Joint Runner Up
Joint Runner Up
Philip Gross (Judge): Judging a competition with a theme like ‘Villains’ puts the judge on the line. Most days, I arbitrate between the whispers of the moral judgement on one shoulder, the aesthetic on the other, by saying: Let’s have different poems answering to each. Today I have to choose.
Hard, then, to turn aside some poems whose craft struggles to, or declares that it’s impossible to, match the true atrocities described. But one of my runners-up, Pinochet's Garden, does touch on political violence older readers will remember. For younger ones, it is already history. My guess is that this poem will gain, not lose, strength as that memory recedes and the disturbing groundswell of its images does the job of unsettling us in just the way it should.
Another poem, My Perfect Father, was jostling for a place on the shortlist - very different, I thought, as in its almost deadpan via negativa way it quietly implied, almost subliminally, the shadow of the father who, we realise, was painfully real. I decided these two poems were so differently good that both must have a place. Imagine my pleasure to be told they were both by Katrina Naomi (Brixton/Streatham Stanza).
There is nothing grim about Jabez Few's Six White Mice, by John Thake (Cambridge Stanza), which balances between delicious relish for a skewed period lingo and the hint that its location really is in a ‘no nation’, anywhere, anytime, place. There is just the right unsettlement about the (debatably) innocent trickiness of Jabez, a quality shared, quite knowingly, by the poem itself.
Last word, though, and first prize to Fancy Man by Julie Lumsden (Nottingham Stanza). In few lines a crisp and subtly shifting voice evokes a lifetime’s ambivalence, leaving us with the job of weighing up the implications. Is the calculated beauty here made potent / piquant by its edge of villainy? Is it evil in itself, and if so can it be resisted... if the speaker really wants, that is?
Philip Gross's poetry up to and including the Whitbread-shortlisted The Wasting Game is collected in Changes of Address (Bloodaxe, 2001) since then Bloodaxe have published two more collections, Mappa Mundi (2003) and The Egg of Zero (2006) with The Water Table due in 2009. The Abstract Garden, in collaboration with engraver Peter Reddick came from the Old Stile Press in 2006, and a new collaboration, I Spy Pinhole Eye (with photographer Simon Denison) is due this year from Cinnamon Press.
His three collections of children’s poetry include Manifold Manor and The All-Nite Café which won the Signal Award. Since 2004 he has been Professor of Creative Writing at the Glamorgan University.
Julie Lumsden lives in Nottingham and is completing an MA Writing degree at Sheffield Hallam University. She has a pamphlet collection, True Crime, due out from Shoestring in March 2010. Julie chose a free Poetry Prescription as her prize for winning.
Julie: "This was started and almost finished while watching The Blue Lamp on television. At the time, I was very interested in the idea of the homme fatale. Great or unusual male beauty is a constant theme in gay literature but very few women seem to write on the subject. Later of course I did some amendments to the piece, tweaking and playing with line endings, a process I always enjoy, but it remained basically the same as when I first scribbled it down."
Katrina Naomi's first full collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake will be published by Templar Poetry in November 2009. Originally from Margate, she now lives in south London. www.katrinanaomi.co.uk
Punctured gasps of bog cotton in the marsh by the stream
only he knew the way through. He liked his knowledge.
He had the gardeners dowse selected plants on the hour,
every hour, calibrating which were the last to droop.
He admired cacti for their instinct, their endurance,
liked the sweat of his greenhouse, the heat forced to its limit.
He logged what could survive, beyond the open
mouths of orchids. He knew all their Latin names.
As a boy, he’d snipped the heads off lilies, now
he wanted beauty, found comfort in the red wounds of roses.
One task he retained; no one was allowed to shoo the birds
from the lawn. He hung his catapult from a hook.
His blooms won prizes. His soil, rich. Bone meal rich.
Katrina: "I was a human rights worker for years before fully succumbing to poetry, but have found it difficult to write about a lot of the issues without sounding 'preachy' (and to be honest many of the resulting poems have been dire), so it's great that this one has met with some success. I found myself thinking again about Pinochet's stay in Surrey and those politicians who defended him, and I reckon I was subconsciously inspired by Carolyn Forché's poem 'The Colonel' as this poem began to take shape."
held my mum’s hand for the three days
I took to be born, worked nights so she could sleep
between feeds, soaped me with Johnson’s Baby Bath
alongside two floating books of ABC,
taught me to spell playing Scrabble,
offered a pink Smartie if I got the letters right
and yellow when they were wrong,
led nature walks through bluebell woods,
showed me how to swim at Margate pool,
dried my tears when I was scared of diving,
bought me my first Speedo when I did,
loved my mother, my sister and our beagle Simba,
shared his money so we had plenty to eat,
didn’t shatter an airing rod across Simba’s back,
didn’t sleep with nurses, didn’t leave my mum,
my sister, Simba and I. Never lied.
Katrina: "I wanted this poem to have a breathless quality and so wrote the 'list' of what this father did or didn't do as one sentence. I hoped that this would contrast well with the abrupt 'Never lied' at the end. I also wanted to use a good number of proper nouns, to give authenticity, without crowding the poem out. I like emotion without schmaltz."
John has been writing poetry for the last five years, but has been an avid reader for much longer. He lives in a small village in the Cambridgeshire fens with his wife and two teenage sons.
John: "The inspiration for this poem came from the story of Jabez Few who was investigated for witchcraft at the start of the 1900’s in a village close to where I live. I took the theme of villains as a basis for the poem and have hopefully left the reader to come to their own conclusion as to who the villains are. I’m interested in poems that tell stories and have also wanted to bring some fenland language into my work so this all fell into place with the story of Jabez."