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The Poetry Centre is excited to announce the winners of our 2020 competition, which this year was judged by poet Fiona Benson. Two top prizes of £1,000 were on offer in a competition that seeks to celebrate the great diversity of poetry being written in English all over the world.
Poems were submitted in two categories: EAL category (open to all poets over 18 years of age who speak English as an Additional Language), and Open category (open to all poets over 18 years of age). We were delighted to receive a record number of entries this year by 740 poets from nearly 60 different countries. You can find the list of winners and the shortlisted poets below, as well as the judge's report. Read the winning poems by clicking on the links.
We will be holding an awards event, but this year it will be online, include less cake (alas!), and take place on Thursday 19 November from 7.30-8.30pm GMT. We very much hope that this online format will allow us to share the winning poems from this year's competition with more people! Join us at this free event to hear from the winners in both the Open and EAL categories, and from the judge, Fiona Benson, who will give a short reading from her work
To register, visit this Eventbrite page. The event will be streamed live to the Poetry Centre's YouTube channel, and if you register, you'll receive a link to the launch one day beforehand.
Fiona Benson won an Eric Gregory Award in 2006 and was a Faber New Poet in 2009. Her pamphlet was Faber New Poets 1 in the Faber New Poets series, whilst her debut collection, Bright Travellers, won both the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Prize for First Full Collection in 2015. Her latest collection, Vertigo & Ghost, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2019, shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize, and won the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the Roehampton Prize. Fiona lives in rural Devon with her husband and two daughters, and is currently working on a commission of poetry celebrating insects with Arts & Culture at the University of Exeter. You can hear Fiona read from her most recent book here and watch her talk about her work here.
Very many thanks indeed to all the poets who entered and to our judge. We much look forward to seeing some of you at the awards event on 19 November!
Judging this competition has been brutal. So many scandalously good and beautiful poems were submitted. To reach the winning six, I had to set aside poems I loved ferociously – god-touched buckets swarming with minute life, hospitals that talk, kerosene kings, anxiety-pangolins, a glass vase in shark-fin smithereens, a grandpa dancing like a duck – and shortlisting them felt obscene; reader-writer, forgive me.
Reading the EAL entries was a particularly humbling experience. I felt that the umbrella term ‘EAL’ was – rather like the term ‘world music’ – hopelessly inadequate. The poems carried with them such vast hinterlands of cultural tradition and musicality, such freights of influence and erudition; it was an enrichment and a blessing to read them.
From the many gifts of the EAL submissions, I kept circling back to four poems. The EAL winner, ‘Grief Is a Man With Many Gifts’, grapples with trauma, and straddles two home countries – one of dubious safety, and one in which fire dances on bodies. There is a sincerity and porousness to this poem – a rushing-in of images, and a gorgeous momentum – as it moves between hibiscus and vultures, the harvesting of stars and suicide, which is utterly compelling. Its final line is breath-taking as the speaker remembers that “grief is a man of many garbs & one of them is joy.” It is that rare and wonderful thing: a poem that deepens and expands with every reading.
In second place, ‘Mother won’t know who signs her DNR’ evokes a beeping, lit, hospitalised death with hypnotic lucidity, and enacts an uneasy acquiescence to mortality and God. The hospital rhythms and numbers both propel and rupture the poem as life and faith stutter and assert, stutter and assert themselves. Rarely have I felt in the presence of such a reckoning.
The special commendation is ‘my mother asks me how to leave my father’ – a perfect dance of language and imagery embodying the pain of separation. Any one of these three EAL poems would have been a worthy winner of any damn competition.
I deduce that the winner of the open competition, ‘Appetit, for Persephone’ is also responsible for the shortlisted ‘Son, for Thetis’, and to be honest, I had a hard time choosing between the two. Both are powerful, strange, virtuosic retellings of classical myth. I loved how Achilles’ call drifting down to his sea-goddess mother through her cold, grey kingdom is “a warm strain softening the frozen kelp, like piss”. In the end I chose ‘Appetit, for Persephone’ as my winner for the stark, uncanny beauty of its language and imagery ('informed I am // to be comfort for a mud king / with strange pets'), its acute details ('the crocus / pollen on my toes') and its discomfiting sensual realm – we sink with Persephone, tasting 'aquifers stone forests' in our mouths as we fall through black earth. The poem is a strange and wondrous haunting.
‘How to avoid clichés’, second place poem, is again a story of parental death, told with great tenderness, and with a fluidity of sound and language that I admired tremendously (even if I could have done without the guinea pigs!). Its palliative care doctor in her green jumper is such a gorgeous embodiment of human kindness that I hope she lives in my head for ever. The specially recommended ‘Wakeboarding, in Hamamtsu’ made me snicker in recognition of the appalling social awkwardness of the situation, something its layout re-enacts in its jolting half lines; its economic, wry retelling and acute sensitivity make for a comic, cringing masterpiece.
The twenty shortlisted and winning poems gathered here on my desk now, make a beautiful anthology. They contain such a wealth of human stories, and sing so gloriously in their language. They have brought me great joy in this time of Covid, even if they are often tender and wrung-out and sad. Under a government that waves its hand vaguely in the direction of the Arts and suggests that perhaps we ‘retrain’, these poems feel like a forcefield of empathy, defiance, resistance, skill, love and humanity. In this we live.