Poetry Prize 2022 – Judges’ Notes

We were once again blown away by the quality and variety of the poems in this year’s Poetry Prize. Mark Strand sums up our feelings well:

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

But now the poems have been read and re-read and re-read, the arguments had, the heart-breaking decisions made. And we wanted to share a bit about what brought us to the winning and shortlisted poems we were so excited to share with you.

What follows is, inevitably, a personal take and nothing we say is supposed to be a “rule”: these are just our thoughts and reflections. We tried to include things that we, as poets submitting to other competitions, would find useful to know, and to cast some light on what can at times feel like an opaque process.

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Moons and origami

There were some common themes in the poems we read. Covid was still influencing many poets. Grief and joy competed for dominance, while new beginnings started to bloom. Lovesickness remains hard to overcome.

Certain images also recurred: origami is a popular choice, as are roses, stars and grass. The moon still refuses to wane.

Using popular (stereotypical) images does not disqualify a poem. But you’re going to have to do something special with it to stand out!

If you’re writing an ode to origami, make sure you’ve considered all the connotations of folded paper. If you want to use the moon as a symbol, think carefully about what this is adding to your poem.

Vivid imagery makes a poem stand out

When reading through lots of poems, we found those which centred on a vivid and unique image had an easier job standing out. Being grounded in a concrete image can really make a poem pop and bring it to life. If a poem stays entirely at the abstract level and refuses to engage with anything real life, it can be harder to grab the reader’s attention and imagination. This can be in the form of an interesting metaphor or specific (relevant) details.

Standing out is not just about making an immediate impact. The winning poems often emerged in the later stages as those ones which dug in their claws and didn’t let us go. The vital hook, in many cases, was a wonderful image which we couldn’t get out of our heads.

Punctuation can be powerful

Punctuation can often be forgotten by poets focused on the bigger picture. But small can be mighty and we found that impactful or sloppy use of punctuation had the power to make or break poems.

Use commas, which help the reader navigate your poem, making it easier to read. And use fullstops. They can add drama. And flow. And if you’re feeling creative, experiment with colons: a beautiful image can follow. And dashes – though be a bit careful with these – to bracket off different parts of a poem.

Don’t feel the need to go big

Another thing we found was that a good poem doesn’t always need to be about the Big Themes. Often those that did strive for grandeur slipped into generalisation. We don’t want to put anyone off writing about Truth or Life or The Meaning of It All. But don’t feel like you have to. And only write BIG if you have something to say, such as bringing your own personal angle to these well-trodden topics.

Get out your red pen and be brutal with the cuts

A number of poems came across rather waffly and padded out and felt, well, like they could do with a brutal edit. Don’t be scared to make big cuts. One good place to look for edits is often at the beginning and end of a poem. It is natural to feel the need to start by setting the scene. But when your poem is so short, you don’t want to waste your first few lines describing the misty morning and the songbird’s warbling if they are not going to make a reappearance later in the poem. Jump straight into the action. Equally, resist the urge to add a last line neatly summing everything up. You’re not writing a school essay which requires the obligatory ‘In conclusion…’ to finish. Trust your reader. They don’t need to be handheld all the way through the poem.

Top tip: Set up a new file where you keep all the lines which don’t make the final version of your poem – they might just make the perfect springboard into a new piece!

Re-read, re-read, re-read

We know it’s obvious but it really is important to re-read your poem before submitting. Remember that to get through to the shortlist, a poem needs to be able to withstand many rounds of judging. It’s on these re-readings that the annoying little typo we were willing to overlook initially really starts to grate, the lack of internal coherence is exposed and a hastily chosen word finds it suddenly has nowhere to hide.

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Here are four things you can do right away to get your poems straight back out there:

(1) Re-read your poem

(2) Re-edit. Have another look and see if there are any (small) tweaks you would now make. Is every word contributing to the overall effect of the poem? Have you thought carefully about line breaks and form?

(3) Re-submit. Find somewhere else to send your poem! Don’t delay: send it straight back out there to another competition or journal.

Then, (4) Bookmark this page ready for next year! The Briefly Write Poetry Prize 2023 will open next May/June. It will be FREE to enter again… and we’d love to read another entry from you.


My Daughter Asks Me If I Was Happy

Sherre Vernon


Hinge of the fridge, fingernail. Trace
sand & a dancing dress. Hair up. Last
dance—burgundy crushed on velvet,
smiling. First dance—white at the mid-
night thighs, borrowed fit. My mouth
a row—clavicles bare, pins. Cat back
in. Thumbs tack in. Pebbles tracked
in. & grandmother curls—blue, black, silver.


Sherre Vernon (she/her/hers) is the author of two award-winning chapbooks: Green Ink Wings and The Name is Perilous. Sherre has been published in journals such as TAB and The Chestnut Review, nominated for Best of the Net, and anthologized in several collections including Fat & Queer and Best Small Fictions. Flame Nebula, Bright Nova, her full-length poetry collection, is available at Main Street Rag.

sapling

Laura Theis


this sprouting acorn is a little ragamuffin
who’s never been to nursery

she’s never met her mother
she raised herself in bitter rain-soaked earth

but one day she’ll grow up to be
an illustrious oak of renown

she will show them all
she will outgrow them all


Laura Theis‘ work is widely anthologised and appears in Poetry, Mslexia, Rattle, Aesthetica, etc. Her Elgin-Award-nominated debut ‘how to extricate yourself’, an Oxford Poetry Library Book-of-the-Month, won the Brian Dempsey Memorial Prize. A current Women Poets’ Prize finalist, she received the AM Heath Prize, Oxford Brookes Poetry Prize, Mogford Prize, Hammond House International Literary Award, and a 2022 Forward Prize nomination.

We, too, in summer sun

Tehnuka


Broken branches and tangled leaves strewn over the river
swirl at each eddy:
scattered passengers borne on shimmering water
In another time they might have been one tree
holding tight to one another –
but the storm is over and they can rest,
drifting slowly apart at the pull of the current.

We, too, could float downstream,
warming our faces in summer sun.


Tehnuka was shortlisted in the Briefly Write Poetry Prize 2022.

My Father Taught Me To Touch Fire

Suchita Senthil Kumar


My father taught me to touch fire
when I was younger as though
he knew I’d spend my whole life 
seeking something that would burn me.

He never taught me to heal
the charred and dead skin but always
reminded me to put the flame off –
the art of killing something that killed you.


Suchita Senthil Kumar is a writer creating chaos from Bangalore, India. Her work has been published in Live Wire India and Brave Voices Magazine, among others. She was a student of UNICEF’s Voices of Youth Mediathon ’21. She makes life decisions asking herself one question: Will Sirius Black be proud?

The Lost Girls

Halle George


at twelve
they tell Peter
fly
fly forever
take what you want boy

at twelve
they tell Wendy
be prepared to fall from the sky
you’re too old
take off your blue nightgown


Halle George is a writer who spends most of the day working in advertising. She’s previously been published in Midsummer’s Eve. She lives in Los Angeles with a ficus named Jim.

I, Having Been Bitten by an Angel

Beattie


I, having been bitten by an angel –
I am going through a lostness.

I am hoping to be done with it
before the mould on the window returns.

I am refusing everything. I am waiting for the room

to flood with trumpets. I am waiting for my hair
to grow and be grabbed by a man come to save me.

Fistfuls of nobody, parched and sweaty in the dark.


Beattie is a writer and lapsed drag queen from Merseyside. They were the winner of the Chester Cathedral Young Poets’ Competition and were longlisted for the Spelt Poetry Competition. Their work has appeared in Datableed and Travesties?!.

Wattle & Daub

Al McClimens


Throw enough mud, they said,
and some of it will stick to the wall.

The wall? Why didn’t I think of that?
I’ve been throwing mud at nothing

in particular. And now they tell me,
now, when I have filthy hands

and a clean wall. My apologies.
Mind your fingers turning the page.


Al McClimens is a Sheffield-based writer who is old enough to know better. An unemployed waster, Scrabble fan and lapsed socialist, he reads a novel a week and writes a poem a day. His literary ambition is to replace Don ‘Dundee’ Paterson as UK sonnet king.

Synodic

Ellen Clayton


It’s 35 degrees, a burning July day
and the metallic, coppery stench is overpowering
as I stand in the shower, pressing the ball of my foot
onto black fabric and watching my blood seep
out, washing away. Another month, cycle, shedding.
It is a kind of cleanse, a small sense
of renewal as I keep pushing
my toes to watch more blood
drain away, drain away, drain away.


Ellen Clayton is a poet from Suffolk, England. Her poetry has been published in various online and print publications, including Capsule Stories, Nightingale & Sparrow and Brave Voices magazine. Her debut chapbook, Home Baked, was published in April 2022 by Bent Key Publishing. More of her work can be found on Instagram (@ellen_writes_poems).

Crow Boy

Galia Admoni


He would like me better
if I wrote about trees
or lamented on leaves
or mused on moss.

When you grow up
in a city
you don’t have the language
to show fervour for forests.

I like a crunchy leaf as much as the next person.
But that’s not enough.


Galia Admoni is Head of English at a school in London. She has poems in Bad Lilies, Anthropocene, Atrium, Streetcake and others. She is forthcoming in both Under your Pillow and Sex Tape Digest anthologies. She has lectured at Shakespeare Institute, BFI, British Library and is committee member for the London Association-Teaching of English. Her debut pamphlet will be published in 2024. Follow her on Twitter (@galiamelon).