid with frost – and the kitchen breathed like a bull
where I’d helped tie the string round the pudding
to go in the steamer. Sometimes the wrung-out angels loitered inside,
waiting for the end of the rain. They smelt of sudsy water:
much longer indoors and they’d sour. But I knew
where else they lived. As well as the beast in our house,
hawkish words cut across the light, savage, accurate, mean.
So I’d go to the linen cupboard. No obvious angels there.
But. The shelves blazed, ledged like cliffs with sheets, shirts,
nighties, table-cloths, blankets, white on multiple whites, bulkily folded,
or feathering corners and edges so precisely they made me cry.
And there were my wings. Someone shouted, the TV blared,
and someone wept, but I’d just stand and breathe, quieted
by that show of wash-day conscientiousness. And I thought,
so used to dodging between the bad and the good – and who does not? –
that here doubt had no place. It was a bit like
what they said of love: the way it cares always finds it out.
Then I’d be called, or stumbled on, or finish my errand,
fetching a towel, flicking the immersion’s switch to ON.
And I’d close the door, go practically off. I knew I had to be subversive.
Like some recusant in punitive times, I worshipped in books,
trusted in myths and transformations, anything to wing me off
from that quarrelsome house. So. How to re-imagine the linen store?
In my room not even the bible-big dictionary got it right.
Another Route to Narnia or Swannery of Sheets were also put aside.
So for years the linen cupboard extemporised as a kind of Annunciation.
Because there were lilies there, lilies of poplin and winceyette, lilies and grace.
Please note: Our May meeting, at which the Folio results will be announced by Tamar Yoseloff, will now be held on TUSEDAY 8 MAY – NOT 15th as previously announced.
Helen Ivory is a poet and visual artist. She has won a Gregory Award and her fourth Bloodaxe Books collection, the semi-autobiographical Waiting for Bluebeard was short-listed for the East Anglian Book Awards (2014). She edits the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears and is tutor and Course Director for the UEA/Writers Centre Norwich online creative writing programme. She received an Arts Council of England Award to work on her fifth collection for Bloodaxe The Anatomical Venus, which centres on women and otherness.
Fool’s World, a collaborative Tarot with the artist Tom de Freston (Gatehouse Press), won the 2016 Saboteur Award for Best Collaborative Work. Hear What the Moon Told Me, a book of collage/ mixed media/ acrylic painted poems was published this year by Knives Forks and Spoons Press. She lives in Norwich with her husband, the poet Martin Figura, where they run Café Writers – a live literature organization.
Helen is the judge of our Open Competition this year, and will be visiting us in the Vittle and Swig to announce the prizewinners. She will also give us her adjudication report, which is always helpful to aspiring poets. After the reading of the prizewinning poems, Helen will be reading from her own work.
Lots to enjoy, with a variety of poetry, and what is sure to be an excellent poetry reading from Helen. See you there! 17th. April, AT 8.00 in the Vittle and Swig on Camden Road, Tunbridge Wells TN1 2PT.
After the announcement, the results will be published on this website, followed by copies of the prizewinning poems, as soon as it can be done.
Join us for what promises to be an enjoyable feast of poetry, with a prompt start at 8.00pm. The evening will begin with poems from the floor. See you then!