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The winners of this year’s York Literature Festival / YorkMix.com Poetry Competition were announced at an award ceremony at Friargate Theatre on Sunday (March 26).

There was a record entry of 1,110 poems, submitted by 471 poets from throughout the UK.

Introducing the winning poems, competition judge Antony Dunn joked with the audience about the work involved in selecting winners from a mountain of entries.

He said: “Well, I’m broken. One thousand, one hundred and ten poems ago, I looked and sounded like a 25-year-old… ”

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But it had been an enthralling, inspiring and exciting job too.

Antony completed the evening with readings from his fourth collection of poems, the highly-acclaimed Take This One To Bed (Valley Press).

Below are the winning and Highly Commended poems, with Antony’s comments on them. The Commended poems also appear below.

At the end of this article are some observations and feedback from Antony which might be helpful to writers whose work was not selected.

First prize

Bernie at the source of her inspiration – the Yorkshire Arboretum at Castle Howard

The £500 first prize went to Birdsong by Malton-based writer Bernadette Cullen.

“When your poem’s up against 1,109 competitors, it doesn’t hurt to submit something out of the ordinary, which is exactly what our winner has done,” said judge Antony Dunn

“Immediately attention-grabbing, this poem went straight to the top of my yes-list and stayed there. Of course, it’s very easy to be attention-grabbing – dazzling, even – at first glance, but to be, ultimately, without substance.

“This winning poem is emphatically not that type of poem. It was great on the first reading and it remained great on the tenth. It remains great now.”

Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Cullen, who is studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, told the audience that the inspiration for her unusual poem had come from her work at the Yorkshire Arboretum at Castle Howard, where she is the Poet in Residence.

Bernie will be reading Birdsong and other poems alongside poets Liz Berry and Mark Pajak at the arboretum at the Solstice on June 21.

Birdsong by Bernadette Cullen

bleep bleep bleep

bleep bleep bleep bleep

we were finished        we were finished
so was he           no it’s not   no it’s not

 

could it not  could it not be you     could it not  could it not be you
yes it is     it is      it is       it is  it’s true  it’s true  it’s true  it’s true

was your fault      so they say     was your fault       so they say

no it’s not   no it’s not     come along come along       come along

yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes                                   gerrrofff

dream out   dream out                    stay with me          stay with me

 

I never get to seeeee you
I never get to seeeee you

 

what’s wrong with you all the time
what’s wrong with you all the time

I’m frigid        I’ll get my coat

I’m frigid  I’ll get my coat  cute

it’s broken don’t you know            it’s broken don’t you know

it’s broken don’t you know look look look   look look look look

when I want a kiss    it’s just you       it’s just you       it’s just you

I    couldn’t      even      contemplate        you ‘re not       you’re not

 

give it back give it back

give it back give it back

 

bicker bicker bicker        repeat

repeat repeat       peat peat peat

I told you I’ll not take the blame
I told you I’ll not take the blame

I need help            I need help

need need read  read read read

help                           help

give it up   give it up   give it up

Hear the author read the winning poem

Second Prize

Antony with prize winners Ruth McIlroy, Naomi Crosby and Sophie Kingsley

Ruth McIlroy from Sheffield won the second prize of £125 for her poem I Am Not Honest

Antony said: “I Am Not Honest leaves me a little perplexed. Which I enjoy, sometimes.

“I was won over by its second line, ‘My heart is a walnut’, and that idea of a heart being puckered, shrunken, hard. Hard to break.

“There’s an enticing mystery to this poem – nothing is quite clear. A line as apparently simple as ‘£904 is paid every month into my bank account’ offers nothing but mystery – it could be a salary, it could be maintenance payments, it could be a weirdly wonky blackmail payment.

“But its mystery is deepened by the poem’s final line – ‘I do not know how to pronounce Eurydice’. That last-minute reference to a woman who was almost, almost rescued from the underworld by a man who failed to follow one single, simple instruction, gives the poem an extraordinary emotional heft.”

I am not honest by Ruth McIlroy

 
I am not honest.

My heart is a walnut;

I know nothing.

I enjoy dozens of exotic holidays a year.

I’m a girl but I’ve just always loved a scrap.

Anyway.

I do not suffer fools;

I suffer larks.

I suffer a peck of Dull Rubbish.

I am nothing

if not.

I believe myself to have become a little brutal.

£904 is paid every month into my bank account.

I do not know how to pronounce Eurydice.

 

Third prize

The third prize of £75 went to Lines by Naomi Crosby, from Belper, Derbyshire.

Antony said: “A touch of comedy here. ‘I will not be oppressed by my apples… I will not be ruled by my plums.’

This is a poem which has an impressive confidence in itself. What could have been a slight and forgettable piece is transformed by language which, sparingly, suggests that something quite important is being examined.

“It’s a poem apparently about growing fruit and vegetables which turns, late in the day, on the stanza which reads, ‘Courgettes grow well when it’s warm; / I must catch them young to keep up. / I will keep up or I am lost.’

“And there, suddenly, the poem becomes universal.”

Lines by Naomi Crosby

 
I will not be oppressed by my apples.
I will not be oppressed by my apples.
I will not be oppressed by my apples.

I will not mind my failure to honour them;
I will celebrate the munificence of nature
and put it on the compost heap.

Broad beans are not my priority;
I hide them in the freezer.
I will not be reproached by broad beans.

Carrots require my commitment.
They do not grow in claggy soil.
I will not commit to fine loam.

Courgettes grow well when it’s warm;
I must catch them young to keep up.
I will keep up or I am lost.

I will not be ruled by my plums.
I will not be ruled by my plums.
I will not be ruled by my plums.

The York prize

The winner of the York prize, worth £50, was Sophie Kingsley with You Coming Out T’Play?

“From the moment I read it, You Coming Out? was always hanging around my short-shortlist,” said Antony.

“It’s a heart-breaking portrait of childhood friendships enduring through the mess of surrounding adulthood and, ultimately, fracturing under the pressure of adult experience.

“It’s a clear-eyed and bold poem, capturing much about the fault-lines of moving from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. And it’s sad, in that truthful way that rings all too true.”

You Coming Out T’Play? by Sophie Kingsley

 
“You comin’ owt t’ play?”

On long summer Saturdays
In plastic paddling pools
We lay in three inches of sun-warmed water

Letting the estate noises wash over

The crack dealer’s dog
Barking because he hasn’t been fed

And Margaret at number four
Blaring radio 2 in the garden
Gasping a ‘fuck you’ to her neighbors’
Through cigarette burnt lungs

Me, Hannah and Sarah
Sat in our knickers
Staring up at the sky
Choosing not to talk about
The bruises on Sarah’s arms
Eating only penguin bars
Because that’s all that’s in the fridge

Someone, somewhere
Listening to Shaggy and shagging

‘Banging on the bathroom floor – it wasn’t me!’
Repeated by the six year old
Strutting around in her mum’s bra and padding it some more

Knock a door run
On the old man with the punk pink hair
Who plasters faded pictures of the people’s princess
All over his flat windows

Me, Hannah and Sarah
Cupping our hands around our eyes
Looking up at the skies
And imagining we’re in a real swimming pool

I pick Portugal because I’ve been there
They say Scarborough
And we imagine eating fish and chips
Until the waters gone cold

Until my mum calls me home
And I don’t come out to play no more

Until Hannah’s been expelled
And Sarah’s got a newborn

Until I was brought up and they were brought down
And we don’t make eye contact in the street anymore

Highly commended poems

Cure by Mary-Clare Newsham, from Middlesbrough
Judge’s comment: “A poem that brilliantly examines the ways in which we survive and recuperate from our losses.”

This little island is dotted with windows and balconies
that sometimes I go to, lean out of, smoke cigarettes,
look down on another city I am trying to learn to call
home, and listen to my friends inside, pouring tea,
pouring wine, making playlists, spraying perfume,

Chopping lemons, she says, I have heard that
the cure for times like this is gin and a hot bath.
Makes you bleed out all these things you never
planned for. And even if it doesn’t work, you need
some time, to rest and be comfortable. To forget

The nights crying until you’re sick, yes, she says
(a different friend, a different city) yes, there is
a time for them. But there’s also a time for vodka
and dancing on tables.  Come on, going home and
reading poetry in the dark isn’t going to make you

Feel better, another friend messages. Come to
the pub with me, get yourself up and out. I say
I’m staying home, to wrap myself up warm in my
sadness, the same way she will in a new set of arms.
We are learning these temporary cures, the ones

Our mothers didn’t teach us, the flesh on flesh,
the back of the throat burning, the pain and then
the pleasure, and how much it helps us forget. But
we are returning, too, to the cures our mothers did
teach – sweet tea and raisin scones with full fat

cream. Writing in our journals, hot water bottles,
reading Emily Dickinson, watching hospital dramas
with juicy pears. We are trying to learn, too, that
this can all be enough. That the love will come and
it will go, and so too will the houses, the parents,

The siblings and friends.  Another friend smiles
from the other side of the church. Not all cures
are a cure for everyone. I read the drug reviews.
One says – this has saved me, more than once.
If your symptoms persist, seek help elsewhere.

URGENT by Lizzie Smith, from Edinburgh
Judge’s comment: “An infuriatingly redacted list of plants, apparently, which is the most addictive kind of puzzle. What on earth is going on in this poem?”

Daisy          not me, hive dive, torment ill,
Forget            bog cotton, bog asphodel, bog
        me         in        clove ragwort, ragged robin,
Butter-cup STOP Spot ted orchid,
no Lady’s Smock,            me not pollinate
Sweet violet, (not violate) self-heal,
Dent-de-lion          me not, note,
Grass of Parnassus, forget            forgotten –
Viper’s Bug loss,              not Knotweed,
Eyebright, no A, no Bee, no C,
Forget         , vetch, bird’s foot trefoil,
St John’s Wort, sneezewort, forget me     ,
Thrift, thistle, thy        me     , zzz,
Yarrow, bluebell, meadowsweet         me         hum,
Forget-me-not,      tant,      tinct, X X

Night Launderette, North Street by David Punter, from Blackwell, Bristol
Judge’s comment: “A poem which does what the best poems should – examines a universal situation by telling a specific, small-scale story.”

The washing-machine has broken down,
And so I am in a launderette.
It took me some time to find one.
There are launderettes in the student areas,
Of course, for when they do their own
Washing; but this is not that type of place.

It will close in ten minutes, I notice,
At 7.30. It has no practical reason
To close, it has no staff; but
It is very warm, like London’s Circle Line,
And so if it stayed open people might
Come to huddle or sleep, or stare until dawn

At a circulation of socks; and that
Cannot be allowed, everybody in a well-
Ordered state must go home, must
Be housed before curfew. I am not sure
I am in a well-ordered state, my laundry
Is all over the place, I have the wrong coins.

Nor am I sure, as I peer out through
The steam, that everybody here on North Street
Is in a well-ordered state; the ragged T-shirt
And worn-out trainers of the guy
At the bus-stop outside suggests a person
Left cold, perhaps very cold, by boom and bust.

But in here it is warm, the shirts and knickers
Revolve in interesting spirals. And from down the street,
As I look back, I see a promise of something
Cosy, well-ordered; and so I give my useless
Coins to a gruff, beseeching hand, of one
Not housed tonight, nor ordered; nor well-washed.

Voyeur by Gaia Holmes, from Halifax
Judge’s comment: “A kind of jealous rapture from a ‘just-about-managing’ narrator, which encapsulates resentment and envy in equal measure.”

The doctors
and solicitors of suburbia
are waking.
Barefoot and rosy
they glide around their houses
in sheer satin nighties
and thin pyjamas.

Up here, packed in layers
of socks and fleeces,
my knuckles are blue
and my rooms are cold.
Frost patterns my duvet.
Ice glitters on the spines
of my books
and my porridge
never boils.

Chilly voyeur, I squint
in to their central heated lives,
try to scrump some warmth
from those easy places
where butter melts into toast
without the need of hot knives,
honey oozes off cosy spoons,
Granola grains puff and swell
in tepid bowls
and milk does not freeze
around the Special K.

Even with good binoculars
I can’t see their breath.
I can’t see their feet touching the floor
as they float around their balmy kitchens.
I can’t tell if they’re human.

still married after all these years by Catherine Edmunds, from Bishop Auckland, County Durham
Judge’s comment: “An earthy, fleshy poem which isn’t afraid to explore the ickier bits of a relationship drying up or going any other kind of bad.”

 
I’m dried-up
mushrooms
punnet-loads
spored out
I’m dusty
I keep to the slow lane
my tires are cracked
I bounce
give whimpers
of fear or delight
because sex is something
that happens to others
I leak
I’m bags of parsnips
left in the back of the fridge
I am slime

I travel by tube
remembering the echo,
the blood-lust of trains
and for one sickly moment
I rub my groin
then stop
embarrassed
I smell of piss-farting
fabric conditioner

October
what happened to August?
I’ll do without springtime
but summer –
mangoes
fat hairy stones
wet skin
well-fucked
dewy-wet mornings
sloppy and sated

The Woman Who Married A Lego Man by Rachel Plummer, from Edinburgh
Judge’s comment: “A gloriously titled poem which shifts from the innocence of a new love to the cynicism of the disappointed and then to a strange, unsettling declaration of possession.”

I fell in love at six years old
and knew it was forever. Back then we were both new,
shiny from the box. I admired the plastic
up-turned egg-cup of his hair, the way it cradled
his cylindrical head like the palm of a hand.

People told me to move on to bigger things
but I loved the way he fit in my fingers.
I built us a succession of square homes,
mismatched bricks on a sheet of lurid grass,
my man stood by the French windows
beckoning.

As I grew, I grew
to appreciate other things;
his androgyny, the cubic smoothness where his genitals
should have been. I liked his habit
of keeping quiet, his manly stoicism, his small fists
endlessly offering.

How many women are lucky enough
to marry their childhood sweetheart?
I tell them he keeps me young.
I say I like them poseable. Stiff
upper lipped. A possession.

Commended poems

Grandpa Terry by Toby Campion, from Leicester

Grandpa Terry lets me stamp on his Stella cans
before he throws them away. They crunch
into metal mince pies and I tell him
to drink quicker so I can jump on more.

My sister performs a dance routine for him
Say You’ll be There by the Spice Girls –
and his cheeks are streams of tinsel.
The only boy of ten grandchildren,

I have perfected my surprised face
when unwrapping Superman merchandise.
My mum and dad give me the only present
I asked for; Winter Sports Barbie.

She comes drenched in a skin-tight glitter body-suit
and her hair is a crimped blizzard.
She looks how I imagine my dreams would look,
if I stuck their feet to a pink snowboard

and asked them to lose weight. I call her Angela.
Grandpa Terry watches from the backdoor
as Angela glides across the frozen lake
of my nan’s birdbath.

She sings Say You’ll be There
and skis through the air on her hands.
Behind me, I feel Grandpa Terry’s lips plié
open and closed, like my older cousins’ do

whenever I mention Santa;
wanting to say something, thinking better of it.
Avalanche stopping just short of the village.
Grandpa Terry crushes something below his foot,

turns his back, leaves me
an empty Stella can in the snow by the backdoor.

TROLL by Charlotte Cornell, from Whitstable, Kent

@AnnaThompson2 @TheSiennaFoy
Gr8 legs grls #thighgap #hothothot
Shrtr nxt time #minge
Show uz wot uve got.

@BigMuttLdn Thanx for the luv xxx
Wont go shortr! BF only north of the hem
#HeartisTaken #Forever
#Fans, Ure 1 of them.

@TheSiennaFoy R U takin the piss?
Im #Hard4You #DumpTheTwatNow
Actually straight up ure #Fugly
#BeastInClothes #Cow.

@BigMuttLdn Piss off u prick.
Go back to ure day job #WorldOfWarcraft
Rmbr the foto u sent?
It was so small my mum laughed.

@TheSiennaFoy U BITCH. U SCUD YAK.
U CAKE-FACED PIG.

@BigMuttLdn Ure Caps are on
#OnlyThingThatsBig

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CITY OF CULTURE by Sarah Stutt, from Beverley, East Yorkshire

I am an art installation,
blue-painted left breast
cold on the concrete
of Alfred Gelder Street.

I am a laser show,
all my tragedies cast
onto the City Hall, faces
I forget, bodies falling…

I am sharp as a blade
winging across the square,
come touch me, feel how
cold I’ve become, how

cumbersome, how unlikely
it is that any of us might fly.

Child by Sarah Dodd, from Leeds

My parents collected driftwood on the beach,
looked for pleasing angles, smooth bark,
the sea’s offerings of art; found, amongst the tangles
at the water’s edge, a twisted thing, unsteady limbs,
two knots for eyes, rough skin –
it pulsed with uncanny life, they said,
and gathered it into their arms. It was heavy
and smelled of salt water and rich soil.

On the way home it sat in the back seat of the car.
They whispered its name into where they thought
its ears would be; made a bed of blankets
under the kitchen table; said, that first night
they lay awake and listened, as if
they might hear uncertain footsteps
on the tiles, something nudging at the door.

Years passed. It didn’t grow up like children do.
I watched it warily on ever briefer visits home;
thought perhaps we’d find some common ground,
but I was always kept at arm’s length. We know
it’s hard to understand, my parents said,
until you’re a parent too –

One night I crept downstairs, curled myself around
the curve of its back and closed my eyes. Waited.
Salt crystals grew on my cheeks, anemones bloomed
dark green on the flesh of my arms; the sea came in
from the crack beneath the door and washed us both
clean and set us both down
on the shore of the early morning.

Last Word by Christopher North, Tulse Hill, SW. London

In 1997 there were fifty languages on the planet with only one speaker still alive.
By 2015 there were just eight.

Lost in distant steppes
of somewhere to the East

there is a bank of evening primrose
beside a mud road with

a centre strip of mayweed
hardheads smelling of pineapple.

The man at the window
has no word for pineapples.

He has a word for the ‘Via Lactea’,
that nightly glows above his roof.

It is similar to his word
for morning mist over the stream.

He had a word for evening primrose
but has forgotten it;

now they are nothing more to him
than his word for ‘flowers’.

The flowers have no words.
They only know their mechanisms:

their stretching upwards, brief flare
and then falling back to earth.

Sometimes a jet roars across the sky
leaving a tracer line that fades slowly.

He has never had a word for that.

Animal Sightings by Leslie Tate, Berkhamsted, Herts

1.

Oddbod and fumbler, blinking by the woods,
moving roughly,

not much with things and hole-bound in the dark,
grubby, like its prey,
the badger appeared to us once.

Dirtbag running, uneasy, in a shuffle,

reminds of those boys,
lost kids not noticed, wordless,
who take out scissors to their palms

and dig and dig and dig.

2.

The hare’s body has a tied-in electric cord.

On idle, it waits. When it feeds, invisible circuits
taking all-round measurements, read off its condition.

Each time it moves an exchange occurs,
a sniff, a nibble, a direction change,
with the wires not touching.

Its power-leads go deep. They charge up the bones.
As plug-ins they run back.

For the hare they’re endings:
cut and bundled in brown-grey strips
that reach up, tinderish, from the roots
where they pack in with sinews and knotted flesh.

Hot-wired, they spark.

3.

Leave it to the bank vole.
Old dry seeds, insects, leaves and fruit,
kernels, shavings, holes and cuttings,
scent paths, tooth marks, scrapings,
droppings, root-arounds, pickups.
With nose-tips, hidden.

Busy, inturned, febrile, and repeating
leave it to the bank vole.

4.

Like the hare, the vole, the badger,
the owl in the wood wasn’t really there.
Seen early it slid off, launched itself
at an angle, returning to the dark.

Or was there at the edge,
taking up its place in a thought-hush moment,
which it dream-fills, later,

with an all-animal strangeness.

Inventory by Brendon Cleaver, Leyton, East London

I have here one wallet
a gold cross and chain
pair of cufflinks
2 rings, keys
medallion with opera house
(souvenir type thing)
2 watches, very small cross
gold stud, glasses
mobile which I must charge
a flowered cap
Telstra bill for $163.39
child support account for which
$10,887.88 is owed
he seemed to be paying this off
at $40 a fortnight

have a think regarding his funeral
and let me know
you can contact the funeral director listed below
there are lots of others
but he sounds pretty reasonable
death certificate and registration
may be an extra cost
looking forward to hearing from you
must go home
it’s now 7.35pm here

Kummerspeck by Gaia Holmes, from Halifax

Grief needs feeding.
At first we feed it sweet and boneless things:
memories, halva, meringue,
the songs the gone used to sing.
We feed it whole boxes of Cornish fudge,
honey spooned straight from the jar,
cold custard sucked from the carton

and for a while, we appease it
until it starts begging for blood
and then we turn to the dead things
and though we’ve not touched flesh for years
we find ourselves in the supermarket
filling our trolleys with meat-
the reddest, most visceral kind:
packs of mince and liver,
black pudding, knotty hearts,
plump kidneys, slabs of beef and livid steaks-
things that leak and mourn in colour
in their polystyrene trays

and though we cook without tears
our lonely kitchens smell of dying.
Our garish fridges
stink of butchers’ gutters,
drift-tide rot, things on the turn,
gashes on the brink of gangrene.
Every meal’s a little wound
Our plates are holes
we cannot fill.
Like grief, our hunger’s
edgeless.

Kummerspeck is a German word used to describe the excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally translated it means ‘grief bacon’.

Broken Umbrella by Catherine Edmunds, from Bishop Auckland

She twists her wedding finger as she talks
and I see black holes; she fades
like a mechanical owl, flapping into darkness.

Someone shouts that the tea is ready
and I return to daylight.
She’s saying something about being a blood donor –
her hand slips, her umbrella falls to the ground

I lean down to pick it up and hesitate.
There’s something about broken umbrellas; dead birds.
She laughs, but I catch her fear
as she tears her finger until it bleeds.

Outside, cars are white with daytime frost.
I can smell gas. I tell her we should leave.
Her eyes glisten.

Blood And Soil by Rachel Plummer, from Edinburgh

In front of the bricked-in window
of the Polish greengrocer
blood poppies the pavement.

Such waste. I remember
Doctor Sokolsky’s blood, the bottle of it
kept on the bathroom windowsill

and how we, as children, would stand
on our toes to glimpse it
setting like a purple jelly through the green glass.

He brought them home,
all the spent samples his needle had drawn,
to spread on his garden for the roses.

Blood and soil, the Nazis said.
Ancestry and geography. We must keep
both pure.

I remember the doctor’s hysterical roses
holding their white handkerchiefs
to their flushed faces.

How prized they were in the village.
How people would talk.
How rich the soil.

In front of the bricked-in window
blood dries in tacky, movie-set splashes
on the impermeable tarmac. It reddens

no roots. I think of roses, sweet-scented
as menses. Of blood clotting against glass. Of what
we put into the earth, and what we take.

‘Don’t be downhearted’

York poetry judge Antony Dunn. Photograph: Sara Teresa

Not everyone can win of course. Antony Dunn explains what led him to reject the poems that did not make it.

“Not all the submitted poems were good. Some were beset by cliché, some tripped themselves up with a determination to rhyme which ruined the content of their lines, some were rhythmically incoherent, some were so personal they excluded the reader, some betrayed their authors as people who haven’t really engaged with the craft of poetry, which made me sad.

“Some were perfectly well-crafted but fell foul of a particularly pernicious problem – they were rhythmically tight, everything was spelled correctly, they had a coherent structure, they had a bit of a surprise in the last line, but they left the reader’s heart unchallenged and unchanged.

“As a creative writing tutor, it pains me to call them this, but I think I have to – the workshop poems.

“Don’t be downhearted if you didn’t end up on my list – another judge would likely have put you there.”

David Nicholson

David Nicholson

Fleet Street veteran & YorkMix editor-at-large, Dave Nick is a former editor of the Press (when it was the Yorkshire Evening Press). Loves music, poetry and York City FC

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