2019 Winners and shortlist

The Poetry Centre is excited to announce the winners of our competition, which this year was judged by the internationally-acclaimed and award-winning author Jackie Kay. 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 650 poets from nearly 40 different countries. You can find the list of winners and the shortlisted poets below and read the winning poems.

Jackie Kay was born and brought up in Scotland. The Adoption Papers (Bloodaxe) won the Forward Prize, a Saltire prize and a Scottish Arts Council Prize. Fiere was shortlisted for the Costa award and her novel Trumpet won the Guardian Fiction Award and was shortlisted for the IMPAC award. Red Dust Road (Picador) won the Scottish Book of the Year Award, and the London Book Award, and was shortlisted for the JR Ackerley Prize. Her third collection of short stories, Reality, Reality, was praised by The Guardian as ‘rank[ing] among the best of the genre'. She was awarded an MBE in 2006, and made a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2002. Jackie Kay also writes for children and her book Red Cherry Red (Bloomsbury) won the CLYPE award. She has written extensively for stage and television. Her most recent poetry collection, Bantam, was published in 2017 to critical acclaim. She is Chancellor of the University of Salford and Professor of Creative Writing at Newcastle University. Jackie Kay was named Scots Makar - the National Poet for Scotland - in March 2016.

Very many thanks indeed to all the poets who entered and to our judge! 

Open category

First Place: 'The Kodachrome Book of the Dead' by Mark Fiddes

Frozen in their Kodaks,
our old folks wear slippers
to protect the carpet from their feet.

Colours leech. A tap drips.
Dinner lingers in another room.
A yucca erupts on the lawn.

The lounge is an orgy
of fakery: leatherette armchairs,
plaster dogs, silk orchids,

mock encyclopedias
and more fringe than necessary
on lamps, hairdos, lips, pelmets

plus random tassels
wherever there is dangling
and come-hither velvet.

If a grandparent smiles 
it is like a wolf had stopped by
for tea and a slice of Battenberg.

Parents vogue in folky
knitwear surrounded by cigarettes
and the Sixties.

Is this how they will see us,
our early years tucked into albums
balanced on the knee like babies?

Will pages crackle as laminates
separate and we stare back red-eyed
as hounds from blind pubs?

Whereas our last few decades
will click past in seconds on a screen,
backlit, cropped and cherry-bright.  

There they can find us,
between swipes, catching our breath,
wiping the joy from our sleeves.

Mark Fiddes

Second Place: ‘Love Song for a Bigot’ by Robert Hamberger

I refuse to disappear –
     this hand is my complexity:
count its rivers and wedding rings.
Marrying a man is my victory,
your disgust. If years before I married
a woman, that proves the riches of love – 
see them pour from the unpeopled heavens.
I slip like an otter past your nets.
Note how various I am – my children carry
rivers in their hands, my ancestors lifted
doors onto their backs, lifted toddlers
and boxes in their arms two hundred years
ago, tested home against the holes
in their boots, the spit of neighbours.

I come from heroines who spoke another 
language – see them climb carefully
into rickety boats, measuring safety over 
every wave and mile, shushing their babies,
softly patting their backs, pinning hopes
on half an hour’s doze. What triumphs!
To arrive and think I’m not welcome here
but that door needs a lick of paint. I’ll make it
mine.
I carry their name and if you can’t 
pronounce it –  if it gutters
against your tongue – 
it’s as glorious as my fingerprints,
singing for my mouth that shapes it,
my ear that answers to it like a perky dog.

If whatever I do tonight
makes you shudder you don’t need
to watch. When I kiss his eyebrow
his shoulder his dick it’s none
of your business. I claim sanctuary
in his arms. My door is bolted.
I’m an eel and he’s my river.
Call me scarey queen or gulley queen. 
Quote Leviticus, its abominations. Answer
me with your machete. It’s nothing personal.
Stop me seeing my child, my grandchild.
I might infect them with my love. Build
a thousand walls to block me, I’ll find
a thousand rivers to swim. 

Robert Hamberger

Special Commendation: 'The Buddy Holly Fan Club of Damascus ' by Christopher James

Seventeen of us in horn-rimmed glasses:
the rock and roll fan boys of downtown Damascus.
We met on Mondays, in the cellar of the Al Pasha Hotel
with a bottle of Arak and a copy of 20 Golden Greats.
Our prize possession was a pick Buddy once played
at the Fiesta Ballroom, Montevideo, Minnesota. 

A few of us made up The Crickets, Tarek on bass,
Victor on goblet drums and myself on Qanun.
The drain covers hiccupped as we cranked out
our version of Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues.
Once a month we went head to head with Rifat,
the Syrian Elvis who performed in a kaftan wingsuit.

That spring, when the people filled the streets,
we played Marjeh Square: raving on a flatbed truck,
shaking the windows of the Interior Ministry.
When the shots rang out, we fled down an alley
and hid in the upstairs room of a hair salon. We left
one by one in pink dressing gowns and perms.

The next day we painted a pair of Buddy’s glasses
on a twenty-foot portrait of Bashar al-Assad.
Bombed out of our basement, we took to the hills
still wearing pencil thin ties and suede loafers.
We traded vinyl for Molotov cocktails, then, on every
shattered tank scratched ‘True Love Ways.’

A year on, just six of us left, Tarek sold his watch
for a passage to Greece and a tub of day-old falafels.
The rest of us joined him, squeezing into a dinghy
while mothers held their children. The boat swamped,
I collected five pairs of glasses then swam for shore.
In the sand I left these words: ‘Buddy Holly lives.’

Christopher James

Special Commendation: 'Dihedral' by Mary-Jane Holmes

Every photograph is a certificate of presence.

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

After the paramedics claimed the body, the coroner
his bundle of forms, my mother, untrained in grief’s
protocol took a photo of where her husband died;
a kitchen in England tiled in scattered fossil and
shell. You can see where the tiler under-measured,
the grout line thick, jagged, not quite reaching the
bespoke cabinets.

Six time zones back in another continent, before
the future vibrates as one incoming message, I’m lying
between Resurrection Fern and Ocotillo, watching
the first sign of a desert spring. My body’s outline–
a deviation of leaf-cutter ants on a caldera of limestone.
Turkey vultures kettle the bluff of our six-month rental

I long for one of them to break its spiral, swoop in so close
I’ll glimpse the pink scald of its head, but they rock
and soar, diffident in their teetering flight, knowing
the difference between living and dead, while I search in
every pixel for my father’s presence, finding only
my mother’s thumb blurring the lens with its raw imprint.

Mary-Jane Holmes

EAL category

First Place: 'Photographs' by Kostya Tsolakis

On balconies, in sunlit rooms, embracing
relatives I never met, holding long-dead pets:

my parents’ youth is kept in the living room
in a wooden chest. Deckled prints no bigger

than my palm, formal studio portraits
and light-starved slides span monochrome

decades, peaking in Kodak Gold right before
I was born. Again and again my parents are caught

ignorant of me. Dad, nearing 90 now, his mouth
a sparrow that no longer flies. How can he be

the smart lieutenant Mum has yet to fall for,
his uniform a brilliant white he can’t be trusted

with today? Mum, her eyes dimmed by limitations
and disappointment. Is she the girl, stem-thin

in a little black dress, gazed at by pomaded suitors?
Even then she felt like a displaced floor tile,

but in that girl’s beautiful, composed face,
there’s no hint of the anxious woman watching now

in terror, as the cold light of life without him
leaks in, like a new development, from under the door.

Kostya Tsolakis

Second Place: from 'To Die A Little' by Romalyn Ante

‘Partir es un poco morir,
llegar nunca es llegar…’

 – Oracion de migrantes

‘When I left you, I had to kill a part of my heart.’

– Mama

      You stood on the other side of the barrier. Time is a tattered blanket
      that draped down your shoulders. I slit my chest open to excise a chunk

      of myocardium. My tympanic membrane beat what you held back,
      Ma, wag mo akong iwan. Ma, don’t leave me.

      Our day clattered down the litter, a snail-slow plane cut across our sky.
      I learned the routine – drawing a cross on each day block

      of the calendar, Crocs clogs slap across the street. In and out,
      in and out of the automatic-door mouth of a concrete god.

      Here’s the truth – I could buy our barrio’s botika and any blanket
      but there – in the unchecked wound of the world, under the fat

      of clouds, you lie on a bed, a smack of IV drips hang over your head
      like a battery-drained cot toy. While here, I am setting a vomit bowl

      under someone else’s chin, watching him sleep as the walls convulse
      in magma-hot breaths. Here’s the truth – my tympanic membrane beats,

      wala kang kwenta, useless mother.

You said all I needed to do was to sleep and before I knew it,
you’d be back. But I woke to the rice that needed rinsing,
my siblings’ school uniforms that needed ironing.

I woke to a refrain of drunkards across the road.
A man in a cowboy hat plucked his gitara
and sang about a person who packed a suitcase,
              Just when I needed you most.

I woke when the washing machine broke
and beat clothes at the backyard.
A sleepy face frothing in a puddle,
              Just when I needed you most.

I raised my head above the waves
of smoke from a burning wok, and wondered
if the swirl of black mist would reach you.

But I believed, Mama – before I knew it, you’d be back.
When I yanked my sister by her hair for answering back,
I held onto what you said.

When I choked on phlegm at midnight,
missing the ginger-kick of your tinola,
I held onto what you said.

When other mothers climbed to the stage
and pinned medals to my classmate’s chests,
I held onto what you said.

On Sundays, I played tumbang preso with the other kids.
We laughed because we were not orphans, only left behinds.
A swift hit – a rubber flip-flop knocked down an empty can

and the years clanked down the street. The smell of rain
lifted the dust from the road. I sprinted for a shelter,
              Just when I needed you most.

Romalyn Ante

Special Commendation: 'Conversion' by Kostya Tsolakis

Cured in the church my parents got married in,
I was made to kneel for hours on the marble floor,
facing the gilded iconostasis,
as chants and swigs of holy water rooted out
the homosexual demons from my body.

20 years later, marriage required few words from me.
The painted saints that witnessed my translation
watched over my union with you, dear wife.
Their cool expressions, just like yours,
gave nothing away.

My mother smiled. The priest chanted:
And the wife, see that she reverence her husband.
You stepped lightly on my toes.
Did she tell you to do that?

The wreath on my head felt surprisingly heavy.
I wore my father’s velvet suit,
tight over my chest and under my armpits;
I had too many ouzo shots at the reception.

It’s been a year now.
Are you my ideal match?
My mother certainly thinks so.
Unlike me, you know how to drive,
you never gave up on your German,
read Balzac and Zola in the French.
Your Greek betrays only a smidgen of your mother tongue.
You had a stint in the diplomatic corps,
dice vegetables and meat like a pro.

Men give you the eye in the street all the time.
I pretend to mind, but can’t make myself.
You spend a lot of time with my mother,
hanging off each other’s lips.
In the kitchen, just now,

you giggled like girls with a crush.
It’s strange, sometimes I feel I’m imposing.
I try to join you, but you shoo me away.
We’re talking women stuff, you laugh.

I sit on the steps that lead down to the garden, smoking.
I picked up smoking recently.
The apple tree is looking worse for wear.
It hasn’t rained since we got married.

Kostya Tsolakis

Shortlist

  • Perya’ by Romalyn Ante
  • Police Report’ by Isabelle Baafi
  • The L Word’ by Alison Binney
  • O Respectability’ by Geraldine Clarkson
  • The Waiting Room’ by Mary-Jane Holmes
  • G45’ by Charles Lang
  • Shades of Jamaica’ by Jenny Mitchell
  • regret’ by Arjunan Manuelpillai
  • Out at the estuary’ by Simon Murphy
  • Temporary silence’ by Ruairi Paxman
  • A favourite ornamental shrub among Europeans’ by Pnina Shinebourne
  • What It Felt Like’ by Laura Theis
  • In the Kitchen with Dad’ by Kostya Tsolakis

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