Here is the report written by our Judge, Richard Skinner, with his general thoughts on the poetry he read, and then announcing the seven awards. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank Richard, congratulate the seven winners, and thank all the poets who entered their work this year. We will be posting the seven winning poems here over the next few days.
Kent &Sussex Competition – Judge’s Report
The 1,440-odd entries for this year’s Kent & Sussex Poetry Competition were made up of an incredible and impressive array of poetic forms (villanelles seemed especially popular!) as well as a lot of short and long poems in free verse. It’s tricky to get long, free-form poems right, but it was heartening to see so many poets try their hand. As you might expect, the spectre of COVID haunted a huge number of these poems. Many of them were a celebration of personal freedom after brave struggle; many others mourned the passing of loved ones. No one in the UK has been left unaffected by the terrible virus and this was naturally mirrored in the entries for this year’s K&S competition. On a happier note, a lot of poems were anecdotes or accounts of funny situations, eccentric family members or strange encounters/journeys. Lots of nature poems, too. Many birds! I came out of a six-week period of reading all the entries with a shortlist of around 40 poems. When I looked through these 40 again, the seven winners made themselves quickly apparent. They all have that certain je ne sais quoi. Congratulations to them all.
1st Prize: ‘I Still Dream About My Ex-Lovers’ by Fern Beattie
I love this poem for many reasons. One is how skilful it is in building its world. The opening image of a heart as a wooden doll’s house is brilliant, but then Beattie expands and explores it as a beautiful metaphor. The poem charts the alliances and allegiances that love promises and then takes away. People move around the house, entering and leaving rooms, and the poem temporarily opens out onto the deck of the Titanic. Love is still in the air, though just around the corner, or lingering in a room like perfume… At the poem’s close, the lover and vengeful husband share a moment of genuine terror and the poem ends with a hard-earned gleam of self-awareness. Just wonderful.
2nd Prize: ‘Loch Coruisk’ by Caroline Heaton
I’m a sucker for a good nature poem and they don’t come much better than this. But, of course, this is more than just a ‘nature’ poem; it is a poem about fusion with landscape. As the narrator gradually treads and sinks into the titular loch, so she sheds a skin, renews herself, finds a new way forward that is commanded by that final imperative: “Begin”. I can feel the energy in the poem – it’s all there in the choice of verbs like “flung”, “hurled”, “clasp”, “translates”. There are also some moments of lovely alliteration running through the poem: “pall/cauldron/hurled boulder”; “skins/silken/inky chill”. This poem is a great example of how, as writers, we should be physicists, not photographers.
3rd Prize: ‘John Donne Dreams his Still-Born Son Lives’ by Rosie Jackson
The title of this poem says it all. John Donne speaks to his son, imagines what his life would have been, imagines him “reciting my poems” at night. The son grows older, John Donne older still, “not yet one of the immortals”, until finally John Donne loses the last sight of his child in his dreams. We learn that Donne’s wife also died in childbirth, making his loss doubly hard. A clear poem striking all the fine high notes. Heartbreaking.
4th Place Winners (in alphabetical order): ‘On glass’ by Mike Farren
A wry, touching meditation that uses sentences, texts and songs containing the word ‘glass’ – Paul Auster, Blondie – and glass objects to trawl back and through the poet’s life. The poem uses glass in its primary metaphor as a reflector, but these memories are coloured by different hues as the poet moves through life. As the poem reaches its end, it takes on a more poignant, melancholic tone as the poet lists the people he has lost.
4th Place Winners (in alphabetical order): ‘how to spell your name’ by Mary Mulholland
This poem is a joyful, wildly imaginative and, in places, slightly sinister set of 12 instructions as to how to write your name. It variously involves chocolate, sparklers, balloons and fire. It seems to me that this poem is a kind of hymn to life. Some of these lines present ways of confirming identity to oneself, while others are far more mysterious. Others still seem like tasks that would be impossible to finish. All together a wonderful creation.
4th Place Winners (in alphabetical order): ‘Night lights’ by Helen Scadding
This poem is a beautiful night flight across the globe, alighting five times in different places – lawns, parties, rooms, baize, a caravan. The poem is a kind of ‘state of the nation’ address, with each stanza representing a loss or at least an acknowledgement of powerlessness. It is filled with light – blue screens, fire exit signs – and vast spaces, ending with a striking, almost apocalyptic image of orange curtains that “fly into the night”.
4th Place Winners (in alphabetical order): ‘Gill Sans in the institution’ by Harriet Truscott
I have read this poem a number of times and it remains as inscrutable as when I first read it. It will not give up its meaning easily. There is a play on Gill Sans being an actual person, perhaps incarcerated. There is an address of some kind, perhaps a meeting. There is a mysterious lily pond with its sinister safety grill. Apart from that, I can’t say much else about it, other than I will be reading it again a number of times. Wonderful.