Results of the 2019 Mother’s Milk Books Poetry Prize

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.

Adult category

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

Children’s category

Winner: I Am The One by Felix Kennedy

Our Problem by Ayla McKenzie
The Puppy by Orion Conning


Judges’ Report

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.

Blue Hour

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


Results of the 2016 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize

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

for Andrew

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

He needs:

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)


Prose Category

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.’

‘Long day?’

‘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.’


Results of the 2016 Mother’s Milk Books Pamphlet Prize

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.


Spools of Thread – Angi Holden



Pyon Hill – Miriam Obrey

The Goodness of Wool – Gill Lambert

Tenderline – Alex Davis

The Frozen Girl – Abigail Wyatt

Nativity – Maria Heath Beckett


Angela Topping

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.

Results of the 2014 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize

I am delighted to be able to announce the results of the 2014 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize. As there was an increase in the number of submissions compared with the inaugural year of the competition we were very happy indeed to be able to commend more pieces. The writing was of a very high quality and both judges commented on how they felt privileged to read the entries. To quote the poetry adjudicator, Cathy Bryant: “As always, Mother’s Milk has that extra something special.”

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 winning pieces will be in the summer issue of the fantastic magazine JUNO (out June 2015). We will also be publishing an anthology of the winning and commended pieces this autumn. Please look out for it!

Poetry Category (adult)

The judge’s report is at the end of the results.


We Are Sleeping — Wendy Orr


The Story of Us — Eleni Cay

Mirrored — Angela Smith

Beholden — Stephanie Siviter

Time Stands Still — Ute Carson

with Alice, aged 4 — Nikki Robson

She is Autumn — Starr Meneely

Night Nursing — Lynsey Hansford

Lullabies — Finola Scott

The Story of Us — Stephanie Arsoska

to see you now — Emma Wootton

Birthday Parties — Karen Little

Blank Page — Sue Hardy-Dawson

Chuckle Chutney — Sarah James

Gem — Sally Jack

Inbetweeny — Fran Bailie

Mother Moon — Joanne Adams

Slow Movement — Sue Barnard

South Crofty Mine, 1948 — Abigail Wyatt

Urchin — Becky Cherriman

Us — Luschka Van Onselen

Vanishing Twin — Catherine Haines

Ward 3D — Laura Taylor

No Room to Be Ill — Julie Russell

Poetry Category (Children)


Me and My Brother — Isaac Lloyd


Lovely Family — Matilda Luna Furlan-Simmonds

The Family of Me — Surya Cooper-Ivison

Emily Butterfly — Shanti Cooper-Ivison

Lovely Family — Jordan Clarke

Prose Category

The Judge’s report is at the end of the results.


The First Winter — Jessica Bradley


Spinning Straw — Helen Cooper

A Journey to Love — Dawn Osabwa

Birth Stories — Becky Tipper

My First Born — Lucy Benton

Bernadette — Angi Holden

The Story of Us — Lynsey Hansford

A Nepalese Adventure — Caroline Cole

The Story of Us — Dawn Clarke

I Whisper His Name — Rose Topping

The Love of Five Dolls — Henrietta Job

Home From The Sea — Louise Goulding

Life Cycle: The Circle of Us — Liz Proctor

Our Dancing Hearts — Ann Abineri

Co-operative Shopping — Beth McDonough

The Story of Us — Lynn Blair

Cathy Bryant Poetry Report

The Adult Category

When I judge a writing competition, I usually read the entries three times each. The poems entered for this competition, however, were of such a high standard that I read them for pleasure as well as for judging purposes, and I devoured them a total of six times each, in the end.

Every time I read our winner, ‘We are sleeping (for my daughter)’, I was bowled over by it. It really is a perfect match of form and content, as the two-line stanzas are ideal for a poem about two such close people, and the use of enjambment, the lines and stanzas flowing into each other, emphasises the connection. The words and images range from the physical experiences we can identify with: ‘…her fingers reach/to the nape of my neck, in a flex of possession’ (I remember my sister’s twins doing that to me, one on each side!) to the surprising yet appropriate metaphors: ‘…a sleeping buttress solid and fed and rooting…Her palm the counterfort at my face’. There are so many quotable lines: ‘…and always her mouth an o, knowing her body, my body’s // echo’. I hope that this poem becomes well-known – it deserves to.

‘Urchin’ is a beautifully-constructed poem, and terribly sad. The protagonist has suffered domestic abuse and is taking her baby to commit suicide. Yet this isn’t a bleak poem, somehow — the wonderful sea images are exquisite: ‘glimpsed worlds in the/full hollow of her stiff skirts’, and the joining of the drowning pair — ‘…together in the/bluegreen of the gull cry’ is a triumph — though the reader longs to save them. Not a wasted word here.

‘Vanishing Twin’ is another sad poem, but again the form and content are so perfect that it’s uplifting to read. The mirror structure is ideal for the theme, that of a twin who vanishes in early pregnancy, between one ultrasound scan and the next. The imagery made me say out loud the rather inelegant word, “Wowser!” — ‘we two, alabaster cosmonauts/ sleeping naked in crimson cloaks,/two pistols in a presentation box’. The poem as a whole has an excellent idea, very well-worked and with some fine images.

‘Gem’ is an example of less being more. In just twelve short lines, we experience the ‘fug of labour’ amid the ‘mass of hands’, and are given the original image of the baby daughter as ‘…my miner/who tap, tap, taps/at my resources’. Tight, vivid and with a cracking ending, I enjoyed this enormously.

‘Time Stands Still’ is a charming poem from the point of view of a grandmother, with a baby grandson in the first stanza and his elder brother in the second. The images of the ‘…small animal,/heart to heart, rapid beat to my sluggish rhythms’ and lying in grass ‘…gently combed by an autumn breeze,/frogs croaking in the shimmering algae on the pond,’ are evocative and delightful. Another poem with a strong ending, too.

‘Birthday Parties’ paints a vivid picture of a girl and her brother having a difficult childhood. The mother is never mentioned, and her absence is painful to the reader. The descriptions are marvellous, whether of the cake with plastic figures of the Beatles ‘…because granddad works/ at Oddie’s Bakery and they must have/thousands of them leftover from the sixties.’ or the girl accidentally injuring her brother while playing Twister: ‘…it turns out he has/a twisted testicle. I believe this is why dad left home’. The reader feels immense sympathy for the girl and her brother, though there’s not a word of self-pity in the poem — if it’s autobiographical, however, then I’d very much like to give the poet a hug.

In ‘South Crofty Mine, 1948’, the narrator looks at a photo of his/her mother outside a mine, years before the narrator was born. The not-yet-mother, ‘restless to be wed’, is contrasted with the child-to-come’s world of great drifts of bluebells and hyacinths, and a world ‘…as warm and safe as milk’ in which s/he ‘…shuffled on my bottom like a crab’. We move to the present day, with everyone ageing and the mine closed, but the photo has survived. This poem achieves an awful lot and keeps to the theme really well.

‘Mirrored’ has great use of form (a villanelle) and metre, as it explores a woman looking into the mirror and seeing her mother’s face there. I particularly liked the different shades of meaning that attach to the repeated lines — for example, ‘Reflection takes me to a different place’ is used both of the reflection in the mirror and of mental reflection and contemplation. A thoughtful, clever poem.

What a rare joy it is to see understatement used as it is in ‘Ward 3D’. This is also an example of ‘showing not telling’, too, and all the more powerful for that. We are never told that the child had a difficult relationship with his/her parent, that the parent is dying or that the child (now grown up) is struggling to say, ‘I love you’, but it’s all there. The ‘tiny words… …tissue-thin and chalk for bones’ may be whispered — and the pain and fragility of difficult family relationships is beautifully conveyed.

‘to see you now’ is very nearly a prose poem, and again it matches form and subject — the flowing language matches the fractured wandering of the mother’s mind and the changing relationship between her and her daughter. The vivid descriptions ‘don’t fuss, you’d say, not that you would’, ‘now, you point/the tv remote towards the radio’ paint a vivid portrait of two people and the cruelty of dementia.

‘with Alice, aged 4’ is another example of less being more. This unpretentious short poem plays with language as if with bath-bubbles: ‘dip-scented, warm-bath froth’ and ‘soft skin-on-skin’. Warm and loving — even if there is a hint of changes to come in the last line. Another fine poem.

‘Lullabies’ partly belies its comforting title to bring us the thoughts of a grandmother cuddling her grandchild, and remembering being a mother in a Glasgow tenement. She remembers the radio phone-ins: ‘They’re missing their Da./He’s away – wee bit of trouble/with the police’ and this is contrasted with the loving intimacy of parenthood: ‘Sparks of love flame our den’. This is another poem that keeps well to the theme, telling a story of love through difficulty, and doing so with power and tenderness.

What a title — ‘Chuckle Chutney’! It’s ideal for this romp down memory lane, replete with the fruit scrumped ‘…from Nan’s full-lunged trees’. Reading about the apples, plums and greengages actually made me hungry! What is left is made into chutney: ‘…enough summer spice and colour/to warm us through the winters’. Indeed!

I was glad that I’d experienced looking after babies at night, to appreciate the poem ‘Night Nursing’, in which ‘…miraculous mother powers/match plug and socket’. The darkness of this is explored with love and imagination: ‘Darkness is where we consent/to the drawbridge lying flat’. The leaking and staining qualities of milk are again used as metaphors, too, and there isn’t a cliché in sight.

‘She is Autumn’ is a beautiful and rather mystical poem that makes no apology for its strong emotions and images. A mother describes her ‘Goddess child’ – ‘The one with hair the colour of leaves on the dawn of winter’. This is a poem like a painting, rich and evocative: ‘She is Autumn – fire and hush.’ Wonderful!

‘The Story of Us’ has a terrific opening: ‘The path between your wrinkles was never too narrow/for fairy tales’. The fairy tale motif is used throughout the poem in which a ‘princess’ loves, and then loses, her grandfather. This works very well when contrasted with prosaic details: the castle is ‘destroyed by the dragon’ when the old man dies, and the bereaved granddaughter ‘…cried openly into your freshly-ironed shirt’.

‘Mother Moon’ starts with an image of mother as moon to her planet child: ‘When you were born,/I started spinning,/And all these years later/I haven’t stopped’. The poem then explores the pulls and orbits and changes in the planet and moon relationship, and does so with originality and love. It’s charmingly done and lovely to read and reread.

‘Beholden’ is a glorious mess of the gritty realism of parenting: ‘All day he’s had a yoghurt propelling snotty nose’, and ‘the fatigued and frazzled baby-Father fights’. Yet love comes through too, and rhyme is used as we look at the child with images just as powerful: ‘his chimp-like rump/his bitty belly, portly and plump’. A strong poem about not taking parenthood for granted — and I love the shades of Sylvia Plath in, ‘…like gobbling down a podgy gold watch’!

Another poem called ‘The Story of Us’ has dragons and fairy tales again, but avoids cliché with strong and original images: ‘…these fire cracker/kids, the wildest of animals here’, and being shipwrecked ‘…in strange territory with tea/and biscuits, sweeties and juice’. This exuberant adventure in parenting deserves a happy ending!

‘Inbetweeny’ is in the form of a conversation between a menopausal mother and an adolescent son: ‘Strange thing, gingery and tall/who never comes down when I call’ is answered later on by, ‘Years passed by and hormones flowed,/your tiny tadpole became a toad’. The rhyme is fun, the repeated refrain ‘whence came you/what changed you?’ effective and just for even more fun, it ends with a clever and charming anagram.

‘Blank Page’ shows us the baby arriving ‘sweet but empty’ and being gradually filled by experience. The mother’s love for her ‘…red crumpled bundle/with doll’s toes’ is palpable: ‘For a while I shone/with such want/I hugged it’. It’s beautiful and very tender, and ends with the gentle acceptance of change.

‘Slow Movement’ has the original idea of describing a relationship using musical terms. This took me back to my piano and flute lessons — and the poor, patient teachers wincing at my cacophony! I loved this take on love — and the last line is full of warmth and joy.

‘Us’ is the moving tale of a mother’s bond with her child, including the awful moment of near miscarriage. The poem shows love and the mother’s bond flowing through time and beyond time, and the eternal nature of it. The contrast between fear at the rim of the toilet bowl and the mystical, ‘We have never not been’ is very effective.

‘No Room to be Ill’ is a wonderfully honest poem, showing the misery of feeling ill when trying to care for children. I loved the realism of it: ‘“Mummy?” says a little panic-stricken voice./Big sigh from me…’ But the realisation about a future that will have too much time in it for illness helps the mother to find perspective.

It was a privilege and an honour to read all the poems submitted.

Children’s Category

Anyone who spends time with children knows that as soon as they start to speak, they start to be creative with language. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a surprise that our winner is just three years old! ‘Me and my brother’ is full of honesty and invention. ‘My brother is a nasty beast/His claws are much too soft’ is the surprising opening, and the rest of the poem explores the contradictions of sibling relationships until the exuberance of the final line, in which we are told that the brother is: ‘…everything more and everything long and everything brothery’ — well, that tells us, doesn’t it?!

There were two poems called ‘My Lovely Family’. One, by a 14-year-old, is very well-structured and very tender, and the concise ending ‘Thank you and bye’ is a lesson in brevity that many adult poets would do well to learn. The sound of the words, particularly the use of vowels, is lovely too — cry, equally, me, die, too.

The other commended poem called ‘My Lovely Family’ is both tender and sad, asking the reader to ‘…please remember us all’. Love and loss are shown in evocative lines such as, ‘…we wish you could come back to us and never die’. This is a poet of sensitivity, who shows emotions very well.

I’m guessing that ‘Emily Butterfly’ and ‘The Family of Me’ were written by sisters, as one mentions her sister Surya and one says ‘I Surya’. These are vivid and delightful descriptions of a loving and vibrant family life. Emily is particularly good at noticing emotions and people’s characteristics: ‘Surya/is kind to me./And I also like Daddy he is funny.’ Surya tells us what each member of the family loves and then adds, ‘We love each other’. These are lovely family portraits, and I hope they will be treasured.

All in all the children have proved that they have just as much to say in a variety of ways as the adults have, and well done to them all.

Milli Hill Prose Report

As a writer I am acutely aware of the painful process, not just of writing, but of then taking that carefully crafted arrangement of words and putting it out into the world. This takes courage, and like all art-sharing, the experience leaves you exposed and vulnerable.

Judging this competition was therefore a difficult process for me — in particular I struggled to make a ‘no’ pile — as I could see something beautiful in every entry! Each one moved me in some way, had some little turn of phrase that captured my imagination, or simply impressed me with its rawness or honesty.

Nevertheless this was a competition and I simply had to pick some winners!

I have chosen The First Winter to be the winning piece of prose. It has an easy, well-crafted rhythm that took me on a journey, at first to familiar places that made me smile and reminisce about the early days of mothering my own first-born. But just as I relaxed into the tale, the writer jolted me so hard I gasped out loud. I found it riveting, and — although I have never found myself in the writer’s terrifying position — I could empathise so well with the dreadful anxiety that motherhood so often brings. I also liked the subtly implied idea that some episodes of our lives are like being underwater and holding our breath. The writer tied this idea in with seasonal references to bring another atmospheric layer. Overall, the effect was a very clear and simply told story that belied the writer’s efforts to create something with beauty and a deeper meaning. I enjoyed it very much.

I have chosen to award ‘Commendations’ to fifteen further pieces of prose.

I would like to give a special mention to Birth Stories – those of you who know of my work as a birth writer and activist will understand why this story in particular drew me in. It’s a truly excellent piece of writing and is brutally honest about the emotional experience of a traumatic birth. The writer takes us with her as she struggles to make sense of what has happened, and the last four paragraphs I found especially well-crafted and moving. Anybody who has ever trotted out the cliché, “All that matters is a healthy baby” should be made to read this work.

Bernadette is a great piece of writing, like a carefully made fishing net, imbued with the sights, sounds and smells of the sea. The woman of the title leaps to life from the first sentence, and it takes great skill to paint such a vivid scene in such a short word count. It was also good to read a story of motherhood in which the love of the child plays a supporting rather than a central role.

A Nepalese Adventure takes us to another world entirely, and is an inspiring story of adventurous travels with small children that made me want to broaden my own horizons. It was lovely to read of a mother’s love for her children as she considers her place in the world, against the pure and uncluttered backdrop of the Himalayas.

Co-operative Shopping offers no easy explanation for itself and I liked this quality very much. Is the person they describe autistic, or simply a difficult child, or something else? It is not revealed, but the quick, flicking prose seems to inhabit a place in between the mother’s voice and the stream of consciousness of Ruari as they navigate the everyday complexity of the grocery shop: a fascinating read.

Spinning Straw is a very heartwarming tale and of course reminded me immediately of putting my own children to bed and how I similarly feel so very tired and yet find the experience so incredibly precious. We must not wish these times away, I found myself thinking!

Home from the Sea traces beautifully the notion of roots, and adds in the poetic image of wings too as the writer celebrates her own small child against the backdrop of her seaside house. I liked very much the way the writer gathers together the threads of past, present and future with wonderfully evocative and rich imagery.

Life Cycle: The Circle of Us has a real confidence: the kind of writing that can seem ‘effortless’ but that can take an hour a sentence — well certainly for me anyway! I found it very poetic and I loved the links and connections that looped cleverly between the imagery.

The Story of Us (When people ask…) took me to a different place — the simple history of how our parents and grandparents met, which always, as the writer points out, highlights the randomness of our existence. This piece of writing is a lovely reflection on blood lines and the impact of the tiny details of our ancestry on our bodies and minds.

A Journey to Love won me over with its brutal honesty: this is not an idealised portrait of motherhood but somehow its realism ended in tenderness and reminded me very much of the ‘bad days’ we surely all have as mothers where, in spite of everything, our last thoughts as we fall asleep are still filled with love for our children and a resolution to do better tomorrow.

I liked the way The Story of Us (It started with you…) jumps from the writer’s day to moments of her children’s births as she reminisces on the pivotal points in the growth of her family. Some lovely writing — quite broad and rightly confident brush strokes in places painting a touching and life-like picture.

The Love of Five Dolls is a story of a mother’s love and loss, sewed carefully into the stitches of the dolls she crafts for her children. It left me feeling terribly bereft, as undoubtedly the writer herself must be. A moving story that, like the winner ‘The First Winter’, and indeed like every entry, takes the reader into the fragile world of motherhood, a place filled with infinite love and agonizing vulnerability.

Our Dancing Hearts painted a lovely picture of a day out with children: I liked the way the writer portrayed how the excited presence of children can transform a simple errand — in this case to buy ballet shoes — into a grand event.  The twist at the end was touching and sad, and revealed a pressure all mothers of siblings surely feel, regardless of their qualities or inequalities.

My First Born transported me at once to the difficult transition from one baby to two. I felt keenly the pain of the writer as she explored with honesty the tug between the first little child who is so very loved and the delicious newborn who demands so much of us. How can we ever find that elusive ‘balance’?

I Whisper His Name switches narrative between serenely pregnant mother and rather more anxious father in a way that is quite touching. I liked how the writer portrays the way that pregnancy and parenthood can divide the sexes, but also shows how the love for a newborn can transcend this. The Story of Us (Once upon a time…) also brings a father’s perspective to the journey of mothering and parenting, and it was good to hear so much praise for the comfort and stability that a man can bring to the ups and downs of conception, birth and motherhood. As the writer puts it, dads are also, “on the roller-coaster, just in a different seat.”