Briefly Write Poetry Prize 2021 – Judges’ Notes

Three weeks ago, we released the winners of the inaugural Briefly Write Poetry Prize. If you haven’t yet read the winning and commended poems, you can do so here.

Now the dust has settled, we thought it would be a good time to share a few brief observations from the judging process. We hope this will shine a light on our decision making and provide greater insight into our aesthetic.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “to judge” as:

To form, give, or have as an opinion, or to decide about something or someone, especially after thinking carefully…

We can confirm that:

  1. We thought very carefully about our choices
  2. We were deciding about something (a poem) not someone (a poet) – we read all entries anonymously

The following points aim to reveal some of the factors that helped us form our opinion of the poems we read.

Judges’ Notes

As with any competition, a dozen different judges might pick a dozen different winners. Nothing we say below is supposed to be a “rule”: these are just our thoughts and reflections on reading 1,412 poems and picking our favourites.

  1. Think carefully about your idea. No matter how beautifully you craft your poem, if you’re not inspired by what you’re writing it will probably show. Give us something authentic, something you care about, something that only you could write. When we’re reading so many poems, those quirky snapshots which illuminate the poet’s own unique experience are usually the ones that shine through.
  2. Avoid the obvious. This follows on from the previous point: make your writing unique. We had hundreds of poems about heartbreak, love, dogs or poetry. These can all be interesting topics – if that’s what speaks to you, knock our socks off with a brilliant heartbreak ballad. But remember you will be competing to stand out among hundreds of very similar poems.
  3. Make every word count. This may sound like a cliché, but it’s not: when it came down to the final decisions, some brilliant poems missed out on the longlist or shortlist due to a single word that seemed hastily chosen or badly placed. You should know why you’ve chosen every word. This doesn’t need to be a ‘poetic’ justification: “it just feels right” can be a perfectly valid reason. But when a rose is described as “beautiful” or a night’s sky as “dark” in three consecutive entries, we can’t help feeling like the poets missed a chance to sparkle.
  4. Don’t over-write. This might seem contradictory to number 3, but it’s not: we want well-worked not over-worked. Often, when people try to write in a ‘poetic’ style, the result is an overly embellished poem that lacks authenticity. If you want to write like Shakespeare, that’s fine… but we still want to hear your voice. Use rhyme or don’t use rhyme – both techniques can be used creatively and to great effect – but please don’t feel like you need to use rhyme just because that’s what your Year 9 English teacher said a poem has to do.
  5. Let it breathe. We read a lot of poems that didn’t quite feel ready, work that could have been improved with a little more time and care. The Poetry Prize was open for three months and we recommend you wait a few days (or weeks or months) after writing your poem before you send it. We read generously but a sloppy, typo-laden entry will not make a good impression. Check line breaks, word choice, rhythm. Speak your poem out loud to make sure it sounds how it does in your head.
  6. Don’t forget the title. A surprising number of poems were called ‘Untitled’. It’s fine if that’s your thing, but when you only have ten lines to impress, the title can do a lot of work.
  7. Choose a good title! Several promising poems were let down by slap-dash, irrelevant or uninteresting titles. A strong title can be tantalising, tingling, informative and intriguing. Use it to tease our poetry senses: a title gives you the opportunity to set the stage, to tweak and play with the reader’s emotional state. Don’t give it all away before we’ve read the poem and don’t try to be too ‘out there’ for the sake of being ‘out there’. But do make the most of the opportunity to excite us in the first few words.
  8. Think big. As well as individual word choice, think about the larger structure. Can you use line breaks creatively or disruptively? Is the layout important to the message? If a poet does not think enough about the overall effect, a beautiful poem can become dense with too many unrelated images.
  9. Get the ending right. Poets often stress over the opening lines, but very few poems were turned down based on a poor opening alone. More often it’s the final lines that let a piece down. It’s very tempting to hammer home the key points at the end – but doing so usually results in a sense of over-writing. Trust your reader: if you’ve constructed a beautiful metaphor about a juniper bush and your first love, leave it to blossom in the reader’s imagination – don’t destroy the image by explaining that the juniper now reminds you of those idyllic days and you’re feeling sad you’ll never get to re-live them.

Girl at the Beach

Valerie Nieman


She digs intently
with her pink shovel,

saying “Daddy, Daddy,
Daddy.”

She keeps working.
Something is down there.

She doesn’t ask for
his help. Just his witness.


Valerie Nieman’s latest novel, In the Lonely Backwater, joins To the Bones and three earlier novels as well as three poetry collections, including Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, she is an NEA recipient, a former journalist and professor of creative writing.

It’s Too Late to be Asleep

Eamonn McKeon


Potential

        without time

is a candle

        in an airless room.

Sometimes I am fearful that I will live in that room

        and there will be no windows

        no gaps in the wall

        nothing

a mirror

        nothing.


Eamonn McKeon is a writer from Purley, South London. He graduated from the University of Warwick with an MA in Writing in 2021, and is currently a PhD candidate. He mostly writes prose fiction, but has spent a great deal of time reading and writing poetry in the past year.

Thistles in August

CB McCall


We were
giants: punk-spiked
and purple-coiffed. We wilt,
and let our down-cradled children
take flight.


CB McCall writes short stories, long stories and bits of poetry. Sometimes she finishes them. Occasionally they even find their way into print. She lives in Nottinghamshire on the edge of Sherwood Forest, which is nowhere near as inspiring as it sounds.

Paper Dolls

Tamanda Kanjaye


My friends and I
For the entirety of our lives
Have been folded up
Into prettier shapes and smaller size

We are beautiful origami
Held in place by glue and tape
So that we dare never unravel
So that we dare never escape


Tamanda Kanajye is a 20-something-year-old Malawian writer and poet who romanticises the idea of the fragility of the human experience. She writes stories about tenderness, misery, vulnerability, self-destruction and flirts with concepts of hope, salvation and possible redemption. Find her on Twitter (@t_kanjaye).

Insect Life

Martin Heavisides


Don’t know what the insect was called
with the light brown three-sectioned body
see-through brown wings that shimmered into stillness on my arm
but when I showed it to the woman sitting nearest me
in a party of ten at the beach
she thought it was annoying me and tried to kill it.


Martin Heavisides‘ prose is legendary among a more select coterie of devotees than he’d prefer: published in FRiGG, Mad Hatter’s Review, Feast of Laughter, Sein und Werden, among journals of discerning taste. Empty Bowl was given a live staged reading at Living Theatre, New York and another play, CSI Grandma’s House has had a live reading on Zoom with Quarantine Players.

By the Potting Shed

Virginia Boudreau


Your child swing sways and wood smoke
fades in a wrinkled sky.
An owl hoots, a branch snaps.
It could be years ago again.

I look past my reflection in the window,
see crow’s feet in the snow.


Virginia Boudreau is a retired teacher from Nova Scotia, Canada. Her writing has appeared in a wide variety of international literary publications including The New York Times, Palette Poetry, Grain, Sylvia Magazine, and Westerly. She has finally completed her first poetry manuscript, twenty years later than planned.

At the Burial

Faiz Ahmad


As they haul her down
in a white cotton shroud

a few feet into the earth
upon the bamboo bed

the assembly of mourners
huddles close, listening to

the flutter of their white kurtas
outlining the shape of winds

bending unbending
the dandelion stalks.


Faiz Ahmad is a recent graduate in Biological Sciences, IIT Madras, India. His work appears or is forthcoming in Poetry Daily, Denver Quarterly, Poetry Northwest, Salamander, Carousel and others.

Waterloo & City

Ilias Tsagas



A tiny part of a vast network
with no intermediate stops
yet a line of its own
running straight to the point.


Ilias Tsagas is a Greek poet living in London and he writes poetry in English and in Greek. His poems have appeared at the Sand Journal, The Shanghai Literary Review, the Away With Words Anthology (Vol 4) and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter (@Ilias_Energia).

Telling my Granddad I Like Girls

Nadia Lines


The truth lines my throat like a cold.
My round mouthed nan is being
mildly homophobic in that

product-of-their-time kind of way.
My granddad leans to me, a willow
arching over a river, and whispers

‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol
is the saddest poem I’ve ever read.’
‘Yes,’ I say ‘Yes’.


Nadia Lines is a nineteen-year-old poet from Hertfordshire. She is currently reading English at the University of Cambridge. She was a 2019 Foyle Young Poet of the Year, and a winner of the 2019 Orwell Youth Prize and the 2020 Tower Poetry Competition. She loves Keats.