Poetry Competition 2019 – What’s the judge looking for?

Sarah James or Leavesley colourWe are really lucky to have the very talented poet, short story writer and editor, Sarah James, judging this year’s competition. Check out details of entering HERE.

We want to pass on some top tips to help you on your way for entering our competition and any others you fancy this year. We posed a few questions to Sarah to find out what a judge wants from a poem and also what the poet can do to ensure their poem gets further and further up the shortlist pile.

What do you look for in a poem?

I try to come to poems openly and with as few expectations or pre-conceptions as possible, particularly as a competition judge. In terms of what I’ll be looking for in this competition, I’m only really going to be able to answer that afterwards. Things that I might anticipate finding in a poem I’ll love include striking imagery and lines that resonate long after I’ve read them. A sense of surprise that I don’t see coming but that in retrospect fits so perfectly that it seems inevitable. Admiration that makes me wish I’d written the poem myself, and feeling changed in some way after reading – the transformative power of a strong poem. I love words, so I tend to notice language choices. But having said all this, it’s probably important to add that all of these are possible without great drama or an overly flamboyant style – unless those are naturally part of the poem. In other words, everything needs to fit together to create something that’s totally unique in its own way.

Some people talk about “competition poems”. Do you think there is such a thing?

Yes. No. It depends. This is another hard one to answer. It’s probably easier to turn it around and say that I do think there are poems that are NOT-competition poems. Any ‘discrepancies’ in an otherwise stunning poem, that might easily be picked up by an editor before publishing, are likely to fall flat in a competition setting, for example. A competition like any other poetry arena has its constraints and opportunities – but these can be as particular to the competition as submitting to journal a rather than journal b. Obviously, there’s what the competition rules have asked for and the judge’s subjective tastes. I’d anticipate a competition-winning poem to include needing to stand out all by itself in some positive way on first reading, without knowledge of the poet or the context of other poems that might encourage re-reading of some wonderful poems in a different setting.

Personally, I’ve found the notion of ‘competition’ combined with ’poem’ most useful though when applied to the writing process for every poem. My adaptation of this is not about poems being in competition with each other, though this may also happen at a later stage, but against their own variations and earlier drafts until they reach the best version they can take. There is a kind of success or winning for every poem that completes this process. Then, the chance to assess where they go next, be it to a magazine, competition entry or somewhere else.

Have I actually answered your question here or given my own slant on it? Another trick of competition and other strong poems may be to find, create and maintain the ‘best’ slant (whatever that might mean for that particular poem) on something universal that most readers can engage with.

What are your top tips for people submitting?

1) Ignore everything I’ve just said! I’m both kidding and not kidding in saying this. My advice is well intended and based on past experience. But the best advice should come from the poem itself and remaining true to it. External input may inspire a successful new slant, but forcing something on a poem that it doesn’t want to do is more likely to destroy it.

2) Double check everything, and then again, one more time. Even better, asked a trusted friend to proofread for any typos, misplaced punctuation, unnecessary words, confusions…that writer familiarity with the poem may have blinded out. (Yes, it’s a cliché. But, seriously, when I start reading competition poems, I’m going to be looking for what’s good about them. By the time I get to the nth whittling down of possible winners and still have too many to choose between, I’m going to be looking for the smallest things that let any of them down, however stunning the rest of the poem.)

3) Be brave and have confidence – in the poem, in the letting go of it and in the fact that whatever the final outcome of the competition, simply preparing poems for competition is a creative process in itself and one that’s likely to make a strong poem even stronger. (And the great thing about competition anonymity, of course, is that every eligible poem also stands on its own merits, regardless of what the poet may have – or have not – written, had published or won before.)


Claire Walker launches Collision with Sarah Doyle and Cheryl Pearson

Such a fabulous celebration at The Poetry Café yesterday and what great readings from all! Huge thanks go to Cheryl Pearson and Sarah Doyle – “the bridesmaids” as Sarah described them! It is such a joy to hear your new poets read their work and celebrate their new books with them.  Congratulations Claire!! Thanks everyone who came to support.

Launch poets

Sarah Doyle, Claire Walker and Cheryl Pearson

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Also fabulous to see Jane Lovell and meet a couple of our 2020 poets, Olga Dermott-Bond and Denise Bundred.

Launch of Claire Walker’s Collision – Poetry Café 28th September 3pm

Come and join us for the launch of Against the Grain’s wonderful poet Claire Walker.

collisionClaire is a poet, writer and editor based in Worcestershire. She is the author of two poetry pamphlets, The Girl Who Grew Into a Crocodile (2015), and Somewhere Between Rose and Black (2017), both published by V. Press. Somewhere Between Rose and Black was shortlisted for Best Poetry Pamphlet in the 2018 Saboteur Awards. She is Co-Editor, with Holly Magill, of Atrium webzine.



Join us and guest readers Cheryl Pearson and Sarah Doyle.




“Claire Walker’s subtle and confident poems display a lightness of touch. Fine technique has resulted in work that is both supple and robust. Images of water predominate, its power and inhabitants serving as metaphors for permanence and impermanence and the shift of human experience. Walker reflects on connections and collisions between land and sea, female and male, childhood and adulthood, myth and nature. Compelling to read, each of these pieces is concise and delicate yet strong enough to elegantly support themes of emotional weight.” Roy Marshall

“An enchanting and lushly lyrical pamphlet full of startling images and mesmeric narratives. In poems that wash over you like a warm tide, Claire creates an immersive and compelling world, part magic realist, part poignantly recognisable. These are perfectly honed, imagistic poems full of a language that dances on the page and lines that sing in your head long after you have put the book down.” Anna Saunders

ATG poet Olga Dermott-Bond wins Proms Poetry Competition 2019

We are delighted with Olga’s win and to be publishing her in 2020!! Super big congratulations. We’ve stolen a bit of text from The Poetry Society page and you can read it in full here:

Proms Poetry Competition 2019

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The winners of the BBC Proms Poetry Competition 2019, for poems written in response to a piece of music in the 2019 Proms season, have been announced. This year’s competition was judged by poet and presenter of The Verb on BBC Radio 3 Ian McMillan, acclaimed poet Malika Booker and the Director of The Poetry Society Judith Palmer. The winners were announced at an event which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 12 September 2019. All six winners and runners-up had the chance to hear their poems read by the great actress and poetry lover Adjoa Andoh. You can listen to the programme on BBC Sounds.

Congratulations to Olga Dermott-Bond, the winner of the 19+ category with her poem ‘Poyekhali! (Let’s Go!)’, inspired by Public Service Broadcasting’s ‘Gagarin’. Olga was a runner-up in last year’s competition with her poem ‘Bwbachod’s lament’. We also congratulate runners-up Rachel Burns for her poem ‘St Petersburg’ and Natalie Linh Bolderston for her poem ‘The River’.


Congratulations too to Young Poets Networker Katie Kirkpatrick, who won the 12-18 age category with her poem ‘one man band (gagarin plays the saxaphone)’, also inspired by Public Service Broadcasting’s ‘Gagarin’; and runners-up Joyce Chen for her poem ‘Muse’ and Renée Orleans-Lindsay for her poem ‘Bohemia’.

Patricia McCarthy reviews Metastatic by Jane Lovell

Taken from Agenda Poetry Reviews

Jane Lovell is a master/mistress of the lyric with wonderfully apt, incisive images culled often from the natural world around her. She has yet to have a full collection published but in this pamphlet, Metastatic, she is at her best. Here, the lyric is clothed in urgency and is used to powerful effect in articulating the traumatic situation of her husband facing a rare cancer diagnosis and them both wondering if he will survive. Hence lyrical language is juxtaposed, very carefully it has to be said, with hospital terminology, resulting in very moving poems that are never sentimental or over-dramatic. In fact, the poems are dignified and quiet as they deal, at subtle angles, with the mortal diagnosis. She contrasts effectively the spoken with silence, or different kinds of silences, and light versus dark. The frequent use of alliteration and sibilance highlights the altered perspectives induced by shock when even time, as we know it, goes awry. In the poem ‘Birdsong’, ‘Even the cup in your hand/ assumes a strange longevity’… ‘The world has shrunk away,/ moves in different realities;// our life has shucked its skin,/we are already ghosts’. This contrasts with the normal world: ‘Sometimes it seems it’s just me’ and those birds// all that bird song, so much life’. This dislocation in a world of changed perspectives continues in the poem ‘How do you do the right thing’ –
when landscapes are untied, hedges slide into oblivion, fields flap untethered, their edges fraying to dust’…
Horizons are threaded through the poems, coming closer and closer in their shrunken world. They ‘now go all the way to the horizon/ and stop/ our whole world is here’, for there is ‘nothing beyond// nothing beyond/ but the man who reads blood/ circling numbers in a scree of figures’, this man whose word ‘draws the horizon/ into a knot’, along with bones and carcasses, ghosts ‘of gone-days’, ‘of hedges’, ‘a ghost owl’, a ‘ghost garden’, and the patient himself who fades ‘to shadow as we walk’. Yet this is not a Gothic world; it is a natural one with birds to bless, and listen to as examples of fortitude: ‘that blackbird chortling regardless/ of his dried dead young’, a fallen plum tree, juniper, a hare, a kestrel, a thrush, owls. And the scraps of solace that her husband keeps ‘like a talisman’, the solace ‘in the altered step of time’ uplift even momentarily.
Throughout the sequence a lot ‘spills’ and is ‘pinned’ – as if the life-force is leaching away or being held down by diagnosis after diagnosis from screens and slides. The repetition of these words, plus the repetition of many lines in poems, and the same image at the beginning and end of a poem, like bookends – such as the horse at the beginning and end of the poem ‘Equivocal’; also the first and last poem in the pamphlet focusing on ‘day’ – ‘Ten days’ at the beginning and the hopeful ‘new day’ at the end – add to the symmetry of the whole, and increase the haunting effect. In the last poem where even the thrush sings in a minor (sad) not major key, Lovell subconsciously defines what these poems are: spoken/ in the quiet dark’. How well-spoken they are indeed.
In the overall doom which holds the unwanted clinician’s words, Lovell articulately chisels words from silences – and this is surely where the best poetry lies in all its urgency, intensity and meaning. Lovell dares these spaces with great empathy, sensitivity and delicacy, and the control she achieves makes these poems all the more harrowing and moving.
This is necessary poetry, grace-given, where ‘the trees are angels, quietly/ unpicking strands of destiny’ and it is hoped that these angels will continue to do just this for Jane Lovell as her poems evolve with a surety and sparseness that few poets today ever manage.