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National Poetry Competition 40th Anniversary Anthology

National Poetry Competition 40th Anniversary Anthology, 2019 The Poetry Society, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX ISBN: 978-1-911046-16-5 Cover design by Liam Relph Š The Poetry Society & authors, 2019

Presented by The Poetry Society 2019

The Poetry Society The Poetry Society is the UK’s leading voice for poets and poetry. Founded in 1909 to promote “a more general recognition and appreciation of poetry”, the Society is one of the most dynamic arts organisations, promoting poetry nationally and internationally. With innovative education and commissioning programmes, and a packed calendar of performances, readings and competitions, The Poetry Society champions poetry for all ages. To become part of our poetry community, visit

The National Poetry Competition Established in 1978, The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition is one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious poetry competitions. For many poets, whether established or emerging, the prize has proved an important career milestone. Distinguished winners include the current UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Tony Harrison, Ruth Padel, Philip Gross and Jo Shapcott. Poems are judged anonymously and the top three winners are published in The Poetry Review, one of the world’s leading poetry magazines. Winning and commended poems are published on The Poetry Society’s website,

The Poetry Society is grateful for the support of Cockayne – Grants for the Arts and London Community Foundation towards this celebratory anthology, and the associated anniversary readings, to mark the 40th anniversary of the National Poetry Competition.

National Poetry Competition 40th Anniversary Anthology New Commissions

Introduction Welcome to this collection of new poems commissioned to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition. With a special focus on some of the most recent voices to have emerged through the award, joined by a few more established names, we have selected ten writers who have all previously been among the prizewinners of the competition and invited them to create something new. The National Poetry Competition is all about the recognition and encouragement of new writing, so what better way to mark this anniversary milestone than by bringing some new poems into the world? One of the longest running talent development schemes in poetry, the National Poetry Competition attracts around 14,000 entries every year, and over its history has recognised many hundreds of amazing writers among its prizewinners. The competition welcomes previously unpublished poems, which are anonymised throughout the judging process. Although this pamphlet only features ten poets, the brief for the new commissions was designed to capture something of the spirit of the award in all its aleatory multiplicity, and allow us also to honour the many other poets who have gone before. Working through the texts of all the previous winning poems, we created two wordclouds: one cluster consisting entirely of words that have appeared only once among the victorious works, and the other cloud comprising the most popular words that crop up time and again in winning poems. Our commissionees were given the wordclouds and asked to delve here for their inspiration, deploying within their new works one of the recurrent words and one of those striking singularities. Other than this, the guidelines for the commission were as per an entry to the competition itself – open in theme and with a line length limit of forty. The poems gathered here, all written in early 2019, also hold within them echoes of earlier poems. Listen out for whispers – a haunting by Helen Dunmore’s ‘The Malarkey’ perhaps, or Stephen Knight’s ‘The Mermaid Tank’. As the National Poetry Competition moves into its fifth decade, it has established itself as one of the most prestigious poetry awards globally.

Despite its name, it is an international award, attracting entries annually from more than seventy countries. Since the original 1978 judging panel of Ted Hughes, Fleur Adcock and Gavin Ewart announced the inaugural winner, Michael Hulse, for his poem ‘Dole Queue’, the competition has witnessed many now-familiar and celebrated poetry names be awarded the accolade of National Poetry Competition winner, including UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, James Berry, Philip Gross, Colette Bryce, Tony Curtis and Medbh McGuckian. And let’s not forget too, the second and third prizewinners, the commendations, and longlistees. We salute you all! Over the years the National Poetry Competition has built an extraordinary community of participants and winners. With the competition as a springboard, The Poetry Society has been honoured to support many hundreds of poets through the award, offering further opportunities such as performances, publication and commissions to help their development. Look out every spring for a new cohort of prizewinners – there will always be new names to reward your attention, destined for great things. We hope you enjoy these new poems. Perhaps they’ll be your inspiration to enter a poem yourself to next year’s award? The poems presented here were all premiered at a special anniversary event at King’s Place, London on 20 March 2019. We are very grateful to the Cockayne – Grants for the Arts and London Community Foundation for their support in commissioning this work. The Poetry Society, March 2019


Liz Berry The Suburbs The suburbs in rain are a snow globe full of tears: doll’s house streets looping upon themselves, pigeons without the enchantment sunlight lends their wings, every tight cul-de-sac sluiced of joy and small, so small. I’d torch it all on those days just to feel some fire, burn off my prints on the flames and disappear. I dreamt of that often when the children were young, elbow deep in dishwater or arguing about shoes, my world miniaturised, the deluge always thrumming at the frayed edge of my thoughts – the mermaid beglamoured to foam on the waves, the river’s bride pounded to a gleaming flint. It was in my skull that morning, driving to playgroup, the baby fussing, my eldest chattering until my brain rattled like a ship in a bottle. Past the garages, the dentist, the lonely strip-lit halls of the supermarket, the little school like a restless bee skep. Mizzle falling ceaselessly. Then suddenly the queer dark sign on the Baptist Church is this life all that there is? and I slammed on my brakes, shot so violently and purely through the heart, the vision drawn from my chest like a splinter: my sons’ small clothes on the radiator and no-one to dress them, brush the wisps of their hair or hurry to them when they woke mumbling in the dark, no song but rain. My boy called my name and I gasped like one dragged from a wave, with his breath in my mouth and his fear in my lungs.


I’m here. I’m here. How I longed for it then – that sodden town, my children sleeping safe like animals in their fur, our flimsy white door bolted against the storm. I longed for that life, its tenderness and fury, its torrential fall, to be all that there is and for that to be enough. written in response to the words “suburbs” and “mermaid”



Mary Jean Chan Happiness All the ingredients necessary for happiness: I grew up well-fed, years away from war, its aftermath. When someone in the family knows sacrifice as the only viable currency, such knowledge seeps. History must suffice. My mother knew hunger. A piece of bread, in the absence of a miracle, cannot yield more loaves. I will give myself the mango’s stone; the meat to someone else. I will give myself the mango’s stone; the meat to someone else. A miracle cannot yield more loaves. My mother knew hunger. A piece of bread, in the absence of history, must suffice. Such knowledge seeps: sacrifice as the only viable currency when someone in the family knows war, its aftermath. I grew up well-fed, years away from all the ingredients necessary for happiness. written in response to the words “war” and “aftermath”



Geraldine Clarkson Daubière Nights I, Seraphina, here, in larky France, its mellifluent core. It’s late in the day and in the year. These last dingy December nights, I spend in my kitchen: scouring iron bottoms of my twelve wedding saucepans; shining a constellation of cake-tins, and aluminium bodies of five fiddle-shape jambonières, fit for ham haunches come new year. But ma merveille – anniversary gift of seven years’ marriage – is my giant shoehorn-handled daubière, a masterpiece in copper; culinary fortress. While I keep watch, my husband Obadiah’s sleeping, abed, off-left, his breathing mimicking the rasp of the boiler, its ack-ack raling. He’s rehearsing battles with La Dame Disaster who dominates his days now. Two years since, he had his fill of newspapers, and quartered some pages from our potbellied Old Testament, and these few, tucked into his ‘bible belt’, are all he reads now, he has them memorised, beating new perennial paths in his brain – a stay against forgetting, for when they take the books. I keep La Dame at bay by night with eucalyptus oil and the Holy Archangel Michael. So I’ve got out the old daubière and’m rubbing it tonight, the eve of Holy Innocents. Soon I’ll place a dozen plump shanks like enfants sleeping in their cot and cover them with medallions of parsnip and carrot, layered like a lazy-daisy counterpane over their sleeping forms, a gauze of oil and rosemary on top. Let’s braise a little. It’s my way of making my daub on the grey lady’s face, setting a handful of saffron into the soupy gloom, stirring in a soupçon of something bright. I cook to rebuke her. The days go better with nights in vigil. I’ll cook each night until Epiphany, it’ll keep us till spring, fermenting a little through February, green and living. Neighbours will share. They, too, swell and dwindle with fortunes, and children, and the Grey Lady tempts them, too, her snatching pixies swinging on their window catches, giggling like babies with pinchable thighs, till they latch on unexpectedly, expertly, and then suddenly ma Dame’s wheedling at the table, passing time of day, her arguments intricate and subtle as double-stitched doilies under the fancies; her seedling hooks, flying, adhering to dust. Saint Michel stands us in good stead. I kiss the mirrored lid, admire my apple-cheeks. It’s my time. Stories drop like fireflies into lard-traps. I flip a coin. I’m nursemaid to the stars, my solitary vigil all silver qui-vive. Obadiah and I are spots & stripes,


contrapuntal, dovetailed & functioning. Me, I side with the buttercups & moonlilies, hope’s auntie, sappy, tilting my head to the moon, infilling lunar juice for the day which follows, my tided strength. He benefits, each comfort-baked cake, and consoling casserole, a moratorium on bad news. He slides his shivers privately in his troubled bottom-bunk sleep, while I breathe rough ovals onto my daubière’s rose-ambery belly and rub. Lady Disaster’s dumb by night, deep in dog-dreams by my back door. written in response to the words “daubière” and “night”



Ian Duhig Nothing For Sale The businessman who has come to make her an offer waiting in the sea silk weaver’s cottage sees the signs: ‘Haste doesn’t live here’ and ‘Here nothing is for sale’. She had a visitor. He watched through her net curtain. A little girl whose eyes were deep pools sat by her while the loom of a dialect song framed her work; the smell of salt and lemon scoured the air as well as raising the shades of teasled strands she nursed. Finally the sea silk weaver tied their ends together, lifted her window blind and showed the young girl how beautiful she always was, while in the sunlight her dirty old brown bracelet changed to spun gold. Now she called him in, told him to close his eyes and say when this touched him. But it was so light he stayed silent at wordless poetry written in water by pen shells she now guards. The Rosetta Stone misnamed it; the Chinese called it mermaid silk, so fine it made a bridal veil that would not fill half a walnut shell nor her shroud the other half. She said a hundred dives gathered enough for – a bracelet? Something to weigh up, she smiled. He opened his eyes slowly, counting, but the light still hurt. He gathered himself, rereading signs in a language that seemed more foreign all the time. written in response to the words “girl” and “mermaid”



Fran Lock This Truant Art they’re an unreliable tribe, the dead. poets pile up their elliptical heartbreaks in libraries. an iambic of lukewarm blues doesn’t help. doorstop slabs of inedible latin. nothing i’ve read puts paid to this. the honey’s undertaste is bile, and bad news won’t be broken gentle. an elegy, all paunchy vowels, cannot take the weight of it: a pain that makes the folded mouth a sta-prest denim pleat. and nerves, their slur and lurry in the grim ionosphere of sunday afternoons. on days that lack for lustre, structure, centripetal force, i often think of you. a sonnet moulders bloatedly, can keep its rosy inklings to itself. it doesn’t help. there’s you, jaundiced and auriferous on quinine; upholstered in plasmodial light, all-over gold. and i am shocked gomeril by the eye-sore shine of you. what poems cannot do. what poems cannot ply or save: the evident body, its fuss and hurt. those days our doom regroups. in spasms, cramps, in strategy, not tactic. limbic melee, free-for-all. what use my lonely delight at a sky; my purse-lipped spinster’s portion of joy? even the dog’s eye tilts indifferent. what use the cockalorum rooftops giddied red beneath the rain, or muntjack moving, swat-teams stealthy, in between the trees and boundary fence? it’s all too big. a goblin word that won’t be shared or whittled into common sense, despite i wield my tongue against its supple green and sappy wood. bent penknife’s blade. we’re an unreliable tribe. myself as well, us jobbing liars. what poems cannot save: the slangy impulse of your name, the sherbet cuss of fond. to love you, far beyond the honeyed slush of any bandied phrase. to conjure you, aglow to strut some starry pose. or, needled into mischief, how you’d hang your hinges skewed. the way you moon-walked words, your smile, your agate-unregard. there’s nothing here. poet: vestal, phobic wreck, appellant without remedy. i spend these months in libraries, on long endeavour and divide. on poetry: this teary, filigreed regime, a make-work mood for idle hands. nothing i’ve read puts paid to this. there’s only the skies unshaping blue. the errant body bites itself. the mirror cracks. and sings of you. written in response to the words “truant” and “art” 15


Sinéad Morrissey Charles Manson Auditions for The Monkees, 1965 If my music – jingle jangle, dustrush, skitter in the U-bend of my bloodstream, spike through my waking hours like needlepricks or tiny radioactive shards of stars or tinfoil touched to a filling – came together with your music? Man, we’d stand and warm our hands. And I get it, yes sir, I get it, the remit – slick, bland, biosynthetic, so copycat the cool cats wouldn’t buy it, but who needs the cool cats? Mile-wide smiles, goofball sweaters, guys so sweet no Elvis-savaged mother could object – a million records, easy. Add a sprinkle of my moonjack spice to the soda pop – just a line, just a tap – we’re talking Richter, we’re talking stratospheric: a gazillion hangdog chicks on their lonesome, shelling out. And where are the Fab Four headed? South. Off the map. That’s a lot of love left over… Madness! Wanted! Folk & Roll Singer-Musicians – Fine. I can do work. I can do TV. But why stop there? We could be warriors, trailblazers, neo-Magonistas, the bullet in the brain of Arch Duke Ferdinand, sugarmatch to the flame… All those Daddy-girl runaways, packing their sorry bags? They’re going to need a soundtrack. You want to see them roll up their sleeves and proffer their plaintive arms? Let’s give them it. written in response to the words “stars” and “Magonistas”



Mark Pajak On dismantling the biggest oil tanker in the world He felt no danger inside his breath-tepid welder’s mask. Nor in his blowtorch, that concentrated rush as the flame tunes into a blue bud. And despite the frequent accidents on large condemned ships; up-close to red metal, he never flinched from the torch’s sudden, lightning-white, point of contact. But there was that moment, during the routine first-day-tour of the tanker, when he had walked alone into the complete dark of the cargo hold; and stood there blind, in the sulphurous smell of seaweed and rust, he shouted Echo. And the silence was long and unexpected and somehow alert, as if that emptiness was considering him, before allowing his voice to detonate, just once, off the distant hull. written in response to the words “incinerator” and “sea”



Caleb Parkin All the chipshops I have ever been to are stacked up, a deep-fried skyscraper, somewhere on the East Anglian coast. This tower of bubbling fats creeps behind Clacton-on-Sea, Walton-on-the-Naze, casts shadows near the shibboleth of Aldeburgh. Meanwhile, Sizewell B is a puffball on the horizon, round as a Worm Moon, rising. An eye with no iris. And still, the cocooned food shifts across their miles of steel, papers shaken through with white plastic bollards of salt. The North Sea lingering in flesh. Peas copied and pasted so often they forget to be green. At Dunwich Heath, the oystercatchers are famished and curlews are threatening to straighten their beaks. But still, in the steaming museum cases of their counters, the crispy sarcophagi of battered sausages, the preserved remains of Cod. Body after body dredged up in silver cages. Hundreds of Pukka Pies nested in their capsized foil crowns. In the blue-black-grey around Cromer’s ingrown pier an undrownable orange buoy invites me to swim. The tower wavers like seaweed, shimmers – a candle. Its unknown postcode defined by the scent of second-hand oil, woven through wardrobes. Chips in the toes of socks. Fishbones catching at my collar. In all the chipshops the radio plays the creak of a sign, the rush of a wave – then static. written in response to the words “felt” and “chipshop”



Stephen Sexton Water Offering for Matthew Sweeney

O amigo what a fucker of a day – the Donegal rain rinses the meadow, and the sound checkers of the August fair observe the peaks and troughs of country music from an accordion set to French in the bright, accurate village. And hadn’t the florist insulted me years before, I’d have worn the head of a yellow rose as a boutonnière and waited while the industry of rain played the bonnet of the car like a thousand typists at their typewriters. And a thousand typists at their typewriters will one day end up with the story of the clarinet duo of seagulls, crimson and jazz of beak, who came to my windowsill one night laughing about skiffs and scores of herring. And they told me the story, passed down from ancient ancestor to ancestor; from German cousin and in-law, of your being born here by the coast, and what it’s said you saw: the dream house with its Zen garden of sand raked in circles.


And I told them about the florist and what was meant to be a compliment and how, each Monday in my office, I offer a drink of water to the little cactus between the dictionary and the thesaurus, who, any day now, will rupture into blossom. written in response to the words “water” and “offering”



Jo Shapcott The Arrival of the Robot It was a drawbridge of a moment: feathery; steel. An all-ending-in-tears sort of a moment. He was swept into his own head-typhoon, scalp sensations flowing down to his fingertips as he aimed the jittery scissors. He unboxed her. He was 100 storeys high on an inhalation of silicone, the crackle and zip of cellophane, high on her paso doble arms and neck bend, high on the price of her. He thought she might be wondering – because they can, you know, wonder – where she was. But her mind turned on how far human maps could take her with all their dust and replicas and further limits. Her voice was a frontier of husky binaries, mortality built into its gravitas. I have so few edges, she thought, and they so many. What love at their edges, what love? written in response to the words “typhoon”, “replicas”, “jittery”, “drawbridge”, “dust” and “arms”



Liz Berry Liz Berry’s debut collection Black Country (Chatto, 2014) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, received a Somerset Maugham Award and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award and The Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014. Her pamphlet The Republic of Motherhood (Chatto, 2018) was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet choice, shortlisted for The Michael Marks Awards and the title poem won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem 2018.

Mary Jean Chan Mary Jean Chan is a poet, editor and critic from Hong Kong who is now based in London. She was shortlisted for the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Single Poem, and came second in the 2017 National Poetry Competition. Her debut pamphlet, A Hurry of English (ignitionpress), was selected as the 2018 Poetry Book Society Summer Pamphlet Choice. Mary Jean is a Ledbury Poetry Critic and an editor of Oxford Poetry. Her debut collection Flèche will be published by Faber & Faber in July 2019.

Geraldine Clarkson Geraldine Clarkson is a former winner of the Poetry London and Ambit competitions, as well as the Magma Editors’ and Anne Born prizes. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Poetry Review, The Rialto, Mslexia, and (forthcoming) The Valley Press Anthology of British Prose Poetry (2019). Her first poetry pamphlet, Declare (Shearsman, 2016), was a Poetry Book Society Pamphlet Choice, and her second, Dora Incites the Sea-Scribbler to Lament, was a Laureate’s Choice (smith|doorstop, 2016). A prose poetry pamphlet, audiobook, and full-length collection are forthcoming.


Ian Duhig Ian Duhig has written seven books of poetry, most recently The Blind Roadmaker (Picador, 2016), a PBS Recommendation shortlisted for the Roehampton, Forward Best Collection and T.S. Eliot Prizes. Duhig also works with musicians, artists and socially excluded groups, recently editing Any Change: Poetry in a Hostile Environment, an anthology of work from Leeds’ immigrant communities. A Cholmondeley Award recipient, Duhig has won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem once and the National Poetry Competition twice.

Fran Lock Fran Lock is the author of five poetry collections, Flatrock (Little Episodes, 2011), The Mystic and the Pig Thief (Salt, 2014), Dogtooth (Out-Spoken Press, 2017), Muses and Bruises (Culture Matters, 2017), and Ruses and Fuses (Culture Matters, 2018) in collaboration with artist Steev Burgess. Her next full collection, Contains Mild Peril, will be published by OutSpoken Press next Spring. Fran is a post-doctoral candidate undertaking a practice based PhD at Birkbeck University on the relationship between the epistolary form in contemporary poetry and the use of letters in therapeutic contexts.

Sinéad Morrissey Sinéad Morrissey was born in Portadown, County Armagh, Northern Ireland and was Belfast’s inaugural Poet Laureate. She has published six collections with Carcanet, including Parallax which won the 2013 T.S. Eliot Prize and On Balance which won the 2017 Forward Prize for Best Collection.



Mark Pajak Mark Pajak’s work has appeared in The London Review of Books, Poetry London, The North, The Rialto and Magma. He has been commended in the National Poetry Competition, awarded first place in The Bridport Prize and has also received a Northern Writers’ Award, an Eric Gregory Award and an UNESCO international writing residency. His first pamphlet, Spitting Distance, was selected by Carol Ann Duffy as a Laureate’s Choice and was published in 2016 with smith|doorstop.

Caleb Parkin Caleb Parkin is a day-glo queero techno eco poet; a performer, facilitator, educator & filmmaker, based in Bristol. His work has appeared in The Rialto, The Poetry Review, Atticus Review, Moving Poems, Folia, Eyedrum Periodically, Under the Radar, Coast to Coast to Coast and other publications in print, online & performance – as well as in schools, universities, museums, planetaria and science centres.

Stephen Sexton Stephen Sexton lives in Belfast where he teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. Poems have appeared in Granta, Poetry London, and Best British Poetry 2015. His pamphlet, Oils, published by The Emma Press in 2014, was the Poetry Book Society’s Winter Pamphlet Choice. He was the winner of the 2016 National Poetry Competition and the recipient of an ACES award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. He received an Eric Gregory Award in 2018. A first book will be published by Penguin in 2019.


Jo Shapcott Jo Shapcott was born in London. Poems from her three awardwinning collections, Electroplating the Baby (Bloodaxe, 1988), Phrase Book (Oxford, 1992) and My Life Asleep (Oxford, 1998), are gathered in a selected poems, Her Book (Faber, 2000). She has won a number of literary prizes including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Collection, the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the National Poetry Competition (twice). Tender Taxes, her versions of Rilke, was published with Faber in 2001. Her most recent collection, Of Mutability (Faber, 2010), won the Costa Book Award. In 2011 Jo Shapcott was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry.


ISBN 978-1-911046-16-5

9 781911 046165

Profile for The Poetry Society

National Poetry Competition 40th Anniversary Anthology  

The National Poetry Competition 40th Anniversary Anthology contains newly commissioned poems from ten past prizewinners, both established na...

National Poetry Competition 40th Anniversary Anthology  

The National Poetry Competition 40th Anniversary Anthology contains newly commissioned poems from ten past prizewinners, both established na...

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