I am very, very happy to be able to announce the results of the 2015 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize, which had as its theme ‘Love’ (in a family context). As there was an increase in the number of submissions compared with the first two years of the competition, with the quality of submissions as high as ever, the judges found it challenging (albeit in a good way) to make their choices. Keen-eyed readers will notice that this year, as well as the winning and commended pieces, as chosen by the poetry judge, Sarah James and the prose judge, Zion Lights, there is a ‘Publisher’s Choice’ as well. These were chosen by myself from the judges’ shortlist. Basically, these were pieces that I couldn’t bear to not publish in the anthology so I’ve treated myself to these “bonus” pieces.
A big thank you to all who those who bought a “something” and entered their writing. Thank you for trusting us with your precious words.
Please note: first publication of the two winning pieces will be in the summer issue of the fantastic magazine JUNO (out June 2016). We will also be publishing an anthology of all the winning, commended and ‘publisher’s choice’ pieces this autumn. Please look out for it!
Heart image by Marija Smits
Poetry Category (adult)
The judge’s report is at the end of the results.
Janet — Sheila Wild
Josef — Maeve Henry
Us — Alison Jones
Poem for Imogen — Ann Abineri
Music — Joanne Adams
The Laughing Day, The Hours of Breathing — Cathy Bryant
Their House is a Slipper — Carmina Masoliver
Volume — Jan Dean
Springsong — Catherine Smith
Valentine’s Day — Karen Little
I Measure My Mother’s Love — Angi Holden
Water Baby— Karen Harvey
Now — Ute Carson
Baby — Cathy Bryant
First Night Away— Beth McDonough
My Turn — Finola Scott
Belly — Claire Stephenson
Owen Learning— Helen Curtis
Poetry Category (Children)
An Austin Morning — Alex Habeeb
Why I Write Poetry — Ruby Lamey Sarkar
Forever Love — I Rawlinson
Sisters — Charvi Jain
Get Along — TJ MacReynolds
Lanora’s Love Poem — Lanora Clarke
The Judge’s report is at the end of the results.
Nurturing my Darkness — Dawn Allen
Anything Could Happen — Deborah Staunton
I Am Ready — Dawn Osabwa
The Miracle of Love — Tracey Holland
My Gadabout Gran — Ann Abineri
The Lens of Love— Liz Proctor
The Swing — Rachel Patel
Mother’s Day — Rachel Newman
The Spinning — Lynn Blair
Love is — Nicky Torode
What Will Survive of Us is Love — Alison Jones
Love Ain’t Enough — Sarah Willis
Ashes— Fern Thomas
Love and Home Education — Caroline Cole
Sarah James Poetry Report
The Adult Category
Reading the entries to this competition was a delight. Family love covered grandparents, new parents and wider family. There was thought, imagination and feeling — love — in every poem. Sometimes I was close to crying, other times I could feel myself smiling.
Choosing between these poems was the hard part. I read and re-read the entries several times on different days in different places, in my head and aloud. Writing up my report, I fell more and more in love and admiration for the anthology poems – their structure, line breaks, imagery and more. Many of the poems that weren’t commended also had some beautiful lines and haunting images contained within them.
It was a close call, but in the end ‘Janet’ was the piece that stayed with me most each time. It is a beautifully spare poem, in which every word (and punctuation mark) earns its keep. I tested my own judgement. I asked myself could it hold its place against the rich lines of some of the other poems. Every time I doubted it, it answered back with an insistent yes. In just 10 lines, this poem manages the feat of both being about a very specific moment – a new Mum going to comfort her child at night – and the whole of two women’s lives as “all the women we’ll become | gather silently around us.” The focus is tight, precise and controlled. One haunting image is the moon “scuffed | and thin and over-bright.” I can imagine in a workshop, someone might query an object being both “scuffed” and “overbright”. Yet, not only can I see a bright moon that is scuffed in places by mist, I can also see new motherhood shining through – a mother’s face over-bright with joy, scuffed around the edges by tiredness. A lovely poem that wins through with its wonderfully measured quiet confidence.
‘I Measure My Mother’s Love’ is a vivid evocative poem that captures the mother’s love through her sewing. Beautifully structured, this moves through the threads, buttons and fabrics the mother used, each also evoking the person that the clothes belong to. But love is not just in the choice of materials, it is also in the actual making “In rustless needles and blood-sharp pins, | in running stitches tacking shapeless fabric | to lithesome bodies and coltish limbs.” It is also in the way that love adapts, captured wonderfully in the closing lines: “in turned down hems, let down as we grew.”
‘Us’ is a poem about ten years of marriage and “what lies hidden in our ordinary love.” It moves wonderfully from the outward reality of “our damp house, near the city, | where my uncertain self, talks us | from everywhere to somewhere” to what lies behind this: “Did you know, our suburb was a waterland.” With this line, the poem really takes off at both a literal and metaphorical level. As I read, I imagine a typical estate home that literally has been built on reclaimed floodland. Metaphorically, this analogy picks up on so much of what is extraordinary about “ordinary love.”
‘Music’ is another wonderfully spare poem that captures new motherhood: “Sometimes in the night | I forget you.” This is not a real forgetting though, more a merged existence, felt all the more in the tiredness at night when “our boundaries are as blurred | as yesterday’s dreams.” This poem took me straight back to when my own children were babies.
‘Poem for Imogen’ is another poem that not only allows a spare lines to carry its emotional weight but deepens that emotional impact by doing so. It also uses sewing/knitting both literally and symbolically, culminating in a wonderful final line for a very moving poem about losing a baby: “A dropped stitch in time”.
‘Josef’ is another very moving poem, where simple, spare and controlled lines and images enhance the emotional thrust. They also add extra strength to those few places were richer imagery is used, such as: “your neck is a daisy stem | your uncurled hand a starfish | beached.” There is so much that I admired in this poem, including the line breaks, evocative use of all the senses and a striking concluding couplet.
‘Volume’ is one of the few poems that managed the lovely feat of balancing both the joy and sadness of being a parent. Each line flows naturally from the previous, with the layout giving the words both space to breathe and space to grow into – rather as the unnamed child/children do in the poem until “the living room is full of legs.” It also neatly captures both aspects of volume: space and sound.
‘Valentine’s Day’ is very different to many of the poems that I read for the competition, and the one that really pulled off being different, right from the bold opening line and stanza: “Valentine’s Day was liver coloured…wet with deceit and drama.” At this point, I was maybe expecting a poem about the sham of February 14 and romance compared to real love. But there is far more than that to the poem, as the contrast is revealed to be to an 11-year-old daughter’s love, reacting to the loss of her father. This is a gripping and moving poem, full of drama – a drama that justifies itself because it is an 11 year old’s viewpoint.
‘Their house is a slipper’ is a poem that is every bit as warm as its opening lines suggest: “Their house is a slipper, I step inside | and it brings the comfort of a cup of tea.” Not only is a slipper comfortable, but it made me think of the nursery rhyme of the old woman who lived in a shoe. And what we have in this house is a Nan who fills it with stories, smiles and laughter. I very much felt as a reader that I was not only in this house beside the narrator, with the poem’s wonderfully real and specific details, but very much welcomed there as part of the family. I left the poem, as I suspect the narrator does the house, with a warm glow.
‘Springsong’ is a poem that I wanted to share because of its combination of accessible, simple images with a non-conventional use of language (merging words) and layout. I left this poem with a smile on my face and song inside me, as it confidently delivers the promise of its title.
‘Water Baby’ is again a poem that very much lives up to its title. It’s not unusual to find water and sea imagery connected to pregnancy and birth, and this fact makes it an all the more striking feat when such a framework is used successfully. The ‘baby swimmer’ metaphor is sustained without being over-egged from first to last line of this poem, and particularly strongly in the third stanza where “You came eagerly, | running the bow wave.”
‘The Laughing Day, the Hours of Breathing’ is a poem of opening out to the world, and as such manages to create a very full picture. The core of this poem is the narrator’s dying father. But it opens with the sound of children laughing somewhere else inside or near to the hospital and “the only time | of life when screams signify fun.” In doing so, the poem not only captures a very personal grief but also the place of that grief within the wider world. This contrast is sustained throughout the poem, where we later see nature in full beauty outside, making the loss unfolding within that hospital bed even more moving. There is some beautiful imagery in the poem too, from “His lungs were an orchestra tuning up, | his flickering tongue conducting | the bass rasps and grunts of effort” to “My father’s beard should be blossoms | or feathers, not snow. It moves to the clumsy, | clunky clockwork of lung-time.”
The Children’s Category
Judging this competition really made me think hard about the various elements that make for a good poem and how to prioritise them. There is, of course, no one recipe for success. Choosing between the commended poems was a difficult, and ultimately subjective, task, particularly when all the entries seemed full of very real love, thought and crafting. There were also some excellent attempts at rhyme and using repetitive structures.
In the end, I chose ‘An Austin Morning’ as my winner. This poem is perhaps closer to prose than many of the other commended entries. But it holds its own rhythm and creates a very clear picture of what is announced in the title. The poem uses the sense of sound, as well as sight, to make the scene come alive. It also makes good use of strong verbs, metaphors and similes. The end lines bring a very confident close to the poem.
‘Now’ gives a precise and not-overly sentimental ‘showing’ of a grandmother’s love for her grandson. I think it paints the scene with skill and care, and I am touched by the love in it.
‘First Night Away’ is a spare poem, but which conjures the sense of what it is like to have an older child go away for a night very well. I love the phrase: “All night creaks of him;” which sums up what it’s like to be a parent, anxious and disquieted by the sounds of the night while thinking of their child.
‘Belly’ is simply very different to the rest, and refreshingly so. It makes me smile and I love the last two lines (which I won’t give away here). I like the way it is about the unconditional love that a child has for us, and how this is non-judgemental and how they can help us to see (what we consider) our flaws as something altogether different, and positive.
‘Owen Learning’ is on the theme of breastfeeding, and I think the fact that it is from the grandmother’s perspective interesting. It contains some lovely images of the baby after he has fed: “the sated smile, bloated belly | of a little king;”.
‘My Turn’ is a successful poem which conjures up the scene of an elderly father struggling in the night very well. I love some of the imagery and the last line is understated yet powerful.
With the poem, ‘Baby’ I simply adore some of the imagery — the “white cloths” (terry towel nappies) as “clouds of butterflies” particularly resonated with me.
I am delighted to be able to publish all the above poems within the anthology and only wish we had room for more!
Zion Lights Prose Report
Sometimes the weeks fly by but the days are long. This is how I was feeling when I sat down with the prose entries for this writing prize, ready to immerse myself in the written worlds of the mothers who had contributed their stories, and wash away some of the day’s tribulations by doing so. What I found surpassed my expectations, as I went on one mother’s journey to another’s, their tales as varied and textured as our individual parenting journeys naturally are. Sometimes we need fresh eyes to be reminded of the beautiful moments of motherhood, and also to remember that the difficult moments will pass. I felt energised by these writing entries, and set the unread stories aside, to be approached another day with fresh eyes, and with a heart that would feel less raw to the lens of the beautiful but turbulent journey that is parenting. Then I travelled the textured road again, and was blown away by its wonders.
Nurturing My Darkness
It’s rare to read a piece of writing that touches on what one feels as a parent in this world, that connects you with the rest of humanity and makes you feel less alone. For me, Nurturing My Darkness did exactly this. ‘Take your time and breathe, mama’, it begins. ‘It’s okay’. Instantly I took a breath. I read a lot of nonfiction for my work and the open and direct, raw emotional style of this writing spoke to me in a deep way. It made me feel less alone, as I became lost and then immersed in the words this writer was offering me, those of consolation and of understanding, I wept a mother’s tears at the end. To the author I send a heartfelt thank you for this work of prose, for writing the words that every mother sometimes needs to hear on those dark days.
My Gadabout Gran
I never had grandparents, never knew them at all. This work paints a touching and nostalgic picture of the writer’s grandmother, much as I would have expected my own to be. Gran likes to travel. Gran is like a butterfly. Gran becomes a memory, captured by the writer in a wonderful vignette.
The Lens of Love
This is another raw and open emotional piece that, for me, captures the love of a mother in a very unique way. This mother feels what I feel and have felt on my parenting journey, and also captures the utterly sacrificial nature of a mother’s love. The delicate writing style is especially captivating in this piece.
When does one become a mother? Reading this work, I felt that it happens long before the baby arrives. This mother craves her unborn baby, imagines in detail the child she longs to have but have not yet been able to conceive. I understand her longing and her need, as do so many women around the world. This writer brings those childless mothers together with her story.
Anything Could Happen
With a parent’s love also comes the difficulties – the side we don’t like to talk about, as this writer admits about her child: ‘I desperately want to like her more’. This work is bold and brave, just as this mother is fiercely determined to make the best of an incredibly difficult situation. I bow my head to her.
The love before children. The love of two adults caught in the magical world of each other. Then children, family, and loss. This story made me spin with its many stories, meshed and unravelling together, as families do. Wonderful storytelling.
I Am Ready is a light and positive musing on a mother’s readiness for her baby and child, for the journey we take together when we become mothers and mothered. This honest and open work provides a refreshing read.
The Miracle of Love will take you on a rollercoaster journey of grief, loss and love. I haven’t experienced this type of loss myself but of course we will all go through it some time – parental loss is very real and also very much something that we don’t talk about. I appreciated the frank tone of this work, and the sharing of the story.
Mother’s Day tells a similar tale of mourning and yearning, but in a different way. There is loss and sadness, but also acceptance. I felt that a powerful process was tackled by this powerful work of prose.
Love Is… paints a wonderful picture of everyday parenting moments that we don’t always get the chance to savour. I enjoyed reliving some surprisingly similar moments through this work, and the warm idea of my child ‘curled up against [my future] middle aged spread’.
What Will Survive of Us is Love is a beautifully poetic paean to the life of a long-term couple with young children and I was glad to see the author celebrating the every day joys of what many think of as a stagnant time in a couple’s life.
Although our family don’t home educate, the piece Love and Home Education spoke to me as, ultimately, the piece is about making decisions that are hard because close family members disagree with our choices. It’s about standing strong, making those decisions anyway, and having the grace to accept that others may think differently, and that that’s okay.
Love Ain’t Enough expresses the notion that the word ‘love’ is very much over-used today. And yet, our love for our children can be very strong. What the author is looking for is a “love PR guru” – which I very much like the idea of!
Ashes is a gentle and beautiful recounting of the loss of a grandmother and the scattering of her ashes. It is well-written and powerful in an understated way, and reminds me of the importance of family at the end of one’s life, at the ultimate transformative experience, death.
Again, I’m so happy to be able to include all the above prose pieces in the anthology and am looking forward to publishing these pieces.