Here is the judge, David Herd’s report.
It has been a great pleasure to judge the 2023 Kent and Sussex Poetry Folio Competition. I opened the file of poems not knowing what to expect and was delighted, intrigued and educated by what I found. The work submitted covered a wide range of tones, subjects, forms and approaches to language, and the overall impression was of a community of poets engaged in serious and committed inquiry.
Reading the sequence of submissions right through was a moving experience. The poems here are frequently dealing with difficult subject matter – with loss, with ageing, with processes of transition. Quite a lot of poems were elegiac in tone, and of course elegy is one of poetry’s great modes. Equally acute, however, were those poems which capture a sudden and drastic change of fortune, poems of job loss, of food banks, of economic precarity. These were plainly poems of lived experience and spoke strongly to the times we are living through.
At the same time, and as there should be, there are many poems here that take consolation and pleasure in the act of writing itself, in the poem’s capacity to summon memory or to open space or just to catch the world at work and play. I read the poems with pencil in hand, annotating as I went, noting effects and expressions that were particularly captivating.
It took quite some time to whittle my longlist of poems down to 24 and as I undertook the difficult task of selection I wasn’t thinking of the final portfolio that would emerge. On reading back, however, I am really pleased to see the range of work on show, from serious engagements with history, through delightful re-tellings of fairy stories, to ekphrastic poems, political poems, poems of loss and poems of nature.
If I missed anything across the sequence as a whole, it was perhaps the desire to really test the language, to find out through form or syntax what new things can or need to be said. But certainly some poems in the submission took on this challenge and I very much liked a number of pieces that worked more by accumulation and collage than by narrative and story. This is not an either/or situation, but there is certainly room for poems that leave the reader to make – or not make – connections between things.
What I most enjoyed about the judging process was the opportunity to engage with and glimpse the many different worlds the poems articulate. The winning and highly commended poems are especially strong, but across all the work submitted I had the pleasure of encountering singular angles of vision and perspective. I am grateful for the privilege of reading this body of work.
First Prize: Lüneburg – Michael Maltby
‘Lüneburg’ is a beautiful meditation on the complexities of place. The lines carry deft observations which cut in and out of history. Topography and politics are interwoven to present a setting partly haunted by its role in the period immediately following the war. The reference to Jan Wagner situates the poem in confident dialogue with a significant contemporary and opens the writing to another realm of reference. What really distinguishes the poem, however, is the care with which its tonalities are handled, allowing the lines to register the gravity of historical events. This is serious, measured, ethically complex work, a powerful act of poetic reflection.
Second Prize: Hansel and Gretel: Prologue – Amelia Dowler
This is an intricately developed and a formally highly accomplished poem. As narrative, the poem is a captivating re-telling of the Hansel and Gretel story. We are immediately arrested by the speaker’s voice, as the poem catches the reader’s attention with its quietly intriguing opening line. The glory of the poem, however, lies in the way the building itself is presented, the way it emerges from the forest environment itself. This is writing that gathers force as it accumulates detail, layering image upon image until the house has appeared. The poem’s defining tone is skilfully achieved and sustained throughout. This is beautifully crafted and highly impressive work.
Third Prize: The Execution of Lady Jane Grey – Veronica Beedham
‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ is a highly accomplished ekphrastic poem. The intersecting relations between speaker, painting, poem and reader are deftly handled. I love the way we are immediately in the painting from the beginning, Auden-like perhaps, and the way the poem moves subtly and seamlessly between the artwork and its composition. Across the nineteen lines of the poem we are given several histories: the history of Lady Jane Grey herself, of post-Revolutionary France, of realism as a painterly mode. But all the time we are in the moment, looking on like the speaker, and like the speaker we are left in a moment of historical suspense. This is elegant, thoughtful, arresting writing that catches art in its instant of appearance.
Highly Commended: Lighthouse – Martin Cordrey
‘Lighthouse’ is a quietly urgent and formally accomplished poem. The strength of the writing lies in the seamlessness with which it shifts from safety to danger. The transition through the act of colouring from therapy to abuse is powerfully managed. It is a compelling image of the way male violence enters and re-enters a life. The poem is an eloquent and important act of witnessing.
Highly Commended: The Buzzard and the Raven – Steve Walter
I very much like the way this poem is constructed through a series of discrete images. Each scene is meticulously presented and across the sequence as a whole we are given a sure sense of the force of nature in a human life. The phrasing is impressive at every turn and in each scene the poetic line is handled with confidence and precision. The overall effect is of images pressed in memory. This is skilful and affecting writing.
Highly Commended: The Sands of St. Ouen – Amelia Dowler
‘The Sands of St. Ouen’ is a beautifully narrated poem that presents both a vividly rendered scene – the beach of childhood memory – and the difficulty of a sibling relationship. I very much like the subtlety of the phrasing, the way metaphor shapes and enhances visual imagery, for example ‘the five-mile embrace of the bay’. The poem is skilfully comparative in its presentation of two angles of vision, the speaker and their more outgoing sister. But where the poem lands is in the shared space of the day and in the shaping hand of the mother’s telling.
Highly Commended: Rue Signoret – Clive Eastwood
‘Rue Signoret’ works by a series of glimpses. Through those glimpses – each one an episode in itself – the poem conveys a sure and arresting sense of the uncanny. The result is a kind of ghost story in poetic form, where we never quite know what sits behind the haunting. The poem is highly distinctive as an act of imagining and is confidently shaped at the level of form. This is singular and intriguing poetic writing.
Highly Commended: Dreams – Lydia Hill
This is a genuinely affecting poem of loss and grief. The power of the writing lies in the way the images accumulate across the poem’s couplets, and in the willed play of illusion and reality. The fact that the speaker invites the dreams to continue is the measure of the poem’s emotion. The closing lines, with the departed looking in, are deeply moving.
Commended poems for inclusion in the Folio
Smothering Blankets – Amal Garnham
January – Ann-Frances Luther
Dry – Clem Henricson
Persephone Rises – Graham Mummery
In the Dark – Clive Eastwood
Sussuration – Graham Mummery
Octopus Energy Saving Sessions – Jill Munro
Guitars in Ecuador – John Arnold
Little Fish – Mara Bergman
My Son at Cuckmere Haven Canoe Club – Mara Bergman
How to Read Water – Marion Hobday
The Fear of Dr Syn – Martin Cordrey
Joie de Vivre – Peppy Scott
The Farm – Satya Bosman
The Gallery, Trinity – Steve Walter
Unknown – Veronica Beedham