by Kathy Miles

Competition Judge

It was a real privilege to be asked to judge this year’s PENfro Poetry Competition, and I very much enjoyed reading all the entries. The standard was exceptionally high this year, and I’d like to offer congratulations not only to the shortlisted poets, but to everyone who submitted work to the competition.

With The Year of the Sea as the theme, I anticipated wide interpretations of the subject, and these expectations were fully realized. The sea inspired poets in a very personal way, and was often used as a catalyst for poems about change or death. The idea of the sea as a female figure, perhaps a mother or daughter, was also one which recurred. And in many of the pieces there was a profound sadness; regret for things lost, childhood memories, sadness for what the sea once was and what humans have done to it. But amongst the serious and personal poems were also some wonderful rollicking ballads, tales of pirates and shipwrecks, myths of the deep, and a very funny portrait of Mrs Sea sloshing round in her galoshes! It was also refreshing to see the use of different poetic forms, and whilst the majority of submitted pieces were in free verse, there were some excellent sonnets, narrative poems, villanelles, and even a kenning.

The twelve poems chosen for the shortlist have several things in common. They are all well-crafted poems, pieces in which the poet has thought carefully about the form as well as the content. All reflect a relationship and empathy with the sea, and in many, also a consciousness of its power, such as the woman awaiting the return of her husband in ‘Missing, these twelvemonth’ and those lost to the sea in ‘Keepsake’. I also particularly loved the element of the surreal in ‘Sea Views’, where a couple awake to find their bedroom filled with water, the ingenious ‘Glass Eel’s Own Story’, and the wonderfully lyrical interpretation of the tale of Mererid and Cantr’er Gwaelod, ‘The sacred well speaks to Mererid’.

Third Place – Consider the Seahorse:  Cheryl Pearson

I loved the gentleness of this poem, the careful, considered pacing of the lines. To compare a seahorse to his land-based namesake is not new or different in poetic terms, but what lifts this piece away from cliché is the absolute restraint the poet has used, together with the wonderful vowel-rhyme and imagery. The portrait of the seahorse is intimate and affectionate, but the poet never allows the language to overwhelm the subject, or descend into strings of redundant metaphor. It’s a delightful poem, but one that also demonstrates a skilled hand holding the reins.

Runner-up – Low Tide:  Natalie Rees

The personification of the sea as a mother in this poem drew me back to it again and again through the weeks of judging. What I loved about this piece was the constant sense of movement, long line lengths mirroring the ebbing of the tide. I also loved the tenderness of the mother/child (sea/wave) relationship, a metaphor which is carried skilfully and consistently through the poem. It is a poem of loss and grief and abandonment, but it is only with the shift from third to first person in the last two stanzas that you realize the poet is also speaking of human loss, and the raw grief of losing a mother. An extremely accomplished and original poem, and one which is more than worthy of second place in the competition.

First Place – I remember when I sang:      Jane Burn

From the moment I read this poem it had me hooked, its lines remaining in my head at night when I went to bed.  Beautifully crafted, this is a controlled and expertly-structured piece, as tightly laced together as the whalebone corset mirrored in the shape of the opening stanza. Written in the voice of a whale, the lyrical elegant lines emphasize – but never detract from – the stark, unpleasant facts at the centre of the poem, which detail the uses of whale products over the centuries to make parasols, soaps, soils and perfumes. But this is very far from being a sentimental or polemic poem, and the poet has cleverly used simple, eloquent language to get her point across. A wonderful piece of writing.