Judging The Red Shed Open Poetry Competition.

After having PC meltdown last week, I’m now getting used to my new machine and trying to catch up on all the things that didn’t get done while I was off line. Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of reading at the Red Shed prize giving. The Red Shed readings and the associated events at Mocca Moocha are becoming pretty high profile these days, so it was no surprise that the competition attracted almost 250 entries; the fact that so many people care enough about their work to send it out is extremely heartening. Of course, the nature of poetry competitions means there will be an awful lot of poems that ultimately don’t get any recognition. However, it was a real pleasure to read the work and hopefully my comments below reflect how much I  enjoyed the judging process.

1st

‘Emptied’ by Charlotte Ansell. This is a poem about loss and the tragedy of a mother who has to abort her dead child. What took me by surprise was, ‘the nurse who/ shouted at me/ for my emerald toes’. The uncaring attitude of the nurse is a shock, as is the poet’s subtle parallel of the scraping away of the nail polish with the scraping clean of the ‘nearly child’ who is ‘silent as snow’. There are some deft half-rhymes holding the three line stanzas together, and the sense of loss is deepened at the end by including the prediction of the baby’s sex. This poem has a quiet confidence about it. It isn’t overwritten, nor is it trying to impress. It does its job beautifully and tenderly.

2nd

‘Night Shift’ by Jo Peters. This is an elegant poem, understated yet packed with meaning. It references a poem from Heaney’s Human Chain and can be read in a number of ways, depending on who we take to be ‘you’; certainly, one interpretation is that it is the personification of death. The subtle use of near rhymes at the end of lines, for example, ‘business’/ ‘grasses’ and ‘industry’/ ‘unexpectedly’, gives the poem a sense of form without being dominated by it. There’s also lovely feeling of openness at the end of the poem, with the interpretation again very much depending on the reader’s idea of who the poem is addressing.

The Wakefield Prize

‘Witch’ by John Foggin. Here is a poem that does so much more than simply describe its subject matter. There’s a clever use of repetition which gives form to the poem, but not at the expense of content. ‘It starts with goats,’ is an intriguing first line, demanding that we read the poem on its own terms. We enter a world where language and naming is power: ‘Eyebright; Penny Royal; Ragged Robin; Dodder’. This list of flowers is the litany of the wise woman. Yet there is, as we might expect, a supernatural edge: ‘I can scry a cloud’. Ultimately, the witch’s knowledge is her downfall. Thus, ‘It ends in pitch and blister …/ One way or another’. Once again, this is an ending that opens up the space the poem leaves in its wake.

Short-listed Poems

 ‘The Glass Blower’ by Liz Venn, is about a relationship, but it does so much more than detail it. It has a great line early on: ‘ a bulb of glass hangs like the moon from a stick/ in your scarred hands’. This is both a powerful image and an example of a line break working hard to enhance meaning. The use of repetition also works particularly well in this poem.

‘Epitaph’, by Samuel Tongue, is a spare and concise evocation of loss. I admire the way the poet opens the concrete image to more symbolic meanings, as with ‘the violin/ that played in the hot room of his heart’. It’s a line that really makes you think.

‘Necessary Equipment for River Pigs’ by Char March. I love the exuberance of this poem and the risks it takes with language: ‘your hands’ll wear clean to bone/ in a day hauling peaveys and pike poles’. It’s a strong and idiosyncratic voice and I was impressed by its courage.

‘Ghost Brides’ by Ian Neville. Again, this is a poem where language is used in such a precise and evocative way that I was drawn to it again and again. Take the taut lyricism of the third stanza, which I quote in full :

‘Pared, ascetic priestesses
scourged lovely by fasting,
frail in their paper skins
like pale moon lanterns.’

‘Snow on the line’ by Bryony Doran. ‘I have a compulsion to tell strangers on trains/ My son is in Afghanistan’, says the speaker. The use of repetition and the concise way each scene is conveyed, means the poem is never just an anecdote. For example, when the speaker addresses an off-duty soldier on the train, ‘He looks at me, no pity in his eyes./ He’s been. It’s tough. Can’t wait to go back.’ It’s this spare use of language and its honesty that engaged me.

‘The Students are Leaving’ by Neil Clarkson. There’s a surreal and fractured narrative contained within this  poem. The first section gives us some bizarre images of what the students have left behind: ‘A ragged bra sags under the weight/ of cooked pot noodles’. In the second section, Vinnie, a character on the edge of society, is here to pick over the debris. Ultimately however, the speaker in the poem is not like Vinnie, searching for ‘student booty’, but on a quest for something bigger: self-knowledge.

Many thanks to everyone who entered. It was a pleasure to read so much exciting work.

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