Single-poem Competition 2020

Huge thanks to Wendy Pratt for judging our inaugural single-poem competition. Poems were judged anonymously, and I know Wendy was as excited as we were to find out who made the longlist and top three. Congratulations to our winners and sincere thanks to all who entered…your support and participation is invaluable, and very much appreciated by small presses.

To download a free e-book of the winning poems, click here.

Judges Report — Wendy Pratt


If you want to know what is happening in the world and how people are reacting to it, judge a poetry competition. Creative writing and poetry in particular, with its language of emotion and imagery, is a translation device, a babel fish for the world. There’s no point in trying to avoid the fact that we are living through a pandemic, but the way that the creative-writing-translation-device works is often by not making the pandemic the focus. Instead, life; the pandemic, is drawn through filter of ordinary situations. The poems in this year’s Paper Swans single poem competition certainly felt like they had an edge of panic and fear thumping through them. Similarly, many of the poems were about seeing loved ones from different angles, recognising the small gesture between couples and kin that were acts of love. There were many poems about illness, indeed the winning poem, with its devastating geography of a scan is about illness, and there were a lot of poems that were about longing for escape in one form or another. These showed up in free verse and form, structured and unstructured poems but the thing that linked all the poems, 267 in all, was the quality. I have never come across such quality when judging a poetry competition, so rest assured that if you didn’t make the final thirteen, your poem was still highly thought of. It obviously made my job that bit harder, but it also made me home in on the craft of the poems I was reading, making sure that every poem on the list could justify its place there. Often a poem would start strong, but that strength would peter out towards the end, or a good idea was lost in obscure or ambiguous imagery. Sometimes metaphors would be mixed, and it just jarred a little. My advice to any poet specifically writing about a large scale event is to look for the detail, find the small angle that allows us to look closely and see the human aspect. My other piece of advice, to those who haven’t made the last thirteen is this: keep going, keep tweaking, keep submitting. 

And so to the poems:

LONGLIST (reverse alphabetical by title)

Waiting with Demeter for Handover by Julia Usman

I loved the use of the white space here, like a poem on a canvas, the short lines and directness of language bring the imagery starkly to light. The placing of myth into such an ordinary setting works well and I felt that this was a poet who knew how to cut a poem to the quick and make it sing. 

They Say an Elephant Never Forgets by Jeanette Burton

This is such a joyful poem. First the opening exclamation at drunk elephants sleeping in a tea garden ‘like giant babies’, and then the opening up of the poem, the drawing in of the reader to the personal, the apricot brandy and the acceptance and worry of ageing memory. Just an utter joy to read. 

Rifle by Connie Ramsay Bott

In rifle, it is the conversational, relaxed style that gives the poem strength. The imagery is sparse, used sparingly to allow the poem to breathe into the spaces. The description of the gun itself and the straight, short set of lines that allow the reader to ‘see’ the gun is perfectly placed within the longer lines of the rest of the poem, making that last stanza and the reality of the power of the gun all the more dramatic. 

On the Ceri Ridgeway by Chris Kinsey

This poem is full of movement; it moves the reader along, blowing them this way and that. I like how the poem is grounded in place names and how these become stepping stones, driving the reader through some beautiful imagery: a raven turns a snapped pine into a totem is a particularly nice line. And then the last line, hairpin as a verb. Wonderful.

My Death Will Grieve Foxes by Kathryn Marshall

 A bold use of structure to enhance content, the movement in this poem is implied by the leaps the reader has to make to cross the gaps between half lines. There’s a wonderful mix of anatomy and myth, but the voice is 100% folk tale. A stunning poem. 

In the Half Light by Hannah Hodgson

This poet has been inspired by the work of Carole Bromley, presumably her excellent pamphlet ‘Sodium 136’. Like Bromley’s work, this poem doesn’t shy away from the vulnerabilities of the hospital environment, nor does it fall into sentimentality and angst, instead it truly captures the very strange experience of being so close to the bodily functions, the normally hidden routines of others in a hospital environment. This is a well-crafted poem, and very moving.

Homework by Oz Hardwick

It is difficult to capture the feeling of claustrophobia that the pandemic has created, but this poem captures it perfectly. A solid block of text with barely a breath between anxieties create a weight in the mouth and the repetition of the suited figures at the daily briefings makes for a strange mx of monotony and anxiety, with the tension building to a place where everything becomes surreal and all that is left is longing. 

Emptying His Pockets in Autumn by Samantha Hunt

There were a lot of poems about the relationship between parents/grandparents and children, many of which focused on the fragility of short lived childhoods. This one stood out because of its gentle use of language and the way the poem navigates a secret life. There’s longing in there, but also surprise, acceptance, the treasures of the child held onto as treasures for the adult. 

Bull in a Show Ring by Mike Farren

In this poem, one long sentence falls over four stanzas, dragging the reader along the selection route of a prize bull, before ending suddenly on a link back to our primitive past. It’s a wonderful ekphrastic poem. 

Always by Joanna Ingham

This poem works on several levels to capture the shame of menstruation and yet it does so by being direct, by being honest. It’s well-crafted with some arresting imagery. The last line pulls the whole poem together without ‘tying it up with a bow’. 

Winning Poems:

3rd Place
Sheepish by John Foggin

This is one of those poems which acts like one thing and becomes, suddenly, something more hard hitting. You might say it’s ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ of a poem. I like the breathless quality of this poem, the way we rattle through the sheep and the different way of using the word sheep, and the way we look at ourselves through the filter of weakness, only to be pulled up sharp for our arrogance. A wonderful example of crafting a poem to say something on a wider subject. 

2nd Place
Things Undone by Lisa Falshaw

This was another poem in which the white space works. I felt the images were contained, as if in a museum case, the white space making them stand out. The voice here is matter of fact – not like this/like this. The repetition of ‘undone’ is like stitching holding the poem together as the reader is flipped over in the middle. It’s a beautifully crafted poem and I found it very moving. 

1st Place
Scan by Joanna Ingham

Scan takes a complicated, emotionally difficult situation and transforms it into a landscape. It’s an imagery dense poem that never loses the metaphorical map, a poem which keeps the reader engaged from the first image of sliced tongue, to the helpless, quiet claustrophobia of mercury closing over the head of the narrator. It’s a monochrome poem, in which the narrator is small, transformed into a tiny lost traveller inside the vast landscape of an unknowable scan result, not knowing the direction they are expected to take. At the same time it manages to be personal, vulnerable and very moving. It’s an elegant poem, understated but rich in absolutely excellent imagery. A very worthy winner. 

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