When I said yes to judging this year’s Kent and Sussex Open Poetry Competition, I had an inkling that there might be a higher-than-average number of entries than the contest normally receives: after all, it would not be a huge surprise that many people have spent the last 13 months writing poems as a way of thinking about and understanding what we have all experienced through the pandemic.
As you might expect, the virus, lockdown and loss featured heavily as subjects; what was also striking was the number of poets who chose to write in forms such as sestinas and villanelles, in most cases deftly and successfully; perhaps the ability to place a pattern on words provided some solace while the world outside was so chaotic.
My prize-winning and highly commended poems have emerged from almost 2,500 entries, and while they are wildly diverse in themes, tones and styles, all share three things in common: that they gave me a tingle when I first encountered them; continued to do so on repeated readings; and have lodged in my memory successfully, and thrillingly so.
The first prize goes to Ryan Murphy for ‘The Mundane Borders on Evil’. This is a startling poem of which takes as its jumping off point a simple cliché – a line in the sand – and then proceeds to explode and twist it, as it becomes an exploration of who is an insider, who is excluded, who is allowed to belong, the violence implicit or otherwise that is threatened to those who cross that line. All of this is achieved through its full-throated embrace of repetition of the word ‘sand’ – it becomes punctuation, but also revelatory as it swirls in and out of focus. The sound, of that word, and the ‘lions’ too, keeps jolting you, and you can feel the energy and tension building as the lines run into the tight constraint of the form, a single justified column, meaning when the poem explodes towards its end – “we shall make our stand and draw our lines for the sand is ever ours and ours alone” – its force is stunning.
The second prize goes to ‘Elegy for two placentas’ by Vanessa Lampert, attention grabbing from its title – I can’t ever recall seeing a hymn to the body part. The poem makes its case elegantly, with grace (“Made to be lost / when your work was done”), wit (“I should have said thank you, / though you could not have pleased me then.”) and a keen sense of the humdrum strangeness that bodies are: “Oh unlovely fate of the unlovely. Oh strange trees / of purple flesh and red.”, before resolving to an image that is a prayer of a quiet, intense loveliness, the ‘humble female servants.” This is poem as magic spell, efficient in conveying wonder and rapture, reminding you that the every day is actually quite special.
The third prize goes to Kit Radford’s ‘california’. This essays, in language by turns sparkling and yet freighted with darkness, a sketch of why the world’s eyes turn to the American state, its attractions and lures – especially the sense that it is where the future is made – and why this could be problematic: “every reckless teenage boy / now dreaming / of how he might destroy the world / with a single touch”. It is an immigrant story too, and this strand is exquisitely expressed, as are the costs of all this chasing after hope: “suffering quietly in meditations / and ugly carpeted prison cells / (disguised as san francisco real estate)”. The poem is powered by some deft line breaks which provide the platform for the gorgeous light-filled images that mean that, when the undercutting of them comes, we are left deliciously unmoored.
In no particular sense of order, my four fourth place winners start with ‘We have put him in the cellar for safekeeping’ by Rowan Lyster, in which a – perhaps misguided? – family have decided that for his, and the nation’s, benefit, David Attenborough must stay with them… whether this stay is willing or not is never made entirely clear, which gives the poem its unsettling power, and an opportunity for its bathos to paint darker shades: “Day 10, and somewhere behind the buckets / and deflated footballs, he has found earwigs.” That the poem is also a witty reversal on ideas of how we capture nature to preserve it only adds to its attractions.
Also in fourth place, Marion Tracy’s ’Impossible Titles’ is a bravura piece of conjuring, taking as it does a list of 23 potential titles for different poems, and leaving us as readers to piece together what a narrative might be when they are put together. That the titles in of themselves are so brilliant means there are multiple stories lurking here: ”6 Altercations 6 Consolations / The Extraordinary Laughter of Women” could be taken as something breezy or darker depending on taste, for example, and juxtapositions like that are to be found all the way through the poem. Each title has had ferocious attention to its sound paid to it, and overall it positively revels as it hits the air.
The next fourth placed poem, Mark Harrison’s ‘The Magical World Of The Strands’, in five delicate stanzas takes us on a musician’s journey through Liverpool and its past, and their struggles to write and record a new album, while trying to pay sufficient and lasting homage to their heroes: “Arthur Lee and Nick Drake / Take turns to whisper in his dreams.” The hazy air is shattered by the final two lines, which I found devastating – not least because the story is a true one, and some of you will recognise the musician who inspired the poem.
And in joint fourth place, ‘Jimmy’ by Deborah Thwaites is a morality tale of a mother trying, on Sports Day, to try to introduce her son to the fact that life is not fair: “’Everyone cheats in this world Jimmy it’s / dog eat dog out there.’” And yet Jimmy discovers himself – and maybe even happiness – in rejecting this deal. It’s an English Cool Hand Luke if you will, and the poem pulls off the enviable trick of being simple, relatable and funny.
Finally, I wanted to mention two commended poems that just missed out on prizes, and not that it is much consolation but I really didn’t want them to pass without some sort of notice. ‘Ghost’ by Claire Collison pulls off the remarkable trick of saying something new about the dead, with both a simple yet timeless observation, and tangible descriptions of scents. And Alex Toms’s ‘Etiquette for Living with Angels’ provides a beautiful description of how life with them might be both ordinary and yet not.
Thank you to the Kent and Sussex Poetry Society for both the invitation to judge, and the seamless and diligent organising of the process. And even bigger thanks to everyone who entered. I am always in awe of those poets who are courageous enough to submit their work to a competition, so thank you for your bravery and generosity in doing so. You’ve provided me with much companionship over the last few months.
Nine Elms, London