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

ATG poets.png

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

Olga 3

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’.

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.