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And the winners of our 2023 Open Poetry Competition are…

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.

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Give Poetry A Platform

Society member Ann-Frances Luther at Frant Station in front of one of the Give Poetry a Platform poems, and holding a sheaf of others.

Society member Ann-Frances Luther has been liaising with the Southeastern Communities Rail Partnership (SCRP) in support of their Give Poetry a Platform initiative, which seems poems being posted on station platforms across the region. Each poem is accompanied by a QR Code, allowing passengers access to a recorded reading by the poets themselves. Ann-Frances visited Frant station last week with Andy Pope of the SCRP to change the poems on display as part of their regular rotation.

Ann-Frances and Andy encourage poets to continue submitting poems to the project.

Give Poetry a Platform promotes written and aural poetry in stations in East Sussex and Kent along the Tonbridge to Hastings line, increasing the reach of poetry in our communities.  Poetry is now on display in Frant (Bells Yew Green) and Tunbridge Wells.  Etchingham will be the next station included in the project.

The project is the result of a successful collaboration between Southeast Community Rail Partnerships and the Kent and Sussex Poetry Society.  We are now aiming to increase the size of the poetry from A4 to A3 creating a more visually arresting poster display.  All of the printing and any accompanying art work are provided by Southeast Rail. 

Part of this project is to display the written word but also to embed QR code aural recordings so that passengers can hear the poetry being read aloud.  The more poets’ voices the better, however, if you would prefer to nominate someone else to read your poem for the recording that is fine.  We welcome submissions from all members whether local or abroad.  Please send in a typed copy (font 11) of your poem including your name, telephone number and title of the poem.  Please also email an aural recording of the poem in digital format.  A recording on a phone or any other device would be acceptable as long as it can be emailed. 

We are looking for poetry addressing the themes of a journey, rail travel, the Kent and Sussex landscape, climate change and the natural environment.  Hopefully, the possibilities are therefore very broad.

Submissions should emailed to Andy Pope at South East Rail:

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Jonathan Edwards at the Royal Wells Hotel, Tunbridge Wells. 11th April 2023

On 11th April at 8 pm, Jonathan Edwards will announce the prize winners in our 2023 Open Poetry Competition in an event at the Royal Wells Hotel in Tunbridge Wells. The seven prize winners will read their winning poems either on zoom or live. Following that, Jonathan will treat us to a reading from his own poetry.

Jonathan is a very well-known poet and editor. His first collection, My Family and Other Superheroes (Seren, 2014), received the Costa Poetry Award and the Wales Book of the Year People’s Choice Award. It was shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize. His second collection, Gen (Seren, 2018), also received the Wales Book of the Year People’s Choice Award, and in 2019 his poem about Newport Bridge was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. He has read his poems on BBC radio and television, recorded them for the Poetry Archive, and led workshops in schools, universities and prisons. He has been a judge for the National Poetry Competition and the Wales Book of the Year, a Literature Wales mentor of emerging writers, and a Gladstone’s Library writer-in-residence. He lives in Crosskeys, South Wales.

The event is open to non-members of the Society for a mere £3 on the door. Do come along!

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Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana at the Royal Wells Hotel, 8 pm on March 21st

Our next event is an evening of poetry with Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana at the Royal Wells Hotel in Tunbridge Wells: 8 pm on 21st March.

Alexandra Corrin-Tachibana has an MA in Writing Poetry from Newcastle University and an MA in Japanese Language from Sheffield University. She teaches creative writing and is module leader for the International Foundation programme in Humanities, at Newcastle University. Her most recent work appeared in PN Review, The Moth, Poetry Wales, Fenland Poetry Journal, Tears in the Fence and The Alchemy Spoon. Online her poems can be read in Anthropocene, The High Window and London Grip.

She came third in the 2020 Oxford Brookes International Poetry competition, has been shortlisted for the Winchester and Troubadour prizes, and had two poems shortlisted by Billy Collins, for the 2022 Fish Prize. She read at the 2021 Aldeburgh festival, alongside Wendy Cope and at the 2022 Oxford Think Human festival, with Mary Jean Chan. She was also a featured poet at the 2022 Tears in the Fence festival, and has performed internationally, in Portland, Oregon, at the American Writer’s Program conference. Her debut collection, Sing me down from the dark, is published by SALT.

Alexandra will read her poetry after our usual Open Mic spot, when members (and visitors who wish to join us for a £3 entry fee) can volunteer to read or recite one of their own poems (max 40 lines, please).

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Julia Webb at the Royal Wells Hotel, Feb 21st

We look forward to welcoming Julia Webb to read her poems at our next meeting, Tuesday 21st Feb at 8 pm.

Julia Webb Poet

Julia is a poet, editor and teacher from Norfolk who has published three collections, most recently The Telling (Nine Arches) in May 2022.

Julia lives in Norwich where she is a poetry editor for Lighthouse, teaches online and real world poetry courses, mentors writers, runs Norwich Stanza and works for Cafe Writers. In 2012 she was awarded a TLC free read, which you can read about here. In 2011 she won the Poetry Society’s Stanza competition and in 2018 she won the Battered Moons poetry competition. Her poem “Sisters” was highly commended in the 2016 Forward Prize. In 2016 she spent a month as writer in residence on Norwich Market.

This will be a face-to-face event at The Royal Wells Hotel in Tunbridge Wells.

Non-members are always welcome, for £3 payable at the door.

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January 17th: Three Kent & Sussex Poetry Society Members read from their own work

As usual, our January meeting this year features three members of the Society reading their own work.

This year we will be treated to Siân Thomas, Kevin Scully and Fred Ball, each reading two sets of their highly accomplished poetry.

Starts at 8 pm.

Venue: Royal Wells Hotel in Tunbridge Wells.

The even will also be zoomed for members who can’t make it in person.

  • SiânThomas is Poet in Residence for Ashdown Forest in East Sussex. Her pamphlet Ovid’s Echo and collection Ashdown are published by Paekakariki Press. She is a founder-member of The Muse Agency and presents The Poetry Bath on Wildhart Radio
  • Fred Bell from Rusthall works as an English teacher in Bromley, though has also lived and worked in France, Italy and Russia. Inspired to write poetry by David Morley and Stephen Knight, Fred is considering doing an MA in creative writing. He also enjoys playing jazz and funk with his band, Lateral Flow.
  • Kevin Scully’s poetry has appeared in Theology, Saccharine Poetry, Poems In Praise of Libraries, Second Chance Lit and some small journals. He is Poet in Residence for the Cuckmere Pilgrim Path in Sussex.

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Amy Key

Our guest for the 20th. December meeting is Amy Key. The meeting is on Zoom and starts at 8.00 pm with an Open mic (one poem each, maximum 40 lines, ideally less) – seasonal themes particularly welcome, but not mandatory.

Amy grew up in Kent and the North East, and now works in London. She writes poetry, essays and non-fiction. Her debut poetry collection Luxe was published by Salt in November 2013. Her second collection Isn’t Forever was published by Bloodaxe in June 2018 and was a Poetry Book Society Wild Card choice. Her debut non-fiction book Arrangements in Blue will be published in the UK by Jonathan Cape in Spring 2023, alongside publication in the US (Liveright) and Italy (Rizzoli).

A strong influence on Amy has been Joni Mitchell, especially the album Blue: “I had always thought that in Blue Joni had taught me about love, about being in love and losing it. Now I think it’s more that Joni taught me about longing. About the gap between what you want and what you have, and what you have and what you had wanted.”

Some reviews praising Amy’s poetry:

‘As for poetry, I fell hard for Amy Key’s Isn’t Forever, a gorgeous, sad box of delights about intimacy, bad bodies, sorrow… Key is adept at linguistic surprises, charting women’s lives with a savage delicacy.’ – Olivia Laing, The Guardian (Best Books of 2018).

Isn’t Forever, is playful, surreal and enchanting but also rooted in brutal emotional honesty. She is writer of a rare and strange magic.’ – Sarah Perry, The Guardian (Best Summer Books 2018)

‘Amy Key does for verse what Phoebe Waller-Bridge, writer of Fleabag, is doing for television, wrenching laughter of shock and recognition from line after line.’ – Susannah Herbert, The Observer

Amy’s poems have been published in various magazines and anthologies including PoetryThe Poetry ReviewBest British Poetry 2015Love Poems (Faber & Faber) and The Poetry of Sex (Penguin).

She co-edited the online journal Poems in Which and an anthology of poems on friendship between women, Best Friends Forever, published by The Emma Press in 2014. In 2016 a pamphlet, History, was published by If A Leaf Falls Press.

We hope you can join us, with Amy, to celebrate the magic of poetry at our December meeting.

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Sean o’Brien

Image by Gerry Wardle

Our November meeting, welcoming Sean O’Brien, will take place on Zoom, on Tuesday 15th November, at 8pm.

Sean is a major poet on the contemporary poetry scene, as well as a critic, playwright, translator anthologist, broadcaster, novelist and editor. He has been winner of the TS Eliot prize,  the Eric Gregory award, the Somerset Maugham award, the Cholmondeley award, and, three times, the Forward Prize (1995, 2001 and 2007). He is Professor of creative writing at Newcastle University, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

He has published many collections of poetry, and his latest, Embark, is published next month by Picador. Copies can be pre-ordered here: 

What better way to spend a dark November evening than in the company of this illustrious writer.

The evening will begin with an Open Mic, followed by Sean’s reading.

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Dai George

Our guest on October 18 is the writer Dai George, and this will be a live performance. A brief AGM will start off the evening and be followed by Dai’s reading. The meeting will begin at 8 o’clock.

Dai George was born in Cardiff in 1986 and has studied in Bristol, New York and London. His poems and criticism have appeared in The Guardian OnlineThe Boston ReviewNew Welsh ReviewPoetry Review, The White ReviewThe Lonely Crowd, and many other magazines and anthologies. His first collection, The Claims Office, was published by Seren in October 2013, and was an Evening Standard Book of the Year. He works as Reviews Editor for Poetry London and teaches widely, in universities, schools and adult education. His first novel, The Counterplot, came out as an Audible Original in December 2019, narrated by Harry Myers. It is a work of historical fiction about the Gunpowder Plot, with the playwright Ben Jonson as the central character. Dai’s fiction is represented by Georgina Capel Associates.

What better way is there to spend an autumn evening than by enjoying some excellent poetry with this versatile and compelling poet.

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Our 2023 Open Poetry Competition is now open for entries

Our annual Open Poetry Competition is now open to entries. All poems entered will be read by this year’s judge, the award-winning poet and editor Jonathan Edwards.

The deadline for entries is 31 January 2023. All entries are by email, at a cost of £5 each, or £4 each for entries of three or more poems.

As in previous years, we offer seven cash prizes:

1st Prize: £1000

2nd Prize: £300

3rd Prize: £100

4th Prizes: 4 x £50

Further details on the rules and how to enter are given here.

Good luck!

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