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.
2020 Winners and shortlist
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.
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. Hear Fiona read from her most recent book.
Very many thanks indeed to all the poets who entered and to our judge.
he said I was a peach
couldn’t see him didn’t know the crocus
pollen on my toes would be a dowry
black earth gulped my legs my shoulders
covered my head my footprints with itself
the taste of aquifers stone forests
mantle I am dead I reasoned
through dusted lashes knelt
somewhere head bowed informed I am
to be comfort for a mud king
with strange pets
I gripped a grass blade still
bright with my own kissed breath
there was a wed-ing of sorts
my stomach and other parts surveyed
to fathom my capacity
hung from my feet to siphon sunlight
blood pressed for foxglove poisons
panned for gold molecules
then began the drinking a feast of carrion
the maltworm king crowed his huge
knowledge of human weakness how fitting you are mine
he cracked for the price of your hunger
how fitting he the corpse lord mistook silence
for surrender and half-sober stirs
face down on his throne mound bound
under my foot my heel in grey cheekflesh
and at my word forfeits all but
everything of his even the dogs
by Katie Byford
for other reasons. Practice makes enough.
Clichés ride on thermals like strains of the song
you’ve got to search for the hero inside yourself.
Learn to duck and leave. In your mind’s ear
go to the hospice where your dad stayed
for respite care then curtains, not curtains,
he died. Don’t say angels, every last one
of those people, peaceful, don’t say
the birds sang their hearts out, lovely garden,
fragrant pink roses or he had new pyjamas
buttoned all the way like a little boy.
Say you watched a plane fly over and imagined it
packed with divorced guinea pig enthusiasts
heading somewhere wet. Say they wore gaiters
and read badly written blockbusters,
with stabbings they won't have seen coming.
Say there was a doctor in a green jumper
so thin you could see her bra and she was crouching
beside your dad’s bed. Say she was pregnant
but you couldn’t tell until she stood up,
which happened after she had recited a list
of possible happinesses for your dad
in a soft voice, whilst slowly stroking his arm.
Say his pyjama sleeve was rolled up
past the elbow and the palm of his hand
was upturned, reminding you of a clean ashtray
or Christ. Say she stroked upwards, asking
would you like to play scrabble? then down,
or do the Sudoku together? Fancy a baguette
with ham, and a sliced tomato?
Wagner’s ring cycle on headphones?
Or maybe you’d like a whisky with ice? Don’t say
if your own children turn out half as kind
as the people who work in hospices,
yours will have been a life well-lived, job done
or that you miss your dad more than ever
all these years on. Say he chose a whisky
and some pork scratchings. Say the pregnant doctor
poured a treble. Don’t call the ice rocks.
by Vanessa Lampert
I am 7, or 6, or 5 & have not yet learned the language of grief or the
sound of a body falling into silence. People die everyday in our country,
but it is not our country; it is someplace faraway in our TV where
there are bombs, fire dancing on bodies, schoolchildren without desks
& 9pm news that are about stolen billions & men in boats saying
they tire of drinking oil with water. Already knew the square root
of 16 is 4 & that in ‘67 our people went to war, but I had not wandered
yet into the ambits of pain. Mourners tore soft songs from their souls
with their tongues & their wails bounced off the walls, off my little
body & sat at my feet in shards—the crowd waits upon Christ,
seeking bread from his hands, then blood from his side—
They whisper that I do not cry. That I am dry-eyed. That I do not
tear my hair apart to clear the path for the departing dead.
Me; dry driftwood of a miracle dancing with careless abandon while
the boatswain, arms flailing, tries to rouse God from sleep. I think
that moment was when I began to look back at the call of names
belonging to another, walk into dreams not mine & pluck hibiscuses
in fields where vultures make the trespassers-will-be-shot signs sway.
In a hospital in Ibadan, a man clutched to his chest the grief of another
man & his eyes closed to give him a taste of lightlessness. I understand
a man fainting at the sight of a headless mangled body that left blood in
the wake of the stretcher but I did not know, until the doctor ran tests,
that grief has beautiful names & psychic trauma is one of them.
A boy I knew would run across the sky every night to harvest a star for
every woman he loved & each of them always left with a part of him in
her handbag or on her; just between her hair & her weave, until he gave
the only part of him left to a rope from his ceiling fan, stardust spilling
from his mouth, & each swing said something like grief has many robes
& one of them is heartbreak but I am not sure—the cops cordoned off the
area do not cross but grief is a borderless country to which you can get
trafficked/ into which you can wander & as you drive on, you won’t notice
the signs trespassers will get shot/no stopping/welcome because you are
too happy to know you have been here before, too amnesic to remember
that grief is a man of many garbs & one of them is joy.
by Onyekachi Iloh
what stops collective pain. Throat as dry as that dangling
catheter, dry as that slim, cold saline pack—which unlike life
is about to be replaced. We know only so much warm flesh
the earth embrace, only so much pressure her ribs can
endure. There is a shame in remembering that I slept well
that night. Numbers blinking like andromeda. Numbers swimming
on the screen. Sixty per thirty, seventy five percent. Numbers jumping
up, numbers drowning, numbers I keep wanting to go the opposite way.
Fifty per twenty, forty three percent. This means you’re half-breathing
Mother, this means half of your lung gives up while the other’s foolish. Poor
half-lung, doesn’t know we’ve settled the score last night. They said
the body can’t betray itself, yet God can stab anywhere without hearing
the word betrayal. Forty per twenty, thirty eight percent. Let’s just leave,
skip the long beep. Skip the Yasin. People flipping your worldly, jiggly
remains in a metal desk. The urge that I have to kiss the bruises on
your chest. On your lower back a burgundy crust, a gaping dark basin.
I mutter a muted Allahu Akbar. God you are so Great. When I say this
it means hypnosis. It means faith. Like batons, life is being passed on
by the dead. A quiet poem flutters in your palm. Like orphans, we—
by Dianty Ningrum
it's about the dogs, she says
she sits and she isn't mother
but helpless nonetheless, a divorce
is as much about leaving as it is
about what you take with you
what you can carry and it's the dogs
they need homes, you can't leave
dogs, it goes against the soul
so you leash them with soft hands
you direct them into kind-natured
killing until whatever you are
whatever even mattered, is that
your house has become twilight
a shade of desperation and they
say Cerberus was once a snake
coiled around his master's ankles
you see, so many things can be called
dogs, love for instance when it's sweaty
and pawing your cheek for attention
or when it springs up unawares and
catches you, in shackles for hands
eager and panting, as it spills
like a pomegranate at your feet
by Milla van der Have
- 'Border' by Elena Croitoru
- 'Ars Poetica' by Claire Miranda Roberts
- 'My Grandfather Ready for the Club, 1960' by Jonathan Edwards
- 'On the occasion of my son gumming his first drumstick' by Janine Bradbury
- 'My Mother’s Hair' by Kim Moore
- '2020: With all this death around' by Krystelle Bamford
- 'Slip' by Amelia Loulli
- 'Son, for Thetis' by Katie Byford
- 'Spoilt / spilt / split' by Sara Levy
- 'A Strange Creature Named Anxiety' by Ian Walker
- 'The Touch' by Ali Lewis
- 'Sheep Chorus, Lisheegan' by Mícheál McCann
- 'Deep-Sea Diver' by Kevin Smith
- 'The Angel Speaks to Vladimir' by Millie Guille
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.