Interview with Jess Thomas, winner of the 2017 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (fiction category)

Thanks so much to Jess for taking part in this Q&A and offering up such useful insights. Jess also deserves double thanks because she’s the behind-the-scenes star who’s volunteered her time to helping me deal with the poetry prize submissions, so that I can catch up with other things, like publishing posts and sending off parcels of books. Thanks again Jess, you’re a real star. (Below photo courtesy Jess Thomas.)

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I live in beautiful Gower, South Wales, with my husband, two sons, two dogs, a grumpy cat, and a multitude of tropical fish. Before having children, I was a Special Needs teacher, and specialised in working with Secondary School pupils who had ASD. I’m now a stay-at-home mum, writer, researcher and crafter.

2. How, when and why did you first start writing?

I’ve always journalled and as a child I would write lengthy poems and stories, but then I was told poetry shouldn’t rhyme, and my brother said my books were *poop*. It took a while to rediscover my love of creating and to silence the fear. After having my first son I found a bravery and strength I’d never known and rejection felt survivable. I then started to pour out stories to try and make sense of the world and all the new emotions that came with parenting.

3. How often do you write?

I journal every day and write a little every week, but I am constantly ‘writing’ when I’m walking the dogs, cooking tea, doing the ironing; my stories are taking shape in my mind and my subconscious is doing the work. My favourite time for ideas is just when I’m dropping off to sleep – I am sure the best are the ones I fail to remember!

4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

I’ve followed the press since reading about it in Mslexia some years ago. I love the Forgotten and Fantastical anthologies and have submitted in the past. Myth and storytelling are something I’m really interested in, especially retellings. I wrote two pieces for the non-fiction section of the competition and, after many re-workings to get to the heart of what I wanted to say, one piece became a fiction entry.

5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

There’s a quote about how having children is to let your heart wander free of your body all day. I felt that about this piece, a bit of me exposed for all to see. We were out as a family when the email arrived, and after reading it over and over, I screeched, jumped around and was promptly told by my youngest to calm down. It is the first competition I have won and I’m still beyond delighted. After the initial glee I convinced myself it was a mistake! It took a while to believe it wasn’t.

6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?

If you’re struggling to think of what to write, then write about something which scares you – sound advice that I took to the extreme. I originally wrote the piece as a non-fiction entry, a first-person account of my own fears, but it felt whiney and insular. I played around with it, re-worked it and tried different perspectives and the more separate I became the more I realized that fear isn’t an emotion felt by me alone, rather it is a feeling that encompasses all parents from the very first decision to try for a baby. Working on this piece has taught me a lot about my writing, especially to be open-minded and flexible, rather than labouring the initial idea.

7. What are your writing plans for 2019?

The same as it has been for the last couple of years – to continue writing and researching my novel of historical fiction. It is an exploration of how the myths of Gower were formed to shape the behaviour of the villagers. I’m enamoured with Celtic mythology and easily led down new paths of research. This leads me off on a tangent of writing short stories and re-working folk tales before I yank myself back to the novel. It may not be the quickest route, but it is the most enjoyable. I would also love to find a writing group that is purely for life writing as a form of therapy, it is becoming more prevalent but I’m still looking – I may need to be brave and create my own.

8. Any tips for writers?

Perseverance and resilience. Some people are born writers, while for others it takes work and practice, rejection and criticism. My sons are taught Growth Mindset in school and encouraged to make mistakes to grow their brains. I wish I had been taught that when I was younger, but now it’s my children who teach me that failure can be good. That’s why I strive to set a good example and, no matter what I do, I use their mantra ‘at least I tried’. This time it really paid off and I couldn’t be more proud to be chosen by a press with such a unique and fantastic remit. You can read Jess’s engrossing winning story, ‘In Fear’s Eyes’ here. And if you feel inspired to take part in this year’s Poetry Prize (and I’d really love it if you would!) please read the full guidelines here.

Interview with Laura Potts, winner of the 2017 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (poetry category)

Huge thanks to Laura for taking the time to take part in this Q&A – I’m absolutely delighted to have such a talented young poet share her insights here. I hope it inspires poets of all ages to enter our competition! (Below image courtesy Laura Potts.)

Laura Potts is twenty-two years old and lives in West Yorkshire. Twice-recipient of the Foyle Young Poets Award, her work has been published by Acumen, Aesthetica and The Poetry Business. Having worked at The Dylan Thomas Birthplace in Swansea, Laura was nominated for The Pushcart Prize and became one of the BBC’s New Voices last year. Her first BBC radio drama aired at Christmas. She received The Mother’s Milk Writing Prize and a commendation from The Poetry Society in 2018.

1. How, when and why did you first start writing poetry?

The exact age is unremembered, but I was very young. I’ve always been a reader and the one fed easily into the other for me, even in infancy: reading led to writing led to reading again. And that cycle still exists today. But there was never a definitive moment when I took to my desk and decided to write, or to ‘be’ a writer. It just grew, quite naturally, with my years. I suppose, looking back, my grandmother was there at the heart of it all. Before war took her health and age took her mind, she had been an amateur writer herself. And she would read. For hours and days and weeks she would read, and I’d sit on her knee in the old armchair. That great gravelly voice, broken by years of work and war, spoke on in my infant ear. Once and forever. Always. If I listen today, it’s still there.

2. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

As I recall, my mind was on motherhood. I’d lived with the thoughts for some time and the poem was the great end of that passion. Mother’s Milk appealed to me for the humility of its roots as a small press, and for the strides it has taken to uphold the place of childbirth, pregnancy and motherhood in literature today. After all, these are themes which are too often made marginal. Entering the Prize was my own small way of walking away from that; and of tipping my hat to the work of this press.

3. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

Like most unexpected successes, it brought a quiet moment of joy. And since most of my work is kept for my eyes alone, it’s always reassuring when someone else feels its worth. It entered the world to be read and enjoyed and someone, somewhere, saw that. But most importantly of all, it brought a source of comfort; an assurance that my voice didn’t just speak to the page and back. It could reach much further than my own four walls and lay its claim to living. So, yes. The news took the wet out of Wednesday for sure.

4. Can you tell us a little about your winning poem?

It was quite an amorphic little verse, by which I mean unlike the rest of my work. If I remember rightly, it was born in an hour of free-writing. Its sustained image is simple: a mother rocks her son to sleep by candlelight and dreams of the wide future to come. The structure is scattered; the rhyme irregular; the metre unstable. Despite the soft and gentle words, an anxiousness exists. And in the final line we find its source: the boy in her arms will one day be the soldier on his knees.

5. What are your writing plans for 2019?

Who knows? Writing has never had a timeline or followed a predictable pattern for me. It comes and goes, some months more than others. Allowing it to live as it wishes, however it wishes, ensures it remains a joy. But the next logical step, I suppose, is a first collection for which the time must be right and I must be ready. I’m also in the infant stages of a poetic drama for BBC Radio 4. And while all these things flicker into being, eventually living, I read. That in itself is enough.

6. Any tips for those writing poetry?

  • Always have an accessible medium. Notebook, diary, tablet, phone. The back of your hand will do. Just make sure your mind never meets a barricade. Even when you’re on the bus or half-asleep in the bath.
  • The best writers are the best readers. I can’t stress this enough: the importance of books, of the farther arts, of the whole wide world which spins outside the little room you write in. The mind is a keen machine, and you’ll get out what you put in. So when you read, read critically. Why do you like this writer? Why don’t you like that one? You’ll converge with one and not with the other. Finding your voice means gauging your place, just like this, in the epic annals of literature.
  • Read your work aloud. At its ancient roots, poetry was an oral art often set to music. By reading aloud you’ll honour its history and notice its flaws. A poem has a different life on the page to its life in the mouth. And it’s easy to know when a writer does not read aloud: their rhythm could always be better.
  • Be kind to yourself. Writer’s block is an anxious friend but one we must endure. Take your time. If you’re struggling, leave it alone. Take a walk. Take a nap. Take a month off and sleep. The work needs time and patience to live. And, after all, sometimes the mind works best at rest.
  • The only regrets you’ll have are for the times you didn’t try. So why not pick up a book today? Go on and begin.

You can read Laura’s beautiful winning poem, ‘First Light’ here. And if you feel inspired to take part in this year’s Poetry Prize (and I’d really love it if you would!) please read the full guidelines here.

Interview with Victoria Bennett, winner of the 2017 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (non-fiction category)

As there is now only one week to go until the deadline for submissions for the Mother’s Milk Books Poetry Prize it’s about time that I shared this interview with Victoria Bennett, the non-fiction winner of last year’s prize. Many thanks to Victoria for taking the time to answer my questions with such insightful answers, and I hope it inspires the writers reading this to put pen to paper and enter our competition! (Below image courtesy Victoria Bennett.)

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Victoria Bennett. I am a freelance writer and full-time mother to a free-range eleven-year-old learner. Originating from the borderlands below Scotland, I am the Founder of Wild Women Press, a women’s creative collective based in Cumbria using poetry and creative experiences as a force for positive change in women’s lives. I have worked for the last 25 years with women in the community, and online, using poetry for advocacy and action. My work focuses on the ways we tell, and retell, our personal narratives. My own poetry has appeared in print, online and even in the popular video game, Minecraft. I have published 4 pamphlets and performed live across the UK, from Glastonbury Festival to a Franciscan Convent.

2. How, when and why did you first start writing?

When I was five, I discovered my father’s collection of antique poetry books. At age six, the first poem I wrote began “Imagining the death of my father in heaven”. Perhaps things would have been different if I had found The Bunty instead of Byron? Eager to find other women’s voices in the poems I read, the first poetry book I bought with my own money was Dancing The Tightrope, published by The Women’s Press. It still falls open on my favourite poem from the anthology, which is ‘If My Life Could Be Simple’ by Caroline Griffin which starts: “I want to straddle the lashed boards straining on the waves.”

For me, writing, and in particular poetry, breaks through the longhand of life. It strives to make connections — with myself, others, and with the experiences we encounter in our very human lives. No matter how rough the waves are, or how much rubble there is, it finds the beauty in the messy stuff of living. At different points in my writing, my poetry has, at times, been disregarded as “too personal”, “too confessional”. I do write as a woman and a human being. I am not afraid of writing from the raw centre of life. I know that I am closer to the truth of who I am because of writing through my life and I am a stronger woman for it. I want my writing to be brave, to continue to say the things we don’t say and find that beauty, so that when needed, they can help others be brave too.

3. How often do you write?

I am a full time mother, carer, home educator, mentor, and freelance creative producer. Often, I haven’t had as much time as I would like to “being a writer”, though the words have always been there. In 2018, I made active decisions to change that and I am continuing to do so.

4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

I really like what Mother’s Milk Books do, and I wanted to contribute to that conversation. In the last 14 years, I have lost four members of my close family to cancer, drowning, and suicide. I have experienced the loss of a child, and then watched my only living child nearly die at age two. I have been a full-time carer for my son, and I have nursed my mother through terminal cancer to her death. My writing during that time has inhabited the spaces and edges of that narrative. I had a body of poetry, sketches, and ideas, and decided that, should I see a platform that I felt would be a positive space to share these, that I would submit work. I decided to submit a short piece of non-fiction memoir.

5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

Surprised! And grateful. I was surprised because I won the non-fiction prize. I have always focused on poetry, but decided that I would submit a non-fiction piece instead. It seemed important to do so. When I found out I had won, I re-read the email several times! It also felt like a moment to stand back and give thanks, because the piece I submitted was very close to my heart and it was the first public space it had been shared in. I was grateful that it had found such a respectful and positive space to land.

6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?

My piece was about the day my oldest sister drowned in a canoeing accident and how that impacted my life. I was 7 months pregnant at the time with my only (and much longed for) child. The shock set off a chain reaction in my body to try and deliver the baby too early. Experiencing such an intense loss alongside the possible premature birth of my baby, and then the late stages of pregnancy, was something that affected me profoundly and changed me forever.

7. What are your writing plans for 2019?

I want to see what shape my writing takes, to stretch it further to that ‘best line’ and push the boundaries of how I deliver my work, and the spaces it can inhabit creatively, whether that is in performance, page, or on digital platforms such as video games and VR poetry films.

I have been working on a narrative non-fiction memoir, springing from this experience, and hope to find a home for it in 2019. I am also hoping to start a Creative Writing PhD later in the year, and I am researching old Norse culture and language. I continue to hope to find the right places to share my work, and develop my skill, reach new audiences, and grow a deeper insight into my actions, words, and choices — as a poet, and as a woman.

8. Any tips for writers?

Write because you want to. Write because you enjoy it. Write because it saves you. Write because you need to. Write because you are looking for answers or for questions. Write for whatever reason is yours, and in whatever ways are right for you. Then keep writing. Keep reading. More than this, keep being alive to your experiences and encounters, your perceptions, and the places and people you encounter. Don’t be afraid of sharing ideas, words, dreams, and celebrate your own successes and those of others, genuinely and with gusto. And if there are times in your life when you can’t write, be kind to yourself — all living is research and sometimes, all we can do is live. I didn’t write for two years after my sister died, not one word. It didn’t disappear. I just needed time to find my way back to it.You can read Victoria’s incredible winning non-fiction piece, ‘Axis’ here. And if you feel inspired to take part in this year’s Poetry Prize (and I’d really love it if you would!) please read the full guidelines here.

Results of the 2017 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize

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.


First Light

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
                        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.



Fiction Category

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.



Non-fiction Category

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 centimetres small, 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?


Interview with Grace Fletcher-Hackwood, winner of the 2016 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (prose category)

Many thanks to Grace, last year’s prose winner, for taking the time to answer my questions – I don’t often get to hear what happens with the winner’s prize money, so this lovely story is very welcome! Hopefully this inspiring Q&A willl give those still considering whether to enter the Writing Prize or not further incentive to get those submissions in. The deadline is midnight on 31st January, just 2 and a bit days away… do consider entering. Guidelines can be found here.

Photo courtesy Grace Fletcher-Hackwood

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m 32 and I live in Manchester, where I’m a city councillor.

2. How, when and why did you first start writing?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember… I think my first story was about a snowman. I got my first rejection letter from a publisher when I was 9! My mom (who was the inspiration for Kat in ‘Shush’) was my first reader: as soon as I could hold a pen she bought me a diary and encouraged me to write every day.

3. How often do you write?

Sadly, despite the diary I never really got into the daily writing habit! I’m very inconsistent: I can go for months feeling as though I’ve forgotten how to write at all, then spend a week writing for hours at a time.

4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

I spotted the prize in Mslexia magazine’s excellent listings section! I’m a big fan of any competition where instead of cash, the entry fee is an excuse to buy a book or some stationery…

5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

I can remember exactly where I was – checking my emails as I walked up the stairs! I’d been feeling a little down on myself as a writer because it was a while since I’d been published or placed in a competition: winning the prize made me feel as though I wasn’t completely wasting my time. Plus the very kind words from your judge helped me to identify some of the strengths in my writing. It’s really helped me towards finding my voice.

6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?

‘Shush’ was originally written for a different competition, for which the theme was ‘Discovery’. I brainstormed that word and thought about how sometimes life’s most exciting discoveries – twenty quid when you’re broke, or anything at all when you’re six and digging in the back garden with a spoon – are things that might seem quite small to other people.

The library in ‘Shush’ is inspired by my wonderful local community library, The Place At Platt Lane in Fallowfield, so I split the prize money with them and it went towards their 85th anniversary celebration – we had a great day.

7. Any future writing plans?

At the end of last year I was lucky enough to have a novel longlisted in the Mslexia Novel Competition. I didn’t get any further in the competition, but now I have a novel draft to work with – so I’m going to spend some time hammering it into shape.

8. Any tips for writers?

If you’re like me – inconsistent, and only capable of working when a deadline looms – then enter loads of competitions! Some of them are free to enter; some of them give you great feedback; some of them you might even win – but all of them will prompt you to get something written.

You can read Grace’s winning story, ‘Shush’ here. And if you feel inspired to take part in this year’s Writing Prize (and I’d really love it if you would!) please read the full guidelines here.

Interview with Sophie Kirtley, winner of the 2016 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (poetry category)

As there are now only two weeks to go until the deadline for submissions for the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize I thought it was about time that I shared this interview with Sophie Kirtley, the poetry winner of last year’s prize. Many thanks to Sophie for taking the time to answer my questions and I hope it inspires YOU to put pen to paper and enter our Writing Prize!

Photo courtesy Sophie Kirtley

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up in Northern Ireland but now I live in Wiltshire with my own young family. Last year I stopped working as a secondary school English Teacher and enrolled on the amazing MA in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University – a real turning point in my life.

2. How, when and why did you first start writing?

I’ve always written. Even as a little girl I wrote stories about animals and plays for my cousins and siblings to perform. Then as I grew up I started reading more poetry and writing poetry too. But this was mostly just for me and I never really ‘confessed’ to anyone that I was a writer. When my children were born I started writing for and about them which, in turn, made me feel more open about writing and less shy to share what I’d written.

3. How often do you write?

I work part time and write part time. My writing days are Thursday and Friday and these days are sacred and so precious. I do squeeze writing into the corners and crevices of other days too, but Thursdays and Fridays … aaaaaahhhhhhh…. lovely!

4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

I’d seen the prize mentioned in Mslexia several times and always drew a circle around it, thinking Mother’s Milk might be a good match for my poetry. I appreciated the unashamed feminine celebration of the Mother’s Milk ideology. I also liked entering via purchasing someone else’s writing (I bought Oy Yew by Ana Salote, which I really enjoyed) – it felt like being part of a writing community in a way.

5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

Gosh! I was just stunned. It meant a great deal as I hadn’t really had the confidence to take myself seriously as a writer before and winning the prize felt like a real affirmation that I was on the right track. Also my poem, ‘Anniversary Number Six’, was written from quite an intimate and small world so I was gladdened that I’d communicated something that was appealing and welcoming to readers who could make their own meaning from it.

6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?

I wrote the original ‘Anniversary Number Six’ for my husband as an anniversary present a few years ago. So it was never really intended for a wider audience – it was just a reflection on us and the hazy state of new parenthood and the way love bends into many shapes.

I love playing with form in my writing and the challenge of a sestina just makes my mouth water. In sestinas the looping recurrent words and sounds swirl about and reshape themselves into new patterns like oil on water. For me I find that somehow, while I’m concentrating on the pattern of things, somehow meanings kind of make themselves out of the corner of my eye, when I’m not looking.

7. Any future writing plans?

Oh yes, always! At the moment I’m concentrating on editing the children’s novel I wrote on my MA last year. It’s called Hartboy and it’s a middle grade adventure about a child who runs away and accidentally ends up in the Stone Age.

I have so many other story ideas bubbling away too… and poetry plans… and… and… and…

8. Any tips for writers?

Be brave and be bold, write what feels right to you and what you’d like to read. Write like a reader and read like a writer. And don’t be afraid to play – writing should be fun! And don’t be afraid to share your writing – join a critique group, submit to a magazine, enter a competition (especially a supportive, warm-hearted, one like The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize!) – allow your writing to be read!

You can read Sophie’s winning poem ‘Anniversary Number Six’ here. And if you feel inspired to take part in this year’s Writing Prize (and I’d really love it if you would!) please read the full guidelines here.

The Runners-Up of the 2016 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize

As promised in the last post, here are the pieces of the runners-up of the 2016 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize. I hope you have a chance to sit and read them, cup of tea to hand, and to be able to savour the authors’ lovingly-crafted words.

Poetry Category (Adult)

Prenatal Ski

After several months
in this bed ghetto
observing my stomach rise
above its vertical horizon
in a half curiosity, half horror
I have not felt for my body
since adolescence, the air
brash against my face,
the cut of the corduroy
beneath my skis
is a thrill that may last me
until I see you through
to being.

I need this, but
already I have failed
at being your mother
because not even the snake
of an unwieldy snowboarder
gives me pause
to hockey stop
so he can catapult

I’ve seen you,
little acrobat, somersault
inside of me, Ive marvelled
at your ability to clown around
in such confined quarters.
This seems the best place
for you and me, the only place –
hurtling downhill
into the unknown.

Remember the arc
of the midwife’s raised
eyebrow, the ski outfitter’s
tut-tutting; bury our wry smile
until his baritone ho là là
gets swallowed
by the spray.



Evening Falls

“The main point was to eliminate the difference between what is seen from

outside the window and what is seen from inside” — Rene Magritte

On one pane’s shard in the living room, the evening sun perfect as the evening sun
made artful in the window frame. In our short-tempered house, the windows
never broke or swelled. Flesh did.

Another shard shaped like a boat sails across the floor of my childhood.
A floor my father crossed to smack me and my sister when we rolled our eyes.
A floor television remotes, cd covers, and telephones flew over like airplanes

when he didn’t want to stand up to reach us. In addition to the summer scene,
Rene Magritte painted one of winter, too. Mountains outside the window
take the shapes of peaks fractured yet rising from the dining room floor.

Half a lifetime later, my father’s window still does not break. It is like love’s
instinctual attachment, which, if it must, will form scar tissue over crack and fissure,
stretch skin to keep intact. The bird smack-confused after flying into the hard

reflection of what it thought was the world, drops to our earth. Dad cupped
the fragile fledgling and didn’t toss it to the sky. He warmed it
while his dinner cooled, until the bird was ready, two hours later, to push

its feathered weight up from a palm that had finally learned patience, and fly again.



Prose Category

A Thousand Shades

I stand in the garden and watch her wrestle the bike out of the shed, aware that something has changed. She has exploded into independent womanhood these last 12 weeks; no longer asking – ‘Mum, can I bike to the next town,’ but announcing – ‘Mum, I’m going to do a work exchange on a mountain in Spain.’In between, she has walked 180 miles over the Ridgeway and the South Downs with an assortment of variously in/appropriate and patched together equipment. She is eighteen. Just. The pace of change has sent me spinning into a whirlwind of pride and anxiety that leaves me breathless. Literally. Unable to breathe.

She hoists her tiny bag onto her back. It is TINY. She is going to the Peak District to bike in the hills. I can see no sign of a coat. She has planned and funded the trip herself; surely, she doesn’t need me to tell her to take a coat? And this, I realise, is part of the pain I’m feeling. I no longer know what it is to be a mother to her. Her energy bristles with independence.

Sometimes, she asks for advice.

She isn’t now.

In my worst moments I’m struck by the ease with which it’s possible to completely blow it in these teenage years. The realisation that somehow, in the briefest slice of a second, in a heavy-handed parenting moment, it might be possible to undo the good work and relationship building of the last two decades; because the energy is so raw and newly grown, so needing of respect in its impulsive courage, wild beauty and boldness of spirit.

Her aquamarine eyes flash at me and I am reminded of her strength, evident from the first moment we glimpsed her, a picture drawn in sound, practicing the mountain pose in my womb. I see her walking miles as a toddler; horse jumping, arms outstretched, at 10 years old; learning karate and archery. I see her crouched by fires, up trees, in rivers. A thousand shades of childhood.

‘Have you got a coat?’ It’s ridiculous. It’s November. I can’t let her go without a coat.

‘It’s not going to rain.’

‘It might be cold, though.’

‘I haven’t room for a coat.’

‘Then take a bigger bag.’

‘I haven’t one.’

‘Take mine.’

Her eyes meet mine for a moment. I smile, encouragingly. ‘You might be glad of it.’

Rolling her eyes, she begins pulling things from her bag. She hasn’t got much time before her train, and I am slowing her down. With an irrational amount of relief I run to get her coat. Because, at the very least, I can do this for her: let her be warm and safe and protected. The Madonna Cloak, personified and literally present in this soft, waterproof garment.

As she shoulders the larger, bulkier bag I remember the countless times when my children were small, when shy neighbours, stern librarians, sweet strangers on windswept hills told me, ‘It doesn’t get any easier, you know. It gets harder.’

I remember how the smile would freeze on my face, partly from disbelief. What could be harder than the sleepless nights and tearful exhaustion; the fevers and the sickness; worries about over-parenting and under-parenting but ultimately, like people on a bear hunt, having to go through the parenting, relentlessly, one challenging decision after another? But mostly, the smile froze with the kind of intuitive terror that they were pretty much right. That it wouldn’t, in fact, be harder, but that it would continue to be as hard. Because there would come a point when the blazing love you feel for them burns just as bright and incandescent, but suddenly, that love can play no part in keeping them safe. In keeping them near you.

Unless you say ‘No’ to everything.

Now, my nights are sleepless as I wonder if she landed safely and found a taxi, or walked the mile to the hotel at 10 p.m. in an unfamiliar European City at 18 years old with no Spanish. Should I have said, ‘No’? Could I have? I don’t think so. The parenting part of me that isn’t purely fear knows that freedom and risk and a desire to explore are nurture for the soul and the spirit. The wonder of the babe, the curiosity of the toddler, the joy of the small child, all these shades of childhood are still intact and held sacred in the adventurous heart of the teenager and young woman.

She throws me a tiny tense smile, hugs me and walks away. I watch her walk away. For a second I reel: I experience the depression that is a craving for the simplicity of the past, the sunlit picnics where the summer afternoon was endless and enough. And also, unfairly, (shouldn’t it be impossible to try and pointlessly live in both the past and the future?) my gut twists with anxiety about a future where she no longer needs me and she drifts away, distant and detached…

Enough! I close my eyes and lift my face to the winter sky. I breathe once twice, three times and feel the present catch hold of me in gentle arms and hold me still.

I am so thankful, so intensely fortunate. My daughter is strong and healthy, bold and loving, wise and supportive, a champion of the weak. If she has been a daughter she might also be a friend; and friendships can last forever, timeless and tender and alive with unthought-of possibility. Around me and across time I feel the invisible presence of all the mothers who are and have been and will be. I feel the planet herself. I feel a thousand shades of motherhood: joy, grief, loss, laughter, love. But mostly love. Outpourings and outpourings of love.

It will be alright. It will all be alright. It will be alright.

I open my eyes and the sky is layered with cloud and lit with glory.

My heart unlocks.




Our family likes to get outside, and we, on some days, go quite a long way from home. Sometimes though, all we need is our own back garden, our patch of the earth we call home, an environment teeming with life and hidden treasures waiting to reveal themselves to us, just here and now.

So, we open the back door and go out into the blue morning air. My son races ahead to rediscover what he sees each day and I take a moment, to pause, to breathe and contemplate that which I could never have guessed before I was a mother, that this sense of being home in my own space was the kind of feeling that I was longing for. On his way, my son’s senses discover sage, rosemary and mint, the texture of the leaves, the feeling of chlorophyll in action – the sequence isn’t important; he just likes touching the herbs and smelling his fingers.

Down the garden path we go, with the fire of the sun above us. This is a lucky day and our washing dances in the breeze too. We have been known to walk out into the blue heart of a rain shower, but luckily not today.

Glancing across the garden fences I see my neighbour’s washing flying too and I am reminded that there are many of us walking out under the sun’s ancient flame; to hang our clothes to dry and to discover what our children can show us in the vicinity of our immediate landscape.

With my daughter riding on my back, I follow my son’s trail. Down we go, to the garden shed, where we need to discover some of the tools to help us today. We need to cut our grass as it resembles a meadow, although I am not always sure why this is a problem as the insects seem to like it. We take out the lawnmower and my child, desperate to have a go, but unable to, because he is small and the mower heavy, races back into the house and returns with a wheeled toy horse which will be his lawn mower.

Back and forth, back and forth we dance, moving the bird table, rediscovering some toys we thought we lost long ago, that have been lying in wait, lurking in our long grass. Muffin the horse makes light work of the job, and soon our noses are filled with the wonderfully green smell of summertime; freshly cut grass.

We pause before doing the edges and my son is attracted by something. He has found a snail. Marvelling in the wonder of seeing a being who carries his home around with him, the snail, small on a small hand is brought for inspection. We consider snails, where they might live if they can move their house wherever they go, and, where we think this one is going. It seems purposeful, so we decide to release it back to the ground and to monitor progress.

Our snail is on a mission, it slides with surprising speed up past the irises and the primroses I was given from a family garden, on to where the geraniums have gone wild in a way that has made bees fall in love with the space this year. Watching and following we find our place in the garden, our balance and sense of relationship to all the living beings; we are no longer visitors, we are a part of the landscape. At a snail’s pace we find that our snail’s wish is to leave our garden and climb the wooden mountains that are our neighbour’s fence; the boundaries that keep us separate in our own private parts of suburbia.

My son talks with excitement about what the snail might be doing and then, on his own trajectory wanders on to other things too.

My daughter and I have retraced our path to the back door, where our journey for the day takes us back inside the house. The wind is in her house of clouds and white banners above move with our clothes on the line below; there’s no hint of rain, somewhere in the garden my son plays and the snail moves on – all is well.


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.’


Interview with Sheila Wild, winner of the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize (poetry category)

As we’ve just now published the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2015: LOVE I thought it was about time that I shared this interview with Sheila Wild, the poetry winner of last year’s prize. Huge thanks to Sheila for taking the time to answer my questions and I hope it inspires YOU to put pen to paper.

Photo courtesy Sheila Wild

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’ve just turned 66. I ‘retired’ five years ago from a lifetime of working on women’s equality issues, first at the Equal Opportunities Commission, and then at the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I still do some consultancy work on equality issues, but am also very active in the writing community in the South Pennines, where I now live, and in nearby Manchester. I’ve set up a programme of poetry at Manchester’s historic Portico Library, and I also chair the Elmet Trust, which looks after Ted Hughes’s birthplace.

2. How, when and why did you first start writing?

I started writing poetry when I was eleven, but poetry gave up on me when I got married, and over twenty years went by without me writing a single poem. I was however earning a living writing non-fiction, as I was for many years one of the main authors for the Equal Opportunities Commission. I continue to write non-fiction, and it’s no accident that most of my poems are factual, and concise.

3. How often do you write?

I live on my own so it ought to be easy and I do try to write every day, but to be honest, I seldom succeed. I lead an active and interesting life – for without that how could I write? I do write poetry every day though, even if only a couple of lines. I write poetry very early in the morning (often at 3 am!) and non-fiction between 10 and 12. I find it hard to write in the afternoon, but I’m lucky in that I’m almost always up and doing by 5.30 am.

4. What made you decide to enter the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize?

They say women enter competitions and men submit to journals. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I like the challenge of writing on a theme and the kind of love that motherhood expresses – its wonder and its clumsiness – was on my mind at the time I came across the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize.

5. How did it feel when you’d heard that you’d won?

I was delighted. Janet is one of my favourite poems, and it’s always a thrill to discover that someone else likes a favourite poem too.

6. Can you tell us a little about your winning piece of writing?

I had become a mother when I was only 19 and I’d found motherhood very lonely and quite bewildering. When my daughter Janet eventually became a mother herself I had a very vivid memory of having once stood in a cold bedroom on a moonlit night with her in my arms, not quite knowing what to do.

I didn’t think I’d made a very good job of being a mother, but when Janet’s daughter (my only grandchild) was born, I realized my attempt at motherhood was part of something much bigger than any of us, a thing that we call ‘family’ – Sheila, Janet, and now Lucy – we go a long way back and, God willing, a long way lies ahead of us.  

7. Any future writing plans?

Too many! My first collection of poetry Equinox, was out from Cinnamon Press in May this year. To my surprise, getting published has had the effect of increasing my poetic output so I’ve plenty more poems ready to publish – I guess nothing succeeds like success! I’m also working on a short book about Lindisfarne, which is where I go to recharge my batteries; it’s a work that enables me to mix poetry and non-fiction.

And I’ve just started an autobiographical sequence about the role poetry played in my childhood. I’m not sure what it’s for, or what form it will take, but I feel a need to write it. There’s something about being almost seventy and having a good memory that needs to be mined, so I’m mining it!

8. Any tips for writers?

  • Work on more than one thing at a time, it stops you getting stale.
  • Always read your work out loud to yourself.
  • Always, always, leave a poem for a few days, weeks, even years to mature. When you come back to it, you’ll be surprised, either by how bad it is – ditch it immediately! – or by how good it is. When you look at a poem and think, wow, did I write that, then you know the poem is as good as you can make it. When a poem is finished it doesn’t belong to you any more, it belongs to the reader, and only by stepping back and becoming the reader can you know when that has happened.   

Sheila’s winning poem ‘Janet’ was first published in the Summer 2016 issue of JUNO. It also features in The Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize Anthology 2015: LOVE. And if you feel inspired to take part in this year’s Writing Prize, please read the full guidelines here.

Results of the 2015 Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize

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!

Artwork by Teika Marija Smits

Poetry Category (adult)

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


Janet — Sheila Wild



Josef — Maeve Henry

Us — Alison Jones

Poem for Imogen — Ann Abineri

Music — Joanne Adams

The Laughing Day, The Hours of Breathing — Cathy Bryant

Their House is a Slipper — Carmina Masoliver

Volume — Jan Dean

Springsong — Catherine Smith

Valentine’s Day — Karen Little

I Measure My Mother’s Love — Angi Holden

Water Baby— Karen Harvey



Now — Ute Carson

Baby — Cathy Bryant

First Night Away— Beth McDonough

My Turn — Finola Scott

Belly — Claire Stephenson

Owen Learning— Helen Curtis

Poetry Category (Children)


An Austin Morning — Alex Habeeb



Why I Write Poetry — Ruby Lamey Sarkar

Forever Love — I Rawlinson

Sisters — Charvi Jain

Get Along — TJ MacReynolds

Lanora’s Love Poem — Lanora Clarke

Prose Category

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.

The Swing

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 Spinning

The love before children. The love of two adults caught in the magical world of each other. Then children, family, and loss. This story made me spin with its many stories, meshed and unravelling together, as families do. Wonderful storytelling.

I Am Ready is a light and positive musing on a mother’s readiness for her baby and child, for the journey we take together when we become mothers and mothered. This honest and open work provides a refreshing read.

The Miracle of Love will take you on a rollercoaster journey of grief, loss and love. I haven’t experienced this type of loss myself but of course we will all go through it some time – parental loss is very real and also very much something that we don’t talk about. I appreciated the frank tone of this work, and the sharing of the story.

Mother’s Day tells a similar tale of mourning and yearning, but in a different way. There is loss and sadness, but also acceptance. I felt that a powerful process was tackled by this powerful work of prose.

Love Is… paints a wonderful picture of everyday parenting moments that we don’t always get the chance to savour. I enjoyed reliving some surprisingly similar moments through this work, and the warm idea of my child ‘curled up against [my future] middle aged spread’.


What Will Survive of Us is Love is a beautifully poetic paean to the life of a long-term couple with young children and I was glad to see the author celebrating the every day joys of what many think of as a stagnant time in a couple’s life.

Although our family don’t home educate, the piece Love and Home Education spoke to me as, ultimately, the piece is about making decisions that are hard because close family members disagree with our choices. It’s about standing strong, making those decisions anyway, and having the grace to accept that others may think differently, and that that’s okay.

Love Ain’t Enough expresses the notion that the word ‘love’ is very much over-used today. And yet, our love for our children can be very strong. What the author is looking for is a “love PR guru” – which I very much like the idea of!

Ashes is a gentle and beautiful recounting of the loss of a grandmother and the scattering of her ashes. It is well-written and powerful in an understated way, and reminds me of the importance of family at the end of one’s life, at the ultimate transformative experience, death.

Again, I’m so happy to be able to include all the above prose pieces in the anthology and am looking forward to publishing these pieces.