Hundreds of poems and weeks of judging later, YorkMix Poet In Residence Carole Bromley reveals the winners in our poetry competition
Well, I’ve discovered a few things the hard way over the last few weeks. Judging a poetry competition isn’t a piece of cake though it is very enlightening and great fun. Also, especially when you get buried by that final avalanche, it can be exhausting and you reach a stage of panic when you start thinking you’ll never get out alive.
When I was an English teacher someone told me the best way to really understand a syllabus and know how best to teach it, was to become an examiner. Don’t try this at home, by the way. Never again. I think you could apply the same theory to judging a poetry competition. I consider myself an expert of sorts as I have entered dozens myself and mostly been met with a resounding silence which I tell myself is preferable to getting a rejection letter in the post. It isn’t. It’s still horrid and now I’ve done that to the writers of the 840 poems which didn’t make the shortlist. Please don’t stop speaking to me.
The first thing to say about the entries, apart from the sheer numbers, is that about 80 per cent of them were good. They may have had spelling mistakes or a weak ending or random line-endings or a wonky rhythm but they were good. I enjoyed reading them. I really did. I read them when they arrived in my inbox then I went back and reread them. Often I read them a third time before deciding whether to print them out and put them in my longlist folder. I reckon I printed out about one in twenty. Sometimes, even as I did so, I knew really they wouldn’t win but they deserved to be there, in with a chance.
The best bit, the very best bit of the whole process, was finding the really outstanding ones. The poem which came third was the 16th poem to arrive and I loved it. Then the poem which eventually came second pinged into my phone while I was away in London in January and I knew it was a winner. I kept both poems at the top of my gradually filling folder for the whole six weeks.
There were other contenders and from time to time I’d shuffle and reshuffle them but those two always came out on top. I had no idea at all who the poets were and, if you’d asked me, I’d have said they were both written by men. I was wrong. Then, after nearly 600 poems had come in and my folder was bursting at the seams, the winner arrived and I knew it at once. It was just so beautifully simple and moving.
The York Prize was so difficult. There were just so many really strong poems with that little Y in the corner (added before they were sent on to me by David Nicholson of YorkMix). I loved so many of them. I loved reading about familiar local places and events and people.
I loved reading about York Minster, the White Horse, Spurn Point, a cliff-top walk, someone taking their elderly widowed mother on an outing to Driffield, an encounter on a train, how it feels to live with an alcoholic, that wonderful snapshot of a family in Middlesbrough in 1910, that transcendent moment of hearing a lark on the Wolds, the Women’s Land Army, the hilarious ‘Adel Taarabt’, the diverging paths of two long-ago schoolboys in ‘Gun Law’, those bodies in St Mary Bishophill, that Scarborough beach café, Great Peter tolling, that lovely concrete poem about the Bomber Command Memorial Clock. I’ve met a lot of York poets, I’ve even taught a fair few so I couldn’t help mentally imagining who might have written these. I was wrong every time.
As for the shortlist I did not guess that the wonderful poem That First Letter which so nearly won the York prize was by Elizabeth Sandie or that the very witty Disconnection was by Rose Drew or that I go to Tonia’s when I’m in Vegas was by the same poet, Lydia Harris, who wrote The Heart of Mary, or that the very fine Just a Moment, with its lovely breakfast scene and tone of deep affection, was by Neil Davidson. So many beautiful poems by local readers.
I loved the beautifully handled The last summer before you left (Grace Clarke), the wit and ambition of The First Poem (Genevieve Carver), the very moving Still I Find You (Julia Key), the pragmatic When Love Stumbled (Rachel Glass), that memory of a schoolboy friendship Black Cherry Yogurt (Mike Barfield) which still haunts me, Bay Town (Lucy Antwis), an early favourite with the girl running down to the sea to meet her lover and that glimpse of countryside from the East Coast Main Line, Near Doncaster “sprinkled with winter” (Robert Gwynne). Wonderful. I hope you will let us publish some/all of these.
I did keep a sheet of paper by me while I was reading the poems and jotted down some of the reasons why poems didn’t make it. The list got longer and longer and I decided in the end to focus instead on what it was that made the best poems stand out. I wrote down, in no particular order, plus points: humour, surprise, real words, originality of subject matter, the surreal, courage, ambition, honesty. But, if I’m being honest, it’s so often something not quite so easy to pin down. It’s like love, perhaps. You just know it.
See if you agree with me.
Caroline Price’s winning poem, Coup de Foudre seems to me to be in the DH Lawrence and Les Murray tradition of encounters with wild creatures. The scene is so skilfully evoked in simple language. You hold your breath as the climber approaches the ibex, proffering a hand. That last verse was a clincher for me.
Doreen Gurrey’s beautiful poem, Bishopthorpe Road, uses the power of smell to transport us through time. For the speaker it is gas that has this magical power, taking her back to a long ago scene of a bare attic room where everything was “clear”. I assumed the “you” was a lover but it doesn’t have to be. Someone, anyway, who is lost or changed and found again in that wonderful image of the sea fret.
Gaia Holmes’s intriguing poem, Holes, uses a brilliant extended metaphor whereby the holes in Swiss cheese have to be avoided by the person in the poem who is trapped in avoiding everything that could have brought him happiness. A subtle and powerful piece.
Lydia Harris’s The Heart of Mary has so much in it: that vivid picture of Goole and the grandmother swinging bundles of flax, the mysterious baby under the tarpaulin then the boy sent to a Protestant school for a classical education and “piercing our Lady’s heart”. It is a strange poem, one you have to puzzle over, but very powerful in its own way. A really strong, confident voice.
Anthony Watts’ Zoom, which so nearly made it to the top three, is richly evocative of the Second World War. In the poem the speaker retraces the life of a long dead relative from photographs. We see his schooldays and his army life but the final attempt to enlarge the photo and really see him shows “nothing recognisable as human”. Stunning image.
Maureen Oliphant’s Today I Pulled On The Coat Of Seamus Heaney almost earned its place for the title alone. I loved this witty account of the speaker’s attempt to understand Heaney by wearing his coat, his schoolbag and touching his manuscript and then writing so beautifully as, perhaps, a result of this contact.
Jane Park’s tender poem about the birth of her son achieves its considerable emotional punch through simplicity of form and language. Its brevity in this case is an advantage. The closing image of the newly delivered mother as “a bombed battleship” is just right and I can see the baby son “eyes mesmerised/, lips quivering/ in blank astonishment”. Such a tricky subject and so beautifully handled.
Mantz Yorke’s Upland Scene, Malham fought its way past a number of strong contenders for inclusion in the top eight for its evocation of a country scene, so vivid I could see, hear and smell it in all its casual brutality. That “swung rabbit/ kicking feebly/ into the chill air” did it for me. Like all my winners simple, powerful, beautiful. Not an easy trick to pull off.
Anyway, enough of me. Here they are.
First Prize: Caroline Price (Tunbridge Wells, Kent) Coup de Foudre It was on a mountain ridge, a pass on the border minutes before I reached the col and stood, or tried to stand in the wind hurling itself from Italy – it was just after I had picked my way acruss the last fall of scree into thinner air, one in a string of walkers climbing from the car park miles below that morning, no warning – it happened without warning, was nothing to do with glimpsing a movement or hearing shouts, someone gesticulating, lifting their binoculars… It was having not been thinking of anything much and then, suddenly, thinking of you and there they were, the ibex that live above the tree-line with the avalanches, leaving scarcely a trace of their presence just standing there, a cluster of females and young grouped in the lee of an old blockhouse on an opposite slope, hardly fifty metres away, one kid balanced delicately on its hind legs rasping at the concrete and every walker stopped as one on the path as if I, seeing the browns and greys and stones stand out, take form and shape had transmitted to them all my astonishment, enough to make them look down, or up at that moment and see me advancing, my hand held out in entreaty, the wild hope that something as rare and shy might come across that impossible landscape towards me.
Second Prize: Doreen Gurrey (York) Bishopthorpe Road Gas. The smell of it takes me back to your bedsit under the roof, and the blue buds of the single gas ring; houses often leaked back then, heat, water, gas, people; it hung in the air at the turning for the second stair and always led me to you, bent over your desk under the sky light. What a clear view we had then looking out across the city uncluttered as your room; the single bed, one bar electric fire, rug curling at the edge and the clouds way above our heads. Today among the remnants of the garden I found, late flowering, love-in-a mist, a furl of tight blue buds, almost lost in a cloud of green and I thought of how I can still spot you in a crowd, and of last summer, as you walked along the beach with a sea mist rolling in, how your arm waved and waved through the fret.
Third Prize: Gaia Holmes (Halifax) Holes As a child, his Grandfather told him that the holes in Swiss cheese were poisonous so, for years, he ate around them. He still has that fear. Each night as a woman leans across her lover to turn off the lamp or a man uses his wife's chest as a pillow or a mother lays her child in its cot and smoothes down its fuzz of new-born hair, or a father sits at his daughter's bedside with a book and hot milk, or an owl echoes back a hoot, there's a hole in his house which he nibbles his way around neatly, like a mouse who has been to finishing school. His careful perforations edge the rim of the chasm like a collar of Chantilly lace, distracting him from the loneliness that gapes in the middle of his bed.
York Prize: Lydia Harris (York) The Heart of Mary The only Guinevere I taught came from Goole with its skyline of cranes and Italianate brick chimney, not altered since her Grandmother laboured on the sidings, swung bundles of flax, split the seams of her blouse. The baby in the box under the tarpaulin is Guinevere's mother or uncle. And the Holy Family was a Nissen hut. The boy on the altar, Guinevere's father who drew a grid plan of the town for a County Prize. They sent him to Hymer's where he learned Greek, where they weren't Catholics and Father Michael said, Sure you've pierced Our Lady's heart, Mrs Riley.
Commended Poems: Zoom by Anthony Watts, Taunton; Today I Pulled On The Coat Of Seamus Heaney by Maureen Oliphant, Durham; First Moments With Our Son by Jane Park, Bubwith; Upland Scene, Malham by Mantz Yorke, Didsbury, Manchester.
Zoom [i.m. Sgt John Lansdell, shot down in his Hurricane on 17th September 1940] Somewhere, some distant relative is nurturing her family tree with 'information' ('photos would be brilliant!') and so we get the box out of the loft and I am volunteered to scan the contents of this dusty envelope. Here's the Loughborough College Group (John Lansdell second row, end, right) and here College Sunday 1936: a casual group of friends taking the air in mortar boards and gowns (I wonder if they're worn with pride, or does he think he looks a twerp? The faint smile tells us nothing.) Bunny, Self & Norman on the promenade… and here's another - three men in a boat, oars stowed, swigging from the bottle: lads… and these the chaps in 'D' Flight: Freddie Poulter, Johnny White, Self, Sticky Glew… I'm focussing on 'Self' (that's my name too), stroking the touchpad, dragging him centre stage (exit Sticky Glew screen right) and now the cursor has him in its sights and…Zoom! Enlargement fails to show me who he was: it only amplifies the blur of years that steals away his image – shows instead the pixelated abstract of a man – then nothing recognisable as human.
Today, I Pulled On The Coat Of Seamus Heaney Today, I pulled on the coat of Seamus Heaney, the old favourite, the mouse-grey duffle, the ageing, much loved garment, the faithful escort to many an outing. Laid over the back of a chair, dull exterior hiding a jewel bright lining, woollen checks of red, yellow and green. A donation for devoted fans to view. Today, I held the schoolbag of Seamus Heaney, hand-stitched leather with a tooled initial. Bellaghy Bawn, close to Lough Beg, a shrine to Seamus, a strong house with round tower, a stone's throw from the townland where his father grazed cattle, where he helped drive them to market through rushy fields, along stony tracks. Today, I touched a manuscript of Seamus Heaney, poured over the mind changes, the second thoughts, the rejected words, the spit and polish of final verse. And all night long, the gales howled down the chimneys, trees dipped and danced, shedding clipped branches. The streams formed cataracts, overspilling their banks. Wind ran across the surface of the lough, whipping the top off waves. Trees paddled in the water. Moor hens sheltered in the reeds. The lane was mired in mud. But today, I pulled on the coat of Seamus Heaney
First Moments With Our Son He came out bruised, waxed white and bloody He breathed his first lungful in screams His legs a contortion Hanging off a mutual cord To be cut from me Removed into his father's arms His eyes mesmerised His lips still quivering In blank astonishment Life hurled out into sterile light, sheltering, in the arms of my husband, now father. I lay, like a bombed battleship Loving them.
Upland Scene, Malham THACK!Movement – THACK!a man THACK!in anorak and boots THACK!is hitting something THACK!on the drystone wall. Finished, he turns, joins his mate. Cupped hands surround a match. Cigarette smoke wisps in the wind. Conversation. The mate picks up two wooden boxes (portcullised, about the size of toolkits), moves on. Whippets jump at the other's hand: jerked upwards, the swung rabbit kicks feebly into the chill air.
Carole Bromley is married with four children and lives in York. Twice a winner in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, she has two pamphlets with Smith/Doorstop (Unscheduled Holt, 2005, and Skylight, 2009) and a collection A Guided Tour of the Ice House. She has won a number of first prizes, including The Bridport and Yorkshire Open, and her poems have appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies. Carole is a graduate of the MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan University and teaches creative writing for York University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.