I am delighted to be able to share the results of our 2019/2020 Poetry Prize. Huge thanks to all those who entrusted us with their poetry (I now have a good-sized list of excellent poets I want to keep an eye on!), and many, many thanks to the judges, Ruth Aylett and Beth McDonough for reading, considering and making final decisions. I would have found it really tough to make those final choices as there were many poems that I loved.
Winner: Blue Hour by Patricia Brody Runner-up: Maternity Leave in the Age of Giorgione by Sarah Watkinson Runner-up: Walk by the Thames by Vicky Morris
At the Museum by Anna Beattie Crying the Banns by Maggie Mackay Plum by Erin Coppin
Winner: I Am The One by Felix Kennedy
Commendeds: Our Problem by Ayla McKenzie The Puppy by Orion Conning
Ruth Aylett and Beth McDonough
There were so many moving, and often clearly autobiographical poems submitted. There was significant sharing of the very personal, which was frequently courageous, and moving. What then, made the winners stand out?
Essentially, although all the poems chosen are very different from one another, what they all share is a commitment not only to their story, but to language and to the discipline of poetry. Those standing out from the others showed evidence of not only writing but of careful reading of poetry. Each of them found an unexpected way into the subject.
The winning entry, ‘Blue Hour’, from the outset, with its oblique title, its shape on the page and typographic inventiveness, invited attention. Those features were far from superfluous, but captured the photographic nature of the poem, as did the use of line breaks… and yes the sharp and quirky language. So many snaps of arresting detail, and every word, and space, earning its place. A very clear winner.
‘Maternity Leave in the Age of Giorgione’ flitted beautifully between the viewed and the viewer, and the strange grasped moment of these times with an infant in sometimes seemingly judgemental interiors. A lovely balance of painted detail, well-considered on the page, and with a pleasing wrap in the final tercet.
Again, an unusual perspective lifted ‘At the Museum’, and also there was a very assured use of language…”One arm hammocks her small orrery” …marvellous. We had great difficulty deciding on the other runner-up place, and ‘At the Museum’ was only edged from it by a hairsbreadth by the following poem, ‘Walk by the Thames’, which came from a different, but equally unpredictable place, and controlled its narrative and pace beautifully in quatrains. What a fabulous final line.
‘Plum’, with its perfect metaphor, and great opening line is a joy. Meanwhile ‘Crying the Banns’ (marvellous title) evokes a bygone Paisley in so few lines… and is wise enough to show much more than it tells.
Selecting the Children’s winners was in a way rather harder, but‘I Am The One’stood out for its boldness and chant-like qualities and confidence. What a mission statement! A clever acrostic in ‘Our Problem’ tied up a very topical poem, and ‘The Puppy’ played with a great deal of rhyme in a way that mirrored the subject matter.
However, well done to each and every entrant.
She is photographing this moment. If she could CLICK! 7:00 cloud-swirl feathered lobsters (who forgive humans their huge hunger?) The family lies on sand under Down East’s bowl the sun an ice-pop flare nestling the pines. She is reading Aurora Leigh, her son, the Iliad, her daughter, Holden Caulfield. They come at close of day to Little Tunk (the lake) of course like glass, which speaks: In seven days the son’s moving away. (this suckled life) Balsam dusk. The mountain cools to black. Schoodic Head in smoke across the water. To their right, last slant-of-sun — — reeds with golden frogs.
Running to catch one, the little sis calls Zak, Zak! Help me! He won’t get up now. Must finish book before next week. ZAK! She wails, her Speedo suit a flame in the bulrushes, blue.
I Am The One
I am the one who lights up darkness I wonder what the world could be I hear the sound that grows in darkness I see what is right and wrong I want what cannot happen I am the one who lights up darkness I pretend that everything’s all right I feel the success of my future I touch the living things that are sore I worry for the people who get bullied I cry when friendships die I am the one who lights up darkness I understand that not everything is perfect I say don’t run when you can’t conquer bullies I try to make the perfect image I am the one who lights up darkness
Today I am very pleased to be able to share the results of our 2018/2019 Poetry Prize. Many, many thanks to all those who entrusted us with their writing (I have made a note of some excellent poets I want to keep an eye on!), and huge thanks to the judges, Ruth Stacey and Katy Wareham Morris, for reading, considering and making final decisions (that’s them above, busy making their choices).
Poetry Category (Adult)
Winner: ‘9 ½ cm’ by Michèle Beck
Runners-up: ‘Boarding now at Gate Seven’ by Hannah Stone and ‘Much improved’ by Scarlett Ward
Commendeds: ‘Ponies’ by Caroline Stancer, ‘New Born’ by Ruth Aylett, ‘YOU ARE NOT NIGELLA LAWSON’ by Sallyanne Rock, ‘Spun from the Same’ by Jane Burn, ‘Uncle John’ by Rufus Mufasa
Poetry Category (Children)
Winner: ‘Do you want to play?’ by Darcy Rourke
Commendeds: ‘Song for Mummy’ by Gabriel Hennessy and ‘We Go’ by Pippa McGonigal
Ruth Stacey and Katy Wareham Morris
The entries for the competition encompassed a variety of themes, some choosing to focus in on aspects of motherhood and birth, raising children and being a writer. Others chose to work on original subject matter. We had no particular preference for either approach; we sought out poems of high quality, which surprised us in some way. We thoroughly enjoyed reading each poem, more than once, then finally getting together to compare notes and shortlist our winners. It was good to hear such insights into parenthood, family and memory.
Judging as a pair was an interesting process as some poems appealed more to our personal tastes and styles of writing. However, it was reassuring during our final session to find we had almost got exactly the same shortlist of ten from the poems submitted. Our winner was an easy choice which we both agreed on, our runner-up poems took more discussion and re-readings but it was clear which ones to choose.
There were many accomplished poems in the submissions. Some had brilliant lines or images, but lost focus through structural choices or overwriting. There was sometimes a tendency to over-tell an ending. There doesn’t need to be an explanation all the time. There must be trust that the reader can do some of the work as part of the process. There were poems that were particularly emotional, drawing on personal memoir, that caused both judges to feel moved. We felt many of the poems were a draft or two away from being a finished poem, and we hope the poets who submitted will continue to work on them and send them out again.
The children’s poems were all charming and we felt heartened to see children engaging with and writing poetry.
Winner: ‘9 1/2 cm’. The winning poem utilised an extended metaphor of horror films to describe labour and birth that surprised and unsettled us both. The gothic horror references shine a lens on medical childbirth as something quite otherworldly and chilling. The narrator is both an expectant mother and a female character pinned down in a Hammer Horror film awaiting the monster. The title, describing the opening of the cervix, can also be read as the length of a wound. The structure of the poem is sparse, using white space and dashes to indicate time; the long wait of labour. The sharpness of the enjambment echoes the horror metaphor, cutting through the lines in a jolting fashion, and the rush of words through the fourth stanza, losing punctuation in the middle, adds rising tension and a shortness of breath before the entrance of the creature, who fills their lungs for the first time like Frankenstein, and screams. We thought there was a lot happening in this carefully constructed poem, and we both found it memorable for its visceral and nightmarish elements.
Runner-up: ‘Boarding now at Gate Seven’. We were struck by the brutal honesty in the first two stanzas of this poem, finding the imagery to be both striking and poignant. The first stanza successfully accomplishes a sense of bitterness and frustration, which we could immediately identify with as fellow writing mothers. We think this is powerfully communicated and extended through the beautiful precision of the folded muslin which represents all of the writer’s creative output at this time: it is both vital for the nurturing of the child, in one regard the ultimate creation, whilst simultaneously seeming so mundane and binding in terms of potential creative output. We feel this poem also addresses the still contentious issue of equal parenting and childcare within the debilitating system of structural patriarchy, which demonstrates how poetry continues to be a powerful personal and political tool, making way for important conversations.
Runner-up: ‘Much improved’. We loved the awkward wordiness, rhythm and prosodic features of this poem – particularly in the first two stanzas which really went some way to replicating the uncomfortable demands of having another language/dialect literally in your mouth. There is an authenticity here and a strong sense of voice, which is often a challenging task for writers.
Alarmed eyes, coffined under fluorescent lights elongated Nosferatu shadows move back from behind the make-shift blue screen. Epidural ice-cold nitrogen, up-streams
my spinal cord. The long wait —
a tear slips giving away my position.
Mummified, bestowed on a steel bed hospital native tongues whisper procedures apprehensive faces ascend their masks a scalpel wounds its permanent, numb scar
and your entrance into the world.
7.01 am— silence.
You fill your lungs with inspired air
and scream to let me know you have arrived.
Do you want to play?
Mam Mam do you want to play? Isn’t it quite so beautiful today. We can play and play until the rain touches the floor again. Will you say yes oh please today? I’m busy why not ask Dad? Surely Dad would like to dance. Hey Dad do you want to play? Isn’t it quite so wonderful today. We can play and play until the wind blows again. Oh please say yes just for today. No I can’t I’m getting ready for our holiday. Why not play with the dog? I know she would love to play. I can’t ask Sadie. I guess it is just me again… Betsy! Let’s play until the sun comes out again.
Huge thanks to Laura for taking the time to take part in this Q&A – I’m absolutely delighted to have such a talented young poet share her insights here. I hope it inspires poets of all ages to enter our competition! (Below image courtesy Laura Potts.)
Laura Potts is twenty-two years old and lives in West Yorkshire. Twice-recipient of the Foyle Young Poets Award, her work has been published by Acumen, Aesthetica and The Poetry Business. Having worked at The Dylan Thomas Birthplace in Swansea, Laura was nominated for The Pushcart Prize and became one of the BBC’s New Voices last year. Her first BBC radio drama aired at Christmas. She received The Mother’s Milk Writing Prize and a commendation from The Poetry Society in 2018.
1. How, when and why did you first start writing poetry?
The exact age is unremembered, but I was very young. I’ve always been a reader and the one fed easily into the other for me, even in infancy: reading led to writing led to reading again. And that cycle still exists today. But there was never a definitive moment when I took to my desk and decided to write, or to ‘be’ a writer. It just grew, quite naturally, with my years. I suppose, looking back, my grandmother was there at the heart of it all. Before war took her health and age took her mind, she had been an amateur writer herself. And she would read. For hours and days and weeks she would read, and I’d sit on her knee in the old armchair. That great gravelly voice, broken by years of work and war, spoke on in my infant ear. Once and forever. Always. If I listen today, it’s still there.
2. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?
As I recall, my mind was on motherhood. I’d lived with the thoughts for some time and the poem was the great end of that passion. Mother’s Milk appealed to me for the humility of its roots as a small press, and for the strides it has taken to uphold the place of childbirth, pregnancy and motherhood in literature today. After all, these are themes which are too often made marginal. Entering the Prize was my own small way of walking away from that; and of tipping my hat to the work of this press.
3. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?
Like most unexpected successes, it brought a quiet moment of joy. And since most of my work is kept for my eyes alone, it’s always reassuring when someone else feels its worth. It entered the world to be read and enjoyed and someone, somewhere, saw that. But most importantly of all, it brought a source of comfort; an assurance that my voice didn’t just speak to the page and back. It could reach much further than my own four walls and lay its claim to living. So, yes. The news took the wet out of Wednesday for sure.
4. Can you tell us a little about your winning poem?
It was quite an amorphic little verse, by which I mean unlike the rest of my work. If I remember rightly, it was born in an hour of free-writing. Its sustained image is simple: a mother rocks her son to sleep by candlelight and dreams of the wide future to come. The structure is scattered; the rhyme irregular; the metre unstable. Despite the soft and gentle words, an anxiousness exists. And in the final line we find its source: the boy in her arms will one day be the soldier on his knees.
5. What are your writing plans for 2019?
Who knows? Writing has never had a timeline or followed a predictable pattern for me. It comes and goes, some months more than others. Allowing it to live as it wishes, however it wishes, ensures it remains a joy. But the next logical step, I suppose, is a first collection for which the time must be right and I must be ready. I’m also in the infant stages of a poetic drama for BBC Radio 4. And while all these things flicker into being, eventually living, I read. That in itself is enough.
6. Any tips for those writing poetry?
Always have an accessible medium. Notebook, diary, tablet, phone. The back of your hand will do. Just make sure your mind never meets a barricade. Even when you’re on the bus or half-asleep in the bath.
The best writers are the best readers. I can’t stress this enough: the importance of books, of the farther arts, of the whole wide world which spins outside the little room you write in. The mind is a keen machine, and you’ll get out what you put in. So when you read, read critically. Why do you like this writer? Why don’t you like that one? You’ll converge with one and not with the other. Finding your voice means gauging your place, just like this, in the epic annals of literature.
Read your work aloud. At its ancient roots, poetry was an oral art often set to music. By reading aloud you’ll honour its history and notice its flaws. A poem has a different life on the page to its life in the mouth. And it’s easy to know when a writer does not read aloud: their rhythm could always be better.
Be kind to yourself. Writer’s block is an anxious friend but one we must endure. Take your time. If you’re struggling, leave it alone. Take a walk. Take a nap. Take a month off and sleep. The work needs time and patience to live. And, after all, sometimes the mind works best at rest.
The only regrets you’ll have are for the times you didn’t try. So why not pick up a book today? Go on and begin.
Finally, and despite various technological problems (a major computer crash!) I am very happy indeed to be able to share the results of our 2017 Writing Prize. Many, many thanks to all those who entered and trusted us with their writing. And many, many thanks to the poetry judge, Alison Lock and fiction judge, Ana Salote for reading, considering and making final decisions.
Poetry Category (Adult)
Winner: ‘First Light’ by Laura Potts
Runners-up: ‘Faith’ by Rachel Bower and ‘Oyster’ by Rachel Bower
Commendeds: ‘Two (for R and F)’ by Jenny Barton, ‘Son, at Aberdyfi’ by Suzanne Iuppa, ‘Petrified’ by Louise Larchbourne, ‘Midnight and Saffron’ by Maggie Mackay
Poetry Category (Children)
Winner: ‘Secret Island’ by Izzy Mattesini
Commendeds: ‘Tigers’ by Lanora Clarke and ‘Another Day’ by Annie Young
Poetry Judge, Alison Lock’s Report
It has been an absolute pleasure to read the poems submitted for the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize. It was Mother’s Day when I first read the many intense and passionate invocations of love for a newborn child, about the hardships of mothering, the sleepless nights. Many poems resonated with me and took me back to my early mothering days. I even shed a few tears.
I was also daunted – how was I ever going to choose a winner from so many good poems. I decided the only way was to be methodical, so I set to work by compiling a list of criteria to work through with each poem. I looked at the style, the presentation, the language, punctuation, the form each poem took, the rhythm, and asked whether the title added anything. And then there was the theme, how original was it, how compelling? How did the imagery enhance the subject? And finally, universality – was this a poem that would speak to many? Did it capture the human condition?
After much consideration, I had my long-list. I let it settle, and then I went back to it. I wanted to hear how they sounded. I waited until I was alone and then read them aloud, first indoors, then outdoors. I believe that poems are far more than words balanced on a page and that it’s important to hear how they sound – to listen to their music by allowing a poem to echo against the walls, or to feel it catch on the wind.
The winner was always there I realised, right from the first reading, but I had to be sure. It was more difficult to choose the second and third places from the shortlist.
Winner: ‘First Light’, ticked all the criteria, but it was not just that – I shivered when I read it aloud, as though it was singing out to me. I could hear the mother’s voice ‘…chiming/like goblets/through lobes/of the trees’. I could see her waiting ‘…where the tiny light asleep/is her/moon man…’ I loved the way this poem made use of the white spaces, the periphery. This is a poem that owns the page, it yearns to be read.
Runner-up: ‘Faith’. A beautiful evocation of a woman’s connection with her instincts, to her connection with nature, the ‘rock salt and lime’, ‘[b]lack tea, laced with a feather of rose/breathed through soft lips’ – an alternative to the ‘accepted norms’ of childbirth. I love the ‘mole-soft smell of baby hair’ – so evocative. This poem was full of fabulous imagery.
Runner-up: ‘Oyster’. The opening line takes us straight into a fairy tale – ‘As he sleeps, she spoons light from the jug/and sprinkles it over the floorboards.’ While her baby sleeps the mother ‘works quickly’, but these are no mundane housekeeping tasks. Transformed by the world of the child, she is ‘scattering petals and droplets of wax.’
Winning Children’s Poem: ‘The secret island’. Lots of images, rhyme, and alliteration – ‘whispering willows/creaky and crooked…’ – this poem was exciting; a poem with lots of action, and I wanted to be there.
It is somewhere in a sometime that a long late light on the other side of this city’s eyes holds the dark hills
and the voice of a mother is chiming like goblets through the lobes of the trees
in that moment when she cradles in the crick of her bone the silver limbs the candled skin
and there are moons which are trembling and spin in the warm air
where the tiny light asleep is her moon man her lamplight shipwrecked at sea
and one day the soldier
slumped to his
The Secret Island
The river that flows and the whispering willows creaky and crooked a pathway for us, bubbling waters and icy-cold swimming adventures at moonlight with plenty of daring. Rock pools and ridges a wonder for dens and when storms come the treasures we find that have been left on the shore behind. Brightly coloured bushes and fire-wood we need a pathway above us with roots and leaves. Our secret island we visit each year and this to us is why it’s so dear.
IZZY MATTESINI (aged 10)
Winner: ‘In Fear’s Eyes’ by Jess Thomas
Runners-up: ‘A Wingless Wedding’ by Elizabeth Hopkinson and ‘Baby Steps’ by Dervla McCormick
Commendeds: ‘Poppy Day’ by Corinne Atherton and ‘Bella and the Beast’ by Fiona Ross
Fiction Judge, Ana Salote’s Report
Writers are naturally people watchers and lovers of words. Being asked to judge a writing competition is an invitation to do both. Each story is a window into someone else’s world: their preoccupations, ideas and patterns of expression. It’s an interesting and enjoyable process.
In line with the Mother’s Milk remit many of the stories submitted focused on parenting. When so much of what manifests in the world can be traced back to parenting this is an inexhaustible and critical issue to explore. Each unique family dynamic has the potential to perpetuate good or evil. There’s also a vast seam to explore in what parents can learn from children. Feminism and relationships are equally wide topics and it was good to see writers considering these issues with some very individual standpoints.
Winner: ‘In Fear’s Eyes’. There’s an instant hook in the opening line of this story which marks it out as something different. The writer has chosen to personify an emotion that stalks all of us throughout life, but which intensifies when we become parents. The stakes are raised by love. Fears begin in pregnancy and continue throughout the birth process. With our newborns we are hyper-vigilant to every breathing pattern, rash and temperature change, and so it goes on as the child grows and new risks emerge. It’s a story that examines fear and resilience and what children can teach us about facing fears and embracing the new.
Runner-up: ‘A Wingless Wedding’. A sci-fi look at relationships uses a short form to ask big questions about love and sex. The erosion of sexual apartheid mirrors what is happening today with new self-defined gender categories. What is the role of physical bonding in relationships? What form does union without desire take? Fathers are at one remove from the gestation and birthing process, where do they fit if the genetic link is also removed? Different forms of love, eros and philia, alternating through generations gives plenty of food for thought.
Runner-up: ‘Baby Steps’. We all know pushy parents but what happens when the child is the driven one? Enlightened parenting strikes a balance between encouraging independence and protection, between allowing talents to flourish and forcing or moulding. This story sets up the dynamic between a determined, ambitious child and a parent who supports with a light touch. We see how the dynamic plays out in childhood and later in the face of tragedy.
In Fear’s Eyes
Once there was a woman who saw me, and fought me. There isn’t a time when I am not around, but I’m felt, not seen. Some have called me doom, others think I am the sense of their mortality, and I am both those things because I am fear.
‘Why not try a water birth?’ the midwife asked Melissa, and as her eyes widened I found the chink in her armour.
‘No thanks,’ my prey replied, ‘I don’t really like water.’ It was music to my ears.
For every one of her twenty-nine years, I have stalked Melissa. As a child she only knew the sweetest dreams, she climbed the sofa, fell down the stairs, burnt her fingers on the oven, and crawled on, always curious, and always happy. I followed the risky teenager, the one who ran over rail tracks, drank vodka under bridge trusses, and still aced her exams. Then she became a backpacker, and I chased her across zip wires, and as she parachuted from planes. Never could I catch her. Melissa was gifted with an impenetrable force field, not unlike a golden aura. It engulfed her body, and kept her from me, year after year.
There were things she didn’t like, of course. Spiders gave her goose pimples, especially while they flickered in her hands as she threw them out of her home. Heights made her queasy, never more so than just before a bungee jump or sky dive. Then there was water, which she simply avoided. Why hadn’t I seen it before? The dilated pupils, the beautiful precursor to my way in, why would I have missed that?
It was because the baby was drawing upon that forcefield. As soon as she started ‘trying’, I was there waiting, a shadow in the background of each failed test. Each loss. The glow fading, getting thinner and thinner, but still impenetrable. All I needed to do was wait.
Having ruled out the birthing pool, she took to the bed. Knowing my moment was coming, I must have become too excited, too palpable, for she looked right at me for some time, not through me, but at me. I turned, as one does, to see if she fixed her eyes on someone behind me, but there was only myself and the wall.
Pethidine, Entonox, Epidural, forceps, suction, then finally the scalpel, all the while looking in my eyes.
How dare she threaten me in such a fashion? So insolent, and disrespectful. I knew what I was going to do, if I couldn’t have her.
The surgeon announced the final incision, the cut through the womb, and as I turned, the golden light surrounding her child blinded me. No wonder hers had become so weak. It was pumping down the umbilical cord, in final bursts before the doctor severed the attachment. When the baby cried, Melissa stopped staring at me. Her smile was one of elation, and not just that, I swear I saw triumph.
Now, there is one thing I know about new mothers – they are easy prey. The foolish woman thought she’d won, but I knew all about what was to come, and I knew better than she could imagine, just how simple it was going to be for me in the coming months. I waited.
It is difficult to admit my continuous failure in those first two years. Her aura blocked all my usual routes in; the constant check of breathing, the temperatures, the rashes, the varied nappy contents, even the apnoea alarm sounding when the baby wriggled out of its zone. Melissa’s defence was still dim, but still there. Then came the weaning, and I didn’t even get a chance when the child gagged, she even explained it as a natural reflex. Far too relaxed a demeaner. I tried to find a way in with MMR. In desperation I even managed to wriggle the latch loose on the baby-gate, but the father spotted it, and fixed it promptly.
Now he was easy, far more than her. And, although I infiltrated him it only seemed to cause him to act. He fixed the baby-gate, got a webcam, attached rubber to every corner, put clips on cupboards, buffers on doors, and even let the baby eat dirt ‘to build its immune system’. I couldn’t comprehend him. But he did find me the route in to Melissa.
‘Two things on which I’ll put my foot down,’ he said, ‘learning to ride a bike, and learning to swim. They’re life skills Mel.’
It was beautiful. Her glow faded to less than a shimmer. I was almost in, and I would have bet on the pool bringing down the final barrier. Her husband went into the water with their two-year-old, and Melissa sat with me on the side. At one point I thought she was going to take my hand, and suddenly invite me in, with open arms.
As the child’s toes touched the water, it let out a shriek. For a moment it distracted me from Melissa, the fresh opportunity to consume the child as its glow disappeared in a flash. Instantly, I was all around, flitting from child to child, parent to parent, and I turned in time to see what I’d been dreaming of. Melissa, eyes closed, biting her lip, devoid of armour. I was in. I gripped her, ready to make her terrified, poised with a panic attack, right up until she strangled me.
At first, I was unsure of what was happening, and as I suffocated I twisted and turned, then I heard it: laughter. There, in the water, the child was laughing. It gurgled. The shrieks were ones of joy. Before my eyes it regained its glow, the light growing stronger and deeper until it reached out a cord to Melissa and began pumping her guard with light in growing bursts. The cord wrapped around my neck, once, twice, then thrice. I kept fighting.
I fought back, right up until the end I grappled with her in the changing room, thinking I could win her over with the slippery floor, and dirty changing mat, but she only grew stronger. Once she changed the baby, and started walking out of the leisure centre, I was tired but still trying. Then she walked up to the counter, and killed me.
‘I’d like to book on to adult swimming lessons please,’ she said.
Behind the receptionist was a mirrored wall, and as she paid for the course she looked at her reflection. The last thing I saw before I gave up the fight, was her smile, and it was one of triumph. Once she was a woman who saw me, and fought me. Now, there isn’t a time when I am not around, but sadly, she just ignores me.
Winner: ‘Axis’ by Victoria Bennett
Runners-up: ‘For Creativity’ by Rachel Rivett and ‘Confession’ by Alison Bond McNally
Commendeds: ‘Our First Words’ by Laura McGarry, ‘A Chocolate Tickle’ by Leslie Muzingo, ‘How to Give Birth in Twenty Simple Steps’ by Christine Grant, ‘Jammy Dodger’ by Rachel O’Leary, ‘Something to Keep’ by Angi Holden, ‘Women Like You’ by Jess Thomas, ‘Auntie Ellie’ by Annabel Barker, ‘Memory’ by Dawn Rapson, ‘Into the Abyss’ by Caroline Cole
Non-fiction Judge, Teika Bellamy’s Report
Although I established the Writing Prize 5 years ago and have been its main organizer ever since, I have never been involved with the judging. Until this year. So I came to the process intrigued, if a little daunted, since I knew that the quality of the submissions was always very high. This year was no exception and my non-fiction pile was full of exceptional pieces. But after much reading and deliberation I came to a decision.
Winner: ‘Axis’. As soon as I started reading this piece I was drawn into the narrator’s story, and found myself in that dream-like state of total absorption in the words before me. That’s a wonderful, though often rare, place to be. Its major theme is the clash of death and life – something that virtually everyone can relate to – and the conflict it brings to the narrator. There are no clichés or platitudes here. No manicured neatness. Simply the messy stuff of grief, new motherhood, love and fear. This piece deserves to be read and shared far and wide.
Runner-up: ‘For Creativity’. Being a fan of Tolkien and wholeheartedly agreeing with his stance on the value of the genre of fantasy, I was delighted to see the author quote Tolkien in this passionate, though well-researched, argument for the importance of creativity for our individual (and societal) wellbeing. This is a powerful and expertly written piece.
Runner-up: ‘Confession’. Over the years I’ve been running Mother’s Milk Books I’ve read a huge amount of prose about new motherhood and seen so many approaches to this complex and deeply emotive experience. Many of the approaches seem over-familiar. But not this one. In ‘Confession’ the author likens the experience of going to the doctor’s with her newborn for a routine postnatal check-up to the experience of a religious confession. It is honest and painful and raw, and yet so relatable. Again, another stunning piece of writing.
Every time I wondered about whether or not it was possible to make my commended list slightly smaller I answered with a resounding ‘No’! I loved and appreciated reading every single one of the commendeds, and with my publisher’s hat on I knew that, given the resources, I would happily publish every single one, since they are all original, well-written and thought-provoking. I would definitely like to read more from these authors in the future.
It is three in the morning…
I write the words over and over, just to see the ink take shape, but still it does not fit.
Twelve hours. That is all it takes to change a life. See me then, before. Here I am. I am laughing, sharing home-cooked stew with my husband in front of the fire. Blue sky gives way to the bruising of clouds. Rain falls against my window. The telephone rings, but I do not answer. If it is important they will call back. We are in love – with life, with each other, with this baby that kicks and rolls inside of me. We are making plans.
It has taken a long time to reach here. We were cautious. We whispered in the dark. The thin blue line, the expectant hush, the prayers. We did not dare to window-shop the future. Instead, we celebrated each moment, each growing ball of nerves, each small increment of life: this day our baby is growing fingernails; this day, our baby is six centimetressmall, but recently we have started to believe. We are building new horizons.
October pivots on its axis. Like winter hovering, I sense some shadows, but this day gives itself to light. These are the moments we almost miss. The purity of joy. We think we can hold them forever, that we have arrived at some state of being, but as all things, this too shall pass.
The third time the telephone rings, my husband answers it. Something in his voice is strange. He hangs up and turns to me, and I can see he is trying to find the words to speak.
My sister has been in a canoeing accident. They are keeping her heart going and trying to increase her temperature. No one mentions drowning. No one explains.
I stop eating. I don’t believe in any God, yet I am praying…she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok, she will be ok….
The telephone rings again. My husband answers. There is a pause.
She is not ok.
A scream leaves my belly, rips out whatever was there before and hurls it across the room. I rock. Hands try to comfort. I am told not to cry. I must think about the baby. I must think about the baby.
And that is that. She is gone. I must sleep, but I cannot, and the sight of my husband’s sleeping face makes me angry, so I get up and go to another room, sit in bed and try to write.
It is three in the morning and my sister is dead…
Exhaustion takes hold, but only momentarily. When I wake it hurts more. I am waiting for morning to come and wishing it would stay away. The baby kicks inside me. It is agitated. I want to escape it, escape this body for an hour, drink a brandy, smoke a joint, knock myself out until the light comes but I don’t, because I am carrying life inside me and I must think about the baby. This baby, who will be born into loss and will never know that once upon a time, life was different.
My sister, who took me swimming at midnight under a yellow city moon, who sang the Reefer Blues, who refused to let go of the wire even though the police were approaching, who taught me Joni Mitchell songs and how to spell the word ‘feminist’, who when I was twelve told me not-to-let-the-bastards-get-me-down, who stuck my life together at nineteen with hope, love and lentils, who burnt curtains with Christmas decorations and belly-danced in shimmering gold before my marriage day, who had hair the colour of honey and fairytales, who twirled in flowers to the chants of eastern gurus and sang Babooshka in long skirts skimming across the summer grass, who arrived in a rainbow of ribbons and blonde-haired children, apologising her way into every late day, who placed her hand on my growing belly and chattered to my unborn child. My sister, whom I loved and worshipped, who always broke my heart with her sadness, who took until I was twenty-six to tell me why, who broke a bridge with the words of truth that we were only just beginning to rebuild.
Now, no time can be returned, and waiting in the wings is a tidal wave of shame and anger and guilt and it makes no sense. It will never make sense.
Where was she? What happened? Was she alone? Why? When? It is suddenly very important to know the small details, to anchor the hugeness of loss against the physical facts. To know the how, when knowing the why is impossible and yet, it is not important at all, because she is dead. My sister, always late for everything, is early for death, and her death leaves behind a shape I do not know. No more ‘six children’, no more ‘four daughters’. No more but the stories she leaves, and those hurt too much.
I touch my belly in the dark. I am scared. How much can I bend in the storm? My body vibrates in pain. Everything aches or throbs or stings. Sleep runs faster away. The future disappears, and so does the past.
A swift kick to the ribs tells me that life continues, even in the fog of this pain. I must sleep, rest, eat, relax, nest, prepare, be strong, give birth, release. We must keep going, but right now time sticks, enters a different zone where I stumble, not knowing how to move my body in this new atmosphere, not knowing how I am supposed to do this. The words are too small, the faith too small, the loss too big. No time for platitudes. I know life is transient. I know it is fragile, that as one falls another waits to be born. The cycle continues. I know the metaphor but right now, it hurts too much.
The monster under the bed turns out to be real after all. It has come out from the dark and eaten my sister, and what do I do with that?
As there are now only two weeks to go until the deadline for submissions for the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize I thought it was about time that I shared this interview with Sophie Kirtley, the poetry winner of last year’s prize. Many thanks to Sophie for taking the time to answer my questions and I hope it inspires YOU to put pen to paper and enter our Writing Prize!
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I grew up in Northern Ireland but now I live in Wiltshire with my own young family. Last year I stopped working as a secondary school English Teacher and enrolled on the amazing MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University – a real turning point in my life.
2. How, when and why did you first start writing?
I’ve always written. Even as a little girl I wrote stories about animals and plays for my cousins and siblings to perform. Then as I grew up I started reading more poetry and writing poetry too. But this was mostly just for me and I never really ‘confessed’ to anyone that I was a writer. When my children were born I started writing for and about them which, in turn, made me feel more open about writing and less shy to share what I’d written.
3. How often do you write?
I work part time and write part time. My writing days are Thursday and Friday and these days are sacred and so precious. I do squeeze writing into the corners and crevices of other days too, but Thursdays and Fridays … aaaaaahhhhhhh…. lovely!
4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?
I’d seen the prize mentioned in Mslexia several times and always drew a circle around it, thinking Mother’s Milk might be a good match for my poetry. I appreciated the unashamed feminine celebration of the Mother’s Milk ideology. I also liked entering via purchasing someone else’s writing (I bought Oy Yew by Ana Salote, which I really enjoyed) – it felt like being part of a writing community in a way.
5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?
Gosh! I was just stunned. It meant a great deal as I hadn’t really had the confidence to take myself seriously as a writer before and winning the prize felt like a real affirmation that I was on the right track. Also my poem, ‘Anniversary Number Six’, was written from quite an intimate and small world so I was gladdened that I’d communicated something that was appealing and welcoming to readers who could make their own meaning from it.
6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?
I wrote the original ‘Anniversary Number Six’ for my husband as an anniversary present a few years ago. So it was never really intended for a wider audience – it was just a reflection on us and the hazy state of new parenthood and the way love bends into many shapes.
I love playing with form in my writing and the challenge of a sestina just makes my mouth water. In sestinas the looping recurrent words and sounds swirl about and reshape themselves into new patterns like oil on water. For me I find that somehow, while I’m concentrating on the pattern of things, somehow meanings kind of make themselves out of the corner of my eye, when I’m not looking.
7. Any future writing plans?
Oh yes, always! At the moment I’m concentrating on editing the children’s novel I wrote on my MA last year. It’s called Hartboy and it’s a middle grade adventure about a child who runs away and accidentally ends up in the Stone Age.
I have so many other story ideas bubbling away too… and poetry plans… and… and… and…
8. Any tips for writers?
Be brave and be bold, write what feels right to you and what you’d like to read. Write like a reader and read like a writer. And don’t be afraid to play – writing should be fun! And don’t be afraid to share your writing – join a critique group, submit to a magazine, enter a competition (especially a supportive, warm-hearted, one like The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize!) – allow your writing to be read!
As promised in the last post, here are the pieces of the runners-up of the 2016 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize. I hope you have a chance to sit and read them, cup of tea to hand, and to be able to savour the authors’ lovingly-crafted words.
Poetry Category (Adult)
After several months in this bed ghetto observing my stomach rise above its vertical horizon in a half curiosity, half horror I have not felt for my body since adolescence, the air brash against my face, the cut of the corduroy beneath my skis is a thrill that may last me until I see you through to being.
I need this, but already I have failed at being your mother because not even the snake of an unwieldy snowboarder gives me pause to hockey stop so he can catapult past.
I’ve seen you, little acrobat, somersault inside of me, Ive marvelled at your ability to clown around in such confined quarters. This seems the best place for you and me, the only place – hurtling downhill into the unknown.
Remember the arc of the midwife’s raised eyebrow, the ski outfitter’s tut-tutting; bury our wry smile until his baritone ho là là gets swallowed by the spray.
“The main point was to eliminate the difference between what is seen from
outside the window and what is seen from inside” — Rene Magritte
On one pane’s shard in the living room, the evening sun perfect as the evening sun made artful in the window frame. In our short-tempered house, the windows never broke or swelled. Flesh did.
Another shard shaped like a boat sails across the floor of my childhood. A floor my father crossed to smack me and my sister when we rolled our eyes. A floor television remotes, cd covers, and telephones flew over like airplanes
when he didn’t want to stand up to reach us. In addition to the summer scene, Rene Magritte painted one of winter, too. Mountains outside the window take the shapes of peaks fractured yet rising from the dining room floor.
Half a lifetime later, my father’s window still does not break. It is like love’s instinctual attachment, which, if it must, will form scar tissue over crack and fissure, stretch skin to keep intact. The bird smack-confused after flying into the hard
reflection of what it thought was the world, drops to our earth. Dad cupped the fragile fledgling and didn’t toss it to the sky. He warmed it while his dinner cooled, until the bird was ready, two hours later, to push
its feathered weight up from a palm that had finally learned patience, and fly again.
MICHELLE BONCZEK EVORY
A Thousand Shades
I stand in the garden and watch her wrestle the bike out of the shed, aware that something has changed. She has exploded into independent womanhood these last 12 weeks; no longer asking – ‘Mum, can I bike to the next town,’ but announcing – ‘Mum, I’m going to do a work exchange on a mountain in Spain.’In between, she has walked 180 miles over the Ridgeway and the South Downs with an assortment of variously in/appropriate and patched together equipment. She is eighteen. Just. The pace of change has sent me spinning into a whirlwind of pride and anxiety that leaves me breathless. Literally. Unable to breathe.
She hoists her tiny bag onto her back. It is TINY. She is going to the Peak District to bike in the hills. I can see no sign of a coat. She has planned and funded the trip herself; surely, she doesn’t need me to tell her to take a coat? And this, I realise, is part of the pain I’m feeling. I no longer know what it is to be a mother to her. Her energy bristles with independence.
Sometimes, she asks for advice.
She isn’t now.
In my worst moments I’m struck by the ease with which it’s possible to completely blow it in these teenage years. The realisation that somehow, in the briefest slice of a second, in a heavy-handed parenting moment, it might be possible to undo the good work and relationship building of the last two decades; because the energy is so raw and newly grown, so needing of respect in its impulsive courage, wild beauty and boldness of spirit.
Her aquamarine eyes flash at me and I am reminded of her strength, evident from the first moment we glimpsed her, a picture drawn in sound, practicing the mountain pose in my womb. I see her walking miles as a toddler; horse jumping, arms outstretched, at 10 years old; learning karate and archery. I see her crouched by fires, up trees, in rivers. A thousand shades of childhood.
‘Have you got a coat?’ It’s ridiculous. It’s November. I can’t let her go without a coat.
‘It’s not going to rain.’
‘It might be cold, though.’
‘I haven’t room for a coat.’
‘Then take a bigger bag.’
‘I haven’t one.’
Her eyes meet mine for a moment. I smile, encouragingly. ‘You might be glad of it.’
Rolling her eyes, she begins pulling things from her bag. She hasn’t got much time before her train, and I am slowing her down. With an irrational amount of relief I run to get her coat. Because, at the very least, I can do this for her: let her be warm and safe and protected. The Madonna Cloak, personified and literally present in this soft, waterproof garment.
As she shoulders the larger, bulkier bag I remember the countless times when my children were small, when shy neighbours, stern librarians, sweet strangers on windswept hills told me, ‘It doesn’t get any easier, you know. It gets harder.’
I remember how the smile would freeze on my face, partly from disbelief. What could be harder than the sleepless nights and tearful exhaustion; the fevers and the sickness; worries about over-parenting and under-parenting but ultimately, like people on a bear hunt, having to go through the parenting, relentlessly, one challenging decision after another? But mostly, the smile froze with the kind of intuitive terror that they were pretty much right. That it wouldn’t, in fact, be harder, but that it would continue to be as hard. Because there would come a point when the blazing love you feel for them burns just as bright and incandescent, but suddenly, that love can play no part in keeping them safe. In keeping them near you.
Unless you say ‘No’ to everything.
Now, my nights are sleepless as I wonder if she landed safely and found a taxi, or walked the mile to the hotel at 10 p.m. in an unfamiliar European City at 18 years old with no Spanish. Should I have said, ‘No’? Could I have? I don’t think so. The parenting part of me that isn’t purely fear knows that freedom and risk and a desire to explore are nurture for the soul and the spirit. The wonder of the babe, the curiosity of the toddler, the joy of the small child, all these shades of childhood are still intact and held sacred in the adventurous heart of the teenager and young woman.
She throws me a tiny tense smile, hugs me and walks away. I watch her walk away. For a second I reel: I experience the depression that is a craving for the simplicity of the past, the sunlit picnics where the summer afternoon was endless and enough. And also, unfairly, (shouldn’t it be impossible to try and pointlessly live in both the past and the future?) my gut twists with anxiety about a future where she no longer needs me and she drifts away, distant and detached…
Enough! I close my eyes and lift my face to the winter sky. I breathe once twice, three times and feel the present catch hold of me in gentle arms and hold me still.
I am so thankful, so intensely fortunate. My daughter is strong and healthy, bold and loving, wise and supportive, a champion of the weak. If she has been a daughter she might also be a friend; and friendships can last forever, timeless and tender and alive with unthought-of possibility. Around me and across time I feel the invisible presence of all the mothers who are and have been and will be. I feel the planet herself. I feel a thousand shades of motherhood: joy, grief, loss, laughter, love. But mostly love. Outpourings and outpourings of love.
It will be alright. It will all be alright. It will be alright.
I open my eyes and the sky is layered with cloud and lit with glory.
My heart unlocks.
Our family likes to get outside, and we, on some days, go quite a long way from home. Sometimes though, all we need is our own back garden, our patch of the earth we call home, an environment teeming with life and hidden treasures waiting to reveal themselves to us, just here and now.
So, we open the back door and go out into the blue morning air. My son races ahead to rediscover what he sees each day and I take a moment, to pause, to breathe and contemplate that which I could never have guessed before I was a mother, that this sense of being home in my own space was the kind of feeling that I was longing for. On his way, my son’s senses discover sage, rosemary and mint, the texture of the leaves, the feeling of chlorophyll in action – the sequence isn’t important; he just likes touching the herbs and smelling his fingers.
Down the garden path we go, with the fire of the sun above us. This is a lucky day and our washing dances in the breeze too. We have been known to walk out into the blue heart of a rain shower, but luckily not today.
Glancing across the garden fences I see my neighbour’s washing flying too and I am reminded that there are many of us walking out under the sun’s ancient flame; to hang our clothes to dry and to discover what our children can show us in the vicinity of our immediate landscape.
With my daughter riding on my back, I follow my son’s trail. Down we go, to the garden shed, where we need to discover some of the tools to help us today. We need to cut our grass as it resembles a meadow, although I am not always sure why this is a problem as the insects seem to like it. We take out the lawnmower and my child, desperate to have a go, but unable to, because he is small and the mower heavy, races back into the house and returns with a wheeled toy horse which will be his lawn mower.
Back and forth, back and forth we dance, moving the bird table, rediscovering some toys we thought we lost long ago, that have been lying in wait, lurking in our long grass. Muffin the horse makes light work of the job, and soon our noses are filled with the wonderfully green smell of summertime; freshly cut grass.
We pause before doing the edges and my son is attracted by something. He has found a snail. Marvelling in the wonder of seeing a being who carries his home around with him, the snail, small on a small hand is brought for inspection. We consider snails, where they might live if they can move their house wherever they go, and, where we think this one is going. It seems purposeful, so we decide to release it back to the ground and to monitor progress.
Our snail is on a mission, it slides with surprising speed up past the irises and the primroses I was given from a family garden, on to where the geraniums have gone wild in a way that has made bees fall in love with the space this year. Watching and following we find our place in the garden, our balance and sense of relationship to all the living beings; we are no longer visitors, we are a part of the landscape. At a snail’s pace we find that our snail’s wish is to leave our garden and climb the wooden mountains that are our neighbour’s fence; the boundaries that keep us separate in our own private parts of suburbia.
My son talks with excitement about what the snail might be doing and then, on his own trajectory wanders on to other things too.
My daughter and I have retraced our path to the back door, where our journey for the day takes us back inside the house. The wind is in her house of clouds and white banners above move with our clothes on the line below; there’s no hint of rain, somewhere in the garden my son plays and the snail moves on – all is well.
Today, I’m very happy indeed to be able to announce the results of the inaugural Mother’s Milk Books Pamphlet Prize. Congratulations to all the shortlisted entrants and a HUGE thank you to all who entered; I can genuinely say that the standard of submissions was very high. The winning pamphlet (watch out for it!) will be published next year.
I felt enormously privileged to be judging this competition. The standard was so high, I never had a ‘no’ pile. I treasury-tagged and read each pamphlet in full, making notes on each of the poems and a concluding note on the cover. I did this over a few days, then went away on holiday for a week, not taking them with me because I wanted some critical distance. On my return, I re-read them and added to my notes. I did all this work in my new writing shed, which gave me peace and complete privacy.
After the second reading I made a long list pile of about half of the entries. The rest were maybes, because every entry had merits. I then had to start making decisions to whittle them down to a more do-able pile.
After another week away, going up to Scotland for a poetry weekend and short break, I returned to the writing shed. Submissions which had really stuck in my mind still stood out, but I re-read all of the long list submissions and decided on my final six. I re-read everything else to make sure I had missed nothing. The final six were often ones which had impressed me from the start or stayed with me.
Working with the shortlist of six was very challenging. They were all strong and publishable. At this stage I was looking for a set of poems which cohered and were uniformly strong, but had some light and shade to make a balanced pamphlet. The one I chose as final winner has that evenness of quality, and enough range to keep a reader interested throughout. There is also a variety of subject matter and techniques. The theme is very strong in it, but is interpreted in several different ways.
All of the final six very much deserve to be published, but in the end, I am happy that I chose the best overall pamphlet for this competition. It is a good fit for the press, but I have to commend all the poets who submitted work for following the submission guidelines to the letter. That made my job easier. I can honestly say that judging this competition was very special. I enjoyed something about every single manuscript.
Since I wrote our last blog post a lot has been going on. Those of you who receive our monthly newsletter will be more up-to-date than those who don’t but still, I always seem to be behind with relating all our news and all too often I don’t manage to get my (seemingly important) reflections on publishing onto the page and onto this blog. So in this post I’m going to try to change that. First, I would like to once more express my deepest gratitude to all those kind folk who bought books, cards, prints, made donations and sent me good wishes and offers of help after I sent out our SOS newsletter. It helped us get through a real difficult patch, and although finances are still an issue (they’re always an issue with a small press) fingers-crossed we are staying afloat *just* and looking forward to the future. Hooray!
Second… we managed to get through the summer busyness and unexpectedly found ourselves in September with our annual Writing Prize once more welcoming submissions, a brand new book to launch (the excellent, and fast selling out – The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: The Story of Us) and a visit to Free Verse: The Poetry Book Fair. So I kind of overlooked the fact that Mother’s Milk Books has turned four! We will celebrate with a Facebook giveaway very soon (and perhaps a nice cup of tea for me and Helen) and then it’ll be back to business as usual.
Turning four is actually quite a big thing. In that time I have published eight books and my son has gone from being one to five (he turns five this weekend – how did that happen?!). It is his chubby baby hand in the above photograph on the cover; nowadays his hands are a lot less dinky. Sob! I have been an at-home mother for those four years and only now have I found myself occasionally mentioning to people that I publish stuff as well. What stuff? they ask. And it’s then that I realize that I’m much better at writing about the books I publish than talking about the books I publish. But hey, that’ll come…
Anyway, so we’re four and it’s a big deal really since I do the business side myself (accounts, admin, website etc.) the majority of the publishing stuff (commissioning, editing, typesetting, proofreading, cover design) and all the bookselling too (marketing, social media management, advertising, visiting independent bookshops, packaging books, cycling to the post office to get books sent out…). So I can’t help but feel proud at what I’ve achieved – particularly as it’s mainly been done late at night when my children are asleep. So I’ll silence the voice that’s saying ‘But, but, but…’ and which likes to tell me that I should be doing more. ‘Sssh!’ Anyway, here’s to the past four years and (hopefully) to another four more years (going from being in the red to being in the black would be a bonus too!).
So on to Free Verse. This was the first time that I was there with my Mother’s Milk Books stall. There was a great buzzy atmosphere and it was fantastic to see (and meet) so many people enthusiastic about poetry (though, unfortunately, that enthusiasm didn’t always spill over and translate into actual book sales!).
As I don’t think I can expand on what others have written about the event I’ll just list a few things that impressed on me: (forgive me my cheesy overuse of the word ‘glow’ – it’s a nod to yesterday’s National Poetry Day; the theme being ‘light’).
1) Catching sight of the welcome glow of Sarah James’s hair at the far end of Conway Hall when I first arrived and felt a bit nervous.
2) Chatting to the legend that is crime writer (and poet) John Harvey and introducing myself to him as the publisher of Oy Yew (author Ana Salote met him at Lowdham Book Festival). Later on, rather fantastically, he bought a copy of Oy Yew. Warm glow inside. 🙂
3) The sheer number of publishers, poetry lovers, poets, *potential* buyers and beautiful books on offer. Conway Hall was fairly glowing with poetry.
4) Seeing Angela Topping’s poem ‘Empty Nest’ in the Free Verse Programme. Warm glow inside (again).
5) Listening to Sarah James reading from Hearth and Jacqui Rowe reading from Ransom Notes (V Press). “Great Grandpa’s fireside” from Sarah’s poem, ‘Hearths’, glowed in my mind’s eye.
6) Meeting and talking with other publishers, who were fairly glowing with poetry enthusiasm. (As the day wore on, though, the glow did lessen as fatigue took hold.)
7) The legend that is Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Press wandering past and saying hello to me as though it was completely natural for us to both be here in this crazy melee of poetry right in the middle of London 130-odd miles away from our Nottinghamshire homes. Happy glow. 🙂 (Five Leaves Bookshop, in the centre of Nottingham, is run by Ross if you didn’t know. We are very thankful to them for stocking our books and cards.)
8) Catching up with ‘lost poet’ Ben Johnson (and founder of Ravenshead Press) whose poem ‘Kids’ featured in Musings on Mothering. Another warm glow. 🙂
9) The colourful glow of the multi-coloured tablecloth on the Bloodaxe poetry stall.
10) The sight of so many kind volunteers helping out during the day and packing up at the end of the day. Warm glow of gratitude for those kind souls.
I would have loved to speak to all the publishers but really, there wasn’t enough time. However, I did get to speak to the following, and as ever, I was impressed by their beautiful poetry books and enthusiasm.
As we approach the publication of the summer issue of the inspiring natural parenting magazine, JUNO in which the pieces of the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize winners will appear, I’m delighted to be able to share this interview on the blog. A big thank you to Wendy for taking the time to share her thoughts on motherhood, writing, and what it means to win this prize.
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I live with my husband and our 8 year old daughter Mathilda, in the beautiful East Neuk coast of Fife. I have a background as an English teacher and consultant in secondary education. Over the years, I have studied: Literature and Language, Deaf Studies, Secondary Teaching, Educational Leadership. The latter, was a Masters that I was doing whilst pregnant and completed when Mathilda was very little. Motherhood made me much more practical about “getting things done” in the spaces. Since moving back to Scotland recently, I spend most of my time taxiing Mathilda about between school, friends’ houses and activity clubs and settling us into a new home.
2. How, when and why did you first start writing?
I have always been drawn to poetry. When I was a child and half-asleep one evening, I saw my dad leave a beautiful, illustrated edition of R. L. Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses at the end of my bed (my sister got fairytales). I felt it was a magical moment and I used to copy out the poems and draw from them. My mum would sing nursery rhymes or The Beatles’ lyrics and we used to say little bedtime prayers as a child too. All of this was a kind of early poetry, for speaking aloud. I just loved the beauty of words behaving in extraordinary ways and my mother’s voice beautified words. Later, I used poetry as a type of self-consolation or working through life, a type of journal although much less systemised. I wrote with a personal purpose but without technical discipline but it became increasingly part of me and I found I wanted it to be clearer, better.
3. How often do you write?
I now write every day but this is a very recent development. I love to do it and I may only find 10 minutes here and there but I find it more and more necessary to my wellbeing and sense of fulfilment. Eavan Boland has commented on the efficiency of writing for 10 minutes – it’s amazing what you can achieve. I also try to write for an hour before everyone is awake – it’s the first thing I do if I can get away with it but I’m not a clockwork type so it’s all quite random and chancy. I like late night writing too but have to rein this in otherwise I’m useless to the world the next day!
4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?
I love blogs, small presses, anything that centres on women’s writing and the experiences many women have of fitting in work and creativity with caring roles and other commitments. I found Mothers Milk Books through the Mslexia website and ordered Angela Topping’s collection, Letting Go, which explored daughterhood and grief, which chimed with a personal experience. MMB seem to highlight the experiences of bonding through breastfeeding and by coincidence, I had been working on a poem which considers this and also draws on the experience of just holding my daughter in everyday life. I saw that the competition deadline was tantalisingly close enough for me not to over-think it – so I closed my eyes and pressed send!
5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?
I was writing very early in the morning and it was still dark. I just checked my email and saw the word “winner” and “Mother’s Milk” and had this very unusual moment of dreamlike calm. I wasn’t fully awake so I had to check the message several times to make sure I hadn’t invented it. I was delighted.
It has actually become an important milestone for me because it has brought such unexpected encouragement and validation from other writers and a heightened awareness that writing which centres on motherhood and other female experiences, is very much valued. Some recent friends who are very fine, publishing poets let me know that they were already watching out for the competition results and highlighted to me the significance of such a win, for working poets. It has been a remarkably positive experience and feels all the more meaningful because the poem was about my daughter.
6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?
The poem started off as a much shorter lullaby-like lyric for Mathilda, which she loved, about the physical experience of holding her and feeling held by her. It developed into memories of breastfeeding (which had its complications for me following neck surgery). It made me feel that we needed each other to make it work – that she was also physically supporting me with her own strength and that I was being gifted a kind of reawakening and realignment through her; a reciprocal nourishment. It made me more acutely aware of Mathilda’s emerging personhood (even as a new baby) and her power seemed to free me, in those close moments. But I couldn’t have articulated any of that until I wrote the poem.
7. Any future writing plans?
I am enjoying writing whatever comes naturally from everyday experiences and observations. I do instinctively seem to write using the imagery of the coastline and there is a kind of darkness to the way I encounter the natural world, which I want to further explore. I also write about family and want to delve a little deeper into the histories of long-gone family members who have become almost mythical in the left-behind detail and lack of detail. Collaborating with another poet or artist would really interest me too in the future. I love the idea.
8. Any tips for writers?
Read. Read as much contemporary poetry as you can get your hands on. It’s very readily accessible online and keeps the eye and ear fresh. I believe you begin to absorb and filter and appreciate what’s meaningful to you by reading a wide range. Libraries such as the Scottish Poetry Library are amazing (you can order online from there). You can also get an immeasurable amount of sustenance from poetry events and readings such as at the STAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, to which people travel from all over the world. I found poets there to be open, collaborative and welcoming people – it’s great fun too. Find the nearest one and immerse yourself!
Wendy’s winning poem ‘We Are Sleeping’ will first be published in the summer issue of JUNO (out June 2015) and then in the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2014: The Story of Us which is to be published this September.
This post was written especially for inclusion in the three-week-long ‘Look At All The Women’ carnival, hosted by Mother’s Milk Books, to celebrate the launch of Cathy Bryant’s new book ‘Look At All The Women’. This week our participants share their thoughts on the theme ‘The Mothers’ (the second chapter in Cathy’s poetry collection).
Please read to the end of the post for a full list of carnival participants.
I learned about loving mothers from Facebook friends. They miss their children when they go to school; they help with projects; they care and love and argue and resolve. They hold their children in tender arms. They get through their children’s adolescence somehow, and nurture the emerging adult as carefully as one might help a struggling newborn butterfly out of the last husk of its chrysalis. This was all news to me – joyful, wonderful news. I am so glad that people feel that kind of love. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
As you might have guessed, I’m a bit jealous really. I don’t have any contact with my mother, nor do I desire any. I won’t go into the whole morass of that here. Neither am I a mother myself (except of books – oh, the births are difficult, but they are so beautiful and you love them so much when they arrive)!
Facebook showed me a world of love and caring and kindness and yes, problems and imperfections, but all against that amazing background of loving motherhood.
Mothers, I take my hat off to you. I do have an imaginary daughter. We watch films together and take walks together (I’m not disabled when I’m with her). She changes her name every so often. This first poem was inspired by her:
Mummy, where do ripples come from?
From the stone pushing the water, darling.
And where do the ripples go when they stop? And where did I come from?
You remember then that because of the most extraordinary concatenation of circumstances you looked up and he looked up and your hearts gave a lurch and somewhere a butterfly flapped its wings like a beating heart and that’s how typhoons start and children get born.
You squeeze your daughter’s hand and wonder how to explain chance, love, biology, mathematics, loss. You smile helplessly, sadly at her and she laughs back and dances.
I’ve always had issues with it – it seems to be more about repression than emotional maturity, and I wouldn’t want to use it as advice for a child. So I wrote my own version:
When you know the time to be strong and when to give way to your feelings; when you will stand up for yourself as others blame you unfairly, yet still be tolerant of different views; when you can meet triumph and disaster and know to celebrate one and mourn the other, because otherwise you’d be a ridiculous unfeeling rock and your life pointless; when you know better than to risk all your life’s winnings on a single bet; when you know that your will is one of many, all deserving equal respect; when you can listen in and to crowds, and not lose the common touch when with royalty; when you allow people close enough to hurt you and know your vulnerability, know you; when you truly love the planet and those in it, despite the hatred and mocking laughter, then you will have truly grown up – and then, you’ll be a Woman, my daughter.
Look At All The Women is now available to buy from: