Entries to the National Poetry Competition close on 31st October. But is it worth entering if you’re not an established poet with all the tricks, an MA in creative writing and a book or two to your name? You bet it is! We looked at the winners from the past twenty years and found five previously unpublished poets who claimed the prize
The National Poetry Competition
The National Poetry Competition was established in 1978 and is run by the Poetry Society. It accepts entries from all over the world, with over 10,000 poems being submitted to the competition each year. The first prize is £5,000 and the top three winners are published in Poetry Review.
Winning has been an important milestone in the careers of many well-known poets. Ruth Padel, Sinéad Morrissey, Colette Bryce and Helen Dunmore have all won it; Jo Shapcott and Ian Duhig have each won it twice. Christopher James, the 2008 winner, commented “if there is an unspoken Grand Slam circuit for poetry prizes, then the National Poetry Competition is definitely Wimbledon – it’s the one everyone dreams of winning”.
Entries are anonymous. Helena Nelson of HappenStance Press says, “None of the book competitions is ever judged blind. How can they be? But the National Poetry Competition, which is judged blind, frequently comes up with winners you’ve never heard of, though the shortlist always includes some of the usual suspects.”
Beatrice Garland won the National Poetry Competition in 2001 with her poem ‘undressing’
Garland was working full time in the NHS as a clinical psychologist when she won the competition, and had a husband and two sons. She says, “Winning the competition was a stunning surprise, quite breathtaking, and also a revelation – that I could write something that others thought good. Being taken seriously by others meant I began to take myself more seriously.
“The poem ‘undressing’ came out of the way I tend to drop clothes on the floor, just let them lie where they slip off when undressing, and this led to the thought that we – unlike flowers or trees or snakes – cannot shed and then renew our own skins. And to thoughts about what’s most central, innermost, in us, and when we might encounter it. There is an oblique reference to John Donne’s poem ‘The Relic’, also about what’s left after death – with “a bracelet of bright hair about the bone” in the last stanza.
“I still like this poem. I am pleased I was able to write it. It hasn’t dated for me, as many others of mine have. But always when you look back at something you wrote at an earlier stage you feel did I really write it? I wish I could do that now!”
Garland won the Templar Poetry Straid Award in 2013, which led to the publication of her first collection The Invention of Fireworks, which was shortlisted for The Forward Prize Best for First Collection in 2014. She says, “I’d been writing for 20 years before anyone agreed to a collection”. In 2017 her second collection, The Drum, was published by Templar Poetry. Ian Pople in The Manchester Review calls it “a collection which is driven by considerable imaginative elegance and precision”.
She is currently working on a collection about very early work on the immune response. She says, “It’s not at all easy to make poetry out of science, the work is very unyielding stuff, but it’s what I’m trying to do. I have absolutely zero idea of whether it will interest anyone else.”
She writes because “it’s when I feel most in touch with myself“. Like many of us, she has found the pandemic difficult. She says, “Covid has meant that the small group of writers I was part of, led by John Stammers, had to disband, which has been a real loss. Zoom isn’t the same, you need the hot breath of other poets in the same room in order to flourish.
“I’m not a performance poet, since what I write has to be read, and I’m aware that’s less fashionable these days. I’m also old-fashioned in other ways. I like grammar, and I like punctuation, and I like metre when it’s not intrusive. Rhyme – well – sometimes it happens by chance, and that’s fine, but often it ties a poem up in a slightly constricting way. My best moments as a published poet are when I’m written to by hundreds (literally) of schoolchildren who have been studying a poem of mine – ‘Kamikaze’ – for their GCSEs. I answer every one of these emails and it’s a pleasure. I think that poem got selected for the exams because it’s about something real, factual, historical, and it also contains a lot of feeling, about life and death. That’s what poetry is really for, perhaps. The big stuff.”
Like slipping stitches
or unmaking a bed
or rain from tiles,
they come tumbling off:
green dress, pale stockings,
loose silk – like mown grass
or blown roses,
subsiding in little heaps
and holding for a while
a faint perfume – soap,
warm skin – linking
these soft replicas of self.
And why stop there?
Why not like an animal,
a seed, a fruit, go on
to shed old layers of moult,
snakeskin, seed-husk, pelt
or hard green-walnut coat,
till all the roughnesses
of knocking age
are lost and something
soft, unshelled, unstained
into open ground?
And perhaps in time
this slow undoing will arrive
at some imagined core,
some dense and green-white bud,
Yes. It will come,
that last let-fall of garment,
nerve, bright hair and bone –
the rest is earth,
casements of air,
close coverings of rain,
the casual sun.
Jon Sait won the National Poetry Competition in 2004 with his poem ‘Homeland’
Sait says, “I’d just returned to Cardiff to support my very elderly mum after living for ten years off-grid in a converted 1965 Bedford bus on a farm in Wiltshire where I worked a follower herd in lieu of site rent plus a sculpture studio in a barn.
“I’d written poetry since childhood but took it more seriously when I had the luck to have the poet DHW Grubb as a teacher at my comp in the 70s. I had quite a few poems published in magazines in the 80s but writing poetry was always more about sense-making for myself rather than engagement with an audience. It still is. Winning was fun but made no difference to my writing. It was the first time I’d entered any competition so the whole thing felt a bit of a smash and grab.”
Sait founded and coordinates Trio Uganda, a volunteer-led charity in Uganda which works with community activists in slums and isolated villages, spending a few months there each year. He also runs a stone carving workshop in Northern Spain, and works in scriptwriting for the UK film and TV industry. He says, “Poetry is an antidote to the film / TV industry. It doesn’t need a commissioner, budgets, endless rewrites and deadlines. Stone carving and poetry are very similar … hacking out a rough form, then endless polishing.
“I continue to write poetry. Won’t stop, can’t stop. I’m not involved in ‘the scene’ but I read a lot and keep up with writers, new and old. I don’t go to many readings these days. Most poets are crap at reading their own poetry so I prefer words on the page and screen!”
Asked about the poem ‘Homeland’ he says, “I wrote it very quickly one night when living on my old bus just before returning to Cardiff. Howling storm, crackling wood burner, and then this voice. This might sound pretentious but it was dictated to me rather than written by me. I grabbed a pen and wrote it down in one go as I spoke it. I only edited one line. It only happened like that once before. The rhythm is strong because it was declaimed first, much to the annoyance of the many farm cats sleeping around the fire.”
He says, “The judges made their decision and I was happy to cash the cheque in compensation for all the ‘this isn’t poetry’ brickbats and sniffy Observer reviews that came my way. A week after the prize-giving, I went to a reading by Patrick McGuinness. After the reading, he mentioned the National results, not knowing I was there. Happily, he was very complimentary about the first and second poems, though now I can’t recall exactly why. It was good to hear after so much of the ‘what is poetry coming to’ noise, so I owned up.
“Homeland is about being punished for being ‘the other’ who suffers the consequences and punishments of draconian and petty rules in a culture that isn’t theirs, where you get arrested for just for being different. I’ve worked a lot with displaced people and refugees in the UK and in conflict zones so the spirit of the poem stands with those who are usually denied a voice, and who rarely speak fluent English. A lot of the voice comes from the exceptional and historic mix of languages and ethnicities we have in Cardiff. Given everything that has happened since 2005, Homeland is sadly more relevant than ever. Reading it now, it is a bit Martian.”
them come at midnight i remember that
i was fooding the cat
what happened to the cat
in and across the hall them was
before the last bod slam the door
i was scared more for décor
all bootmark in the twill
mud set to stone too quick in nape and alley
and fuss would follow
them wanted to know why it was off
i often have it off i said which made them laff
all bellyjig and straining like at shit
then them poke me one with a stick and ask again
not ask exact more shout and kick
i sleep deep and dream i said upstanding
and has no need of it
all flattering from dull mouth or some sunny play
gobbing did it good for me then
hit me and down i was
with stompers flying in all crowblack and beaky
i pass over then and only come to when rain wet me
it was chillstone and the dark was eyeless
and all was lone and bleedy
three days least them probe me
all think sore and head reely
then the white light
the bright light
the light like light that change it ever
them let me go then after fingering
and promise to never do
now i venge in the not quite dark
all flicker flash and wheezy
i leave the sash open so the whole street can see me
and them that watch can think me safely home
Melanie Drane won The National Poetry Competition in 2005 with her poem ‘The Year the Rice-Crop Failed’
“Poetry, literature and languages have been at the heart of my life since childhood,” says Melanie Drane. She attended Interlochen, a boarding school for the arts established in 1928 in the woods of northern Michigan, US, where she studied on the pioneering creative writing program launched by writer and teacher Jack Driscoll. She then joined the writing program at Princeton University where she studied with a number of US poets including Maxine Kumin and JD McClatchy.
After a long detour into political science via the London School of Economics she spent ten years in Tokyo where, she says, “I wrote only for myself and stashed poems in a drawer”. Shortly after she returned to the US she won the National Poetry Competition. The win gave her validation, courage and a deeper commitment to poetry. She says, “Bernardine Evaristo was one of the judges that year, and she was such a generous source of encouragement and warmth. We have sustained contact over years, and I rejoice in her successes; she stands out for me as a writer who truly lifts others with her.
“When I wrote ‘The Year the Rice-crop Failed’ I was reflecting on the strange land of marriage – the bravery of the marital effort, but also the profound risk of displacement of self, and the specific, keen loneliness that can occur in the presence of an intimate other.
“Tokyo is such a mannerly city, elegant in many ways, and yet the vestiges of wildness that persist there are forceful and unruly: typhoons, earthquakes, marauding packs of crows. My then-partner and I were going about the gestures of a mannered married life, while the unacknowledged, unspoken emotions were wild and unpredictable. Neglected, they eventually toppled us.”
She was a total unknown to everyone in the room when she came to accept the award. She says, “I was received with much graciousness and welcome. It felt vibrant to me, because my writing life had long taken place in an environment where my own language was not at home. In general, I subscribe to reading beyond one’s own borders, and I believe we benefit from making inclusive communities of storytelling that are larger than political and geographic boundaries. The award remains dear to me for the affirmation of what had been, and perhaps of necessity remains, a solitary endeavor.”
Drane was awarded a North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship in Writing in 2008 and a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award in 2011. She took an MA in counselling psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute and now works as a psychotherapist focusing on the emotional wellbeing of physicians, including trauma in the medical setting, and the doctor-patient relationship. She says, “My orientation / approach is Jungian depth therapy, and poetry is one of the expressive resources that I turn to consistently in my work. I have had patients who have written movingly, and have found great repair and solace in poems.
“Writing, reading, fascination with words – I cannot imagine a life without these things. I grew up in a home without a television, and I still prefer books to screens. My deep solidarity goes to those who do the intimate, careful work of writing – it is a force of connection in this daunting time.”
The Year the Rice-Crop Failed
The year we married, rainy season lasted
so long the rice crop failed. People gave up
trying to stay dry; abandoned umbrellas
littered the streets like dead birds. One evening
that summer, a typhoon broke the waters
of the Imperial moat and sent orange carp flopping
through the streets around the train station,
under the feet of people trying to go home.
The stairs to the temple became impassable;
fish slid down them in a waterfall, heavy
and golden as yolks. That night, I woke you
when the walls of our home began to shake;
we held our breath while the earth tossed,
counted its pulse as though we could protect
what we’d thought would cradle us –
then the room went still and you moved away,
back into sleep like a slow swimmer,
your eyes and lips swollen tight with salt.
The next morning, a mackerel sky hung over Tokyo.
The newspaper confirmed the earthquake
started inside the sea. I watched you dress to leave,
herringbone suit, shirt white as winter, galoshes
that turned your shoes into small, slippery otters.
After you were gone, I heard hoarse and angry screams;
a flock of crows landed on the neighbor’s roof,
dark messengers of Heaven. Did they come to reassure,
to tell me we’d be safe, that we would find
our places no matter how absurd it seemed,
like the fish sailing through the streets,
uncertain, but moving swiftly?
Paul Adrian won The National Poetry Competition in 2010 with his poem ‘Robin in Flight’
Paul Adrian was in his mid-twenties, working full time in a bookshop, when he won. He says, “I’d been trying to make poems for a couple of years, I think, although the majority of what I wrote at that time went in the bin before the full stop was dry.”
The National Poetry Competition was the first competition he entered, and ‘Robin in Flight’ was his first published poem. The poem came quite quickly. He says, “I sat on the sofa with a pencil, an A4 pad and half an idea which had been rattling around for a while, and put down a first draft. It went through quite a bit of redrafting, but only a couple of actual drafts – by which I mean that I moved the words around a lot and ended up very close to where I’d started.”
Winning the competition, he says, was a huge endorsement and encouragement. He says, “I didn’t have anyone at that point in my immediate circle who was interested in poetry, I hadn’t studied poetry much at all and I hadn’t put anything out into the world, so I really had no concept at all of the quality of what I was writing, whether it be good, bad or average, and just assumed it was probably awful. To have that affirmation early on was massive – I’m not sure I’d still be writing if I hadn’t won. And it also put me into contact with other poets for the first time, which was immeasurably valuable.
“There is a video on YouTube of me reading ‘Robin in Flight’, recorded just before the NPC prize ceremony. It’s a horribly nervous reading, understandably – it was the first time I had ever read a poem of mine in public, and Carol Ann Duffy was in the room.”
He got a lot of support from many generous poets when he won. He says, “Matthew Sweeney and Josephine Haslam, who were joint second that year, were both amazing, sharing their experience and advice with me when I felt like a fish out of water. There was a group of wonderful poets based in Leeds, where I lived at the time, who welcomed me in – they had a big impact on my writing practice and I learnt a huge amount from them.
“Generally speaking, it’s difficult to break into any creative sector, which is why things like the NPC are so brilliant, because they’re totally wide open, anyone can enter and anyone can win.”
How does he feel about his poem now? “Surprised, usually!” he says. “I was taken aback only recently when someone told me they’d attended a seminar about it. It’s taken on a life of its own, completely apart from me. Now, as then, I feel like it’s a gift which I’ll never fully know the scope of.”
Robin In Flight
Let’s imagine for a second that the robin
is not a contained entity moving at speed
through space, but that it is a living change,
unmaking and remaking itself over and over
by sheer unconscious will, and that
if we were to slow down the film enough
we would see a flying ball of chaos,
flicking particles like Othello counters,
air turning to beak in front just as tail transforms to air behind,
a living being flinging its changes at a still universe.
This would require infinite alignments. Each molecule
privy to the code of its possible settings,
the capacity of a blade of grass to become
the shadow of a falling apple by pure force
of the tree’s instinct. Every speck of world with the potential
to become stone, dog’s breath, light twisted through glass,
filth under fingernails, the skin’s bend at the bullet’s
nudge the moment before impact,
the thought of a robin in flight,
the thought of the thought of a robin in flight.
Roger Philip Dennis won The National Poetry Competition in 2014 with his poem ‘Corkscrew Hill Photo’
When Roger Philip Dennis won the competition he was 63, working as an art tutor and selling his own paintings. He was unpublished, although he had been writing poetry on and off since school. He says, “Poetry was important to me as a personal interest, but a very private one. I don’t know where the decision to enter ‘Corkscrew’ into a competition came from, although the rarely acquired approval of my poetry by my friend and mentor the late John Moat (of the Arvon Foundation) for that particular piece may have had something to do with it.
“Winning the competition took a long time to absorb. It meant, I felt, that I had to take myself seriously as a poet. (Perhaps inadvisedly, as I think there is probably too much seriousness in contemporary poetry anyway.) And it also meant that I had to find out just what this ‘Poetry Society’ was, and indeed just what poetry was, in the current day-and-age. About which I had not a clue. I had never heard of, let alone read anything by, my three judges. And was considerably relieved to find I liked their work.”
Dennis continues to write, taking part in various poetry events in Devon. But he has mixed feelings about the current poetry ‘scene’ He says, “It seems to be very much Issue-dominated, needing to be seen to be supporting the right causes and the right sort of people. And while I agree with those concerns, I think poetry that works as poetry takes an indirect approach both to personal experience and current affairs, even when, and especially when, fuelled by extreme experience and critically important issues.”
There was 30 years between his first draft and what finally became ‘Corkscrew Hill Photo’ in 2014. Dennis says, “In 1982-3 I was involved in producing a Tape-Slide. My subject was the local area I was living in. The main features are there in the poem, the old paper mill, the farms with the elderly dogs sleeping in the middle of the road, the old lime kilns on the river, the pubs that then were very quiet and local in the winters, the large yacht tied up in the creek, the pylons, the hill with goats and decrepit caravans housing chickens, barns still free from being bijou-ed up for des res, several cottages that would not be the worse for a bit of maintenance attention, and an elderly lady … I didn’t think much about it at the time, but several years later she struck me as a “significant” figure. A lot of slander, that about the cider and the flies, I’m sure, let alone the scroll of bar-polish – that’s all imagination, of what should have been, rather than actually was, there.”
“All my poetry is informed by being a painter-artist. I write in the belief that poetry is about pictures in sound – all art aspires to music – and conveys meaning most powerfully in the way music does. Indeed, I don’t think there is much room for ideas in poetry. Oh ideas are the fuel for poetry, sure, they make it run as petrol does cars, but who wants petrol actually with you inside the car?
“Then what poetry is, is Imagination and Inspiration. The Muses and all that. Working on a poem is extremely important, but there has to be something there to work on, something that is delivered to you, if you know what you are writing about it pretty definitely isn’t poetry. I mean, I have no idea why the protagonist of ‘Corkscrew’ was looking out the window or collapsing to floor, still less what was going on the bar. That all just happened on the page, first class muse-mail delivery.”
Corkscrew Hill Photo
All afternoon she counts the sounds
until the fly-specked room crackles with silence.
Even the song thrush noteless. A thick drizzle
trickles rivulets down the window pane,
smears distance on fields, curtains-off hills
and greens the sagged thatch,
aches in the creaking gate and screws
watering eye to misting glass:
a hearse skids slowly up the muddy lane,
blurs in droplets on a spider-web,
spins sideways into darkness…
…rattling cough of cattle, rusty tractor,
hinge of paint-peeled door, gears
of cars forced to back in one-track lanes,
buzz of pylons spanning the hum
of outboards in the yachtsmen’s creek,
yelp of kids in the converted Mill,
the soft click-click of a camera-shutter
up Corkscrew Hill…
The casement steams with sunset. She picks herself
up off the floor, mouth dry as mourner’s grin.
Her arm reaches, shakes, reaches again,
gathers the clattering jar from the shelf.
The landlord frowns, sniffing cat,
moth-ball, mould. She squares her back
on his fine view – the duck bob,
seagull clutter, gape of lime kiln.
“And a nip of lovage,”
before he can point her
the off-licence hatch in the yard,
“to keep out the damp!”
and smiles spittle.
Her flagon scrapes a scroll of varnish
the length of the bar’s stripped pine,
past bleating townies, past the regular’s chair
and the corner where the photographer
sits draining her valley
through a tilted lens.