Monthly Archives: April 2017

Open Competition 2017 Adjudication Report – Catherine Smith

Open Competition Judge’s Report 2017


It was a great pleasure and honour to be asked to judge the Kent and Sussex Open Poetry Competition – a competition that has been running for 30 years and to which, this year, over 1400 poems were entered. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who entered one or more poems, because entering a poetry competition is an act of courage; who amongst us enjoys being judged, with the real possibility of being ‘found wanting’? We have done our best, offered up a piece of writing we feel demonstrates not only our original idea and vision, but, perhaps, an actual, raw experience from our lives, as well as our skill with language, our choice of imagery, our knowledge and appreciation of rhythm and cadence…..and yet, very few of us will be publicly rewarded for that effort. So to put our work up for judgement is a risk, and it might be reasonable to ask – why do it? I don’t think it’s because every poet who enters a competition believes they are a genius; I think it’s more to do with a sense of community – we are poets, and poets take risks every time they write: risk being misunderstood, or ignored. But poets will carry on writing poems however few or far between the financial rewards or plaudits; for most poets, the act of writing a poem is an affirmation of their humanity, of their desire to place ‘the best words in the best order.’ So, thank you.


Reading such a large number of poems can’t be done quickly, and my approach was to make sure I had a sufficient supply of tea, and to read each poem twice. In each case, I asked myself – what’s going on here? How does this poem use language, structure, tone and rhythm to reach me – how is this poem challenging me, and what is it teaching me? What fresh insights has it given me about the world? In terms of themes, certain subjects recurred frequently. Many explored death, particularly the deaths of relatives. Painful personal experiences can be difficult to explore in prose/non-fiction, and my feeling is that (with some honourable exceptions, such as the Death Café movement), contemporary Western society hasn’t got its head round encouraging people to talk about death – and so poetry, with its linguistic compression, its quest to find imagery to explore this inevitable but still oddly taboo area, is where many turn to reflect on their experiences and feelings. Other themes that cropped up regularly included difficult, often violent relationships; absolute poverty and homelessness; the plight of refugees; Nature, both benign and ‘red in tooth and claw’; monsters, hybrids and surreal creatures.


My original ‘long list’ contained over 90 poems – poems which intrigued me for a number of reasons; often because I was struck by the originality of the idea, the skilful extension of a metaphor, the evidence not only of craft –  but also something less easy to define – I came to think of it as ‘heart’; beyond technical competence, or even excellence; a sense, reading the poem, that the poet absolutely believed in their poem. It wasn’t a technical exercise; it was a necessity. I whittled 90 down to just over 60, apologising to each of the poems which didn’t ‘make it through’, and from there, to a more manageable longlist of 40 poems. Please be assured that this next phase was particularly excruciating, and caused me to stay up long into the night, wild-eyed and muttering. Why was I passing over a particular poem – what on earth had it done to be treated in this way? Well, sometimes, on third, or fourth, or even fifth reading, there was just one ‘wrong note’ – something a little forced – or an ending that too neatly ‘rounded off’ the argument, and provided a cute, ‘suitable’ final image/thought. (Even so, I felt mean.)


So from a longlist of 40 to a short-list of 20. And for several readings, none of these 20 poems would let go; they were tenacious not just in terms of their technical strengths, but because they were so interesting. Each one was considerably bigger than the sum of its parts; each one took me somewhere I hadn’t been before – invited me into a new world, down a metaphorical rabbit-hole where anything – sometimes dark, scary things –  could happen.


Eventually, I arrived at my final list. Seven terrific poems. The ‘four fourths’ – each of which would, I’m sure, have risen right to the top in a competition where fewer superb poems had been entered:


Dead Things I Have Seen While Walking. I was immediately drawn in by the high quality and originality of the imagery: ‘A colander of skull with leery grin,/a splay of raven like a flattened prayer.’ The poem uses a ‘list’ device to build up detail, but the ending is surprising – another character enters the narrative – ‘my love was there, beside me./He mustn’t know how very cold I am.’ A terrific ending, re-casting the poem. The narrator’s cool, dispassionate observations are secret; the narrator does not want her morbid fascination to be known to her ‘love’…so now, this becomes a poem about a relationship – how we hide ‘unacceptable’ parts of ourselves from others.


The Confidant’s Shadow This poem – seeming to promise a mildly-told tale of suburban infidelity  – rapidly becomes both strange and sinister; the use of repeated lines is so skilful and confident, so deftly stitched into the poem’s imagistic fabric and meaning, that each repetition forces the reader to consider a new slant, an increase in the narrative jeopardy. The dramatic tension builds steadily – despite, or perhaps because of, the salmon paste sandwiches (which made me think of Agatha Christie novels) the reader is aware that this the narrator is observing – and by the end, unable to escape –  a viciously dysfunctional relationship.


The Dream. As a poetic form, the dramatic monologue doesn’t always work. This poem, from the perspective of a grieving father reflecting on a dream of his tragically drowned son, could, in the hands of a less skilled poet, have been a clumsy appropriation of another’s grief, mawkish and arch. But from the first powerful and dignified stanza, with its emphasis on strong, unfussy nouns and verbs, I felt this poet was channelling an authentic voice. I loved the poignancy of the blunt, raw statements – ‘grouse and venison/left to ruin’ – and ‘so black you couldn’t see.’  This seemed to me to be a generous ‘reaching out’ across many decades, to give voice not only to one individual, but to ‘bear witness’ to a tragedy affecting a whole community, the repercussions of which were enormous, and which shouldn’t be forgotten.  I’d love it to be translated into Gaelic, too.


A Stone – What struck me immediately about this poem was its sureness of purpose; the language is plain, clear, the rhythm emphatic, sure-footed, without calling too much attention to itself. The reader is invited into a free indirect discourse – one woman’s modest hope – for a dog to accompany her on walks. But beneath the seemingly calm surface, the skilful and beautifully judged imagery leads us into deeper, more complex territory; ‘protected from the east wind’s bitterness’ is a marvellously compressed description of weather, but hints at personal vulnerability, and the introduction of the stone as an image was perfect – a stone that would hold ‘the scent of her hand’ which a loyal (and perhaps odd-looking) dog would search for and retrieve. This sensuous poem seemed to me to be about loneliness and longing, about unspoken pain, but ultimately hoping for redemptive joy –  the dog ‘flying back to her alone.’ The need to be loved, to be thought worthwhile, is universal, and therefore difficult to write about in a fresh, original way; this poem’s subtlety in its clever and restrained use of metaphor impressed me at once, and kept drawing me back.


Third prize – The Book of the Bones. From the first reading, this poem struck me as technically highly accomplished – I’d go so far as to say dazzling – with its relentless, forward thrusting meter, its extraordinarily assured handling of repeated lines within each stanza. It stopped me in my tracks; I had to read it aloud, three times. With its dark, murderous premise and a pitch-perfect unreliable narrator, it’s both a dramatic monologue and a demonstration of the power of carefully chosen form to unite the poem’s themes and to ‘box in’ the reader so that there’s no escape from the final message – ‘So they say. So they tell me. That that’s what I did.’ It’s too glib to describe a poem as ‘haunting’ but this is one I’ll never be able to forget.


Second prize – The Sound of Hooves. This is, in many ways, a quiet, even ‘private’ poem, where the reader is invited to observe the subject of the poem – ‘you’ – but also to follow the actions of ‘him’ – who is he, who are you, why such a seemingly detached perspective? From my first reading, I loved the way the poem drew me deeper into the layers of the action – a child has left their bed and occupied ‘your mother’s spot.’ And then there are hints of a deep, lonely strangeness, where the sleeping child is framed by silver lines, and has dressed in their mother’s pyjamas. I loved the intriguing descriptions here – the ‘flaccid’ arms and the child’s ‘supplication to the mother God’ – a subversion of traditional imagery; and then, directly, the poem transports us from the domestic setting  to the Iberian coast, where there are horses – symbolically complex and powerful. The final image seemed pitch-perfect to me; this is a poem, set at night, that hints of loss and absence, of what cannot be said or acknowledged. It works particularly well read aloud, as the imagery builds steadily, and the breath is tested.


First prize – Braided Wire. This poem intrigued and unsettled me immediately – the narrator claims ‘I wasn’t there’ – and then refers to the ‘methodology’ by which dead calves are delivered. There’s no soft focus here; calves die in utero, and the consequences must be dealt with. But this is also a poem about the complex power dynamics within families, how knowledge is power and imagination is central to the human experience. This poem offers the most extraordinarily precise, authentic and unflinching imagery, and succeeds in playing off the parallel narratives against each other, the tensions building steadily; there are no false notes in this poem, not a word out of place and a viscerally powerful ‘last thought.’


Warmest congratulations to all the winners.


Catherine Smith

March 2017




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Open Competition Results 2017




Catherine Smith (judge, centre) with prizewinners  Janet Sutherland (L) and Sally Douglas (R)


We are pleased to announce the results of our Open Poetry Competition 2017,  judged by Catherine Smith. The competition attracted 1400 entries, and the prizes have been awarded as follows:


FIRST:          “Braided Wire”  by Janet Sutherland, Lewes

SECOND:     “The Sound of Hooves”  by Karen O’Connor, Co. Kerry, Ireland

THIRD:         “The Book of the Bones”  by John Whitworth, Canterbury

FOURTH:     “The Dream”  by Sharon Black, St André de Valborgne, France

”               “Dead Things I Have Seen While Walking”  by Sally Douglas, Exeter

”               “The Confidant’s Shadow”  by Simon French, Derby

”               “A Stone”  by David Wilson, Harrogate


1st  Prize:  Janet Sutherland


Braided Wire


I wasn’t there.  I heard this second hand, much later,
but textbooks show the methodology, the diagrams
for several presentations and for monstrous deviations

from the norm. For calves long dead in situ and for those
just recently deceased. For calves too big or those
whose odd shape makes their birth impossible.

So, let’s return to games with butter at the kitchen table
carving summer scrolls and corrugations, watching
beads of sweat emerging from the surface.

Look at the four of us, you’re telling the story.
My chair on two legs tilted on the dresser, and yours
steady by the Rayburn. You can’t remember much –

was it by the cedar of Lebanon or in the beech wood?
You mime the act of sawing. I wasn’t there
but I recall the field which had that slope, so steep

it made the little Fergie roar. The throttle out so far
the blue smoke coughed in rapid puffs and plumes.
The vet had laid his tools out in the field:

two buckets full of lubricant, three of warm water,
a hand pump, krey hook and a calving chain,
a length of braided saw wire with its introducer.

It was raining, water trickled through her hair.
Your hand on her flank felt the fat she’d come to,
her vulva swollen with two feet emerging.

Hooves, dew claws, pastern joints all faded yellow,
like the white rat I’d dissected in biology. She lay
in the copse under the beech trees, I wasn’t there

but beech mast crunched each time you moved your feet.
I’ve read how it’s done. I know the technicalities,
the rough dismemberment, and what that leaves you with.


2nd Prize:  Karen O’Connor


The Sound of Hooves


When he went to say goodnight
your bed was empty – duvet pushed
as if you had just risen from a deep sleep
and hidden somewhere inside the room of home.
He found you sleeping, curled into your mother’s spot,
announcing your missing – as if he needed to be told,
as if the stars wouldn’t know your longing
viewed between the slatted blinds,
the cast of silver lines framing your waiting.
Unwrapping you from the tangled sheets
he found you dressed in your mother’s pyjamas,
the flaccid arms and legs lying on the open mattress,
your own supplication to your mother God,
calling on her to lift the solidifying darkness
and let you dream of Andalusian horses
galloping on the Iberian coast,
leaving salt spray kisses on your lips.
Your image, this charcoal outline,
stays with him long after you have
returned to your own bed
and your small core of heat
has evaporated from the exposed sheets
which he cannot bear to cover.




3rd Prize:  John Whitworth


The Book of the Bones


They are digging my garden for human remains.
And I’ve taken to bed with a terrible cough.
There’s a sweet, sticky smell and a pattern of stains
On the stones where they’re digging for human remains.
They’ve dredged some unspeakable stuff from the drains
And policemen in wellies have cordoned it off.
They are digging my garden for human remains.

They are asking me questions again and again.
Where did they come from, the bones and the skulls?
Who were the children who stayed in the den?
They are asking these questions again and again.
Who were they? What were they? Why were they? When?
There’s a heap by the wall and a cluster of gulls.
They are asking these questions again and again.
How can I think with the scream of the birds
And the script of the skulls and the book of the bones.
I don’t have the wit and I don’t have the words.
There’s an ache in my head from the noise of the birds
From the feel of their  feathers, the smell of their turds,
There’s an ache in my heart from the song of the stones
And how can I think with the scream of the birds.
The song of the stones in the dark of my heart,
Is calling me, calling me, calling me back
To the time of the children, the time of the start
Of the song of the stones in the dark of my heart,
To the clatter of cobbles, the creak of the cart
The screech of the owl and the sigh of the sack
And the song of the stones in the dark of my heart.
I kidnapped the children to murder them all.
That’s what they tell me. They say that I did.
It’s so long ago that it’s hard to recall.
Did I murder the kiddiwinks, murder them all?
They say that I buried them under the wall,
That I lured them with fags and a couple of quid
To the den in the garden and murdered them all.
So they say.  So they tell me. That that’s what I did.

4th= Prize:  David Wilson


A Stone

Was it too much to want a life
where she might have her own dog,
and once in a while climb Ingleborough
on a winter’s day when the Irish Sea
runs silver along the western coast;

and rest at the top in a dry-stone fold,
protected from the east wind’s bitterness,
then choose a stone the colour of sea
to skim across the summit plateau,
her dog leaping after it and searching

amid the thousand for that one
holding the scent of her hand,
then racing back to drop it at her feet
and look at her with bright eyes,
perhaps one green, the other brown?

As she flung the stone again
there’d be nothing but her tensed arm,
Frost’s universal blue of sky
and local green of valleys,
and her dog flying back, to her alone.


4th= Prize:  Sally Douglas


Dead Things I Have Seen While Walking

Mainly the monochromes of bone
and skin.  A ruff of fleece.
A colander of skull with leery grin,
a splay of raven like a flattened prayer.
A wig of hedgehog spines.  A sack of pelt.

Vertebrae like knuckles, frost-heaved
out of coarse moor grass. Cow’s teeth.
My daily shrinking badger, unperforated
until the crows got to its eyes, a pulsing
and ebbing circumference of stink.

And once (and such is still life – oily, vivid)
the front half of a lamb – its blood
a dark red semaphore stiffening the stroil.
I’d wanted to look closer – examine
mode and manner, smell the severing –

but my love was there, beside me.
He mustn’t know how very cold I am.


4th=  Prize:  Simon French


The Confidant’s Shadow

He didn’t walk out on her when she accused him of having an affair
with the woman next door. He’d only gone round to tame the lawn
but homemade lemonade was just the start.

I took tea with them. They were a lovely couple.
We sat in their cottage garden and ate salmon paste sandwiches.
I felt uncomfortable on the wrought-iron chair and the sun burned.

He didn’t leave her when she told him he was a paedophile
after she’d found him watching a BBC holiday programme
where young children splashed the Costas in pools of whooping fun.

We sat in their cottage garden and crunched ginger snaps.
She was as blonde as Cornish ice cream and melted close to my smile.
I sipped tea with them. They were a lovely couple.

He didn’t move out after she claimed he was alcoholic,
the empty wine bottle waved under his nose
before star-bursting across flagstone.

I took tea with them, they were a lovely couple.
She had skin as pale as Carrara marble. Her hand brushed my leg.
I felt uncomfortable on the wrought-iron chair and the sun burned.

He didn’t desert her when she shook with rage, hair like honeysuckle in a storm.
When she slung his loafers out of the window and quoted the Bible,
sliced a razor through her bloodline – when their doctor intervened.

They were a lovely couple. I took tea with them.
Her eyes were cloudy with dreams. She told me she’d like to paint my portrait.
I felt uncomfortable on the fastened plastic chair and the room was airless.


4th= Prize:  Sharon Black


The Dream

  Lewis, 1919


I dreamed him floating in the bay –
face to the seabed as if scanning
for grilse and charr. Knew it was him
from the red hair flailing
on the waves, the shoulders broad enough
to thatch a house in a day.

No news since the ship went down –
two hundred dead, the island a ghost,
in every house the curtains drawn,
buntings burned on the hearths, grouse and venison
left to ruin.

Six weeks since those forty lads
were roped to shore, MacLeod on the hawser,
another forty lifted from the freezing water
twenty yards from harbour, night as black as peat-smoke,
so black you couldn’t see

the upturned hull, the roiling surge,
the mothers, wives and sisters screaming
on the quay. No sign. At first we thought
he’d be on the Skye steamer,
gone the long way round . . .

I dreamed him floating in the bay,
wind whipping up
the shirt dregs on his back, his body
jutting like stone.
His arms were splayed cormorant wings.

When they lifted his head his eyes were a seal’s.
When he opened his mouth his song
was a humpback’s soaring out across the Minch.
In his grip was a lit torch, a lighthouse
guiding him home.



On 1 Jan 1919, HMS Iolaire was bringing servicemen home to Lewis and Harris when it hit rocks yards from shore. 205 men drowned. Six weeks later a farmer dreamed of a body floating in Glumaig Bay. His son’s body was recovered in exactly the spot he described.


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Catherine Smith and poetry competition – announcement of prizewinners

We are delighted this month to welcome Catherine Smith back to the Camden Centre, on April 18th.  Catherine will be announcing the winners of our Open Competition and reading from her own work.

Catherine Smith is a poet and fiction writer. Her first pamphlet The New Bride, was a winner in the 2000 Book & Pamphlet Competition and shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Her book, The Butcher’s Hands won the Aldeburgh/Jerwood Prize for Best First Collection. Lip, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection.  Catherine teaches at the University of Sussex,  is a Tutor for the Arvon Foundation, and a writer who will provide us with a stimulating and entertaining evening of poetry.  The meeting starts as usual at 8.00pm.  Come along and join us!

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