We're very grateful to Carol Ann Duffy for judging our Women's Poetry competition, and selecting a rich and varied set of poems from all of the excellent submissions we received. Following is her full report on the winners and the runner-up poems:
When I judge a poetry competition, I’m always looking for poems with a sense of life, light and force about them. The poems that stand out need to add something to our understanding and appreciation of the world; they need to have a reason to exist, a kind of psychic necessity.
I began by reading every poem three or four times, to get used to it and make sure I hadn’t missed anything – any layer or interpretation that wasn’t immediately conveyed in a first reading. Then I set them all aside for a few days to see which ones stayed in my mind. When I came back to the poems, there were already seven or eight that I knew would be in my final selection. And I was fairly sure, even at that stage, that the three winners would be in that group.
Then I reread the remaining poems yet again, and really interrogated each one. Each poem had to argue for its place in terms of originality, form, use of language, rhyme, choice of subject matter. And I think the 20 poems I ended up with all do that, and are all evidence of women engaging intelligently and skillfully with their art.
The winning poem – ‘A wedding list’ by Penny Boxall – impressed me immediately because it managed to achieve so much in just 16 lines. This is a poet who obviously reads a lot of contemporary poetry. I especially like the way she plays with cliché, her subtle use of rhyme, and how she develops the rhyme scheme. I thought it was rather Larkinesque – though that’s not why I chose it! And I found its theme, of a relationship that’s not working, very moving.
The poem I selected for second prize was ‘Red Rebecca’ by Rosemary McLeish. I love the salty relish and brio of this poem, and its narrative quality. The voice of Red Rebecca is very exuberant and funny. And there’s a hint of archaic authenticity about it, as though it’s a translation of an old Gaelic song.
It’s an unusually long poem, but my third prize winner is even longer. Laura Jenner’s ‘Mrs Snowball’ has an entertaining fairytale quality. I love the conceit of using the tradition of wedding anniversaries being associated with different materials to develop a liberation narrative. There’s a Grimm’s fairytale entitled The Handless Maiden – about a girl whose father cut off her hands to prevent her being abducted by the Devil, who married a king who fashioned silver hands for her – that has some shared DNA with this poem.
Emma Hellyer’s poem ‘Lemon studies in nine segments’ wins the prize for the best poem by an unpublished poet, but I would have included it anyway. In fact there are several unpublished poets among my finalists, which suggests that really good women poets are still hesitating to submit their work. ‘Lemon studies...’ is quite an ambitious poem, with echoes of Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird’. I love that first line, about the lemon’s ‘pursed lips’. This is a good example of the kind of original poem that stayed with me – and sustained my interest as I read on wanting to know where she would take the idea next.
Another deliciously quirky poem is Mari Girling’s ‘Specimen’. This, too, has a fairytale quality to it. It’s very intriguing, especially that image in the first verse: ‘small as a shrimp, agitated as a mayfly’. Its theme, about an ignored and unheard voice, would work well in an anthology for a teenage readership.
‘The diet of John the Baptist’ by Harriet David also has a narrative quality – you’ve probably noticed that many of the poems I’ve chosen tell a story. This poem impressed itself on me the very first time I read it. I love the radical idea of reframing Jesus and John the Baptist as friends at a boys’ school, and using these biblical characters to explore themes of masculine affection and loyalty.
‘Chadlington Village, Hampshire’ by Natalie Crick is incredibly haunting, with those images of a girl lying somewhere unseen – ‘behind the poplars’ – while her contemporaries move on with their lives. I liked the use of small details in this poem, ‘the gilt eyes of foxes’, ‘steak on his dinner plate’.
‘For Chase, leaving for China’ by Brooke Baker Belk is another compact poem; one that works on three levels at once: as a celebration of place, as a contained love poem, and as a blessing for a brother going on a journey. I admired what it achieved in just 16 lines.
I love the colours in Geraldine Clarkson’s ‘Out-of-hours’, about someone undergoing an unpleasant medical procedure. I liked the way she contrasts the neutral colours – ‘my old grey spirit’, ‘the beige-faced nurse with the hush-puppy hands’ – with the brash colours of Christmas – ‘twinkling fairy reds’, ‘gold twine’ – and the no-nonsense way they are combined with the glittering tools and colours of the procedure itself.
There is a lot of space around ‘Birch syrup’ by Nicola Garrard, as though the poet has somehow managed to bottle the experience and reduced it to its essence. There is some very creative language here, phrases like ‘sorry-feeling’ and ‘scrumped blood’.
A P Hill’s ‘Labour’ has a quirky and hyper-real Russian-doll feeling about it. The mother arrives at the bedside of the daughter who is herself about to have a baby. All the things that irritate the daughter about her mother are deposited – dumped – on the bed, as though this new mother will inherit the burdens her own mother carried.
I am assuming that Aileen La Tourette’s poem ‘Porches’ is set in the US, which has a culture of hammocks and sitting outside. Its description of comfort, and how we don’t always know what we need, or where we’ll find it, made me wish I had a porch with a white rocking-chair...
Jeanette Burton’s ‘I write Christmas cards whilst listening to a report on Swiss guinea pigs’ would make a good Christmas card itself. I like the way it explores loneliness without losing its witty tone. My daughter has gone to university and my dog died recently, so I relate to the emotions conveyed here.
Katie Watson’s ‘Toast’ is a very simple, honest and direct poem that perfectly captures an important event in a young life, of a girl coming out to her mother: the power and vulnerability of that precise moment. It’s one of two ‘coming out’ poems in my selection – the other is Rachael Matthews’ ‘do not be lulled by the dainty starlike blossoms’. I didn’t choose two on the same theme for that reason, but because they approached their subject matter so differently. I like the light humour of Matthews’ poem, the mix-up of ‘thank you’ and ‘fuck you’, and the capturing of childhood experiences with food and ritual. The use of lower case works to indicate that the poem is a fragment of memory.
I admired the language of Kerry Darbishire’s ‘Planting parsley with my father’, and her focus on hands as emblematic of the parents’ personalities. The mother’s competent clean hands are contrasted with the father’s rougher and possibly more loving ones. I loved the tenderness of these images; and the sadness – there’s a sense of bereavement here, as though the poet is the broken doll who can be mended by memory.
‘Heatwave’ by Lynn Thornton is a very sensual piece – ‘heavy-headed lilies lift’, ‘breathe thick air’, ‘long for cathedral coolness’ – that uses a description of the heatwave to convey how a couple’s relationship has been ‘ironed out’, ‘cracked from floor to ceiling’.
Pauline Plummer’s ‘Swallowing Ireland’ contains a fabulous conceit, the idea of coming to terms with the place you come from by making literal the cliché, ‘You have the map of Ireland on your face’. Though she wants to devour the landscape, the people, to express her connection, she discovers she doesn’t really belong.
Judy Brown’s ‘On not leaving the house all day’ is another unusual love poem, approached from a hyper-real angle. I like the spiky humour of the ‘business plan’ created by a ‘newer body’, and the message written ‘underneath my skin’, skin that is slumped, unwashed, ‘waxing the sofa’.
‘Pink’ by Michal Leibowitz is a very strong poem. The title gives you a false sense of security, suggesting much less challenging subject matter. I like the calm observations in this poem, and the sense of distance achieved by the use of second person. There’s no judgment, just a watchful stillness, ‘like watching a film in high resolution’. And then there is that lovely ending, of the skin of the pig being turned into something noble.
DAME CAROL ANN DUFFY DBE FRSL HonFBA HonFRSE is a Scottish poet and playwright. She is Professor of Contemporary Poetry at Manchester Metropolitan University, and was appointed Britain’s Poet Laureate in May 2009, the first woman, the first Scot, and the first openly gay or bisexual poet to hold the position. Her collections include Standing Female Nude, winner of a Scottish Arts Council Award; Selling Manhattan, which won a Somerset Maugham Award; Mean Time, which won the Whitbread Poetry Award; and Rapture, winner of the T S Eliot Prize.
It's not long now until the winner of the Women's Pamphlet Competition, judged by Amy Wack, is announced. Watch this space for more news!