With enormous thanks to this year’s judge, Jonathan Edwards, here is his judge’s report, containing reflections on judging the competition and the names and a few remarks about the seven prize winning poems. We will be posting the poems themselves over the coming few days.
Kent and Sussex Poetry Competition 2023 – Judge’s Report, by Jonathan Edwards.
It was an enormous pleasure to read the entries for this competition. The almost 1800 poems arrived in Crosskeys on the back of a van, and my first impression of them was of their heft and power and weight, as I struggled to carry the box over the threshold, and the delivery guy watched me, laughing. Here was a bulk of poems, I thought, that could do damage, if dropped from the sky or smashed against the wall of a building, or even if just left around thoughtlessly for someone to trip over: here was poetry as gym apparatus, DIY tool, weapon, threat. But could the opened box possibly reveal poems capable of having as much impact as the box itself did? How much weight and punch could there be in these words?
A great deal, it turned out. Over the following weeks, I read and re-read and read aloud and loved. I read in my living room and office, while pacing and sitting, while eating and breathing, early and late. I read and laughed or sighed or punched the air, or said, involuntarily, ‘Wow!’ out loud at the walls. The best poems of all were the ones I read when I wasn’t reading them, which called back to me when I was somewhere else, cooking or shopping or showering or dreaming, which yelled, ‘Hey! Remember me?’
To try and pick seven poems from such riches was deeply silly, and I cursed aloud those who would try and make me. There were brilliant poems about cabin boys and Vincent van Gogh, post-it notes and the Isle of Skye, fathers who mowed lawns or who had minds like sheds. There were many poems outside of the top seven which I know will win big competitions. I kept only what I loved and still there were hundreds. I steeled myself and read again, resolving to retain only what I couldn’t possibly live without. I broke my heart by setting poems to one side. Finally, agonisingly, joyfully, I got to my list. These seven poems all got inside my head and under my skin, did the simple magic poetry does: making us feel. How enormous those three words are. I’m so proud of these poems, their line breaks, their language, their love: they gut-punch and sing, they hug and they face-slap. Their impact is every bit as big – no, I’ll say much bigger – as the effort to lug that crazily enormous box – Heave! Ouch! Humpf! – into my home.
First prize, ‘Nonesuch’ by Mike Barlow
Like many poets, I came to writing as a frustrated musician, and I love poems which explore the musical potential of language. This poem differentiates itself by its distinctive music, and the way it rattles and ramshackles along, together with its setting, put me in mind of MacNeice. I love how its rhythms and repetitions are not incidental to its subject, but perfectly enact the spirit of its heroine, who pushes her ‘pram full of scrap’ towards the High Street. The poem is full of glorious moments, such as the ‘fishmonger’s row of dead eyes,’ is alive with the vernacular, and wonderfully evokes childhood and a particular period of time. I love the bargaining away of the pram at the end, and the shift in focus to the grandfather. This is a wonderful love song for a completely unforgettable grandmother.
Second prize, ‘Listening to Two Workers Laying Insulation in our Bungalow Loft’ by Roger Hare
I loved this poem from the moment I first saw the way its wonderful title runs into its first line. It’s a great example of a distinctive sustained metaphor, which is so well-realised through detail, offering us a powerful and compelling way to address an important and still under-discussed subject. I loved the way the imagery of snooker was used to describe the speaker’s emotional journey. Best of all I think is the really gorgeous last stanza, which beautifully describes a return to good health. Like Lawrence’s ‘Song of a Man Who Has Come Through,’ this poem movingly tells us that it’s been there too, and that it made it through to the other side. We all need songs like this one.
Third prize, ‘Da!’ by Owen Gallagher
I trust my body when judging poetry competitions, because it knows better than I do. An involuntary punch in the air or laugh or word spoken aloud in response to a poem can usher it out of the pile of entries and into the prize winners. It happens in this poem for me every time I get to the last stanza, and a shiver in the back of the neck accompanies the speaker’s calling out to a stranger. This poem’s depiction of work, class and family reminded me of the work of Philip Levine, and the directness of this writing is hugely impactful, managing to express the emotional landscape of entire lives in single sentences. But oh, that ending, and how my heart is there!
Joint Fourth Prize (in alphabetical order)
‘Teaching English’ by Andrew Jamison
Few things obsess me as a writer more than the relationship between sentence and line, and this poem won me immediately by the energy and life of its single-sentence opening stanza. Drawing from The History Boys and Dead Poets Society to look at movie representations of teachers, that opening stanza zings and excites. The question then is whether the poem can shift us into new emotional territory in its sestet, and it manages that wonderfully, with its squirrel viewed through a window and its gorgeous last sentence. Teaching is absolute glory and absolute sadness, and this poem pours it all into fourteen wonderful lines.
‘Apunda’ by Ben Rhys Palmer
Simply put, this poem made me laugh louder than any other in the competition. It gives its own unforgettably unique spin on the work of writers like James Tate and Caroline Bird, offering us the narrative of a unique relationship between an ostrich racer and an ostrich. What I love about this poem is its understanding – rare in poetry – that tenderness and comedy complement each other beautifully. The sentence which really gets me, every time, is this: ‘We had just two working legs between us, and as we lay there in a jumbled heap, I wasn’t sure which was hers and which was mine.’ I love this writing for its celebration of the imaginative power of poetry, and for its brilliant management of tone.
‘The Old Hundredth’ by Andrew Robinson
This is a poem of sophisticated lyricism and emotional impact. Its opening section strikes the tone of a writer like Mary Oliver, as we get to share dawn with a speaker who’s observant and alive to his surroundings. I loved the description of the deer as it ‘jump-started,’ and the way the reflections on nature are set alongside the religious echo of ‘all shall be well and all shall be well.’ All of this is beautifully deepened by the revelations of the poem’s last third, which sends us back to the start to feel everything the poem offers us again, in this new knowledge. The poem wonderfully understands the intensity of direct address, and is a brilliant meditation on the nature of life and death.
‘My Life as a B-list Movie Star’ by Emma Simon
This poem offers us another wonderful title and a highly original idea. It’s full of language for the reader to enjoy, real formal refinement, and I love the way the fantastical is smashed up against the everyday. Best of all, the poem uses its idea to get to emotional importance, asking the big questions of life from a striking new angle: ‘Is everyone freaked/by a spidery sense they picked the wrong part?’ By thinking through the real-world implications of a B-movie star’s life, the poem illuminates nothing less than our emotional relationship to our own lives. There are very few ideas out there which haven’t been done, and even fewer writers who can steer them in the direction both of linguistic inventiveness and emotional punch. This poem is a joy to read.