Congratulations to Jane Wilkinson, the winner of the 2021 Hamish Canham Prize for her poem ‘Aeronautics’

Jane Wilkinson

The Hamish Canham Prize, judged by a panel of Poetry Society staff and trustees, is awarded annually to the best poem from the Poetry News members’ poems competitions. Jane Wilkinson’s ‘Aeronautics’ was originally selected by Rachel Long for the Keats-inspired ‘Waking dream’ competition in Poetry News spring 2021.

The Canham Prize panel – staff members Helen Bowell, Julia Bird, Ben Rogers, Mike Sims and Adham Smart, and Poetry Society Trustees Andrew Neilson (Vice Chair) and Emma Dai’an Wright – enjoyed the poems adventurousness and intrigue, the balance it strikes between distancing and moving the reader, and the way that its form matched its subject for surprising twists and distortions. Jane Wilkinson was delighted with her win, saying, “It was a massive surprise and a real tonic. I was bowled over. Thank you so much to the panel of judges at The Poetry Society and to Rachel Long for choosing the poem initially.” Mike Sims interviews Jane below.

The judges commended several other poems among this year’s entries, in particular Madeleine Wurzburger’s ‘60, 71, 30.18, SW 1, Little Rain’, a hymn to quietude inspired by the life and writing of John Dalton, Ellora Sutton’s unsettling and comic ‘Insomnia’, and Mary Mulholland’s evocative ‘the art of daydreaming’.

Hamish Canham (1962-2003) was a poet and psychotherapist; the Prize in his name was founded in 2004 by his parents Sheena and Hugh Canham.

Apprehending lightness: Mike Sims speaks to Jane Wilkinson

Mike Sims What is the origin of ‘Aeronautics’?

Jane Wilkinson The poem started life as some early morning notebook lines in 2017. I had written a little about motherhood before and very much more since. If I were to dig a bit deeper it has its roots in the harm we fear we might do, and the vulnerabilities of being a new parent. I developed the initial idea, the son as spider, the uncertainty, and then quickly tried extending the logic of what he would do and his needs, as a spider. What I had down then seemed a teetering poem, very risky for me. I put it away for a few months.

Mike Sims You make interesting use of the grotesque.

Jane Wilkinson As I understand it, the grotesque in literature, when located in the distorted or exaggerated body, aims to elicit simultaneously both our empathy and disgust, as in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Obviously this is a way of apprehending fear, processing it – the image being an extended metaphor, a be-monstering. The power of the grotesque and uncanny has engaged me in artworks for many years, by artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Rebecca Horn, Cindy Sherman, and Jane and Louise Wilson.

Mike Sims The imagery in the poem reaches towards the extreme but it also contains the phrase “it is us, who are constrained / by […] lack of grip”. The child is a calm, moderating influence in a fairly frightening world – is that right?

Jane Wilkinson For me, the poem centres around wonder – for the natural world and infants. The phrases you note are a point of inversion in the poem and perhaps a driver of the form. Children hold up mirrors to their parents if we care to look in.

Mike Sims You’re an architect I think. Do poem shapes compare with built structures?

Jane Wilkinson I have a fine art background and went on to become a landscape architect and urban designer. Sometimes I need to draw or make diagrams of poems to work out what is going on or how to proceed and, yes, definitely I am concerned with their appearance. In fact, ‘Aeronautics’ was written when I was working on two major bridge projects, spending a lot of time thinking about the ‘underneath’, how heavy lumps of matter could look lighter.

With hindsight, I think I dared myself to see how awkward I could make the poem look. Alice Oswald has said the looser/fragmented forms are generally for the poems that tune in to something outside the poet. I think for me it may be for the more uncontrollable or ungovernable poems, in particular when there is nothing more to write but there is something more to say.

Mike Sims Again on form, I think you said this is a poem which found its form quickly and that – perhaps in contrast to other poems – you let it be?

Jane Wilkinson I probably only had a couple of redrafts with it, then thought it would be a ‘secret’ poem. I have lots that get shelved, like sketches. It is a short poem, for me; it’s quite hard to get long poems published outside of a collection/pamphlet. I would say I probably tackle more challenging material in longer-form poems or in series.

Mike Sims There’s a lot of light in the poem – some of it hard and rather threatening – but also lots of more airy provisionals. Is that how it seems to you?

Jane Wilkinson I don’t think I could embark on a poem without some level of concrete detail, however much the scenario is an invention. As for the provisionals, do they allow for complexity to exist – possibly?

Mike Sims How typical of your work is ‘Aeronautics’?

Jane Wilkinson Whilst it is probably at the extreme end of what I write, I have written stranger, possibly more transgressive poems and about more challenging subjects, including violence and trauma. I think, perhaps in terms of what I have had published to date, it looks quite different, and it is sparer in the writing, but the themes and point of view don’t feel atypical.

Mike Sims How do you write – are you in a writing group? There’s a lively literary scene in Norwich.

Jane Wilkinson I’m generally a daily writer and have been since I started in about 2014 (although lockdown has scuppered that to an extent). I’m in a few local poetry groups, an excellent Stanza, and currently in a Poetry School Seminar group. I go to Café Writers, Volta and Toast nights. Dragon Hall National Centre for Writing and local writers offer great courses. The UEA brings lots of exciting writers to Norwich as students and tutors and Norwich is a UNESCO City of Literature. I have a full collection manuscript and a pamphlet awaiting a home. The pamphlet Birdhead is a series of fragments, observations, prose and short poems. The full collection Eve said. focuses on vulnerability and perceptions of the body, through the narrative of women’s lives and intimate/familial relationships.

Mike Sims Any thoughts on what your prize might fund?

Jane Wilkinson I’m not buying objects at the moment – just to try that on for size (except books). I do think that to keep the cash in circulation within the poetry community is a good thing – so it is a win-win situation to buy some mentoring and keep another poet in business.

Jane Wilkinson was a winner in the Poetry News members’ poems competition, spring 2021, on the theme of ‘Waking Dream’, judged by Rachel Long, and was subsequently awarded the Hamish Canham Prize 2021. She was placed first and second in the Guernsey International Poetry Prize, and first in the Strokestown International Poetry Prize and Norfolk Prize Café Writers competition in 2020. She won the Against the Grain competition in 2019, was shortlisted in Alpine Fellowship Prize 2019 and has been placed in a number of other competitions. Her work is published in magazines including Magma, The Alchemy Spoon, Ink Sweat & Tears, Envoi, Finished Creatures, Lighthouse Journal and in anthologies from the Emma Press, Live Canon and Dempsey & Windle. She lives in Norwich.