Prole Laureate competition
The Prole Laureate Poetry Competition, 2019
Congratulations to our Prole Laureate winners, 2019. All entries were judged ‘blind’ by our judge, Stuart A Paterson, whose comments appear below each poem, below. Many thanks for all your hard work, Stuart.
First Prize: £200, publication in Prole 28, late April, and here on our website.
In memory of Lesley Ann Downey 1954 - 1964
Sometimes I tell the story of my namesake,
of how my mother (when she was nurse Margaret)
met a young policeman in the hospital staff room
raw from listening to the evidence at Chester Assizes;
the 16-minute tape they’d had to sit through, found
in an old suitcase, station lost property, its ticket
in the spine of a prayer book, how he sat and wept
in his dark uniform, and she made him sugary tea.
How I was named for Lesley, for her ten short years,
for her joy at the Ancoats Boxing Day Fair, for her
wide-eyed trust of the world, her tartan frock, pink cardie
and red shoes, for how she called to God for Mummy.
And I picture my mother sat there listening,
her hand on his hand, the other on her belly, me not yet
kicking. She said she wanted to bring her back,
she wanted to bring her home.
A very real, touching, human poem encompassing a wide range of emotions & perspectives in such a short space. It’s spare, well crafted but not short on a punch & connecting us to a moment of equal horror & hope. This isn’t lazily reflective or self-indulgent poetry; these are words & images that take us right to the very terrible end of something which is forever linked to the beautiful beginning of another, dark mirror images, the nubs of life & death. I was very moved by its simplicity, humanity & truth.
Runners Up: £50, publication in Prole 28, late April, and here on our website.
The drunken Polish labourer, homesickness, and the 529
if there is god thinks Piotr
then this bus will not stop
at sentchiles sick tempull
places which he cannot name
places which all look the same
bus will not leave him in darkness
on dog-shit chip-box puddle pavement
cold flat waiting
if there is god, bus will drive through night
head south, east through towns
villages neon cities lit by rain
will fall idle only on boat, engine cooling
Piotr will swig at beer through sunrise
turn up music on his phone
see autobahn and kirche
from top deck front seat window
if there is god
bus will deliver him to dark bread,
barszcz, kielbasa, kopytka,
wódka, wódka, wódka
Piotr gazes out into blur of noo slain
knows bus will deliver him home
if there is god
if there is fockin god
(St Giles, Sikh Temple, and Noose Lane are stops on the 529 bus route from Wolverhampton to Walsall)
A poem which hits home with a very personal & widely recognized tone for anyone who’s ever missed particular anythings, everythings & anywheres of where they feel they belong. It’s especially apposite in the current toxic Brexit climate, where people forced into migration to find work in other countries are suddenly confronted with a new social ugliness to add to the geographical unfamiliarity. The ‘faux Polish’ accent of the poem could come across as awkward or even mocking but doesn’t – it feels real, uncomfortably honest & expressing desperate urgency to get away from a suddenly unfamiliar, hostile landscape & time.
He was good with his hands, me dad. He built
a lathe in the shed from old parts he'd probably got
from the factory. Come to think of it, he probably
built that shed too; but that was before my time.
With that lathe, he made things that were used
in every room of the house: table lamps, stools,
teapot stands, little occasional tables, with legs
so round and smooth you wondered how
a machine so dangerous and drillingly loud
could forge such beauty. Don’t get too close,
I was always told, and mind yer feet,
as the ground grew deep in shavings and sawdust,
with a smell so fresh and sweet you could almost
taste it; so damp and sticky it stuck to your shoes.
Wipe yer feet before you go in the house;
as if I were coming in from a walk in the woods.
He was a dab hand with wood and he made
lots of things, but when it came to talking,
you could hardly get a word out of him.
Where’s me dad? I’d ask
He's in the shed, said me mum.
A deceptively simple poem which speaks in a singular voice but for many, which good poetry (in my opinion) ought to do, amongst other things. Its conversational tone & language only partially masks a rich depth of feeling, history & commonality – I’m sure that many others apart from me will recognize, with no little emotion, the dad addressed here in such a lovingly unprepossessing way. The shed wasn’t always a physical shed but nonetheless….
Damon Young’s Thomas Bew’s Armistace – Wonderfully pictured portrait of an oft-visited theme, full of taut & heart-breaking image & emotion. Not just another ‘war poem’, it speaks to alternatively familiar & alien depths of experience & grief in a very knowable way.
Janet Philo’s Leaving Aoineadh Mòr (Inniesmore) 1824 – Poetry as both personal & visceral history, shining an unwavering light on the brutalities suffered by the voiceless many. Its lack of outright sentiment is its underplayed poetic strength.
Steve May’s (again) – The Pits – This is all about the rawness of language & memory brought together in a way so many can understand & empathise with. It’s the collective, angry yet eloquent voice of a working-class people whose voice isn’t expressed or heard nearly enough in the allegedly truthful world of modern poetry.
Steve Pottinger’s (again) Mother’s Day – Great paean to one of my own favoured poetry themes, the pub. A sustained, emotive & warm poem full of life & character.
Stuart A. Paterson is a poet writing in English and Scots who lives in Galloway, south-west Scotland. Past recipient of an Eric Gregory Award & Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, he is currently Writer in Residence for the Stove arts hub in Dumfries and was the BBC Scotland Poet in Residence 2017-18. His latest full collection is Looking South (Indigo Dreams, 2017). His poems have been published, anthologised and filmed worldwide. He likes too many things to mention but political & cultural centralisation isn’t among them.
The Prole Laureate Poetry Competition, 2018
The results are in!
Many thanks to Kate Garrett for doing a great job judging.
Winners, runners-up and commended are listed below, along with the judge's comments.
In the barn, my sofa stands in its puff of white breath,
heavy, patient, packed in tight with the herd,
waiting. I wait for it.
Downstairs, the afternoon moves heavily around the house,
a washing line turns slowly on its stalk,
the carpet in the hallway runs a sluggish ditch.
Back then, before they built on it, back then
the path stumped short into nettles, just fields,
arm of the sky bent round, empty.
Empty as pockets, empty as churches,
empty as milk pails rusting on gate posts.
I look out the windows milky with flat screens,
empty as ditches,
cold in the kitchen, biting like nettles,
sheeny as hoar frost.
Deep inside the bathroom I undress myself for you,
Down to the sedge and water, down to the beak of me,
sharp in the reed bed, down to the hidden.
I strip the light from my skin until I am overcast,
until I am cloud cover.
My man under the motorway,
flat out in the dark fields, seeding the hedges,
scratching your chest hair, wispy as larches,
pinking like evening, stitchwort and abattoir, bloody as Sedgemoor,
lipped up with cider, scraggy as winter.
You fetch each room, one by one, back to the marshes.
Plant forks and teaspoons, chairs for the heron’s nest,
propped up and broken,
the sky rusting over, smashed up with egg yolks,
water as mirror, water as leather, water as smoke, as trick,
a light under the door.
I stand in the empty
waiting for nothing.
Birds in the buckthorn, a house full of berries.
Runner up 1
Extra-marital morning on the edge of nowhere
Consider a knot, how I can loosen it without a knife.
The illicit intricacies of slipping, threading through.
His bed is a bowl, striped with unbound skylight blue,
brimful with the measure of us, replete with night.
In this sloth of upsidedown, we eye-trace eddies
of ceiling trees, windowed leaves that linocut across
our lazing clothes, a shadow-play of fish. Hands are beached,
with that salted quietude children feel, when surfeit hours
collapse in swimming air, toyful fingers still. His silence flexes,
stretches, turns, so that each fold, sweet escarpment, dip,
holds an attraction of light. It's strange how bone is wishful,
its transparency in sun, that breaking point of thigh and hip,
skin a quiet mouthfelt ripple. There could be drifts of days
like this, and too his coasting certainty in casual moorings.
Consider clairvoyance in a cloud, how familiar faces veer, voices
hollow, the negative of walls. How his front door closes, closes.
Runner up 2
toolbox for the penultimate age
electric can opener
you have assembled carefully
six months of ready-to-eat
protein-rich survival meals
now stacked in the basement
behind a torn Baby Jesus drape
the worst comes finally
to pass and you descend
the concrete steps to purgatory
of value packs
of beans in sauce and tuna
chunks, to find the power off
no old-school opener to hand
amid the inescapable
thunder clouds of Armageddon
remember to capture
smartphone portraits of yourself
mugging, gurning, pouting
in the background
in soft focus
and tsunami rip currents
suck corpses out to sea
while you make duckface
mishaps are unavoidable
troubles are insurmountable
fortunes are unimprovable
your world will pass without change
take happy pills instead
sand wins over quartz
at a time
the seconds ticking forward
become less pertinent
than the backward flow
of those remaining
a draining countdown
with mental echoes
of software freezing
of water boiling over
forget the abacus
teacher taught you
that it’s easier to count
friends, remaining hoard
of bottled water and preserves
with button clicks
and printed circuitry
the now fractured screen
makes the outcome unavoidable
4 + 2 = 6
9 – 3 = 6
6 x 0 = 6
at the end of the day
the rain of apocalypse
need not be a downer
lighten your mood with plastic kitsch
chosen from a catalogue of motifs
and a spectrum of striking backgrounds
a luminescent mouse
a sports team’s flag
a chili-red corporate logo
the umbrella’s runner has stuck
two stretchers inverted by the wind
but cartoon figures make world’s end
a celebration the whole family can cherish
do not resuscitate order
no signature necessary
As an editor, I always say I don’t know what I want until I see it, but judging a competition has forced me to reconsider this attitude. On some level it’s true – I don’t have topics or personal writing styles in mind, variety is very important – but I know there are a few things I don’t want: technical writing skill without an accompanying vision can be dull; a poem based in emotion with no technique floats away from itself; an edgy idea for the sake of itself is empty; a brilliant concept or story can be buried under heavy handed rhymes and stilted meter.
Then I realised, my very favourite poems always have three things: musicality, exceptionality, and heart. I love words that chime well together, unforced; I want what is being said (or left unsaid) to make me sit up and take notice; and I want to believe the poet believes in what they’ve said (or left unsaid), whatever ‘it’ happens to be.
And these poems include exactly those things.
I was entranced by ‘The Marshes’ from the first encounter, and loved it more with each subsequent reading. Who is John Dust? Maybe it’s better that I don’t know, because part of the allure is how the human narrator, domestic structures, and landscape twine together to give the poem its own mythology. The repetition and echoes of words and sounds – ‘empty’, ‘ditch’ / ‘ditches’ / ‘kitchen’, ‘sedge’ / ‘hedge’ / ‘Sedgemoor’, ‘milk’ / ‘milky’ and so on – feels like we are being plaited slowly and carefully into a world known intimately to the writer. This was my clear winner because it was difficult to remove myself from that world even as I read other poems.
The language in ‘Extra-marital morning on the edge of nowhere’ is simply beautiful, the subject approached from an unexpected angle; if this is about an affair, as the title would suggest, there’s nothing seedy or salacious on offer. This is a tender and achingly real reflection of the flaws and complexities we find in romantic relationships (‘extra-marital’ or otherwise) – ‘There could be drifts of days / like this, and too his coasting certainty in casual moorings.’
‘toolbox for the penultimate age’ was irresistible to me – the apocalypse we all know and love (at one of them, anyway, we seem to have so many options for the end of the human race now) viewed with dark humour through an assortment of useless or nearly-useless artifacts from our own everyday lives. The rhyme is spare and effective – ‘suck corpses out to sea / while you make duckface / pose / for posterity’ – and the last two lines are perfectly jarring. An oddball of a poem and I adore it.
Highly commended and commended
There isn’t the space for me to go in depth about the list of commended poems – but they needed to be mentioned and named, because every single one of them stayed with me long after reading them. Each of these eight poems lit up my brain as much as the winner and runners up, but of course there could only be three at the top. I know the commended poems will all go on to do wonderful things, and find homes in brilliant publications.
Highly commended -
Lady of the Garden – Laura Potts
Things not to include in a confessional poem – Myfanwy Fox
Cauldron Song – Kymm Coveney
Tangier – Alicia Fernández
Giant – Harriet David
Epidemic – Charles Lauder, Jnr
Mermaid on the number 3 - Emma Pursehouse
The sea swallows everything – Helen Goldsmith
Kate Garrett, 2018
Kate Garrett is the founding editor of Three Drops from a Cauldron / Three Drops Press and Picaroon Poetry. Her own work has been published widely online and in print journals, including: Rust + Moth, Hobo Camp Review, Blood Moon Rising, The Copperfield Review, The Literary Hatchet, Words Dance, Up the Staircase Quarterly, among others, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and longlisted for a Saboteur Award. She is the author of seven poetry and fiction pamphlets - the latest, You've never seen a doomsday like it, was published by Indigo Dreams in July 2017; and the next, Losing interest in the sound of petrichor, is forthcoming from The Black Light Engine Room press in early 2018. Kate was born in southwestern Ohio, but at 19 moved to England and has been here ever since. She lives in Sheffield with her husband, four children and a sleepy cat.
The Prole Laureate Poetry Competition, 2017
The results are in!
The Prole Laureate, 2017, is: Gareth Writer-Davies with Mushrooms. Many contratulations. Gareth wins £200 and publication in Prole 22.
Our runners up were: Joanne Key, with The Ice Giant; and Neil Young, with Steel Work. Joanne and Neil both win £50 and publication in Prole 22.
Many thanks for all your entries. All profits made help us to carry on as a print publication.
Also thanks to Macdara Woods, our fabulous judge.
The winning poems and the judges comments can be read below.
last night, I heard the cows mooing
like a man trying to start a chainsaw
my host said, they had probably eaten magic
and tomorrow's milk would have a real kick to it
the hill of the anchorite
is fiery with autumn bracken, as I take the steep way
of hawthorn and rabbits
my eyes large with last night's candlenight
the soft eruptions of agaric on toast
that had I known
I would have set aside
my portion for the cat, which tracks me now like a panther
is this how the cloistered life began
waiting for the master?
last night, I heard the owl snore
and buried myself in blankets
my eyes are large
the path between the trees narrows
The Ice Giant
Happy hour. We chip him
from fistfuls of crystal and gin.
O Children On The Rocks.
What have we done?
We have summoned the ice giant.
Called him in. Now the bedsheet
sails of the ice ship billow
along the garden path
as a mountain of cold
drifts towards us, parting
the darkness, leaving trees
to shiver in its wake.
We'll pay for this drunken alchemy.
We can't call it off. It's too late.
He's already on his way,
chinking his charms like dice.
Here comes the drop in temperature,
the old out of tune blues.
Midnight engulfs us, carries us
away to our beds. Heads lolling,
we hang on its cold shoulder,
legs dangling like dolls. Listen.
Can you hear him? He's here,
rattling around the old house,
misting its glass as he bursts
the pipes and searches
for the stop taps, destined to curse
the imperfect construction
of everything for all eternity.
Crack. Thump. Here he comes.
We'd know those square fists
anywhere, the clumsy chunks
of him. Half cut, he leans over
to get a look at us, side by side,
little icicles. His breath clings
to us as he goes about his business:
belittling our thin skin, threatening
to knock our blocks off.
Driving along those short-cut roads sometimes,
he’d brake the Astra mud-spattering to a halt,
point to a hangar or farmer’s barn
two fields or a misted hillside away
and say, “I built that.”
I watched him on a site visit one day,
pencilling over the draughtsman’s plan,
scaling a ladder with a roped joist
tilted like a mere plank in his right hand:
All the unblinking skill of an acrobat.
Everything had to be done to the best.
No-one else might know it, but he’d know
right down to a mucky foot of red oxide
Though I struggle now for a sign or map
to tell me where to stop or look
and I’m wondering ‘where the hell’s the plaque
for one who made such useful things
without any fuss?’ He signed them off
at the side of a van, moved on to the next.
I have yet to see anything that might deflect me from the view that poetry is essentially tangential, that the individual poem gets the energy to keep itself going from a constant bombarding of particles banging into one another. A kind of Hadron Collider of memories personal and public, learned and half forgotten, a plurality of languages, music, film, paintings, social and tribal rituals – sporting fixtures, anthems, flags and emblems, old photographs, all and everything that ever was, crashing together at incredible speeds.
Once you start naming the correspondences, as the French symbolists called them, you realize the list is literally endless, and the poem’s function, the poet’s dilemma, is to keep all these bits and pieces in the air at the same time in a kind of controlled chaos like the great CERN accelerator. And the dangerous and almost too likely possibility always remains, that, for whatever reason, the poet will lose control – or nerve – and all that energy dissipate into nothing.
It’s another kind of version of Icarus flying too near the sun: the more risks the poet takes, and gets away with, the better, truer, more urgent the finished piece will be. And this I believe is the central truth, well known to editors of literary magazines, of the difference between good, worthy, excellently-wrought poems as opposed to the few extraordinary moon-struck pieces that come in, direct from a place or occasion where poetry has happened, or a light has shone out from nowhere .
And, of course, we publish both.
I was immediately taken by this piece from first reading. It satisfactorily combines functional everyday language with almost arcane expressions: anchorite, eruption of agaric, cloistered life….the master. And the repeated alternations of speech and tone mirror - and enable – the switching back and forth in perspective, which from the opening is both strange and matter-of-fact. Cows mooing/ a man trying to start a chainsaw. They had probably eaten magic/ morning milk would have a kick. So in 4 lines the whole not-quite hallucinatory double-take of the poem has been set up, the shifting from one time to another, one consciousness to another. And this double-world is developed and maintained faultlessly and naturally to the final four lines, which draw the whole poem together – again by pinpointing two different time events as being almost simultaneously connected. The poem is true to itself and true to the poet on the steep path, with large wide-open eyes, like an owl’s, which we know do not improve vision, but as with atropine drops the enlarged pupils make it easier to look in. Everything is at the same time as secret, unspoken, to be interpreted, as it is clear and natural to the central unexplained figure, who is very much present and aware.
2. The Ice Giant
From its happy-hour opening this poem fizzes and jumps- not very happily, to its disturbingly inevitable threatening ending.
No more than with Mushrooms the question is not so much what is going on here as with how each stanza leaves us that much more informed. This is not a place we would like to be, or to have been. But it’s also not an unusual home scene. Certainly it makes me think a little of Sylvia Plath in the Daddy poems, of John Berryman, the stories of John Cheever, but interestingly enough the poem it most calls to mind is Elizabeth Bishop’s First Death in Nova Scotia. It has the same inexorable progression from O Children On The Rocks/what have we done, through to We can’t call it off. It’s too late, down to the final four lines. And it is all done through fragmented words and perceptions of children: the bed-sheet sails of the ice-ship, through the horror-movie He bursts the pipes and searches for the stop-taps, to the side by side little icicles. And when we come to the end and the almost-clownishness of Knock our blocks off, the poem doesn’t end. Like the never-ending songs that children like, we have to go back and check, and each time we do we find that sure enough we’ve been given true and wonderfully suggestive directions along the way.
I have nominated this poem because of its unyielding reality. From the title itself down to the last line and a half everything is hard, cold, difficult, work-a-day and unfanciful. The fifty eight year old plater-welder has no time for nonsense -- but takes immense pride in doing the job to the best of human ability. No one else might know of the (quite possibly unnecessary) extra effort put in, and certainly would not have thanked him for it unduly, but he himself would know right down to an unwanted neglected streak of rust. The doing it right was both the ethic and the aesthetic from which satisfaction derives.
And satisfaction there is, a creative achievement: the image of him stopping the Astra on some deserted country road and pointing to a functional structure in the distance is wonderful, as is the awesome finality of his statement, ‘I built that’. It is on a par with Swift’s remark when he read the Tale Of A Tub some twenty years after its first appearance: My God, what a genius I had when I wrote that book. Wonderment and bearing witness.
And the poet, in a sense, sees it most clearly of all: And I’m wondering where the hell’s the plaque for one who made such useful things without any fuss? The truth is there never was and never will be, the thing in itself is all there is. As the plater fulfilled his promise, signing his creations off at the side of a van, moving on to the next, he has already out-achieved the false and meretricious, and has made it to the dimension of Patrick Kavanagh’s Epic; where Homer’s Ghost comes whispering -- I made the Iliad of such a local row…..Gods make their own importance.
Macdara Woods, March 8 2017
Macdara Woods was born Dublin 1942. He has been publishing since the early sixties, and has lived and worked in many countries. He has read his poems widely, from Maxim Gorki Institut in Moscow to Berkeley in California, and from Toronto to Buenos Aires.
His work has been translated into some 15 languages.
He has published twenty books, 14 of them poetry, has issued a number of CDs and has worked with musicians and composers in Ireland, Italy and the U.S.
He is a founder editor (1975) of the literary magazine, Cyphers, which he still co-edits 40 years later.
His Collected Poems appeared from Dedalus Press, Dublin, in 2012, a chap book, From Sandymount To The Hill Of Howth, was published in 2014, and his latest book, Music From The Big Tent, was launched by Dedalus on May Day 2016.
You can buy Macdara's poetry here:
You can read Macdara's fine Strozza Capponi at Seventry-Three here:
The Prole Laureate Poetry Competition, 2016
Many thanks to all those who entered - and special thanks to our judge, Kate O'Shea. The quality and range of entries was excellent. We're very lucky editors! Winning poems are below with the judges comments.
First Prize - £200 and publication - Sharon Black, Fishing.
Runner up - £50 and publication - Mary Gilonne, Knot Collector
Runner up - £50 and publication - Rachael Smart, Butchery
Two small boys point, open-mouthed, as minnows throng,
flipping out the water in their struggle
and now bigger fish are muscling in, their pale undersides
catching the light, three large ones, rotating
round their meal like wheel spokes until
the bread slips from its hook
and drifts, jumping and plunging in turns,
taking with it
two small boys, in red striped shirts and matching shorts,
out past the stone jetty, the orange floats,
the empty moorings,
far from the harbor wall, from the eye
of their grandfather, stooped over his bucket,
fixing up another bait.
He handles rope with a lover's care.
Hours coil out with oiled manila,
sisal twist, twines of hay-sniff hemp,
flaxed, frayed in chandler drawers
waiting to be hitched and spliced,
fingers neat as needles, purled.
He's mastered all the ins and outs,
sheet-bend, sheep-clove, double-loop.
Berthed and cleated imaginary yachts
moored in every coir or juted port,
belayed his nights with alpine-butterflies,
abseiled nirvanas through sleep blind snow.
He diaries life in Inca cords, bedroom quipu
code quiet walls with strings of secrecy,
girls are lonely abacus in passing nodes
of red or blue, a tallying of fingered threads.
One day soon he'll noose a gallows-knot,
there's enough sweet slack to hang himself.
In the window a watermarked hog hangs
from a hook and a man with forget
in his midnight eyes wears a bullock's head,
slaughter on his boning knife
and I travel eight point six miles to drive by – no stopping,
one glimpse enough
to know that I’m famished,
the special cuts lean.
My father kept us in a bully tin
under his block, let the key warp,
the sort of man that never came
looking during hide and seek.
If I’m lucky, I see him skinning kids
as I pass, his new owner really cracks him up.
I wonder if he remembers the one about the girl
with her face pushed up against the glass.
Firstly I would like to thank each and every one of the proles and prowlers for their poems, time, cash and support. It is good to remind folk that Prole is the genuine article and does not get any Arts Council funding. It is truly independent.
The winning poem, Fishing, hooked my imagination straight away. It is not a perfect poem, good poems rarely are, and perfect poems rely on dry craft and never flutter in heart pleats. The poem has echoes of The Ball Poem by Berryman and that is why I like it. I am not going to bang on about the nuts and bolts of poetry here as I find that as barbarous as drowning kittens in a sack. Thank you and congrats to the writer for dropping me in a moment - 'wheel spokes', 'empty moorings' and 'the eye of their grandfather'.
Knot Collector had a personal resonance for me and I appreciated its directness. It is a very muscular poem. I can smell the sisal and hemp. My hands hurt. 'Strings of secrecy' is particularly loaded - it is also a rebuke, we are not puppets. Thank you to the writer for knot balking at tough subject matter and writing about daffodils or vegetables.
Butchery blew my mind mainly for the sound element and its grotesque-query in a Simic sort of way. There is no smulsh or nostalgia in the telling. It pounds like a sledgehammer determined to be heard. Well done and keep up the good work.
I would also like to express my gratitude to the lads, Phil and Brett for this marvellous opportunity and their unwavering faith in me.
Mise le meas
Prole Laureate 2015
Many thanks to all who entered this year's Prole Laureate Poetry Competition - Prole is independent, does not rely on or seek Arts Council funding, so any profits from our competitions go into ensuring the continuation of the magazine and of Prolebooks. Thank you also to this year's judge, Helen Ivory, who we think did us proud with her winning selections. You can read all three winning poems below and see who was highly commended. Thank you again to all who entered and all who helped spread the word. Congratulations to our very worthy winners: Wendy Pratt, £200; Victoria Gatehouse, £50; Jean Atkin, £50.
2015 Prole Laureate Poetry Competition winners
Red headed Children
If she had made it, if just one day
had been different, she would be
this little red headed girl, who passes
us in the beer garden. Here she is
as a toddler; wet cheeked, a little
thing of flailing legs in a buggy.
And again, she passes me as I walk
the dog. She is on the swings, she is
throwing a ball, she is staring out
of a bus window through a halo
of condensation. These ghosts
of four year old children come thick
and fast, they are crowding me out,
in the street in the shops, smiling
across the aisles. They corner me
amongst the school dresses
and corduroy coats. This beer garden
woman is wearing my striped dress,
she is carrying my bag over her arm.
My daughter dozes beside her, my life
draped over her like a sun shade.
So much has been said of me,
the girl in the red velvet cap
with her basket of cake and wine -
so sweet, so kind.
You think I wanted
that do-gooder woodcutter
to snip open the wolf?
It was dark in there,
so magnificently dark,
all the better to hear
the surge of his heart
through artery and valve
and I would have stayed,
would have raged through his blood
like a blizzard, clawed my fingers
into the pads of his paws,
his pelt, a hand-me-down coat,
his mouth, my mouth, dripping
from the last kill,
not knowing when or how
to stop, only knowing
to stay on this path, collecting stones,
would be the worst kind of death.
The Tattoo’d Man
has had a skinful, to go only by what shows.
His bull neck’s chained, a padlock swings
above its own hatched shadow.
In scrolling calligraphic script, his knife-arm
pledges faith in love, and brags
his unsurrendered soul.
His other arm is tidal. On the back-swell
of a bicep lolls a mermaid, tits
like limpets, eyes like stones.
An anchor’s lodged in flesh above
his wrist: its taut rope twists
across his sturdy, sandy bones.
But much of him’s of land, for as
he turns his face to yours,
an oak leaf grows towards
his mouth on sappy, pliant shoots.
Deep in the humus of his cheek
a splitting acorn roots.
With men, it’s never easy to be sure, but here’s
a one who’s tried to take the outside in.
He’s shifty as gulls and bitter as bark.
Every night he reads that skin:
his library of pain
and virtue, bright and thin.
Coracles, by Gareth Writer-Davies, and Finishing Touches, by Hannah Linden.
When judging a poetry competition, it becomes ever more apparent that a good poem is a well-made, stand-alone object. It needs not only to possess a heartbeat and the impulse that excited the writer to find words for the shapes in their head, it needs also, through the crafting process, to explore something the writer didn’t realise was in their head. This is the art and this is why poetry is difficult. And part of the art is making it look effortless.
My three winning poems do this in different ways. Third placed is The Tattoo’d Man, which sounds wonderful read out loud, resonant with half-rhymes and musical chimes as it is. The words could only have been packed in this order! I enjoyed the carnivalesque imagery of this poem and the final metaphor of the Tattoo’d Man, nightly reading his skin: his library of pain.
Second placed is Little Red – a ‘what if’ take on Little Red Riding Hood. What if the wolf was not sliced open by the woodman to rescue the girl? Girl would inhabit Wolf, grow visceral and animal; inhabit his skin. The alternative being the worst deathly fate – to stay on the path, collecting stones. This story has been taken on so many times; it was a thrill to find a new angle.
In first place, I have Red headed Children. The subject of this poem – the loss of a child - is of course a heart-breaking fact, but stating a heart-breaking fact does not alone make a powerful poem. The power of this poem lies in its understatement as it takes us through sightings of redheaded children in everyday places, who just for a second could be the narrator’s daughter. And then claustrophobia: ‘These ghosts/of four year old children come thick/ and fast, they are crowding me out . . .’ and then threateningly: ‘They corner me amongst the school dresses and corduroy coats.’ In the final image, a dozing child has explicitly become My daughter and the child’s mother is wearing the narrator’s dress and carrying her bag. The narrator’s life is given over to the child’s protection; is ‘draped over her like a sun shade. The woman’s whole life now, has become shade.’ For me, the implications of the sacrifice held in the simple words of this last image, resonate long after the poem has ended.
It is always difficult to pick winning poems from a shortlist of strong poems and I suppose this is where a certain amount of subjectivity comes in to the judging process. You are left with the poems that speak to your heart and take up residence in your head, as these have with me.
We’re thrilled to have Kate O’Shea as our judge this year. One time tabloid hack, Kate is probably the best-known unknown poet in Dublin and is widely published in international journals, anthologies and online. Her latest publications were in The Saranac Review, Orbis, Cyphers, Outburst, and Prole. Her chapbook, Crackpoet, is available on Amazon. She was short listed for the Cork Literary Review Poetry Manuscript Competition and the Patrick Kavanagh Award twice. Most recently she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in America. Kate’s work has featured on radio and has been translated into several languages.
Eight new poems will be published later this year in three anthologies.
Prole Laureate, 2014, first prize (£140 and publication in Prole 13)
It’s the first thing he tells you
the first thing he asks.
Did you see me on Jeremy Kyle?
He’s been repeated more than once.
A face pale as stone. Trod upon.
A field under rain, Lancashire voice
gently rising in slow strides,
o’s arching like arrows, or
over a door into a church,
words gone giddy with the height
or the load.
I ask him what he’s in here for?
For cars and other daft things,
things you wouldn’t like me for.
This kid has had his doors pushed open,
his mum a junkie, a gargoyle
growing table tomb grey
while he was bobbing in and out of care
like a queue for confession
waiting in the mercy seats,
all masonry stripped of colour,
all blue and gold broken and sold.
Liam, friends with everyone in prison,
sweatshirt too long in the arm
mouth too wide, face too wary
Him off the telly, Jezza, calling his ma
Liam next to her, knees to his chest,
ankles off the floor
That’s when I found out she was a prostitute
And the audience were shouting her down down
which only made me love her even more.
A cloud comes to the window in the spire above.
Liam runs back to his cell
before feeding time,
The Jeremy Kyle Show,
the bank holiday sleep,
the celebrity touched Easter weekend.
“Give him a round of applause”.
Liam, by Michael Crowley, immediately sets up a question in my head. There are so many Liams, famous or otherwise, which one will this be? It turns out to be a prisoner whose claim to fame is having been on reality TV, the child of great dysfunction, his fate is perhaps no surprise, but he's a chipper inmate and I was drawn to him. I especially liked the layering in the poem; there is active reporting going on, yet he comes through clearly. The description of his accent is inventive. I also enjoyed the use of different voices: the poet, Liam and the TV show host. The pathos of the final line is well judged. It is a worthy winner for tackling a difficult subject matter with grace and variation.
On An Afternoon Like This She Takes Another Lover
Prole Laureate, 2014, runner up (£30 and publication in Prole 13)
This afternoon you meet your new lover.
I’m in the outfield waiting on catches
while you smile that smile and give back his gaze.
I bend to dry my palms in the June dust
as you raise your glass beside a canal.
I cross to the other side of the square.
You note that he is left-handed, like me.
As you sidestep the man-trap of memory,
I revive an old Scott Walker song.
A wagtail threads its flight-path left to right
in the seconds his hand lingers on your leg.
And as you watch him walk inside the pub
you make your decision, while measuring
his length for the cabin bed. In my head
you are nowhere as the ball arcs skyward
and swirls my way. Steadying ourselves,
we prepare for the afternoon’s moment.
This says I will drop it. This says he will fit.
On An Afternoon Like This She Takes A New Lover, by Martin Malone, is well balanced; a poem in two parts about a relationship. I found the description of the cricket field and the meeting particularly effective. The last line is good in thought and lineation: a large cesura where things come to an end and restart for one and the other. Bravo.
Not all bees make honey
Prole Laureate, 2014, runner up (£30 and publication in Prole 13)
Sarah Grace Logan
Your skin spread with honey
spooned up while I lounge in
bed and wait to drink your
bitter morning kiss, claim
your cold, sugar-stirred mouth.
You lift my heavy limbs again.
My limbs flail and spin as
we claim the late summer
grass. The air smells of green
ponds, and holds the exhale
of dusk-chattering bats.
You lift my heavy limbs again.
We exhale, skin growing
sunshine hot like the sting
of wretched bees; drowsy
late crawlers, swarm-bereft,
drafting circles in grass.
You lift my heavy limbs again.
We've been warned not to hold
so tight, but I fold my
fist around you, even
though you have a sting; your
body hums and quivers.
You lift my heavy limbs again.
Not all bees make honey, by Sarah Logan, in the current fashion for bee poems, is a tender exploration of a relationship. I thought the repetition of the last line of each stanza was effective and I did not care that the precise meaning was not entirely clear. Not all lyric moments need to explain themselves.
Prole Laureate Competition, 2013
The entries to this year's Prole Laureate Poetry Competition were of a surprisingly high standard and we did not envy the task of DA Prince to pick three worthy winners. However, three winners there must be - and they are Emma Simon with her tritina Plait, Roy Mashall with Student and Andrew Wheler with Sunflowers. Emma Simon wins £130, and Roy Marshall and Andrew Wheler £30 each.
All three poems can be read in issue 10 of Prole, available from the home page.
Many thanks to all who entered and especially to our judge, DA Prince.
Prole Laureate, 2013, winning entries
Prole Laureate winner, 2013
The trick is to hold three braids in two hands
and ignore the logistics of mornings.
Wind the first over the second, then cross
the third over the first, and so on. Don't get cross
with wriggly fidgeting or arguments, slipping like hoarded minutes, out of hand.
Keep a zen-like calm in your fingers. Remember, even school mornings
don't last forever. Focus on this unremarkable Tuesday morning,
the soft nape and collar crease beneath the wonky plait. Let the yin yang of its criss cross
weave a tender magic, like a proverb handed
across the generations, mourning there is never enough time, nor enough hands.
Our judge’s comments:
This poem stood out immediately: an apparently simple first stanza, then an increasingly complex layering of language and ideas, and all concentrated within the action of plaiting a child’s hair before school. The poem brings in time, generations, mourning, but lightly, and it was only on the third reading that I noticed the form (a tritina). Subject and form support each other so effectively that they become inseparable: a memorable and impressive poem.
Prole Laureate runner up, 2013
The first of my many dead;
she washes, I dry,
dab his cheeks and lids,
change the water, roll him,
rub a sheet crease
from his back,
pat soft white buttocks,
take out catheter and cannula,
tape and press where blood
pools, thick as blackberry jam.
Julie’s brisk, careful as a cook,
talks to him as if he could hear
and there’s something in me
of the little boy, aproned,
allowed to help; his doughy-
ness perhaps, or the talc
like flour, as if this privilege
were a treat, the finished
parcel of taped sheets
something to be proud of.
Our judge’s comments:
This quiet poem grew stronger with each reading: it has stamina. The simplicity of the first line, the gentleness and dignity accorded to the unnamed dead, the shaping of the poem (just two sentences), and the modest pride shown at the end (yes, you can end a poem with a preposition) all came together to give a sense of completeness, both in the subject and the poem.
Prole Laureate runner up, 2013
When we stop by his house and it’s quiet and still,
we decide it’s too late to ring the bell.
We’ve been to the grave where your grandmother is,
his name already there next to hers. He lives
a short walk through sunflower fields
where each burning iris has consumed itself
in worship of the light that gave it life.
A thousand crestfallen heads, studded drunk with seed,
look down towards the ground to piece together
where they came from, and with blinded eyes
to make sense of their sudden weight
as one, like a Communist state funeral, or a mass,
or the crowds that pageants leave behind.
I don’t ask what makes you cry, my love,
when you lift a flower that grows by the wall.
I just wonder if he is asleep in there, and we say
we’ll come back tomorrow.
Our judge’s comments:
It was the tactful handling of grief and consolation in this poem that made it so effective, showing how we often avoid confronting painful emotion - particularly in someone we love - and find it easier to focus on something else. In this case it’s a huge field of seeding sunflowers, working both as metaphor and vivid landscape, held within the framework of the personal. A well-shaped poem.
Prole Laureate, 2012, winning entries
Winner, Prole Laureate competition, 2012
I spent all afternoon watching (and not watching)
from the shade of a Chinese parasol. My view of the spaced
out, white-on-green obscured by Riders of the Purple Sage.
Lost in the Wild West, I missed the tip-toe run,
the fingertip fling, the smack of the ball into the blue,
the backward leap, and the stinging catch.
If the drinkers outside the Barley Mow set up a hullabaloo,
I didn’t hear it. There might have been some polite applause
from the crowd – I didn’t hear it.
Your High Noon moment, the walk from the pavilion
to the crease, the crack of the wicket, the lonesome walk back
to the pavilion. I watched that.
Comments of our judge, Andrew McMillan: The temptation with “competition poems” is to make them as loud as possible, to make them about a specific issue or to simply have a rant and get something off your chest; competition poems are the kids in the class who always have their hand up trying to get attention. This poem is my winner because it does the opposite, it’s a mature, considered and very quiet poem - it makes its point subtly and rewards re-reading. It answers its own questions and still leaves some open at the end; the mastery over the caesura and the clever use of punctuation elevates the poem to another level. It is unfussy, unpretentious and beautiful.
Runner up, Prole Laureate, 2012
Stumbling, pissed on days off and knackered on days on,
and nights on and days on in an endless exhausting round;
skidding in the mashed-up snow, icicles like scalpels,
cold like water splashes to keep me awake on the wards;
white as the coat I wear so I'm not mistaken for a normal person.
Keep the eye on the prize. Spring. Summer. Social status.
A high salary. A solid, warm life. Snow just for skiing.
There was some other point to it but I can't remember now,
as I lurch from fractured hip to seasonal suicide to beaten wife;
just getting through it all, going through the motions,
slipping and sliding along and the shopping still to do,
and a party somewhere.
Comments of our judge, Andrew McMillan:This poem has the breathless cadence of Ginsberg, the direct honesty of Geoff Hattersley and a Poetry which, like all great poems, feels unique to the setting of the poem (“icicles like scalpels”, “mashed-up snow”). It’s a poem with a point, a social point, an emotional point, maybe even a political point - it’s a poem with a point but it’s putting it across subtly, it’s just telling us a story; there isn’t any shouting. There is a great attention here of how to weight a poem, the beautiful ending stranding the reader in the half-lived, half-empty life and asking them to find their own way out. The poem felt like a return to a British Beat sensibility - its relentless language, its rhythm, pull you through right to the end.
Runner up, Prole Laureate, 2012
I told my children lies
every morning, every nightfall -
all will be well,
she will recover,
he’s gone to a better place.
soothed their disappointments -
she didn’t mean it,
it was an accident,
you’ll forget her,
she told me how good
a father I had been
and that I was as sharp
years ahead of me.
I raised her well.
Comments of our judge, Andrew McMillan: A lesser poet would have taken pages, or maybe even a full collection, to say what Farry distils here into a beautifully simple poem. Ideas of genealogy, ageing and truth are handled with great care and given the space they need to breathe in the short, sparse lines. The ending is heartbreaking and well earned through a poem which builds itself on allusion, on half-told stories, on broken trusts; what sort of style could better imitate the life so many of us have known?
Prole Laureate 2011-2012,winning poem by Helen Ramoutsaki.
The up side
Inside your small world
you carve your daily bread sideways
with only one side up
to butter it on.
Year after year,
showing stern fingers shaking,
thou shalt nibble at the crumbs
and never be greedy.
Inside your hatch
hides a tin of caring, cariad,
all mouth-melting, griddle-cooked
for children to gobble at.
Grasping your basket,
sensible shopping, pension-eking,
penny by penny in a co-op book
stuck with stamps in line for a bingo.
Over a sloe gin,
sipped sour and surprising,
I hear you careering, black-out illicit,
down contrabanded country lanes.
Out in the avenue,
the children play tin-tan-topper
past the pigeons homing home
all in a line, counting polished doorsteps.
Choking on a woodbine
in adult-bar city-life amazement,
I’m offered lovers, fags and sports cars
and a single, faded photo.
I’ve been told now,
take your cake, eat it up,
relish it, each buttery currant,
before you’re left with only bread.
where to come home to roost,
trained to their place, compelled by duty
and a battered tray of grain.
Now I see the side you hide
and why you carefully cut,
buttering first so you’re not tempted
to choose which one it’s on.
Copyright Prolebooks 2009 - 2018