Wellbeing poetry competition

In collaboration with Brookes Wellbeing, the Poetry Centre recently ran a poetry competition on the themes of mental health and well-being to celebrate the creation of the new Wellbeing group, which incorporates the Chaplaincy, as well as the services of Counselling, Disability, and Dyslexia to enhance the learning, emotional, physical and spiritual life of the Oxford Brookes community.

The competition was open to the entire Brookes community - staff and students - and, while the general themes of the competition were mental health and well-being, we also welcomed original poems on other subjects such as nostalgia, memories, and childhood.

The judges were: Dr Niall Munro (Interim Director of the Poetry Centre), Dr Andrea Macrae (Senior Lecturer in Stylistics), Claire Cox (poet and Head of Business Development, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences) and Marion Casey (Head of Wellbeing).

The judges were impressed by the rich array of talent within the Brookes community, and the many ways in which the poems conveyed sensitive subject matter with subtlety and craft.

The four placed poems appear below, as do the names of the poets who were shortlisted. The winning poets will be presented with their prizes in an event during Wellbeing Week (26-30 October 2015).

First Place: Abigail J. Villarroel, Clean Slate

Abigail J. Villarroel’s winning poem, ‘Clean Slate’ ends with the certainty of a date and a place, but the poem itself is anything but certain. The poem reflects on being disembodied across cultures, times, and spaces in an era when access to air travel has become - perhaps - all too easy. It is ambitious in its use of a fragmented form, reflecting the broken and incomplete nature of the speaker’s experience. The poem explores large questions which concern us all: how do we find a sense of ourselves in the world? Do the material things we accumulate make up for something more intrinsic and valuable that makes us who we are, and that we might have lost in transitions between homes, languages, different stages of our lives? And finally, is there any way of returning to an original self, a blank place from which we might start all over again

Clean Slate

coast born palm trees
                      free sunsets                  fried plantain
pirated cds                                                             cheap gasoline
                                          life unstained still in need of a clean slate

these planes linger between borders
              and take me places i shouldn't see;
                                           as the caribbean fades from me
                                         spanish becomes second nature
                 and past horizons stay dead everywhere
but inside me.

home is fleeting; with time
reduced to naked roofs and hotel rooms.

oceans infinite puddles
by the window seat,
charles de gaulle a dream at thirteen
turned burden at sixteen.

lorde understands,
"i'll never go home again"
and i tear up, find myself related
to all the ways i won't go back.

i could visit every year,
study the maps knowing it’d change nothing.
i could visit every year,
knowing it goes beyond presence 
into my changed core.

knowing my soul is not one
with the soil that had me raised.

wondering if who i'm becoming is worth 
this confusion; in such denial  
of clean slates and absolution.

Orlando, FL

by Abigail J. Villarroel

Second Place: Amy Ellis, Stirring

Amy Ellis’s second-placed poem, ‘Stirring’, in contrast to her first, depicts the warmth of a relationship between what seems to be a grandmother and granddaughter. It reflects with great tenderness upon a private moment as the speaker looks into the kitchen to see an elderly woman carrying out the everyday action of cooking. The grandmother does so selflessly, almost defiantly, making something to please the granddaughter, but in that unguarded moment, she reveals her own fragility and age, and the poet offers the reader a tension between the grandmother’s repetitive action, and our knowledge of her mortality.


Cotton nightgown clings to my legs
after bath time. I emerge from the light 
of the hallway to see her stirring, hushed, 
hunched. Yellow glow above the stove 
casts shadows on the creases 
in her cheeks. The steam rises slowly 
from the stainless steel pan, 
past her lined face, thin wrinkled 
hand like ruched fabric, blue veins 
like ribbons, holding her frailty together 
as she stirs the warm apples until they fall apart, 
turn to soft caramel brown, blend 
with cinnamon to melt 
in my mouth as a bedtime treat. 
The light reflects off linoleum
as her arm moves—a steady pace, stirring.

by Amy Ellis

Third Place: Amy Ellis, The Secret Keeper

Amy Ellis achieved the remarkable feat of being placed both third and second, and with poems which are radically different from one another in subject matter and tone. Her third-placed poem, ‘The Secret Keeper’ was an intense, shocking piece which the judges admired for its uncompromising approach but also for its craft - the deft use of rhyme and half-rhyme to insinuate and then stun the reader with the full force of the violence being described. The poem is constructed with considerable skill, the beginnings and ends of lines designed to complement the vivid and dynamic imagery.

The Secret Keeper

She tried to powder her nose
with a shotgun, blew the skin right 
back, peeled herself like an orange, 
and placed a hole where her sewn 
up mouth used to be. Left herself splattered 
and gaping like a gang rape victim. Shattered 
teeth, broken piano keys, the tuskless 
elephant, the worm of what used to be a tongue.

by Amy Ellis

Fourth Place: Janice Laidlaw, Wipe-out

The judges felt that Janice Laidlaw’s poem, ‘Wipe-out’, placed fourth, offered a stunning evocation of traumatic experience. With its evocative, sensual imagery, subtle use of sound patterns, and imaginative form, the poem ends ambiguously, having provided a powerful window into the subject’s experience, but leaving the reader unsure as to whether that subject will be able to move on from the incidents portrayed in the poem.


She shrinks in time -
childhood minuteness:
cracked hollow of a grain of wheat.

Grits, whimpers, cringes
away from shadow-circled
glass eyes prying.

While they eat
harsh ruts of giddied blood
are drying....

Sucked shrivelling-in of skin-sense:
she squats tight, oblivious,
battered case
hangs, swinging.

and when being
as small as possible
comes to an end,
elasticity shapes to fit
the gap between your head,
your fists,
your needs,
your private bits.

Acrid verses bellow
in the parched air -
the steeple-church is grimly chiming;
and she is parched too:
she spins,
stilted blinks
wave in the grass.
Stings as she lies.

It hurts,
she is tiny,
insects thunder by......

She is far away;
far, far away.

And nothing is wrong
because she won't ever let herself
remember this day.

by Janice Laidlaw

Shortlisted poets and poems

  • Janet Dowling, White
  • Amna Edris, Ana
  • Lydia Galloway, Alone
  • Elliot Hurst, Teetering Rig
  • Gary JC, My Crumbling Spine and How to Save the World This Time
  • Siân Jones, Write and Spent
  • Kathryn Lund, In Bed with Depression and ‘Your Childhood, Before Dark Patches
  • Rose Stevens, Seabed
  • Paul Walton, Conversation with a Ricardian
  • Jennifer Wong, Cave
  • Abigail J. Villarroel, Walls Come Down