2017 Winners and shortlist

Announcing the winners of the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition, 2017!

This year our International Poetry Competition attracted a record number of entries and we were delighted to see more entries from poets living in many different countries. Two top prizes of £1000 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).

The competition attracted more than 1200 entries from over 500 different poets. Poems came to us from writers in over 54 countries including: the United States, Canada, India, Nigeria, Australia, Belgium, Japan, Mexico, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Greece, Pakistan, St Lucia, Italy, and Malaysia.

We were really delighted to welcome Helen Mort as our judge this year. Helen’s first poetry collection Division Street, published in 2013, won the prestigious Fenton Aldeburgh Prize. In 2014, she was named as one of the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation poets, a list that appears only every decade. Her latest collection, No MapCould Show Them (Chatto & Windus), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, whilst her first novel, Black Car Burning, is forthcoming. In 2017, she was a judge for the Man Booker International Prize. Helen was a Douglas Caster Cultural Fellow at The University of Leeds from 2014-2016 and now lectures at The Manchester Writing School.

Many congratulations to the winners and those poets shortlisted! 

Open category

First place: Kurt Cobain Proposes to Courtney Love, TJs, Newport, December 1991, Jonathan Edwards

Kurt Cobain Proposes to Courtney Love, TJs, Newport, December 1991

Some young dude staggering from the station,
all jeans and grimace, all tufty coat
and peep-toe sneakers – that’s nothing
new around these parts. He rubs
his eyes, approaches this first stranger:
Excuse me, do you know the way to a place
called TJs?
That voice
he has. A mile away, Courtney

Love is sound checking, warming up. Rain
comes down as he passes the ruined
castle, crosses the bridge
statistics say more than fifty people
will jump from that year. Nevermind
has been Billboard #1
for six weeks now. What
exactly does a human being do

with that much love? I am four
miles away and twelve years old, and Kurt Cobain
is walking through Newport, three years
too early for me. At the door
of TJs, his nose-ringed
biggest fan in the world
just tells him the price, stamps
his hand. Inside,

his eyes accustom and he spots
her, at the bar, back to the room. Her
mane. Her little girl’s
dress. People are brought into being by moments
like this: Kurt Cobain is crossing
the room in TJs, Newport, is falling
to his knees. The cold
floor through ripped jeans. The barman leaps

across the counter to deal
with some punter, and the bouncer,
grinning, gets in the way
as one girl punches another. Of course,
there are those who say all this is folklore,
legend, gossiped up by someone
with a romantic imagination
or a marketing background. I am twelve years old

and dreaming in a room lined with posters
of footballers and, on Newport Bridge,
a couple are walking hand-in-hand,
the man pausing now, perhaps, to light
a cigarette. In that sudden spark,
someone passing might almost glimpse his face,
before he turns away,
before he walks again into the dark.

Jonathan Edwards

Second place: Stay, Natalie Whittaker

Stay

A dog’s shadow crosses the park, let loose
off its black lead it sniffs and is sole
eyewitness to empty booze bottles
tangled in nettles; the necromancy
and parliament of the previous evening
where we exercised our shadow dogs
on the slopes up to the smashed-glass hothouse,
fearing their size in the heartthrob dusk,
their stilt legs stretched and monstrous
as the sun sat obediently down.

Natalie Whittaker

Special Commendation: Mary Wants To Sleep With The Painter, But Pretends Otherwise, Maddie Godfrey

Mary Wants To Sleep With The Painter, But Pretends Otherwise
(with thanks to St Paul’s Cathedral)

Mary has crooked toes and
a belly full of bread

Mary is tired of people
painting her pretty,
she is the last mouthful
of a home cooked meal
but this does not mean
she is devourable

Mary sings with the silence
between bells, she is
the aftermath of music
the way dust looks
like powdered gold
under warm light

Mary is a building
that longs to be abandoned
but still stays full with people

she is tired of being
strung across the walls
of rooms she cannot undress in

Mary is naked
hidden in a stone closet
that cannot be seen from
the inside or out

Mary has nipples like Jesus
Mary bleeds into a cloth
it stains in the shape of
her own face

Mary’s lips are sketched silent her thighs are torn pages
her menstrual blood stains
red, like the Bible

Mary gives birth
is only a mother
never again a woman

which is to say,
she is a sacrament
that cannot be eaten,
only admired

the painter tells Mary to put her clothes back on
wipes her lipstick off, says “you must be holy”

he does not understand
how a woman is a place of worship
even when her womb is empty
even if she speaks in sin

the woman has crooked toes
and a belly full of bread
someone calls her “Mary”
she walks away from them

Maddie Godfrey

ESL category

First place: Memory Talkies, Jonaki Ray

Memory Talkies

On the road leading away from Florence,
a woman is screaming at a man with a Picasso face.
Shaking his head and half-shutting the door,
he walks inside the house,
leaving her alone at the stoop, smoking.
She is trembling like the skeleton
of a snail being picked clean by a colony of ants.
The driveway leads to a gate
and a child is attempting to swing it open,
his face a smeared version of a Botticelli angel.
Old men in Kolkata, reading newspapers, smoking,
and solving the world’s problems
are facsimiling in the suburbs of this city,
while Cypress trees fingers point skywards, apportioning blame.
Buttery light pouring over miles of yet-to-be-harvested farms
with stakes at their hearts dusks the days to evenings.
In Montefioralle, a woman named Margherita offers me
a gooseberry-colored plum, while her husband tugs
at her attention like clothespins before a thunderstorm.
I am back in the city that led a crushed Independence Mutiny,
failing with my mother in convincing my father
 to let her go for a conference, alone.
Who will take care of everything,
he asks, even now,
a dozen years after her dying.

Jonaki Ray

Second place: Halcyon, Vasiliki Albedo

Halcyon

When I give my father my poem he
translates it to Greek.
Each word teethes in his mouth.
He insists on the unknown: pree-ci-pai-ce,
I explain: γκρεμός, an abrupt,
rugged mountain-side.
In the afternoon shadow I see him again
as I did as a girl in the top-heavy dark
of his office: lofty, daunting,
like a gargoyle poring over his law books.
He continues, points out as he thinks
a verb is missing. When he stumbles
on ‘halcyon’ he stops and Iooks at me.
Smiling, he recites the myth of Alcyone,
describes how Aeolus reined in
his winds for a week every year to make space
for his kingfisher-daughter to lay her eggs
by the placid sea. I nod
but persist on the nuance of the English
word I intended. Calm, he repeats
and starts again with the myth.
When he comes to the silence at the end of the page
it’s like tuning into the static after a glance
at a report card or an indifferent Christmas gift.
I knew almost all the words, he says.

Later, there’s a tone to his voice I’ve never heard
when he calls to discuss metaphor.

Vasiliki Albedo

Special Commendation: Notes For A Canary Fancier, Iulia David

Notes For A Canary Fancier

When you first bring the canary home,
let it enter the cage by itself, let it hop
from the travelling box to its new frame:
real-life, four-chambered heart pouring
and nothing.

Call it home, this shiny home, its teeth
bare not in hostility, but in eternity;
none of its four walls are missing –
let it enter voluntarily, leap closer
to the soft wood perches, a tray for food,

another for water. Let it breathe,
pass by the mirror,
surface its own loneliness, sink
into the air of your house
surrounding its house.

Look at its feet.
Find what they know
more than two strays praying.
Find how you can't unsee them –
praying, blessed as they are,

with moist biscuit and egg.
Now find the door and close it.
Now wait. The yellow wait
is when you bring Africa
to your living room

and wait. For the song will come.
And in one of the chambers
she will wake up
and show you
her whipping scars.

Iulia David

Shortlist

The Shortlist for the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition 2017 consists of the following poems:

  • Peter Allmond, ‘Sea Shapes, Sounds and River Circles
  • Dean Atta, ‘The Chronic
  • Allie Bullivant, ‘My Father's Briefcase
  • Lewis Buxton, ‘Tense
  • Min Ji Choi, ‘Lines I took from home
  • Baptiste Collard, ‘pavement prophet
  • Patrick James Errington, ‘Not an Elegy
  • Tabitha Hayward, ‘Lochcarron
  • Ann Heathcote, ‘It's hard to be wiser than your mother
  • Alison Hill, ‘Hares Crossing
  • Vasiliki Albedo, ‘Summer of 2015
  • Joan Michelson, ‘At 3 o'clock in the afternoon
  • Simon Murphy, ‘Moles
  • Damen O'Brien, ‘Dinners With Dead People
  • Radka Otípková, ‘Coup de grâce
  • Laura Potts, ‘Holly
  • Sally St Clair, ‘Potting Quinces
  • Sally St Clair, ‘Should a Man be Able to Fight His Way out of a Cardboard Box?
  • Paul Stephenson, ‘Banisters
  • Juno Toraiwa,‘Crossing The Line (Berlin 2017)
  • Gastón Tourn, ‘I'm tired of being a foreigner
  • Jessica Traynor, ‘The Life
  • Jessica Traynor, ‘The Heroes' Chorus
  • Alan Ward, ‘Droste Woman’s Husband
  • Jennifer Wong, ‘Postpartum Vinegar
  • Pierre Zahnd, ‘If my father is less patient with his dog’
  • Pierre Zahnd, ‘My Aunt Plays Prokofiev's War Sonata No. 8

Judge’s report

One of the best things about judging a poetry competition is that it allows you to recognise very different writing styles you admire equally and simultaneously. When I look back at the poems I was drawn to, it’s a bit like glancing round a room full of my friends at a (slightly drunken) house party: there’s the friend who sings beautifully, the friend who does impromptu breakdancing on the table and somehow doesn’t smash any of the furniture, the friend who makes everyone laugh until they cry, the friend who slips away into the garden to look at the moon. Then others: the man who sneaked into the kitchen late on but is now everyone’s best friend, someone you feel you’ve known your whole life.

The poems I picked out as my ‘top three’ in the open competition this year are about as different as they could be and yet I wish I’d written all of them. The winning poem, Jonathan Edwards’ brilliantly titled ‘Kurt Cobain Proposes to Courtney Love, TJs, Newport, December 1991’ is a narrative tour-de-force with a light touch. It manages to be surreal and utterly convincing at the same time and it filled me with a longing for the magic beneath the everyday, the sense that our lives proceed in their strange parallels, the sense that history might be happening under our noses. It’s also a celebration of places like ‘TJs’, places every town has. The second placed poem, Natalie Whittaker's ‘Stay’, is a crepuscular, taut lyric poem which I couldn’t get out of my head from the first time I read it. I was haunted by the ‘shadow dogs’, the obedience of the sun. The highly-commended poem this year, ‘Mary Wants To Sleep With The Painter, But Pretends Otherwise’ by Maddie Godfrey, felt totally original. Each stanza aches with yearning, surprising images: Mary likened to a building ‘that longs to be abandoned/ but still stays full with people.’ Three very distinct poems. But what united them was the way each satisfied my longing for a piece of writing that could convince me - briefly - that the world it created was the only one that mattered. This was true of all the shortlisted poems too, from the brilliantly-observed college scene of Dean Atta’s ‘The Chronic’ to the delicacy and precariousness of Sally St Clair’s ‘Potting Quinces’.

The poems I read for the EAL category were all daring and memorable and it was extremely difficult to choose between them. Many of them were incredibly ambitious and wide-ranging in their scope, charged with an almost novelistic quality. The winning poem was ‘Memory Talkies’ by Jonaki Ray, a poised, closely-observed narrative full of striking imagery: a woman trembles ‘like the skeleton of a snail being picked clean by a colony of ants’, farms have ‘stakes in their hearts’. The ending took me quietly by surprise and I kept returning to it. In second place, ‘Halcyon’ by Vasiliki Albedo is tender and hopeful, a testament to the way poetry connects people. I read it as a piece that stands in playful opposition to Tony Harrison’s ‘Book Ends’, in which literature divides child and parent. The Special Commendation this year was Iulia David's ‘Notes for a Canary Fancier’, an allegorical poem which refuses to spare the reader, a warning against exoticising and attempted ownership. I felt enriched by these poems, but also jolted awake.

Helen Mort

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