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.
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?
I am very happy indeed to be able to share the results of our 2016 Writing Prize. A huge thank you to all those who entered and made this competition a real pleasure to oversee. And many thanks too, to the judges Becky Cherriman and Rebecca Ann Smith for their hard work in reading, sorting and making final decisions.
Please note: keen-eyed readers will have noticed that in the competition guidelines there was no mention of publication of an anthology of the winning pieces. This is for various reasons, the main reason being overwhelm! My waiting list for books-to-publish is long and the time I have available to work, short. However, the winning poem and prose piece are published below, and the runners-up will be published in the next blog post. I do hope that all the poems and prose pieces entered in the competition find good publishing homes because I can honestly say that the standard of writing was exceptionally high. And as ever, I have discovered lots more excellent writers who I would very much like to hear more from.
Poetry Category (Adult)
Winner: ‘Anniversary Number Six’ by Sophie Kirtley.
Runners-Up: ‘Evening Falls’ by Michelle Bonczek Evory and ‘Prenatal Ski’ by Lauren Pope.
Commendeds: ‘Knowledge’ by Michelle Bonczek Evory, ‘Songs for Virgil’ by Cato Pedder, ‘After’ by Gail Aldwin, ‘Easy Knits for Mothers’ by Alison Jones, ‘Rewinding Childhood’ by Maria Stephenson, ‘Domestic Bliss’ by Kristina Adams.
Poetry Category (Children)
Winner: ‘How To Make A Crocodile’ by Lee Birkett.
Commendeds: ‘Me and Grandad’ by Flossie Clarke, ‘Flying’ by Rebecca Cotti, ‘Ode to Motherhood’ by Meghana Alurku.
Judge, Becky Cherriman’s Report
Much of my working life centres around encouraging people to experiment and to write in different ways and in forms and to try not to judge that writing while it is in genesis.To judge a poetry competition feels in some ways contrary to that inclusiveness and that was why I tried to come to the task without a particular agenda. Reading however, it soon became clear to me that I was looking for poems that showed a high degree of craft and engaged my emotions and/or intellect. I was looking for poems that spoke to me.
Of course, it is impossible to be objective. A technically poor poem can mean the world to someone whereas a highly crafted masterpiece might leave that same person cold. Several of the poems submitted to this competition were very good. Yet, after all the reading and analysis and dismissing some poems for containing clichés or not thinking hard enough about form, I decided on poems whose voices I found most compelling. Below are the chosen poems and my reasons for selecting them.
Winning Poem: ‘Anniversary Number Six’ – The poet chooses the sestina with its six line stanzas as a form for this gentle lyrical poem and aptly so as its theme is a six-year-old marriage. Radiating from the central symbol of the wedding ring, the poem contains some gorgeous images. The six end words of the lines acquire new layers of meanings as the poem progresses and poetic devices such as alliteration and assonance add to the music of the poem. Yet they are never used clumsily. I have chosen this poem as winner because it is emotive and accomplished in its craft, because I saw something new in its apparent simplicity every time I looked at it. I’ve chosen it because I felt I was hand-in-hand with its narrator during a very precious moment.
Runner-Up: ‘Evening Falls’ – What does family life look like from the outside? What does it look like from the inside and how can we reorientate to see the full picture? These questions are asked in this uncomfortable poem about the cruelty and caring that can manifest in parenthood. The language here is visceral; we discover how “love’s instinctual attachment” “will form scar tissue over crack and fissure,/ stretch skin to keep intact.” I like poems I can learn from, poems that help me see part of life differently. I felt for all the poem’s characters as I flew into its hard reflection. Unsettling as its theme was, the poet’s touch was acutely human and I was grateful that s/he refused to offer any easy answers.
Runner-Up: In ‘Prenatal Ski’ the connection between mother and the acrobat foetus grows stronger as the poem and the bump develop until skiing together they become ‘we’ – partners in a rebellion against the arc of the midwife’s raised eyebrow. I loved how the form’s short lines slalomed down the page, reflecting the poem’s content. What a treat to share in this subversive moment.
Winning Children’s Poem: ‘How To Make A Crocodile’ – a recipe poem for a crocodile made up of similes, many of them as frightening as the crocodile itself. The line “strong whipping tail as bulky as a puffer-fish blown up” stood out for me and I loved how it had a good beginning and clear end.
Anniversary Number Six
Now our baby is one month old my hands are almost themselves again. It is cold though, the unworn ring, when I soap and squeeze my finger in, still slightly swollen. Outside the wood is stirring: aconites, catkins, primroses glow
golden in the low light. The sun’s glow is shy in April. I forget the sun is older than even the Earth, as that soft light tickles the wood awake. I turn from the window (the baby has woken again) leaving the misted shape of my fingers on the cold glass. I kiss the ring
you gave me. It is warm now, your ring, my ring, our six-year-warm-ring that glows a homely girdle on my puffed finger. The back of my hand looks new to me, suddenly old – I notice, now that I wear my ring again, how lines have formed like whorls in wood.
In the evening you bring in logs from the wood. I count the circles, reading the rings that tell of a rainy Spring, a drought, then rain again. Years turn like that. We set them alight, aglow they burn and flames fade to embers, then old grey ashes that flake to soft dust on our fingers.
Although asleep, the baby grips your finger, strangely strong, like the sapling we planted in the wood for her. One day she will be as old as us. Today you wear her hand like a ring and sing a lullaby you forgot you knew. You glow molten with love; slow and sleepless again
the night becomes day becomes night again. We have lost ourselves in this, entwined, our fingers have forgotten whose are yours, whose are mine. That glow could be the sun setting or rising or perhaps merely wood slow-burning in the grate. At least the ring keeps me straight, there’s no arguing with that old
gold. I kiss our ring again and walk with you in the wakening wood, hand in hand, our fingers stealthily thickening with rings; our rings glow too, warm in the cold; six years new, six years old.
How To Make a Crocodile
A long, scaly, muddy green body like a mud-dripping tree caked in dirt
More teeth than a horse has hairs, which are as sharp as a murderer’s dagger and as white as the Caribbean sands
A strong, whipping tail as bulky as a puffer-fish blown up
Claws like a steak knife and white as a zebra’s stripes
A snout as deadly as a strike of lightning
A temper as hot as fire and raging as a soldier’s gun
He is a speedy, deadly, stealthy nightmare.
LEE BIRKETT (aged 8)
Winner: ‘Shush’ by Grace Fletcher-Hackwood.
Runners-Up: ‘A Thousand Shades’ by Rachel Rivett and ‘Snails’ by Alison Jones.
Commendeds: ‘Grit’ by Louise Goulding, ‘Inheritance’ by Ebba Brooks, ‘A Moment With You’ by Cathy Oliver.
Judge, Rebecca Ann Smith’s Report
Winning Prose Piece: For me, ‘Shush’ was the most confident and accomplished. The writer has a very natural style and is showing not telling throughout. The dialogue is deft and naturalistic. This sort of style looks simple but is actually very difficult to do well. ‘Shush’ is well structured with a clear beginning, middle and end. I love that it’s pro Libraries (which are more important now than ever!) and I loved the theme of hidden treasure which recurred throughout the narrative in different ways and with different meanings. Most of all, I loved the way the writer portrayed the struggles of parenting young children (and the economic realities too) with such a light touch and a strong sense of fun. The muddy kids playing pirates in the garden is truly joyful. I think it’s a story that a lot of parents will relate to.
Runner-Up: ‘A Thousand Shades’. Again, I think the writing in this piece is very strong, with the narrator showing rather than telling us her complicated feelings about her daughter’s burgeoning independence. I loved the narrator’s image of her daughter as brave and dynamic, and the clever way she showed her anxieties about her child’s safety – the tiny backpack, no sign of a coat. There’s a lot of wisdom in here about parenting too, and the reference to the classic book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt was beautiful and profound.
Runner-Up: ‘Snails’. I love the simple “everydayness” of this story, the joy of finding real magic in a moment of ordinary family life. The writing is strongly grounded in the present and in sensory experience – much like the experience of life with small children. Throughout this piece we feel close to the ground, the smell of herbs and cut grass. There are moments of shining prose in here too – I loved ‘the blue heart of a rain shower’.
When Kat came downstairs – fresh from the shower, curly hair still damp, dressed in her summer holiday uniform of t-shirt and leggings, because there wasn’t enough Peppa Pig in all the world to give her the time or energy for ironing at this time of year – she was bombarded with Maths.
‘Muuum! Can we go and see Finding Dory?’
£8 bus fare plus £18 tickets plus £2 of sweets from the pound shop beforehand to prevent a meltdown when I can’t afford the popcorn = £28.
‘We’ll watch it when it comes out on DVD, OK?’
‘Muuum, can we go to McDonalds today?’
£8 bus fare plus 2 x Happy Meals at £2.59 each plus maybe some fries for me = £14.37, or £6.37 plus two screaming fits if we walk there.
‘Maybe next week.’
‘Can we go to Disneyland, Mum?’
Disneyland plus minimum wage plus two kids = you must be joking.
‘Not any time soon, sweetheart.’
By this point in the holidays Kat was good at planning activities they could afford. Her budget for this morning was exactly one pound, and so the plan was:
Walk to library = free, and not too far. Thank God it’s not raining.
Use computer for an hour while the kids play or read = also free
A book each = free
An iced bun each from the bakery on the way home = 90p, plus maybe 5p to bribe each kid not to eat their buns until after lunch.
‘Those Pinterest mums have nothing on me,’ she said aloud, to herself, as she carried the breakfast plates to the sink and the kids ran to find their shoes.
An hour and fifteen minutes later they were all at the library, still within their budget and completely tantrum-free (although Kat had come close when she couldn’t remember her email password). Kat remained grateful that their local library wasn’t the kind of place where anyone would tell her children to shush; but as Finn and Petal’s game of hide-and-seek among the shelves became increasingly spirited, she decided it was time they moved on.
‘OK, kids. Choose a book each, and then we’ll have to go home.’
‘NO! I don’t want to go –’
‘After the bakery! We’ll go and get a cake first and then we’ll go home. And then we’ll… decide what to do for the rest of the afternoon.’ Kat rubbed her eyes as she stood at the librarian’s desk, holding a thriller she knew she’d never get around to reading, plus a large, jauntily-coloured hardback entitled ‘Twenty Great Summer Holiday Activities’.
‘You look like you need this,’ said the librarian, waving the activity book.
Kat grinned, wearily. ‘Actually I need a strong coffee, a massive piece of cake and an hour to myself. But this’ll do.’
‘Mmhmm.’ Kat looked up at the clock and sighed. ‘And it’s not even half-eleven.’ She took the book back from the librarian – just as Petal cannoned into her, arms outstretched, sending Kat and her books flying.
‘Sorry, Mum,’ said Petal, as Kat regained her balance. ‘I was just trying to hug you really really fast.’
‘That’s OK,’ said Kat. ‘Hugs can be hard to control… What’s this?’
As she picked up the larger book, it fell open and she discovered something inside: something purple and off-white, pressed between the pages like a grubby flower. It was a twenty-pound note.
Kat straightened up and held out the note to the librarian, who was busy scanning Finn and Petal’s books.
‘This was in the book…’
The librarian pursed her lips, shook her head quickly, and then, very quietly, she said ‘Shush…’
Finn and Petal had both borrowed books about pirates, and spent the walk home riotously crying ‘ARRRGH!’ and exhorting one another to walk the plank. Kat hardly noticed. She felt a little as though she was floating. Twenty quid! Twenty unexpected, unbudgeted-for pounds! It was the kind of money that could change your whole week, if you were careful.
Back at home, she sat the kids in the garden with their books and cartons of juice, chatted briefly over the fence to Abby-from-next-door about her GCSE results, then went in and stood at the kitchen counter, making sandwiches and calculating. They had enough food to last until payday. She checked – they had enough toilet paper and washing-up liquid, too.
‘Sod it,’ she said aloud, to herself. ‘Let’s blow the money.’
‘OK, kids, I’ve got a great idea,’ she said, re-emerging into the garden with a plate of sandwiches in each hand. ‘How about we go swimming, and then McDon… kids?’
The books lay abandoned on the concrete slabs near the front door; the twins were at the far end of the garden, each digging a hole with their bare hands.
‘Kids? Dinnertime? Then swimming? Yes?’
They turned their identical faces towards her, wearing identical expressions of frank disdain smudged with loamy soil and sun-cream.
‘Mum. I am being the Dread Pirate Petal.’
‘And I’m First Mate Finn.’
‘And there’s treasure buried under here and we’re going to find it. We don’t have time for McDonalds.’
‘And everyone knows pirates can’t swim.’
‘Really?’ said Kat. ‘That seems strange.’
‘Everyone knows that, Mum.’
‘Oh.’ Kat went back into the house, stood still and thought for a moment, then turned around, came back outside and called over the fence.
‘Abby! How d’you fancy earning £10 this afternoon?’
An hour and fifteen minutes later, Kat was in the town centre, in a café she’d often heard of but never previously managed to visit.
She was wearing her favourite summer dress. She had the thriller she’d borrowed from the library; she had a latte and a massive piece of chocolate cake, which she’d ordered without adding up what they would cost; and she had over an hour to herself.
Back home that evening, a nicely tanned Abbey opened Kat’s front door and assured her that the kids had given her no trouble at all.
‘Muuum!’ they roared as Kat stepped out into the garden.
‘Oh, good grief.’ Finn and Petal were so completely caked in dirt as to be indistinguishable from one another, or indeed from wild animals.
‘We’ve been digging for treasure all day!’
‘Looks like it! Come on in…’
‘But the treasure! We need to show you!’
‘OK, OK. First treasure, then a bath.’ She sat cross-legged on the grass and the twins emptied into her lap the things they had found.
A pale blue glass bead; a two-pence piece; a ball of gold foil; a particularly shiny pebble. All of which had, Kat realised, been conscientiously polished on the kids’ clothes to get the dirt off.
‘We found them for you,’ Petal explained, proudly.
‘We knew if we digged for treasure we’d find something nice for you.’
‘You say “dug”, not “digged”. It’s brilliant treasure. I love it.’ Kat dug in her handbag. ‘I’ve still got a few pounds left. Fish and chips for tea?’
Petal frowned. ‘Do pirates eat fish and chips?’
‘Course they do. Everybody knows that.’
‘What did you do this afternoon, Mum?’
‘Me? Well… I found some treasure too. But I like yours better.’
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.
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!
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.
TheMiracle 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.
I am delighted to be able to announce the results of the inaugural Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize. Thank you to all those who entered and supported our very first competition – I’ve appreciated every single entry and am pretty impressed by the amount of fantastic writers there are out there. And I already can’t wait for the 2014 prize to begin!
Please note: first publication of the winning poem and an extract of the winning prose piece will be in the summer issue of the fantastic magazine Juno (out June 2014). We also aim to publish an anthology of the winning and commended poems and prose pieces this autumn. Please look out for it!
Poetry Category (adult)
The judge’s report is at the end of the results.
Left to right like the A-train – Helen Goldsmith
Accident – Jan Dean
Blue Bonsai – Sarah James
Caleb Hollow’s Room – Cathy Bryant
Road Trip: Kennack Sands, 1950s – Abigail Wyatt
Troubled Mother – Kimberly Jamison
Babushkas – Julia Prescott
Intergalactic Love – Alison Parkes
The Ballet Lesson – Alison Parkes
Cutting Strings – Sharon Larkin
Lucky Lucy, Lucky Last – Rachel McGladdery
Making Tea for One – Susan Cooper
Dyad (We slowly learn the dance) – Alison Bond McNally
This Work – Stephanie Arsoska
Poetry Category (Children)
My family – Jordan Clarke (aged 13)
Breastfeeding – Lanora Clarke (aged 3)
The judge’s report is at the end of the results.
Going Back or Dusky Bluebells – Barbara Higham
And She Sucks – Lindsey Watkins
The Mothering Ocean – Anna Burbidge
Mother Tells Me a Meaningful Story – Cathy Bryant
When you are tired, I carry you – Helen Goldsmith
Intimacy – Helen Lloyd
Milestones – Clare Cooper
Night Flower – Alison Jones
Mother of five – Dawn Clarke
Angela Topping poetry report
This competition was a real pleasure to judge: so many good poems were submitted. I spent a few afternoons by the fire reading the entries, and sorting them into piles, attaching sticky notes and re-reading. It took me a while to reach my verdict but in the end after much reading aloud and leaving things for a few days to see what stayed with me, I went for one which had jumped out at me in the first instance. ‘Left to right like the A-train’ has excellent imagery, wonderful rocking rhythm and a beautiful structure. Its warm tone and universal appeal really struck me. It is a very worthy winner.
I was thankful that Teika had asked me to select the best runners up for a pamphlet, because there were so many other striking pieces covering different aspects of parenthood. ‘Cutting Strings’ is an original take on the sorrow felt when a child leaves home, using the symbolism of destroying an old sofa. ‘Accident’ is a tight thin poem which expresses the shock of a dreadful accident happening to one’s grown up child. The lexical choices are startling and the mother’s ache of the memory of him as a baby, ‘sleeping like a Y’. ‘Caleb Hollow’s Room’ is a spare poem written in the uncaring tone of officials stating that the dead child’s room should be dismantled. It’s a heartbreaking and understated take on the cruelty of The Bedroom Tax.
‘Intergalactic Love’ I liked for its unusual approach to the theme, reaching across the stars for any other mothers who might be doing the same peaceful moonlit breastfeeding as the speaker. The tender tone is achieved by soft words and open vowel sounds. ‘The Ballet Lesson’, too, catches a moment between mother and child and the desire to remember it. The description of the child is touching without being sentimental: ‘the wavy parting of her hair/ the wispy plaits’. ‘Blue Bonsai’ is mysterious and a rich approach to expressing a child’s wonder. Again, the language is spare and restrained, leaving space for the reader to pick up on the visual clues.
‘Road Trip: Kennack Sands, Late 1950s’ is a breathless and wonderful rush of memory with great sense of detail and fun, a feast for the senses and gorgeous language. I thought the imagery of ‘Babushkas’ very apt for the subject of passing parenthood down the generations. ‘Dyad (We slowly learn the dance that soothes all woes)’ is a strong, compact poem, a beautifully turned formal sonnet which celebrates the beauty of breastfeeding with soothing rhymes and gentle iambics. ‘Making Tea for One’ is another formal poem in which the rhyme works very well and seems natural. It’s a sad topic which rang true for me, of a daughter wishing her mother could be there still to drink tea with her as they used to do.
‘Lucky Lucy, Lucky Last’ also struck a chord, as I was the last child in my family too. It was the descriptions of the child that tipped this poem into a commended, and the lovely sensory words like ‘dandle’ and ‘toddle’ and ‘dowel’. The speaker worries about the challenges the child will face after this phase is left behind, and ‘Troubled Mother’ addresses that anxiety beautifully. The rhyme words act as a comfort as the speaker tells the mother not to worry, pointing out all the good things about the son, and the wisdom of allowing him to make his own mistakes, trusting in the upbringing he has had.
And finally, ‘This Work’ encompasses the whole of parenthood. I liked its structure with the repeated opening to each stanza and the progression from the negative aspects to the positive. It is fantastic to know what a fruitful subject parenthood can be and also to read so many beautiful poems which include breastfeeding and all its joys.
The children’s winner is ‘My Family’ for its sense of fun and the way each family member is characterised. I like the way parts of it rhyme but the poet has not forced a pattern on the poem as a whole, but just let them occur where they fall. ‘Breastfeeding’ was a commended because it was good to see a young child enter and with such a concise celebration of breastfeeding.
Susan Last prose report
Winner – Going Back or Dusky Bluebells
I’ve chosen this for several reasons – one of which, I confess, is a ‘Going Back’ moment of my own. My parents had a copy of Iona and Peter Opie’s Lore and Language of Schoolchildren on their bookshelves when I was a child, and once I discovered it I devoured it greedily, dipping in and out of the rhymes and songs and comparing them with our own playground ditties. This piece brought back those days, sat cross-legged in front of the bookshelf in our spare room, and made me smile at that recollection. I enjoyed the way this piece reminded me of the brief, joyful and magical moments that come and go throughout our lives, and the importance of being ‘in the moment’ to appreciate them. I’ve resolved not to rush my own children out of the bath too quickly so that they can enjoy the delights of sliding up and down very fast! I thought the piece was well-structured too, with easy movement between the author’s personal experience and the more factual information, and the well-drawn images of childhood (skipping, bathtime, bedtime reading) perfectly illustrated what the author means when she describes our awareness of our own past childhood as our children grow.
Commendeds – in no particular order
And She Sucks: I loved this breastfeeding story – there were so many telling details in it that spoke to me about what a unique relationship it is. The ‘spidery little hand exploring’ made me smile in recognition, and the image of the mother breastfeeding while out on a hike when her partner was carrying the baby made me chuckle out loud! The rhythm of this piece was very well-crafted and the repetition of the core phrase never became clunky.
The Mothering Ocean: I enjoyed the image at the heart of this piece, of mothering as like ocean tide rolling in and out and bringing gradual change; I’ve personally been very aware of this as my small children have grown up and I now no longer have a baby in the house. I thought that this was an interesting lens to examine parenting through and that the piece was very successful.
Mother Tells Me a Meaningful Story: This piece was special because it was a parenting piece written by a non-parent, which reminded me that of course we all have our own experiences of parenting whether we have children of our own or not. The way in which the author describes her evolving relationship with her downtrodden mother is very touching.
When you are tired, I carry you: This brought a tear to my eye because it brought back such clear memories of carrying my first child around in the sling – I carried all my children and this author captured all that I felt about it in a really beautiful way. I found the descriptions evocative, and the emotion very genuine and tender. Lovely!
Intimacy: This piece is a beautiful depiction of the incredible closeness that exists between a mother and her child; the author manages to put into words a feeling that many of us have, but few can articulate so clearly. I loved the vocabulary and imagery of this piece too and the bittersweet feeling that such an intense intimacy can only ever be a passing phase as the child grows.
Milestones: I liked the idea at the centre of this piece, of examining the milestones of parenthood alongside those of the growing child – it expands on the idea that when a child is born, so is a mother – which is a concept that I personally have found important in my own parenting journey. I enjoyed being invited to reflect on how motherhood has changed me, and reading the author’s own experience.
Night Flower: This piece was absorbing and richly evocative; the author has tapped in to the magic of birth and used all the tools of our language to describe that most intense of moments in a really original piece of writing. (It was such a poetic piece I half-wondered if it ought to be in the poetry category!)
Mother of Five: I thought the central image at the heart of this piece was a very strong one that worked extremely well as a way of describing the incredible depths of feeling motherhood brings; it was touching and heartfelt and makes a strong point about the different, yet very real, emotional bonds we have with all our children.