Behind the Poem: National Poetry Competition special edition

We’ve now announced the winners of the 2019 National Poetry Competition. Read a little more about the people – and the brainwaves – behind our latest top ten. We asked each of them to take us behind their work in this special bumper edition of Behind The Poem.

Susannah Hart on ‘Reading the Safeguarding and Child Protection Policy’ (First prize)

Susannah Hart. photo: Ged Equi

The poem’s original draft came quite quickly. I did in fact go for a walk after reading the policy, feeling very upset by what it contained – what it needed to contain – and I found myself thinking about “all the horrible / things that someone somewhere is always doing / to someone else”. And then when I looked at the draft of the poem I realised I could make more of the bureaucratic language that was already in there, so I looked again at the wording of the policy and lifted some more phrases from it. 

Because the poem has a stream of consciousness feel to it, it started off in several longish sentences. When I began rereading it to myself, I wanted to intensify its momentum and its sense of building desperation, and realised that with a few tweaks I could make it into one sentence. So the poem was nearly in that form from the beginning, but then it became a deliberate choice.

Ann Pelletier-Topping on ‘Granddaughter Moves In’ (Second prize)

 I set myself the challenge of writing a sestina. I came across the form while doing an Arvon course with Patience Agbabi and its mathematical

Ann Pelletier-Topping. photo: Sophie Baxter

structure appealed to me. Of course, Agbabi’s ‘Skins’ is a great example and shows that you can be playful with the form. The words chose themselves as I revisited the troubling aspects of my childhood. As my grandmother was a strong and domineering figure, it was natural to start with her description. It also seemed fitting that her words should structure both the grandfather’s and the granddaughter’s verses. The form didn’t confine me but allowed me to go beyond the boundaries of ‘real life’ and condense separate memories into one poem. I think the poem captures the brooding menace I felt as a child but which I couldn’t articulate. I guess that’s why I gave the granddaughter a voice and a way of acting out that violence in child’s play. 

It was Elizabeth Bishop’s subject matter and detached narrative voice in ‘Sestina’ that inspired me to tackle my sestina in this way. I needed to create some distance between the child/adult voice and the characters and the third person allowed that detachment. I loved both my grandparents but I couldn’t understand why my grandma was so horrid to my grandad. It’s only later that I began to sense the darker dynamics of their relationships so I tried to weave some of that in the poem. 

Natalie Linh Bolderston on ‘Middle name with diacritics’ (Third prize)

Natalie Linh Bolderston.

The ‘dictionary definition’ form came quite naturally when putting the poem together, since I was exploring the divergence and multiplicity of meaning. The lines came out over a long period of time in short bursts, which is why they go off in so many different directions.

However, I still wanted the fragments to have a kind of chronology. Therefore, when I came to arrange them, I tried to form loose histories of Vietnam – with references to my family’s experiences in particular – under each heading.

Although I’m not a Vietnamese speaker, I’ve grown up around the language and have always loved how tone and diacritical marks completely change the sense of a word. I chose to explore this using my middle name because it’s part of my identity – the only part of my name that acknowledges my Vietnamese heritage. However, it is often left out, misspelled, or mistakenly anglicised. Therefore, I wanted to re-centre it while also centring the culture and history of the country where it comes from.

Writing about diacritics was also a political choice. In a climate where English is often treated as the superior language and many people are made to suffer for using their native languages, I wanted to resist these racist attitudes by centring and celebrating the beauty and uniqueness of Vietnamese.

I couldn’t find any more diacritical variations on ‘linh’, but there are many more ways to modify its meaning. For example, ‘linh dương’ means ‘antelope’ and ‘linh tính’ means ‘foreboding’. The four words that I chose were the ones that resonated with me most when I looked them up.

Charlotte Knight on ‘MOONDADDY’ (Commended)

Charlotte Knight.

MOONDADDY’ has always been very restrained. It was the first poem I wrote that touched upon abortion, a sort of test. I think the constrained emotions – particularly anger – and the form come from it being something which up until that point I had barely spoken about, let alone written about. The form shows a kind of compartmentalisation, which is reflective of how I was coping with the matter at the time, if that makes sense.



Joe Dunthorne on ‘Due to a series of ill judgements on my part’ (Commended)

Joe Dunthorne. photo: Tom Medwell

Parenthood hasn’t changed my approach to writing – except that I have less time to write – but it has influenced my subject matter. Listening to my

son learn how to speak has been fascinating. Sometimes a phrase makes an impression on him and I will hear him, in bed, saying it to himself and chuckling. “Complete worm, complete worm, complete worm”. And then there’s all the ventriloquising. He likes to give voice to pretty much every part of our house. I have had conversations with the newel post, bars of soap, the bike pump. For good or for bad, these things find a way into my poems.

Cheryl Moskowitz on ‘Hotel Grief’ (Commended)

Cheryl Moskowitz

The only death any of us can be certain of being present at is our own. To witness another person’s dying is a profound privilege, however painful. The

summer of 2018 was the hottest on record in England. My mother-in-law went into hospital unexpectedly at the end of June and died four weeks later. She and I had not always enjoyed an easy relationship, however her anxiety at the prospect of being left alone for any time in hospital was palpable. Setting aside work commitments and a planned camping holiday in Wales, we set up camp instead by her hospital bedside. Despite all else they had to contend with, the NHS staff graciously accommodated our being there, even offering us a single rollaway bed to take turns sleeping on. Outside, London sizzled in the unnatural heat, time slowed, and the hospital became our only reality. We were its non-patient residents and didn’t want to leave, even when our stay was over. As often happens when summer draws to a close, people asked, ‘Did you have a good holiday?’ Somehow, despite having spent most of it in the St Mary Abbott’s ward on the fifth floor of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital I found myself answering truthfully, that it had been quite wonderful, dreamy even. The opening lines of the poem, envisaging the hospital as a hotel, came into my head that September on the Holloway Road as I was driving back from a poetry book launch at the Betsey Trotwood in Clerkenwell. I recorded the words using the voice memo app on my phone and wrote the poem in in a rush when I got home.

Mark Pajak on ‘Reset’ (Commended)

Mark Pajak. photo: Robert Peet

In 2016 I was asked to write a response to the way moorland heather is cut and burned in order to encourage new growth. So I went away, thought about cutting/burning/renewal, and ended up writing something quite personal. I read that first draft at a visual arts night and then put the poem to one side.  
But every few months I’d come back to it and tweak. The more time that passed from the hot-impulse of the first draft, the more each redraft became a little colder in voice. I have a horrible habit of drafting poems to death but that wasn’t the case this time and, two years later, I had it finished.

Louisa Adjoa Parker on ‘Kindness’ (Commended)

Louisa Adjoa Parker. photo: Robert Golden

I wrote ‘Kindness’ a few days after I’d heard the news that a woman I’d worked with the year before, Alexandra, had suddenly died. We’d spent many Sundays together and got on really well, although, as often happens in life, we’d slipped into being out of contact. 

I didn’t know what to do with my sadness, which came just months after a bereavement at the beginning of 2019 when a very dear friend took her life. It felt like a re-grieving, a revisiting of those overwhelming feelings. At the time of my close friend’s death I wrote a small collection of poems, She can still sing, which helped me process my feelings. I decided to write about Alexandra, and imagined that we had in fact gone on the walk we’d planned to do. (I regretted not making the time to go, and was determined to do it even if only in my imagination.) After I’d submitted the poem I went to her funeral and the word ‘kindness’ was used a lot. I feel it’s a fitting eulogy for, and the ways in which she touched so many people, as well as a reminder that life is short; we should make sure we spend time with the people we care about. 

Rosie Shepperd on ‘Letter from Kermanshah’ (commended)

Rosie Shepperd

To my ears, the poem stands for a way to understand what our senses make for us and the sense we might make with and from them; how we abstract away from Wordsworth’s “itch of desire” to discover ideas that become larger and more complex than empirical experience; how they form a new and virtual way to think. I hear hunger feasting; I taste a conceit in the sweet, crisp comfort of Sohan-e-Asali; I catch the scent and the unspoken colour of rose water. I listen to a hand shelling pistachios; I see the unnamed blood of an orange and the oily fragrance that remains as it changes; I feel the intrusion of “sharp elbows” and I read the texture of embroidery on a tablecloth. These appear to me as images that hold and present a way of knowing that is tacit; intuited but never explained. The poem is my way of examining the logic of that intuition. As I write and read it, so does that logic grow another nature, powered by a “warm pinch” of Coleridge’s “vigor” and “invention” and Horace’s heuristic “delight” (their words) in a discovery that finds its form in the speaker’s “patience” (mine)!

Gerald Smith on ‘Where Dedushka Comes From’ (Commended)

Gerald Smith. photo: Matthew Francis

The Dedushka in the poem is my real grandfather who fled from his home in Azerbaijan through the Caucasian mountains to the Black Sea, from where he and his family emigrated to Monaco. Despite having heard this many times throughout my life, I must say I never met him, and that fact is the second big impetus of the poem. My mother told me story after story of him and often compares him to one of my brothers. And of course, she gave me his letters which were written while he was wandering around France as an ‘afficheur’ or a billposter. Writing the poems I have about him has made me question how much we can really know someone, but especially how much we can really know about their origins. History mystifies everyone from the past. The country my grandfather came from (Imperial Russia) no longer exists, but also two of the countries that came afterwards, the Azebaijan Democratic Republic and the USSR, no longer exist. There are many layers to time, politics and, of course, humans.