2021 Winners and shortlist

The Poetry Centre is excited to announce the winners of our 2021 competition, which this year was judged by award-winning poet Will Harris. 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 over 1,000 entries again this year from a wonderful range of poets and 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 and scrolling down the poems page.

We held an online awards ceremony this year on Tuesday 7 December from 6.30-7.30pm GMT and were delighted that we could hear readings from all the winning poets and Will too. You can watch a recording of the event at the bottom of this page.

Many thanks indeed to all the poets who entered this year's competition and to our excellent judge, Will. We hope you'll enter the competition again next year!

Open category

First Place: 'the thing about the eating disorder wing is' by Katie O'Pray


            everyone’s shit smells exactly the same

something tired and pruned inside us

now shoehorned and swelling

with yoghurts   cereal    4 cups of milk

I will tapeworms from the white rings they leave on the table

            distraction! how many green things can you name

cabbage           broccoli           peppermint tea

come on now   a nurse warns  less with the food      too much         

time spent on that elephant in the room                     

the apple in his mouth and the oil

pooling at his neck       the gristle you can’t shake

            12 minutes left to complete this meal

sometimes I hold my tongue so tense     its quivered muscle  

I suck my own teeth loose

I am never clearing my throat anymore                        I just speak

we are all here rotting    a little bit slower than we were before

            this morning it was all alarms and stretchers   

dietician running down the corridor    

one empty seat at the breakfast table      no one found

the answer to the riddle on the blackboard      no one asked

any questions               we just played games

distraction!       we just made cards

no one wrote anything inside them      just cut

out stars with safety scissors    stuck sequins before

lunch   & after kneaded clay   into plant pots

not all granted out       to the garden   distraction!

            at tea    we sucked the worry out of our molars

like sunflower seeds

sat down to our dumplings

carried on chewing

Second Place: 'Little Cuckoo' by Morag Anderson

 

Your mother fought, I'm sure,
but lost to slack white jaws—
tongues sharp and thin as fish bones.  

There is no 6am tick of water
warming pipes in this care home,
damp and foul as rotting colons.  

I would feather a nest for you,
Little Cuckoo, bring a feast of worms,
but my blackbird beak is crammed with stones.

Special Commendation: Thirteen Versions of the Day After Our Abortion by Amelia Loulli

In this version I grow a lemon tree between my legs. You move me to a window because citrus
trees need light. In this version I wrap myself in a golden fleece, start a bonfire in the back yard,
eat baby insects like air. In this version you give me a piglet - two eyes, a bald round head,
rhythmically kicking its arms and legs like an accordion playing a polka. In this version you
move next door and I write to all the women you left. Love letters that become birds once read,
so they don’t have to decide what to do with them next. In this version I get my pilot’s license
while you teach my son to dance. Wearing an aviation suit and Earhart goggles I sit in the
cockpit, still on the ground, watching you both spinning. In this version we don’t get pregnant
in the first place, instead your swimmers take a leap, swim the channel, make it all the way to
France where they quickly pick up the language, open a small boulangerie and cycle to work
every day. I eat eggs for breakfast for a week. In this version you buy me a convertible car. I
drive on long empty roads with the top down, my hair wrapped in a red chiffon scarf. The seats
are black leather, wipe clean, just in case, you say. In this version your mum cooks me dinner.
Fifteen courses of the Corinthians and a jug of the Song of Songs. I keep my elbows off the
table. She spoons verses on my plate while stroking my face. In this version I discover you
stole the baby while I was sleeping. You keep it in a pickling jar. You tell me this is in case I
change my mind. In this version you plait my hair. You take my trinity and weave it, soft in
your hands, like feathers, you say, as I start tapping my claws on the wet soil. In this version
you feed me your dog. Flesh cubed, marinated in virgin oils, roasted. We sit at the table looking
at each other but never, ever our plates. In this version you hold my hair back at the side of the
clinic road. I heave my organs up and out of my mouth onto the curb. Oops there’s a kidney.
Oh and another, you say. In this version you are bleeding. I don’t want to be dramatic but you
are bleeding like someone let the bath water out onto the floor, you are bleeding, the colour
fleeing you, leaving behind nothing but pale foam and bubbles.

EAL category

First Place: 'a poem in which I use the word 'betoken' for the first time in my life' by Laura Theis

here’s a little bauble of dust for you
to hit me with: hard 

so I go down then get up and
hug you like a monkey catcher 

I blow up dripped in blood then get up once more
dipped in honey 

the hug entails all the gratitude of a grave and
all the gravity of a fleeing mare: look 

you have made a mark that betokens
the death of light

Second Place: 'Bark of a Dog' by Elsa Braekkan Payne

Perhaps it is the rhythm of the swinging seat,
the smell of other people’s barbecues, the waiting
for the dog next door to bark again.

Or just the cheek of June and the open windows –
for suddenly I’m deep in the start of a story
about a couple, just like us.  And at first, 

I feel pity for her, who keeps herself busy,
pecking away at being her truest self.  Then,
in the blink of a skimming bat, 

I pity him, who always thought he knew
for certain who he truly was; which doesn’t seem
to be working so well anymore.  

It must be the twilight – how it fires the eyes
of the pansies I planted last month.  More nude,
the yellow; more sly, the indigo.  And now,    

as day and night entwine, I see the inside-outness
of tales that open playfully, and soon begin
to snake and bite.  For what are they doing, 

she and he, circling mole-blind round a tired garden
that’s starting to look like an ancient wood?
I know too well that endings are tricky,     

yet here I am at the edge, hearing the absent
bark of a dog, who might, in fact, be a wolf.  So
maybe this is where it is meant to end – 

with a sea-saw chill, with petals losing their
glow, the smell of charcoal fading.  You,
somewhere else.  Dogs and wolves asleep.

Special Commendation: 'Underwater Tongue' by Mark Dimaisip

When the neighborhood robins started speaking
fish, my father gunned down all the anomalies
that perched on trees. I can still hear the ringing.
Flashback to six: chasing ants with candles,
fixing movements in wax. There is a pond
by the worn, wooden house where ducklings cackle.
I remember thinking that if chicks could wade
in the water, maybe their shrill crying would stop.
When my grandfather collapsed in a stairway,
I wasn’t taken aback by his ending. Farm teaches death.
The backyard gravel, becoming more and more maroon.
The daily playtime of ripping insects apart.
Dogs and cats put down for fucking all the time.
Before my grandfather died, he caught me
placing chicks inside pitchers. He saw drowning.
I saw learning. His angry face is hard to forget.
After a slaughter, we would sweep death off the ground
but blood finds a way to seep beyond cleansing.
Wounds don’t heal. They turn invisible.
I walked barefoot into the ocean. Grasping for fish
words. But the close-fisted waves said no.
Let me learn, first hand, this underwater tongue.
Let me tow together what I can’t keep whole.

Shortlist

  • 'How Inferiority Complex Talks to A Writer Whose Mother Tongue is Urdu' by Fizza Abbas
  • 'City Portrait' by Massimo Vito Avantaggiato
  • 'You will survive' by Kathryn Bevis
  • 'The Extradition of Drug Lord Dudus Coke: Barbican girl dash weh Tivoli boy' by Courtney Conrad
  • 'Fairies' by Elijah East
  • 'The Night Shift at the Tolls' by Ioannis Kalkounos
  • 'Summerlepsy' by Özge Lena
  • 'Ulcerative colitis and other traits passed down by my father [a golden shovel]' by Kamil Mahmood
  • 'Stele Text' by Oisín Moloughney 
  • 'White Cloud' by Karlo Sevilla 

Judge’s report

Any form of judgment is shadowed by inevitable misjudgment. I already feel sorry about all the poems I'll have missed or misread in the process of misjudging this competition. And I know that even these "winning" poems – which stayed in my bag for days and followed me to and from work – are not here, with you, because I've judged and understood them. They're here because these are the poems which felt most open to being misunderstood. I could move around between their images, feel their soundshapes and shifts in tone. They existed, in some sense, beyond the bounds of judgment.

The winning poem in the EAL category is a case in point: 'a poem in which I use the word 'betoken' for the first time in my life' foregrounds Artifice (as Veronica Forrest-Thomson meant it) in its title, disavowing the idea of naturalised speech. We know the word "betoken" will appear at some point and that it's not a part of the poet's regular lexicon. So the "little bauble of dust" on the first line shouldn't take us by surprise, but it's still heartstopping. This is a poem built wonderfully - as only poems can be - around contrasts (down/up), internal rhymes ("dripped/dipped") and unusual etymological/aural links ("grave/gravity," "mare/mark") which stretch the texture of language to the point where, when the poet reveals this to be an elegy - for one who made "a mark that betokens/ the death of light" - the commonplace of that sentiment has been entirely aerated, made new and true and sad.

The second-placed poem, 'Bark of a Dog', does similar work in exerting control over - to the point of withholding - information that would allow a quick paraphrase of its content. Carefully reticulated sentences "snake and bite" as its narrative turns back on itself, revelling in the "inside-outness/ of tales". The special commendation goes to 'Underwater Tongue', whose first three lines blew the top of my head off, not least because of the strange ecological-familial power invested in the poet's use of "anomalies". I'm also still puzzling over the powerful relationship between "speaking/ fish" and "fish/ words".

In the Open category, the first-placed poem is 'the thing about the eating disorder ward is:'. Again, I was struck by the opening. Its perfectly paired adjectives - "tired and pruned", "shoehorned and swelling" - are, like the rest of the poem, precise and moving in their evocation of a specific place, capturing the ways in which a body/mind adapts to - and resists - an institutional setting. But the poem as a whole is more than self-disclosure, and more than the hope or pain it describes. It's more than description ("distraction!"). It has to be read and heard to be felt.

The second-placed poem is 'Little Cuckoo', which is clear and astringent, elliptical and expansive. Its declarative confidence ("I'm sure," "there is no...") and singsong rhymes crawled under my skin, but what marked it out was that, despite the fable-like tone, it seemed to refuse the possibility of anything like a simple moral. Instead, the "slack white jaws" of the cuckoo's putative mother and the blackbird's beak "crammed with stones" are held in permanent awful tension. The special commendation goes to 'Thirteen Versions of the Day After Our Abortion'. The poem's charge comes less from the surprise of its images - though its images do find amazingly varied and moving ways to upturn expectation - than from its sustained and modulated honesty. Like all the best poems, it speaks with a kind of honesty that can only mirror the logic of dreams.

Will Harris

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