We are delighted to announce the winners of the Spelt Poetry Competition 2021, judged by Maggie Harris!
The quality of the work was so high this year that as well as the three winners, Maggie has also chosen nine ‘special mentions’, poems that deserve to be read.
We had 556 individual poem entires. Each one read by our judge. Thank you to everyone who entered the competition. The money raised will help ensure that Spelt magazine has a future.
The three winners will also appear in issue three of Spelt.
It has been a joy and a challenge reading these poems and whittling them down to 3. I have been so impressed by the variety and standard of so many poems that I have listed 9 for a special mention. I was looking to read what the rural means to us now, whether we live in the countryside or in any urban setting. We’ve all got ideas of what the countryside stands for and what it means to us. There were poems about wildlife, nature, landscapes – woods, streams, personal portraits and special connections through family and childhood. Now in this critical time where our planet is facing such devastation, we’re realising the importance of the countryside where much of our food is grown and reared, and where farming and wildlife face daily challenges and opposition to each other. It’s a time to be voicing our feelings and instincts as a community in order to safeguard the future of our children. Many of the poems did not disappoint: there was a fair amount of nostalgia as writers explored their rural roots, changes that have taken place over time, and exposures of the hard lives that those who work the land live. There were some very poignant poems about family and loss, and stark exposures about the life and death choices that need to be made. There were several poems describing the natural world, of birds, birds of prey, farm and wild animals and the beauty and harshness of landscapes. The poems that worked really well were those that conveyed an extra layer of meaning beyond description, however beautifully and well-meant they were; where narratives were employed and an emotional engagement with the subject was present. Some of the poems focused on their gardens instead of the countryside, and some of these poems were interesting, establishing the importance of the link in having a green space to plant and nurture and nurture ourselves. Some poems veered off the theme, which I had to put aside, and sometimes the language used was a little archaic. The poems that acknowledged that the countryside was not a pastoral idyll in their entirety, but also rough and jagged and cruel, with pain and anguish and loss apparent through personal narrative as well as from the point of view of the landscape and our fellow creatures, displayed an energy and awareness of where we are now, in the 21st century and what we are doing to our environment. There were realistic portraits of littering, tourism, farming practices, the slaughter of animals and the effect of an increasingly urban life in the countryside .
But added to these stark exposures of a pervasive reality, were also poems that recognised the countryside as healer, as spiritual, and a vital resource for our well-being. Many poems contained an awareness of our disconnection to the land, and what we’ve lost. There were poems that were very detailed eulogies, and took me on many journeys, from being informative and well- executed, to heartbreak at some of the painful ones. There were poems about our love not only for the land, but for our fellow creatures, and for each other. Some of the poems that didn’t make it might have been for the slightest of reasons – similarity of subject matter, confused punctuation, weak endings, or static verse. There was some in-balance between storytelling and poetic form, where the power of the narrative was let down due to fizzling out at the end, but there were also those whose powerful last lines made me gasp.
The winning poem took my breath away with its rhythmic energy and immediacy of drawing us in. We are ferried along at a pace intuited with touch and sound, vivid imagery and right up the minute contemporary life equally balanced with the ecology of the countryside. A fantastic poem. The second prize blew me away with its energy and use of dialect, the naming of things so naturally vibrant and ‘belonging’ to the poem. I love the way the whole poem works together, language, form and content. Third prize goes to ‘George’, on the face of it a quiet poem, but one that stood out with its apparent simplicity, a character-led poem about ‘incomers’ who move to the country ‘doing the same ordinary tasks that mark existence – planting, mowing, mending broken fences, putting out the bins’; at the centre of it, George. All three winning poems, although their subject matters vary, have at their centre, a connection with the countryside, an understanding of lyricism and pace, with musicality and rhythm particularly present in the first two poems, and a heightened awareness of how language works in contemporary poetry . The poets are to be commended by their ability to evoke a response in the reader, and are truly deserving to be winners.
With thanks to Wendy Pratt of Spelt Magazine for the invitation to judge these poems.
Maggie Harris, August 2021.
First Place winning £300 and publication in Spelt 3
Jack-jack-jackdaws yack-yack everywhere and here’s a car
and trailer squawking steel, stinking diesel. Ferns lick
into the lane and goose grass grapples up the hedge.
Just imagine your slipslap feet don’t sound menacing
to small creatures. Hear the soil drink last night’s rain,
breathe the fat green air until another car passes ~ hello
goodbye – with a sad-eared dog in the back. Cheecheechee
if you could learn these birdcalls, life would be sweeter.
Ten young ash have all died back. Where will the birds
sit tomorrow? A DPD van barrels past the festival gate.
It’s just a restival this year, no Glasto crowd, no music.
Turn right to Cockmill, nicking, slicking downhill
through dog-rosed, blackbirded, Stella-canned hedges.
Pylons cricklecrackle down the valley, make ears shrink
like baked snails as the buzz builds. Worthy Farm sign says
Don’t shoot in these fields – there are lovely cows and even
lovelier people wandering everywhere – Michael Eavis.
Lark, you’re in charge of the morning and oak trees
have possession of this lane. Come down to the dark ford
where midges pixillate the stream and roots have woven
a bank and there’s a call to prayer from the young oaks.
Maybe you can tell me the name of the singer? Listen,
it says all the right things to the mosquitos celebrating
over the water as I trudge my heart hard uphill home.
Sarah Mnatzaganian is an Anglo Armenian poet based in Ely, UK. Her debut pamphlet, Philosophy Revision will be published by Against the Grain Press in Spring 2022. Sarah’s work has appeared in The North, The Rialto, Poetry News, Poetry Wales, Magma, Pennine Platform, Fenland Reed, London Grip, Atrium and many anthologies. She was a winner in the Poetry Society’s winter 2020 members’ competition on the theme of ‘Youth’.
2nd Place Winning £200 and publication in Spelt 3
Fen Music I was born by the nubbins, the ’ood-huss, the wood of it, the teul-huss and yale-huss; the Whittlesey webbed feet of it. The wool packs of high cloud, the dropple and mizzle, the pudges and rudges, the skradge of a water-break, the dykes, sokes and dotchels, the sea-draining wet of it. The driving the hosses to the Chatteris factory where post-holes are mass produced, the pick-‘em- off your clothes of it. The darsen’t goo noo back’rder, the gooin’ down Delph, but the gooin’ up Thorney of it. The August moon silence when puddocks stop singing, the hoolet and herringshaw, fellfer and pewit. The dockey bag, red hanky, hunks o’ ruddy chaise of it with thick wodges of home-baked. The lash eggs, the hossmuck, the roobub to grow in it. The suffink gooin’ round with its colds, coughs and snaizes, its tizzick, its bellyache, its uppards and downards, the dang that warsp stang me of it. I was born in the Fens, to the flat universe of it, the everlasting blue of it, the lilt, lift and sing of it. The be-buggered-for-a tale of it.
Rachel Davies is widely published in journals and anthologies and has been a prize-winner in several poetry competitions. Her debut pamphlet, Every Day I Promise Myself, was published by 4Word Press in December 2020. She is co-ordinator of the Poetry Society Stanza for East Manchester and Tameside. She has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in contemporary poetry, both from Manchester Metropolitan University.
3rd Prize Winning £100 and publication in Spelt 3
George We met him the day we moved in, across the boundary fence, talking to the air to the left of us, gruff, suspicious of the in-comers, not entirely to be trusted with the view of his backyard. Stomach bulging over leather belt, check shirt, haphazard buttons, slightly lascivious stare; a carrion fortune made by scavenging wrecked cars, the worn-out farm his wife’s for generations. How did we prove ourselves? We were never sure. Perhaps it was a friend in common, or a furious boundary war, settled later with smoother words; perhaps it was the seasons passing, a gradual growth of rural trust, or perhaps it was just seeing us, gradually tending our small patch, doing the same ordinary tasks that mark existence - planting, mowing, mending broken fences, putting out the bins. We came to know the kindness that he carried deep inside, hidden as in a moleskin bag, dark and gentle to the touch, offered in those moments when we needed it the most. It never struck us we would miss him, thought he always would be there, at the fence, talking to the air. Now we miss his heavy tread, the midnight weave of torchlight as he walked the fields in search of sleep.
Diana Cant is a child psychotherapist with an MA in Poetry from Newcastle University / The Poetry School. Her poems have been published in various anthologies, and most recently in The Alchemy Spoon and Finished Creatures. Her pamphlet, Student Bodies 1968, was published last year by Clayhanger Press, and her second pamphlet, At Risk – the lives some children live, has just been published by Dempsey and Windle.
Special Mentions (in no particular order)
After the Fire Thea Smiley The earth is black. Leaves rattle on the branches. Pine cones are glossy as though lacquered, cracked. The red fruit of the strawberry tree is singed. There’s a melted glass bottle beside the track. No birdsong. No cicadas. No lizards. No butterflies. Every terrace wall and ruin is visible. A dust devil crosses a far slope like smoke. Chainsaws echo around the hills, logging pine and eucalyptus, drowning out the bells. We clear the land, cut down the burnt quince, olive, sweet chestnut and orange trees, trim back bramble shoots, rock rose and bright green bracken, luminous against the blackened ground. No bats in the cellar. No geckos behind the mirror. No rats. Just splats of ash on the attic floor, washed through the tiles when the fire-plane flew over and dropped its cargo of water. In the courtyard, the fruit is bigger than ever. Fat grapes hang from the vine. Peaches, pears, and apples swell, well-watered. But the goat shed roof is bowed, close to collapse. In the lean-to, the composting loo’s gauze vent has melted, and the tank needs to be emptied. We carry it across the yard by its rope handles, and a loud, low buzzing comes from inside. In the dark, beneath the cover, crawling over the waste, are the last embers of the fire. No. No embers. No fire. Crawling over the compost is a hoard of beetles. They rise as each in turn is ignited by sun, whirring like machines made of weighty metal, propelled into the sky by intricate engines. When the hillside is wrapped in a starless night and ash from a distant fire falls in the torchlight, we think of the scarabs emerging from darkness and shining like amulets in sunlight. Thea Smiley is a writer from rural Suffolk. Her plays have toured with Wonderful Beast Theatre Company and been performed at the INK and HighTide Festivals. Her short stories have been published in anthologies, and her poetry was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize 2020 and has featured in Spelt and Streetcake Magazine in 2021. She is delighted to receive a special mention for two poems in the Spelt Poetry Competition.
A Clearing Sean Winn Wandering in the woods, I came upon the carcass of a cow, the feet of her calf protruding from her, white against the black haunches of its mother. The calf refused exit, pushed only to its shoulders. Vultures crowded the clearing, tearing at flesh and warning one another other off with outstretched wings and hisses. They are majestic, graceful creatures when circling at altitude, riding air currents with hardly a flutter. But up close, they are sinister: mangy, featherless heads of ill proportion — living gargoyles. Nature’s garbage collectors, but the cow and calf were Madonna and Child. Get! I yelled, rushing the clearing. A whoosh of wings filled the space. But I pulled up after only a few strides, unsure what was next. Likewise, the carrion-eaters settled back to wait me out, blank-faced and patient. Silly boy, they may have thought. The wind changed, and decay punched me into gagging retreat. The feast would continue.
Sean Winn is a new phase writer whose poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in more than two dozen literary journals. His most recent publications are in the San Antonio Review, Bosphorus Review of Books, and The Night Heron Barks. After living in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Indonesia, he now calls Austin, Texas, USA home.
Bird Count Carole Bromley Two wood pigeons, two blackbirds, one robin. Wrens have deserted us, finches no longer come for the nyjer seed, thrushes are a distant memory. A magpie visits once a year to plunder nests or a sparrowhawk drops in to butcher a blue tit. All the neighbours get their binoculars out the day the fieldfares come to strip the crab apple. In Australia the bullies are winning: warbling magpies, cockies, currawongs, native miner birds, rainbow lorikeets. Even the sand-piper swoops at your head and the crested pigeon is making his move. On the rooftop a kuckaburra laughs his head off. Smaller birds are driven deep into the bush. Meanwhile, in the Amazon, the white bellbird breaks the record for the loudest call ever recorded. Three times louder than the screaming piha, it would drown out a pneumatic drill. During courtship he yells his second note in the female’s face. She’s ready, takes a step back. In the reed beds and marshes, the bittern’s call is louder than an outboard motor. On the Heath nightingales have turned up the volume. Keats would have covered his ears or hurried indoors from the plum tree, Shelley put on noise-cancelling headphones and walked for days in search of a skylark.
Carole Bromley is a York-based poet, stanza rep and mentor. Three collections (including one for children) with Smith/Doorstop. A pamphlet, Sodium 136, was published by Calder Valley in 2019 and a new collection, The Peregrine Falcons of York Minster, cameout last year from Valley Press. Carole has won a number of prizes including the Bridport and the Hamish Canham Award.
Living Museum Patricia Leighton The brindled cat of time has seen it all the slaughtered autumn pigs hung high red knives, a blood-soaked bench now slathered Old Spot sow, obese, replete pink piglets fostered out to infra-red. Stables and tack room lit before dawn’s up ploughmen and horses ready to walk and turn acre on acre of soil until dark falls now big bay Joe and gloss-black Charlie Boy work two-hour stints to show how it was done. Ten cows each dairy maid, milked twice each day butter to churn and market, loaves to bake all hands to the field come hay and harvest time now dogged volunteers keep up old ways and children tease a full-size plastic cow. A constant come-and-go from the big house money well spent, benevolent busyness tenancies nurtured, children neatly schooled now mellowed bricks, a garden widowed with age and leaded lights reflecting what is left. A Janus quirk of time at every turn displays of painted plough parts, in deep grass machine parts rusting, brickwork and timbers down how to attract/preserve on a slim purse replace old hands, old ways, in a fast world. The cat looks on, narrows her eyes and purrs grooms her rich browns and melts into the dark.
Patricia Leighton lives in Worcestershire and if not at home is likely to be wandering around or indulging her binoculars at the local wildlife reserve. She workshops with the Shropshire based Border Poets and St John’s Poetry Group, Worcester. She has work published in a range of journals including Acumen, The North, Orbis, Sarasvati and Fair
Acre Press anthologies. Her collection, ‘Hidden’, was published by Oversteps Books, 2019.
Growing Up in a Country Village Jules Whiting We’re at the edge of prophetical pond, where time turns water to a caked crust, clogs it with animal tracks, balloon skins, broken sticks. Where a cut branch – not realising it’s dead – carries on growing tiny green buds, and another glows with mustard-coloured lichen. And the very air hangs with the smell of rape, strike-bright when viewed from our deepness in these trees. And Caroline instructs me that all boys are knobs, as we drink from a bottle of her dad’s home-made wine. As the evening dies behind my back, It is there – in that shin-tangle, in the loud swap of pigeon wings, thwacking leaves, lashing greenery – the knowledge of how this will end. And tomorrow when I’m balanced on the kerb of the roundabout in St Leonard Square where the corporation flowers have no smell and the church bells are ringing. I will believe the world is my oyster, because I’m sixteen, not in school uniform and it’s my first afternoon of work and I’m outside The Green Tree where on Sunday afternoon they have strippers. Jules Whiting, Oxfordshire has an MA from Bath Spa University. Short listed for Gloucester Prize 2020, and commended in the Poetry Society Stanza Competition 2020, her poems have appeared in Acumen, Orbis, South, Envoi, Interpreters House, The High Window, Haibun Journal and various anthologies including Stanley Spencer Poems, Two Rivers Press, Best of British, PaPer Swans Press, A Hatchery of Shadows, SciPo 2019, What the Peacock Replied, Dempsey& Windle 2019.
A Vague Manifesto Mark Fiddes . The lanes just stopped singing. Our fields are already runny with fear. Later, they will take the grown pigs from low barns for weighing in slings before transportation and slaughter. Even the ones without nick names will hit over ninety decibels, not that anyone counts pain that way, but the screams will journey on in megahertz past vast black holes to the planets that still care and wonder how Earth produced such terror when it started as the paradise destination for weary, wandering travelers. Statistics also state that a modest place like this, dressed in brick and shade, will see a birth, a death, or a marriage this week which we will honour with formal wear and fresh flowers from as far away as Kenya. One day they may also start counting the ounces of blackbird per hectare, the carats of wheat and wayside daisies, the kilowatts of human per household, their ohms of love and hate. Until then, let us be vague as midges and river mist and talk in tongues too hot and muscular for dictionaries.
Mark Fiddes has just published his second collection titled *Other Saints Are Available with Live Canon,following on from The Rainbow Factory (Templar) and his pamphlet The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre (Templar).In the past few years, he has won the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Prize, the Ruskin Prize and been third in the UK National Poetry Prize. His work has appeared in Poetry Review, Magma, The London Magazine andThe Irish Times among many other titles.
SPELL Mariah Whelan In the alleyway between manicured lawns and endless yellow fields I stand under leylandii branches and drink the green air. Here is my crown of late-summer midges, trails of golden spiderwebs that fall over the tunnel’s carpet of broken tarmac and dandelions— I am casting a spell into this lockdown, speak magic with my body as I walk through this market town’s borderwork of Elder and dry brambles: at the broken Jubilee bench I take the path that ends in a galvanised gate, mount its thin bars, hold myself at its zenith to feel the clatter of my ankle bones, deep collisions of wrists and rib that sound out a map of where I need to go. And like the muntjac, who know north by the iron in their blood, I follow this invisible magic thread knotted to my belly and guts out into Tapper’s Field where the sky has been ripped off like a ring-pull tin— all the birds: a skylark, house martins, the high swifts and circling kites rush to fill the endless column of blue. Watching them here, at this exact point where the town gives way to not-town, I leave my body behind, press what’s left of me through hazel, brackens— keep moving inwards and under until finally I reach the place where the bluebottles and midges sing, where the cotton flower and dandelions cradle the knuckle of spring water that is the woods’ green core. The stream is bone cold, breath clear, and I ask now for soil and mould spores, all the glorious bacteria to break what’s left of me down. Dissolved into nitrogen, calcium, iron, the ash roots and hazel carry me through their trunks, currency my minerals through their flesh into the trees’ thick arms, the filagree of veins that line each leaf— gifting molecules of what I once was out into the endless blue.
Mariah is a poet and academic from Oxfordshire. Her novel-in-sonnets the love i do to you was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Prize, won the AM Heath Prize and was an Oxford Poetry Library Book of the Month. She is the Jacqueline Bardsley Poet-in-Residence at Homerton College, Cambridge and a Visiting Research Fellow at University College London where she explores the relationship between poetry and academic practice.
Gorge Jen Feroze Whenever there’s an icebreaker about where we come from, my answer always elicits the same smile: ‘Oh yeah, that’s where the cheese is made! I’m pretty sure I went there with my school once.’ So many kids bussed in to stare through cloudy glass at curds, nonplussed, craning their necks upwards at the cliffs. It’s funny the way hormones can flatten even the highest cliffs, can make centuries of river-worn limestone a stage, from which we played out our teenage dramas. Raise a glass to the breathtaking arrogance of middle school. Smile at the fact that we never stopped to take stock, not once, we assumed these caves, these dripping stalactites came ready made. There was the time our history teacher made the front pages, connected by strands of DNA to the cliffs, to the ancient bones found there, to the man that once inhabited their skin. 10,000 years, and he’d not moved a mile from the dig site, was drilling us on The Iron Curtain, smiling at the sudden smallness of his concept of history, polishing his glasses. Some summer nights we’d smuggle blankets and cider and glasses over the stile and onto Black Rock. Fires were lit, pacts were made breath was snatched. Some things were lost, others found. The sky split in a smile, loosing meteors like teeth. We lay on our backs, knees mimicking the cliffs, until the shadows of our friends became indistinguishable from one another. I felt drunk and happy and sad and too old and too young, all at once. Then limestone stained siren blue brought us up short, for once. We hugged our own ribs close, carried our bones like glass. He was the brother of a friend’s friend. There were painful verbs to choose from: To fall? To jump? Was it worse if a decision had been made? For a short while, we looked with reverential gaze and sweaty palms at the cliffs, then the flowers died, Christmas came, and he was buried again under forgetful smiles. After school we scattered to the winds, city-bound, throwing smiles over our shoulders. So sure of our futures, and never once pausing to give thanks or even glance back to those cliffs. So desperate were we to be grown, to be skyscrapered behind glass, to be able to say we got out, we did it, we made something of ourselves, away from that shadowed small town we came from. And as they have always done, the cliffs stand silent, a knowing smile carved from water and rock into the landscape of so many childhoods. Only once we left, did I see how we’d been shaped, hot as freshly blown glass; forged, gorge-made.
Having grown up in the West Country, Jen Feroze now lives by the sea in Essex with her husband and two small sleep thieves. A former Foyle Young Poet, her work has recently appeared in Doghouse Press, Gingernut Magazine and The Mum Poem Press. Jen’s debut collection, The Colour of Hope, was published in 2020. Find her on instagram @the_colourofhope and on Twitter (where she mainly retweets pictures of owls falling over and other searingly insightful content) @jenlareine.