The winning poems – ATG poem competition 2019

We’re delighted to share the three winning poems below. Congratulations to the winners and thanks to Sarah James/Leavesley for judging the competition.

First prize – Kathryn Bevis for starlings

Kathryn Bevis

Kathryn Bevis is Hampshire Poet Laureate, 2020. She is founder and director of The Writing School, Winchester, and hosts a Poetry for Wellbeing project for service users of the mental health charity Mind, funded by Arts Council England. Her poems have been published and anthologised in print and online by: Nine Arches Press, Parthian Books, Words for The Wild, and The Fenland Poetry Journal. Recent awards include first prize in the Poets and Players competition, third prize in the Welshpool Poetry Festival competition, and runner up in the Out-Spoken Prize for Poetry. Kathryn’s poems were recently shortlisted for the Nine Arches Press Primers V scheme.

1st starlings Kathryn Bevis

Judge’s comments: starlings – This poem looks beautiful on the page and is powerful, energising and musical to read aloud. Comparatively everyday words are combined to create an imaginative and evocative new vocabulary in which sound also plays a key effect. Form and content work as one, and repetition is used in a wonderfully reinforcing and accumulative effect across the poem. Although ostensibly about starlings, the spiritual level of the poem allows it to be read analogically in a way that’s relevant to human experience, society and community. This memorable poem reverberated in my mind and emotions more and more after and between each re-reading.

Second prize – Jane Pearn for At a stroke

Jane PearnJane Pearn had a poetry pamphlet published when she was 18, and promptly stopped writing. She resumed thirty years later. Her poems have appeared in print and online magazines including Candelabrum, Quantum Leap, The Eildon Tree, Snakeskin and Ink, Sweat & Tears. At a stroke was longlisted in the 2018 National Poetry Competition and Jane was one of the winners of the Guernsey International Poems on the Move competition in 2019. She has two published collections – Matters Arising and Further to.

Born in London, she spent most of her adult life in the Isle of Man, raising four children, before moving to Selkirk in the Scottish Borders, where she lives with her cat, Florence. She retired from the NHS in 2014 after a career as a Speech and Language Therapist. Having spent her working life helping children to communicate their thoughts, it’s now her turn to struggle to find the words.

2nd AT A STROKE Jane Pearn

Judge’s comments: At a stroke – In this poem, again, I had the impression of well-placed, carefully weighted, imagery, metaphors and sounds. Use of punctuation, white space and crossings-out felt crafted and precisely poised with a befittingly musicianlike sense of timing, all reinforcing the moving narrative of illness and loss, as well as characterisation. A moving, “beautifully judged” poem.

Third prize – Jane Lovell for Pebble

Jane LovellJane Lovell has been widely published in journals and anthologies. She won the Flambard Prize in 2015 and has been shortlisted for several awards including the Basil Bunting Prize, the Robert Graves Prize and Periplum Book Award. Her work is steeped in natural history, science and folklore but is essentially poetry that examines our relationship with the Earth and its wildlife. Her pamphlets have been published by Seren, Against the Grain Press, Night River Wood and Coast to Coast to Coast. She also writes for Elementum Journal and Dark Mountain. Jane is writer-in-residence at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve and runs the Mid Kent Stanza group for the Poetry Society.

3rd Pebble Jane Lovell

Judge’s comments: Pebble – This beautiful poem addressing a pebble as “small symbol of this precarious world” unfolds to something much larger – encompassing nature, human experience and the essence of life itself. I was struck by the striking images in this poem, the sounds of the words chosen and its shape on the page, reflecting a tidal tug and flow. Every time I re-read this evocative poem, I was struck by a sense of wonder that remained with me.


Natalie Shaw – Oh be quiet

Natalie Shaw is one of four poets whose pamphlets we’re excited to be publishing next year. Natalie N Shaw photostarted writing poetry in 2014 after discovering that she didn’t need special permission or a secret key to a secret garden. She spent a very exciting year as part of Jo Bell’s online group 52 and since then has had her work published in a variety of journals and anthologies. She has just finished editing Medusa and Her Sisters, a book of sonnets inspired by a series of drawings by artist Natalie Sirett. This year she was commended in the National Poetry Competition. Oh be quiet is her first pamphlet.

What made you decide to submit your pamphlet to Against the Grain Press?

I’ve been impressed by lots of things about Against the Grain. I’ve read some incredible work from its poets, and I’ve noticed that even as a small press, it has a really fantastic reach.

Could you give us an idea of the general theme of your pamphlet?

The poems in this pamphlet explore several different small moments of realisation. They sometimes take place at a threshold moment, when someone is crossing from one state to another.

Things that I say to my enemy

While my enemy sleeps, I stand outside her house.
I send beetles into her dreams, a cockroach, a man
who hates her, someone running, the sly but persistent
notion her friends are only pretending to listen.

While my enemy sleeps, I turn others against her. I mention
things she has said that sound unpleasant, I kick
her leg while no one is watching. I let her see
letters from others in which she barely features.

I ask her a question I know she can’t answer, I snub her
at parties, I steal her ideas; I pretend I can’t hear her,
I say she looks lovely then laugh at her dress. I delight
in the shadows that  lengthen under her eyes, and note

with glee that her hair is quite greasy but mostly I shiver
to think of her lying awake and alone. I whisper
it’s true that she’ll never have boyfriends, a wedding, or babies
with soft little hands, her milk in their soft little mouths.

Eleven days

I was on Wikipedia looking for something
and I found eleven missing days, imagine.

I spent a couple as a man
in his early thirties. I had a convertible,

I wore sunglasses. I parked wherever I wanted.
I had fun like people in adverts have fun, Lynx for example.

Then I went back to the stately home we visited
and had tea on the lawn. I was

Isabel Archer at the beginning of
Portrait of a Lady, except this time

I knew to avoid the grand European Tour
and instead I stayed at home

and practised the pieces
that normally I don’t have time to.

Now I can play them all really well.
I learnt how to cha cha cha too,

all those dances we were going to dance together
but never got round to, you’ll be amazed

when you see me. It went really quickly,
on the whole. All those beautiful, empty minutes

to spend in the sun, drinking espressos
and eating ice creams in Venice, Siena. I’m sure

any one of you would’ve done the same,
but I found them first and I’m sorry, they’re gone.

Olga Dermott-Bond – apple, fallen

We are delighted we’ll be publishing apple, fallen by Olga Dermott-Bond. Olga is originally from Northern Ireland. A former Warwick Poet Laureate, she has had Olga Dermott-Bondpoetry and flash fiction published in a range of magazines including Rattle Magazine, Dodging the Rain, Magma, Strix, Cordite Review, Under the Radar, Ink Sweat and Tears, The Interpreter’s House and Paper Swans. She was one of the winners of the 2018 BBC Proms poetry competition and is a commissioned artist for Coventry City of Culture 2021. Olga was selected as one of the emerging poets for Bedtime Stories for the End of the World, a podcast due to be broadcast on Radio 4 in October 2019. She is an Assistant Head in a secondary school and has two daughters. apple, fallen is her debut poetry pamphlet.

A little bit about my pamphlet

apple, fallen questions and confronts ideas of female identity and motherhood, through autobiographical poems and characters from myth and folklore. Through this, my collection also explores mental illness and the aftermath of grief.

Why I submitted my poem to Against the Grain Press

I really love the work of the three editors Abegail, Karen and Jessica which is always a good start! Against the Grain’s published poets are some of my favourite contemporary writers, and I especially admire the work of S.A. Leavesley and Jane Lovell. Last year my poem Sonnet of swimming parts was commended in their competition and I also had a poem published on The Poetry Shed. I’ve been working hard on my first collection for the past two years, so I feel my work has come together at the right place and the right time!


Such a simple word. Brutal to begin, quick
to end. Glad of the distance between us

I study it. A ship run aground in a glass case,
its blade narrowing beautifully to a curved keel.

Then the handle, heavy as a church pew, wood worn
in two places from practised hands of a headsman.

I picture a neck exposed, pink sinews propped
like a stick of snapped rhubarb gleaming with sugar

beads for a few seconds, before boards darken,
splinters stained again with a body spilled over.

I study it, the opposite of a lung or a bicycle
or a wildflower, and am reminded of the wail

of a child being left by her mother. A front door closing
as a silvered edge. An unchartered place called severance.

(17th century Axe, used for executing criminals in St Andrews, St Andrews Museum, Fife)

apple, fallen

Her smile is waxed water, curved perfect and full.
Sleeping in grass-hush, she fits herself perfectly,
a wise moon dressed only in pearled skin and sugar.
She is open as a lake, offering a steady reflection to
gospelled branches above that sway love-heavy,
growing with all of her hope-laden daughters –

her smashed skull is a restless shattered crawling
of ferment, made only of wasps that cling to shrinking
edges. she is a cave of black static, her crabbed body
hollowed beyond blood. a boat silenced with dry land,
she has sunk her own tongue, devoured her eyes, cheeks,
swallowed the blameless sun. there is only this place –

turn me over before you ask how I am.

Ben Cusden – Join the Dots

Ben photo for ATG (2)Introducing Ben Cusden and his pamphlet Join the Dots that we’re delighted to be publishing next year…

Ben was an award-winning video editor in the television industry from 1998-2004. Homeless in 2004 and again 2009-2011. He is currently a designer of ethically produced organic cotton garments and carer for his disabled mother.

He has recently been published in Acumen and is about to be published in Prole, The Dawntreader, and an anthology by Salmon Poetry. Previously poems were published by: Salmon Poetry, Poetry Cornwall, Mountain Springs Publishing, Lady Chaos Press, and  Inner Child Press. Shortlisted for The Bridport Prize in 2016.

He is a regular MC for Ruth O’Callaghan’s Lumen and Camden groups and also a regular reader at Peter Evans’ Poets Anonymous in Croydon – appearing on their Croydon FM radio programme twice. He has been a guest reader for Beyond Words (2017), and at Poetryfest, King’s College, London (2018).

What made you decide to submit your pamphlet to Against the Grain Press?

I wanted to submit to Against the Grain Press because of the calibre of the three poets that run it. Their attitude with the aim “to produce beautiful works of art, with high production values and an edgy appeal, that are both provocative and moving” and because I admire that they carry their professionalism  into the quality of the publications they produce. On their website they state: “The beat of our drum is our own” and I was eager to be a part of that rhythm.

Could you give us an idea of the general theme of your pamphlet?

The general theme of my pamphlet is homelessness and resettlement. My poems confront my times of homelessness in the towns and countryside of Cornwall – mainly living on the streets of Falmouth and Truro or pitched in a tent near Ponsanooth – and reflect on my return  to Purley, Surrey, where I now live and care for my disabled mother.

Doorways Are For Daytime Sleeping

As the natural light segues into night’s amber;
when the nocturnal beat and chatter

replaces the daytime drone, it’s time to sink deeper
into shadows – smooth as water would find a way.

Seep through unseen cracks, become less
than silhouette and feed your form to darkness.

Navigate away from well-worn tracks, nimbly mask
your scent – camouflage your being with evening air.

As night falls, sympathy is a starving bird and empathy
an unknown world. Hyaenas hunt in packs.

Pre-recorded Episodes

Although dew still clings onto grass blades, and the daisy
popped lawn embraces sheen, the mist dutifully subsides
and the valley’s viridescence signals the day’s true start.
The roses will be along soon, mum smiles with satisfaction.

Hopefully, a beautiful day ahead, different from yesterday
when the mist hung in the valley and something else was said –
whispered, embarrassed by fear:  I’ve done something silly,
hands clasped on knees, peering from lowered head:

I was watching Monty Don, pinching out his seedlings,
and seem to have popped the blister pack and taken all my pills.
Like sweets, mum picked and mixed along the strip –
from Monday down to Sunday and only stopped

when Monty segued to a piece on Britain’s National Parks.
We pressed pause on a Golden Eagle flying above the Cairngorms,
wing spanned shadow oscillating through Alpine Milk-vetch
and Blue-sow-thistles, to make our way out into springtime mizzle.

You’re lucky it was only a week you took, Maggie, the nurse,
cheerily told us, two and it would’ve been fatal – you wouldn’t
be bothering me at all! The audience click track gasped in horror
at the prospect of mum’s long running show being cancelled;

knowing the next episode – where the herbaceous border
explodes into colour and the clematis finally loses its grip –
would be postponed and season’s finale – where roses bloom on
oak and lilies stand with sympathy – would be shown in its place.