York Poetry Prize 2020: Here are the winning poems, read by the poets themselves

Pauline Bonaparte as Venus by Antonio Canova. Photograph: Architas on Wikipedia
19 May 2020 @ 10.51 am
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A visit to an art gallery in Rome was the inspiration for the winner of this year’s York Poetry Prize.

The statue of Pauline Bonaparte as Venus by Antonio Canova caught the attention of writer Michaela Coplen in the Galleria Borghese.

Our judge, Sean O’Brien, picked Michaela’s poem, Venus Victrix, from a record entry of 1,139 poems submitted by 497 poets.

The event, organised by YorkMix in association with York Literature Festival, attracted a bumper international entry, with non-UK entrants taking several of the top awards.

Indeed, Michaela, a PhD student who also teaches at Oxford University, hails originally from New York.

Lockdown has meant we have had to cancel our planned awards event. Instead, many of our winning and commended poets have shared video introducing themselves and  their poems.

The videos are below, together with the poems and the judge’s comments on the top prize-winners.


Winner

Venus Victrix by Michaela Coplen (Oxford)

£600 prize

VENUS VICTRIX

After Antonio Canova, “Pauline Bonaparte as Venus Victrix”

Because we are American & he’s very
bored, we catch a glimpse of the unknown coast
& say We’ll take it all. So we drive east
from Portugal & find our way by sight:
long days, like languages, entwined —
conjoined by too-short nights — the Continent
more like a series of lunches, rooms
with a view to undress into

 

If I’m not careful, life unfolds
like a series of chooseable choices.

I can see almost to this one’s end —
the map flattens before me
               ( but what would be the arc of life
               if love were the only constituency? )

 

Later my mother asks me if I feel
bought, being paid for.

 

She means the travel, the cashmere
coat — but reminds me of my education.

 

In the Vatican, I do not look for God
though I am seen by many —
                                            So much of all
I am & have I owe to some beholder
                                                       ( See
how I paint myself into a scene? How I paint
myself into a corner? )
                                  Michelangelo did not
after all, lay flat, but stood, arching
backwards
               ( Am I not worth that patronage?
I love like the Sistine ceiling )

 

                                             In Borghese’s house
Ms. Bonaparte reclines on a marble couch — her ease
the ease of the moneyed few & the truly free

Judge’s comment:

‘Venus Victrix is a subtle and musically assured dramatic monologue which revisits a theme that has fascinated American writers since Henry James and Edith Wharton – the American in Europe, in this case a young woman. The voice is engaging, her mood complex, and without quite stating it she carries out an argument between two mutually incompatible ideas of value – the financial and the aesthetic – on which her own culture and that of Europe uneasily depend.’


Second prize

Endnotes by Felicity Sheehy (Cambridge)

£150 prize

Felicity writes: “I’m a poet from the Hudson Valley of New York, and I’m currently a PhD student at Cambridge. My poem is an elegy for a childhood friend. I find the poem difficult to speak about, and I found it difficult to write, so I hope it stands on its own.”

Endnotes

In time I thought I understood
how it must have been for you, driven
as I was to the worst details: what
the newscasters didn’t say, where
the prosecution stopped. I was wrong.
I often am. You knew this. As I knew
you, as you were: all the late days
of our late teens. How often you
would say, in rapid beat good things
to come
. How that belief repeated
in your heart. How now I cannot think
except to think: even your death was
not half-hearted. You blazed onto
the screen, like someone else. The girl
on the television. The girl hit
by a car. The girl dragged. Dragged
through the streets. Hundreds of feet.
Left. Died. Died hours later. Died
in her hospital bed, before her father
could arrive. Whose name headlined
the news that night, and nights to come,
whose name I could not say for months,
living, as it was, on other people’s lips.
Forgive me. Forgive me for forgetting.
Even now I am confused. Even now
I am down that darkened street,
where you lay on your back, the way
we did in Vermont, stars out,
shoes off. The image of your shoe
the networks played, again and again.
The red fleck on its side. Not you.
Not you. Now. I will say what you are,
what I could not say before you were.
You. Always younger than me. Always
walking to that house on the green.
Sweater lost. Looking ahead. Small girl.
Freckly girl. Fierce girl. Wrong again.

Judge’s comment:

‘Endnotes provided stiff competition for the overall winner in its treatment of the terrible death of a young woman who was protesting against the Alt-Right demonstration in Virginia in 2017. The poem balances unadorned language with effective use of the passive voice to describe the accident, along with a series of key repetitions – ‘How’, ‘The girl’, for example, and the omission of verbs to evoke a state of baffled incredulity. The poet refreshes – in a tragic sense – the idea that the personal is political, and that none of us are outside history or excused from it.’


Third prize

Desire by Colin Cutler (North Carolina)

£100 prize

Colin is no stranger to York. A former student at York St John, he graced the city’s open mic music scene for two years before working in Romania and, latterly, returning to his home in North Carolina. As his poem is in ballad form, Colin has sent us a musical version.

Desire

I stepped outside the chapel and stood
beside a bush, lit
the wandering mind’s synapses
with my last cigarette.

You walked out the door behind me;
I could feel the catch of breath
hanging in between us–
I turned, you smiled and left

me pondering how the eyes will
settle on the soul’s desire.
And then each leaf stood on its branch
and spoke in tongues of fire.

Judge’s comment:

‘Desire does a great deal of work while seeming to do very little. It gives us just enough implied narrative, and it does so by speaking to the object of desire in a matter-of-fact way, perhaps already accepting disappointment. The startling image of the leaves speaking in tongues of fire is heightened by the religious context, and the poem’s success is sealed when the half-rhymes of the first two stanzas are replaced with a full rhyme in the final stanza, to suggest perhaps that the condition of desire is irrevocable.’


Fourth prize

Wedding Photo by Peter Allmond (Charlbury, Oxfordshire)

£50 prize

Peter writes: “I started writing about five years ago when I retired. Many years back I worked as an actor, then co-ran a theatre group in St. Paul’s Bristol.

“I worked as a plumber, then stall holder, then a door-to-door vegetable round from the back of a van, then general and psychiatric nursing, and finally ending up working at the Bodleian Library, Oxford. So, a very settled life, knowing from the word go exactly what I wanted to do.

“The Wedding Photo is on my bedroom window sill, taken just after the war. My mother is pregnant with me, and dad is in uniform. It is a still-life moment of love, before life takes over again, though the child in the man (me, in this case) never quite gives up hope that 

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Julian of Norwich says it better (and in fewer words!) than I can.”

Wedding Photo

Light breaking after the war,
the two of them beneath a recovering sky
aglow with each other. No sign
of the blessing priest, just dad in his winged cap
and made it through grin, and mum
at eighteen with a shadowy child curled inside
her Mona Lisa smile. And to know
it was allowed, what they found, the sound
of no gap between the heart
and the words they spoke, old vows
that somehow tacked on earth to heaven,
and where they stood was somehow holy ground.
And the light inside, that might have run
the length of their lives, hidden in a silver frame,
where wisps of smoke rise from autumn leaves,
and sparked eyes light up the night field,
where love holds its breath, waits for the child
in the man, and the recovered sky never moves.

Judge’s comment:

‘Wedding Photo conveys an urgent love for the speaker’s parents. It also animates the sense of potential in the brief period at the end of the Second World War when anything seemed possible. There is a mysterious tension between affirmation and something cloudier and less certain – a faint shadow we can all recognize. By leaving out main verbs, and crowding the lines with recognized, living details, the poem combines both the stillness of the photograph and the movement of time.’


Fifth prize

Albino Raven in the Wild by Wendy Pratt (Gristhorpe, Filey)

£40 prize

Wendy, a freelance writer, is a former winner of this competition. She is widely published and her next collection, from Valley Press, is expected later this year.

Albino Raven in the Wild

It is a prototype, a mould
into which the petrol blues
and matt black raveness
should be poured.

This is how I imagine angels to be. Not
the purity of swans, but a functional
NHS beige, an unfinished shade
of expectancy, a hospital waiting room
assemblage of God,

of genital-pink feet and beak,
and eyes the colour of unfinished
miracles.

Judge’s comment:

‘Albino Raven in the Wild covers a good deal of ground, using the creature as the vessel for the movement of thought – first to the white mould, then to the raven’s, at first, unlikely resemblance to an angel. Impressive, vivid and authoritative without reducing the raven to a cipher, the poem in a sense remains provisional, an ‘unfinished miracle’, whose present relevance needs no explanation.’


The Helen Cadbury Prize

County Lines by Finn Dervan (York)

Best poem from a YO-postcode poet – £50 prize

Prompted in a York poetry class to write about a journey, Finn has won our prize in memory of York writer (and friend of YorkMix) Helen Cadbury.

County Lines

Scratching her wrist with
gnawed nails, black polish;
hidden herringbone twill
of scar under-sleeve.

Avoiding their eye.
Always
avoiding their eye.

The carriage window
frames translucent faces;
reflections inspecting her:
They know.
They all know.

Fields flash by. So many
fucking fields. So flat.
She can see her own face
now, staring back.
White girls are ghosts;
invisible, innit?

Return ticket bought for her.
No need for no hassle.
Breathe, bitch.
It’s just a day in the sticks.

There’s enough crack
in her rucksack
to grow fat for a year.
So
what’s stopping her?

They’d torch the flat.
(Mum’s front door
winked on SnapChat)
They’d post the film
of her and him and him
and him.

And if they found her…

Better to travel to
Somewhere-on-Sea
To feed estuary boys their fix.
Supply and demand, innit?
It’s just a day in the sticks.

Judge’s comment:

‘County Lines shows us the difference between news and knowledge. It is a terrifying poem, in which the drug dealers’ heartless practicality and cynicism leaves the young female speaker utterly exposed. It may be true that knowledge sets you free, but is there any way she can use her knowledge of how things really are to escape the labyrinth?’


International Commended Award

Conclon Garden and the Tree of Knowledge by Michael G. Casey (Dublin)

£100 prize

Michael writes: “I’m a bit of a dinosaur, I’m afraid, and might not be able to make the video. The background to the poem is that I used to go on holidays to my uncle’s farm near Tullamore and spent many hours lusting after the apples in the garden – which was like an Eden to me.”

CLONCON GARDEN AND THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE

I could see that tree of small sweet apples—
each red half bleeding into lemon green–
framed in one mullion of the kitchen window,
and could not devise a plan to get me close,
without annoying Praetorian bees,
presently at ease in white sentry boxes.
Sad to think of all those sweet-eaters falling
in the June drop to rot in tangled ground.
Maybe she would go gardening later
with her curved door-step sharpened knife
and slice through pale green stems of cabbages
or push aside elephant-ear leaves to dismember
purple limbs of rhubarb cowering underneath.
I waited and watched him knock a heel
of soda bread on the worn oil-cloth to shake off
loose flour which formed a little snow-drift,
on a fading square of azure blue,
and with brown arms, stab leeks into
a glass pot of salt before crunching them
in his teeth, or ponderously peel a Kerr’s Pink,
held aloft on a fork like a sports trophy,
gazing at eruptions of hot starch that could
soak up gravy and country butter, fresh
from the hooped churn standing in the corner.
If I tied an arrow to a string could I impale
an apple from outside the garden wall?

Judge’s comment:

‘Cloncon Garden and the Tree of Knowledge seems to exist in an oblique relation to the story of the Fall, but what exactly the engaging speaker has in mind seems to be left for the reader to wonder at. The assured economy and movement of the poem draw the reader into the mysterious garden, as a storyteller or the serpent might. Very enjoyable.’

Highly Commended

Shepherd by Michael Thomas (Stourport-on-Severn, Worcs)

Shepherd

The last time I saw father
in his death
was among the leaves
outside a parish church
as a late afternoon
waved the hour on
and sank to its knees.
The indolence you knew
is long past me, he said,
and pointed at
the time-bedevilled doors.
This is what I do now.
So we listened as,
with something between
a rustle and a sob,
another soul was loosed
for its minute’s lallygag
among the beams, the pigeon-stops,
the nook where a top E
was always left hanging—
before being kitted
in sorrow and dispatch,
before being tipped out
into his waiting arms
for the brace-up
the soothing murmur
the slow step
the road after road
with the first of night
already at the sky.

Insomnia by Emma Storr (Leeds)

Insomnia

My strategy’s simple when I can’t sleep
I think of the men I’ve bedded, not sheep.
It’s quite a big flock – there are decades to count –
but averaged out, not a shameful amount.
I like to imagine them in single file
queueing to pass through an ancient squeeze stile.
I wrap myself up in each well-loved fleece
ignoring the smell of damp wool and grease.
I usually find that by ram number eight,
I’m feeling exhausted and in no fit state
to dream any more of the men from my past,
so I slaughter the rest, then drift off at last.

The abbatoir Is Eden by Michael Farren (Bradford)

The abattoir is Eden

how tenderly the slaughtermen
hook the carcasses onto rails
and back them into rooms
where armfuls of guts
are lifted from zinc tubs

and placed inside with a touch
so deft that to know
they are attaching all the organs
nerves arteries and veins
in an instant seems miraculous

see them seal the stomach with their blade
use a scraper to apply the self-adhesive skin
suck the hole from the skull
with their bolt gun so the beast
leaps to attention

wide-eyed with wonder
and love for life
like Adam the moment
God touches his finger.

A Short 16mm Home Movie by Sheila Schofield Large (Treignac, France)

A short 16mm home movie

Bavaria, 1939

He cuts a fine figure. Mein Herr.
Bolt upright against the granite craggs.
Squinting into winter sunlight. Not tall,
but somehow compelling. His bark
outsnaps my terrier. Testier
than his own vulpine hound.

In command of the Emperor’s new sleigh,
he stalks blood-stained footprints across
icing-sugar snow. Devours strudel
with his Disney. Sneewittchen his favourite.
Snow White I am not. I am Gretyl. Chasing
happy-ever-after through dark woods.

He turns to share a narcissistic glare
with my camera. I beckon him to the left.
He ignores me. Thrusts an unforgiving boot
on to a ledge of ice-slicked scree.

His face is a picture. Mouth agape. Hands flailing
in futile salute. Arse over self-important tit.
Auf Wiedersehen. Gute Nacht.

I told him he was too far to the right.

summer by Victoria Walvis (Kowloon, Hong Kong)

Born in London, Victoria lives in Hong Kong where she teaches English. She is an enthusiastic member of the Peel Street Poets, and organises weekly free creative writing workshops for adults. Longlisted for the National Poetry Competition in 2019, she is working on her first collection of poems.

Victoria writes: “‘Summer’ came from a short story I wrote on a walk in the Yorkshire countryside near Heptonstall, where Sylvia Plath is buried. In the story, a boy’s suicide is linked to a girl’s adolescence by the thread of homophobia.

“Although the characters in the poem are fictional, it is inspired by growing up at a time when sexuality and mental health were not openly discussed, and same-sex relationships were taboo.”

summer

there was a boy
in her village
who shot himself
in the head
in his father’s shed

same summer
she took
a girl’s face
in her hands
and kissed her
after gym class
lips tasted sweat
mum made her
wear a dress
to a wedding
a breathe in
only dress
she heard dad
say to mum
face wine red

It was
a good wedding–
nice chaps,
no queers.

there was a boy
in her village
who shot himself
in the head
in his father’s shed
lips tasted sweat

Nice chaps,
no queers.

they said

It was
a lovely summer,
though very hot
that year.

Intersection in The Early Eighties by David Spencer (Huddersfield)

Intersection in The Early Eighties

Down Speakers’ Corner, Jimmy Sommerville’s double
gets on a soap box

lectures a crescent of white liberals
on The Subway Disease, AKA, acquired immune deficiency:

condoms, fidelity, consequences,
the whole hetro package, we never really got it.

HEY YOU, shouts a black bloke at the back, Battyboy!
We get you outta da’Prince!

(The Prince of Wales is a pre-gentrification
Caribbean hang out, near Brixton Tube.)

The crescent shuffles, mutters; Sommervilles’ right-hand Queer
a Dutch lesbian in red jacket, advances

de-esculates with a, just be cool man, just be cool.
Kool, says the bloke, Lady, don’t talk to me abowt kool

if you was kool, you wut’tent be a lesbian. Whiteys squirm
red-jacket lets rip: you got some kind of penis complex,

that’s your problem. Man!
Lady, he says, don’t talk to me about Freud,

Freud didn’t say nut’hen abowt niggers.

Commended

Yorkshire Tap by Ian Giles (York)

Yorkshire Tap

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven
All at once in metric heaven;
Tippy tippy tip tap tip-tap-toe…
Form a line then turn and go
Round and back and front foot stamp
Mythic dance meets catwalk camp.
Come and meet, those dancing feet,
On the avenue I’m taking you to
Forty-Second Street.

– I’m sweating now and my calves ache.
– ’Ad no ideeah, such ‘ard work laikin’.
– I’m tiring now, I need a break.
– Keep goin’, ‘old t’line an’ ne’er mind fakin’.

Back street hoofer, Ruby Keeler,
Ever see such a scene stealer?
Now you come, and now you go,
The walls resound with tip-tap-toe.

Warner Baxter’s smoking well
One last hit then off to hell.
Actors, hoofers come and go,
Unified by tip-tap-toe.

Ginger R and Bebe D
Step aside for Ruby Kee:
– ’S okay kid, you’ll go far:
Out a youngster; back a star!

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven
All at once in metric heaven;
Tippy tippy tip tap tip-tap-toe…
Work and sweat and make it so
Synchronised and into line
Heads up, eyes bright, doing fine.
Hear the beat of dancing feet
It’s the song I love the melody of
Forty-Second Street.

Against All Odds by Will Kemp (Saxton, Tadcaster)

Will writes: “When I read that unless drastic action is taken by 2030, climate change will wipe out half all insects by 2090, resulting in ecosystem failure, I had to write about it – in a way that celebrated and inspired action, however small.”

Against all odds

When I hear that climate change will result in
ecosystem failure and wipe out half all insects
unless drastic action is taken by 2030,

I think of the male peacock spider in Australia,
vibrating his behind for some stunner
then dinking towards her in a series of natty steps

to wave his third legs like ground-crew batons
and hoist those back-flaps into a billboard
of Pop Art pinks and blues –

unsure whether this will capture her heart
or make the Shiva spike his head and suck out
its yellow gloop as if drinking from a straw.

And when I consider that the extra insulation
in the loft and those flowering shrubs
we planted are unlikely to count for much,

I think again of that little hero in the outback
with his fuzzy face and mafia shades,
keeping perfectly still, waiting for the dew –

then steeling himself to side-step the husks
of suitors strewn across the baking sand,
knowing only that he must give it his best shot.

From The Foss by Lindsay Walter (York)

From the Foss

In the dawn garden, dark with damp and starlessness,
my dog sniffs grass, intent
on her own business. All’s quiet.
No creep of distant cars. No footstep in the street. No birdsong.

Loud overhead, a sudden clatter. A great ungainly
thing, all angular wings and weary
languid flaps. Fog-dazzled and disoriented,
a heron. You never see them here.

Fixed in flight, not veering right or left, all landmarks lost. The river far behind. Further still wet froggy marsh, fox-crossed fields, lone trees. Bare nest. All past.

The heron blunders on. No place to land. No journey’s end.
No haven. We watch it out of sight
then turn to home and breakfast.
All day I think of death.

She Said She Would Buy The Flowers Herself by Kathleen Bell (Beeston, Notts)

She said she would buy the flowers herself

The skivvy snuffles, serves her grievance cold
and hears the mistress slither
from polished graciousness to vowels that whine
imagined maid-speak.

                             Later:
“Adjust your cap. Stop snivelling.
What have you got to moan about?”

On her half-day, she’s set to polishing.
“It’s easy. I’ve the flowers to choose and buy
and after all, you have no friends –
no calls upon your time. Polish. Don’t sniff.”

She hears leaves rustle and the creak of wheels.
The sun paints bars across the table.
She polishes, imagines warmth,
thinks of the errand boy – “so rough,
that dirty neck”
– who dosses under bridges.
He told her once he dreamt of carpentry
(he still caresses wood) but now
his sister’s in the workhouse, he must save.

Party tonight.
The skivvy’s crimped and starched, told
“Be invisible.”
Below, the cook sweats wrath.
Above, she hears the conversation:
“My dear, you work so hard –
this house – it gleams.
I see your servants love you – what a gift.”

Cramp holds the skivvy’s face.
She’s still. So still.

Hide by Jo Haslam (Huddersfield)

Jo says: “I’ve forgotten exactly what the original impulse was for the poem. But some things do come to mind. I found a scribbled note that said, ‘No two creatures see the world in quite the same way’. And then there was a deer that raced across the road, a very busy road, in the middle of the day. And also there is a painting by Atkinson Grimshaw called Woman in the Snow.’”

Hide

Those creatures that turn white in the snow,
mountain hare, the stoat, arctic fox
pale as the ground he streaks across,
bring to mind others of their kin,
swans spelled from their human skin,
deer blanched to ghost by leucism. You’d follow him
into the hushed white middle of the wood
to see if he’d dissolve as hoar frost does when touched
but he’s always a length in front, a shimmered dot
like Grimshaw’s Woman in the Snow,
or your mother in the fractured light
of granny’s road- you miles behind on leaden feet,
although the story where she leaves is in the note
propped on the mantle shelf when you’re fourteen;
your poems sleep inside the dream whose deer’s
a swan, mouth stretched to sing,
its broken arm a trailing wing that spills
four spots of dark blood on the frozen ground.
And swans will grieve their withered skin,
ghost deer bleed red as any living thing,
mother go but never leave; a woman
who one night slips on her winter coat,
white high heels and taps out of the silent street
into your poems ice and snow.

Beauty And The Husband by Harry Bayman (York)

BEAUTY AND THE HUSBAND

He had a few hairs on his chest,
enough to get her fingers in, and tug.
He had strong white teeth, a nice smile,
but it took a lot to make him roar.

He was still as softly-spoken, polite,
as when he was a massive, shaggy beast.
Then, she’d been thrilled by the contrast;
the mystery behind the fur and claws.

She remembered the soft, heavy thud
of his paws approaching her room at night,
the huge shadow thrown by the candle,
his bulk looming politely over her.

He still walked softly, with grace;
still held himself in check. Ornaments,
china, were safe in his proximity.
She had to be really nasty to get a snarl.

She’d only seen him hunting once, by chance,
before they’d been introduced. It was dusk.
His long, tawny body moved with fluid grace.
The deer’s fragility broke like a vase.

When he looked up, suddenly, towards her,
he had blood around his mouth. She thought,
he could catch me in seconds, bite me in two.
He stared for a long moment, as if to memorise her.

He sleeps peacefully, like a gentleman.
Watching him, she wonders about his dreams.
Somewhere, in there, is he still prowling for game?
She is restless, wanders barefoot at night, watchful.

She wants to ask him, “What was it like?”
and for the answer to go on for days.
She wants to wring the subject dry.
He doesn’t want to talk about it.

She visited the zoo. He changed the subject.
Next time, she doesn’t tell him.
She really wants to interview the big cats;
the predators; “How do you feel about that now?”

She makes sympathetic, yearning, eye contact,
and the large, liquid eyes look back, contemptuous.
Just another curious tourist.
She needs to get closer, much closer


About the judge

Sean O’Brien, winner of both the TS Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize, is a critic and playwright. He grew up in Hull where he attended Hymers College before studying at Selwyn College, Cambridge University. Since 1990, he has taught at Newcastle University, where he is Professor of Creative Writing.

Picador will publish his new collection of poertry, It Says Here, in the autumn.

A copy of It Says Here will be given to all our winning and commended poets.

The York Poetry Prize is run by YorkMix, in association with York Literature Festival. Any surplus from the competition entry fees goes to support the festival, and independent journalism in York.