Thursday, 20 February 2014
This year’s annual short story competition saw a rise in the standard of entries and wider range of themes and approaches to the craft. It was a most enjoyable competition to judge, as there were a good number of unpredictable page-turners as well as inventive use of structure. There were a number of stories that had no structure, testing of the characters, opted to tell rather than show, and did not move beyond pure description. It is insufficient to rely upon a static description of a memory, moment, state or condition that involves no action and revelation. There should be a storyline, and a distinctive narrative voice in first or third person. A minimalist approach to story development can work if the detail is exactly cut, the voice authentic, within a knowing or flawed first or third person narrative, and directed by a desire to reveal something significant. In the stories under review those that relied upon no developmental arc failed to replace the storyline with something that forced to reader to re-read the piece. There were a refreshing number of stories that were prepared to experiment with structure. Most of these stories drew the reader into their world and had something worth saying. It was a joy to read so many quirky stories that refreshed the mental palette.
The best stories in the competition were incredibly varied in style and tone. They were thoroughly unpredictable, page-turners, that grabbed attention with narrative force, and strong atmosphere, precise and memorable detail and a clear structure that stayed in the memory after reading. Twenty four stories made my long list. They were all commendable and quite different, ranging from the traditional to experimental.
‘Country Life’ by Clare Marsh won the First Prize. This story resonated through its symmetry and powerful reading of the social, economic and historical differences between urban and country living. The narrator undergoes a transformation as she discovers a dead body in Furnace Pond. The narrator and her family had moved to edge of a rural village, with an industrial iron foundry past, to renovate a cottage and have a taste of country living. The narrative evokes the village’s historical past and social history with minimum fuss and filtered detail. Each part of the story has another revelation, which changes the narrator’s understanding and perspective on place and people.
The movement from not knowing to knowing is negotiated in a natural way through the use of exquisite prose and strong emotional undertow. The reader moves with the narrative as it unfolds and is forced to think about significant changes in the countryside that devastate local lives. The story shows that location impacts upon identity in a memorable and compelling way. This is outstanding writing.
‘Fred’s Fish ‘n Chips’ by Mairi Wilson won the Second Prize. This immensely enjoyable retrospective first person narrative is full of twists and turns and has a compelling simplicity. It is driven by an authentic and convincing narrative voice. It does not feel forced and fully embraces a simple developmental arc. The short stabbing sentences beautifully evoke and mirror the narrator’s background, family, status and age, and work to make the story linger long after being read. The storyline, action, dialogue are strong and clear, supported by exact and observed detail, and the writing, which combines humour, characterization and rapid movement, works its way into your memory.
‘The ‘Cuckoo of Awareness’‘ by Andrew Brush won the Third Prize through the sheer force of its imaginative construction. This was the strongest of the many strange and quirky stories. It combined compact structure, based upon the drug fuelled thoughts and visions of an angler, with a knowing and unpredictable first person narrative. This page-turner combined striking writing with a strong developmental arc that showed rather than told the reader. It drew the reader into its wide and cultured world and played around with narrative expectations.
It was thus a joy to be taken on a journey.
The five Highly Commended Stories were, in no particular order, ‘Bargaining Powers’, ‘Home Truths’, ‘Hera’s Echo’, ‘Kalahari Sands’ and ‘It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know’. Each one had considerable positive strength that marked them out as special.
‘Bargaining Powers’ by Anna Joseph was a well-filtered, third person narrative with a shocking twist in the tale. A simple developmental arc, concerning the sale and purchase of a white rattan bedside table was clear and unpredictable and woven into an increasingly complex story that was gradually revealed. This propelled the reader forward to a surprising end. It was beautifully constructed and well executed.
In ‘Home Truths’ by Gill Holland the first person narrator, the daughter returning to her parental home to visit her Dad, chronically ill and in need of constant care, and mother. In this family drama, full of silences, uncertainties and role reversals, she confronts her mother about a suspected infidelity and is transformed by the experience in a carefully developed and emotionally powerful story.
‘Hera’s Echo’ by Seth Insua has a good developmental arc based around the myth of the nymph, Echo, who would attract and amuse Zeus’ wife, Hera, as applied to the love lives of a group of students. This contemporary version of the story is written with verve and gusto from the first person perspective of a Classics student, a modern Hera, seeing her boyfriend as Zeus and best friend, Lauren, as Echo, and has a memorable twist in the tale.
‘Kalahari Sands’ by Terence Brick, a first person narrative written in episodic fragments, has a strong narrative arc, description and dialogue. It is compact, cohesive and revolves around the uncertainty of a salesman securing an overseas deal and his own employment. The episodic structure serves the narrative wonderfully as the reader is unable to securely predict the story’s resolution and is thus propelled forward on a journey. To add spice to this structure, the narrator is allusive and volatile.
‘It’s Not What You Know, It’s Who You Know’ by Joe Hackett, is a more traditional story. This third person narrative is perfectly symmetrical, with every paragraph fitting glove-like into the narrative arc. The force of the narrative and dialogue combine to produce a surprising twist at the end to confirm the title’s sentiment. Above all, it is a memorable piece of writing.
The two Commended Stories were both well-structured and unusual.
‘Cashmere: Mere Cash’ by Joan Byrne is a simple first person narrative that has two unfolding stories. A woman who unexpectedly buys a cashmere sweater from a recently divorced woman on a market stall is gradually transformed as she considers how to change her financial situation. It is the smell and touch of the cashmere sweater that leads her thoughts into a new world. Meanwhile, the divorcee’s mental health and physical appearance become impaired by the loss of her previously secure situation. ‘Oh Pollock’ by Colin Watts, is a strange fantasy, written in first person narrative. Essentially it concerns the desire and lengths that people will go to find a suitable sexual partner. The narrative arc and detail work together in harmony to produce a beguiling story that lingers in the mind.
Wednesday, 19 February 2014
By Roger Elkin
Adjudicating poetry competitions is like reading and re-reading a well-packed and un-themed poetry anthology, in which poems covering a wide range of subjects, lengths and approaches are juxtaposed. And, of course, an added attraction is that all the poems are by that famous and productive poemiser, Anon! This means that attention is closely focused on the poems, and not distracted by reputation: what matters is what is in front of the reader. And what a wonderful offering of ideas, thoughts and worlds to feast on in these lean January days!
As with previous years, what impressed was the strength of the entry. However, as with previous years, very few folk offered traditional forms, though there were a handful of sonnets, one villanelle, one sestina, and one (slightly faulted, and forced) mirror, cancrizan or specula poem, in which the lines of the first half of the poem are repeated in reverse order. This needs particular skill to bring off without the end product seeming too contrived.
Apart from this, the entry divided into two quite clearly distinct categories. The former contained many poems (usually lengthy) written with strong metre and usually in rhyming couplets or in patterns reminiscent of nursery rhyme or birthday-card doggerel, so that the need to satisfy the requirements of metre and/or rhyme led to automatic and predictable writing; the second (and by and far more popular) poems written in free verse. These two approaches have different problems: the former an aura of amateurish predictability which might be addressed by the use of half rhyme and more subtle metrical patterning; and the latter by the realisation that free verse is more than a matter of arbitrarily divided prose, but rather a subtle use of cadential rhythm, anaphora and parallelism.
Might I make a suggestion for future competitors to read the annual and quarterly adjudication reports for the previous years, supplemented by as wide a range of contemporary poetry as possible. Indeed, a sensible start might be any or all of the poetry publications from Sentinel Poetry Movement, All the Invisibles by Mandy Pannett; Letter Home & Biafran Nights by Afam Akeh; The Bridge Selection by Nnorom Azuonye; Nine East by Uche Nduka; Marking Time by Roger Elkin; Triptych by Obemata; and the poems in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly magazine, Sentinel Annual Literature Anthologies, and the archived Sentinel Champions magazines which are all still available in print and eBook. I would also suggest you get hold of The Genesis of Falcon – the Sentinel Annual Poetry & Short Story Competitions 2012 Winners Anthology available through the SPM Publications website, all Amazon channels and other bookstores.
Now to the adjudication results.
Commended Poems in alphabetical order by title:
A Roomful of Cupboards - Angela Croft
Another Life – Meg Gannon
Ardnish Peninsula, Scotland – Christopher Delaney
At the Last Minute – Alan Dunnett
Axis Mundi – Eilidh Thomas
Beneath – Josh Ekroy
Eating Oranges in the Car – Carolyn King
Five Go to Ipswich – Carolyn King
Fox Song – K. Clifton Mason
Full Moon – Christopher Delaney
Gamekeeper's Law – Eilidh Thomas
Hell is a pit of burning sulphur – Gabriel Griffin
Holding Ladders – Sue Sims
Les Gorges du Gardon – Sharon Black
Machair – Eilidh Thomas
Names – Margaret Gleave
Order Carnivora – Seth Insua
Revisiting – Brian Clark
Skua – Eilidh Thomas
The Cornish Hedge – Philip Williams
The Way She Scratches - Eoghan Walls
Tom Thumbs – Pat Borthwick
Wassailing – Diane Cook
Here are the 5 Highly Commended Poems, in alphabetical order by title:
Most poems about the natural world tended to present aspects of Nature devoid from mankind. In two free-verse stanzas Hummingbird by Mingjuan Tan successfully contrasts the delicacy, fragility, beauty, speed and single-mindedness of the bird by comparing it with man’s incompetence, indecisiveness and sluggishness. Thus, the first stanza depicting the bird's qualities is one involved but accessible sentence that unfurls to emphasise the creature's positive attributes – he’s on “fast-forward”, “dancing for wives”; while the second stanza depicting man's behaviour is made up of by 3 bluntly hesitant sentences replete with negatives and indecision. So that while the bird is seen to "flash", man can only "stand and gawk" - what an effective use of the vernacular!
Last Fish by Christopher Delaney, written in seven unrhymed quatrains, sensitively captures the relationship between two closely-linked people (father and son?) engaged in the watching and guarding of a garden pond with its koi and their offspring, and the process of their being protected from a visiting heron. The close focus on detail and the poem's gentle symbolism help to frame the concerns, anxieties and impending loss of the relationship. The careful choice of diction - "sudden flurries", "sunken havens", "frustrate", "breaking", "distress", "faltered" - prepares us incrementally for the element of threat and sense of loss of the last three lines:
fled through weedy runnels,
like panic signals
along damaged dendrons.
No Natural Predators by M V Williams is written in irregular stanzas which plot out in a sinisterly-humorous manner the problems connected with controlling species which have no natural predator and all of which are at home in the water they inhabit - mink, otter, coypu, the American crayfish. The fact that the poem’s narrator is sharing a boat with the pest-controller is underlined in the concluding stanzas of the poem. The spatial isolation of the final line
I wondered where he kept his gun
adds point to humankind as being beyond the realm of natural predation, but being rather the prey of his own species. Is it any wonder that the "boat wobbled a bit"!
Spring Wedding by Anne Lawrence is a disturbing poem exploring the aftermath of a youth's motorcycling accident. At the poem’s centre is the contrast between the invalided struggle - beautifully realised via strong sense description and exact verbal skills - and the exhilaration of his pre-accident freedom of action. The poem opens out to explore the pain and hurt of an entire family to include generations and the local community. This is assured and purposeful writing.
What I Know About That Morning by Fiona Ritchie Walker similarly deals with an event handed down generations, and which caused disaster and death. The writing is spare, and structured with two unrhymed couplets sandwiching five unrhymed quatrains each verse beginning with "that". This gives a distant, removed, almost unemotional feel to what is a traumatic event. This is compounded by the absence of qualifying words – throughout the poem there are only three adjectives, and one adverb – a solid example of disciplined writing which echoes the courage of its subject matter.
October Web by Philip Williams, the Third Prize poem, is a sensitive exploration of the task of removing a spider from the house, and "fling or tip" it outside, "where sage and fennel and night-breath thickens",
to take her chances
with the dusk, the dew, the sharpening stars.
Throughout, the description is accurate and exact, allowing the reader a clear visual picture of events, even though there is no explicit mention that a spider is the subject of the quest apart from the use of "web" in the title, and incidental details effectively described related to size. - "elbowed lift", "scuttle clear", "scrambling legs", "sprawls". Just a caveat re pronouns: the movement from the first stanza's "they" to a focus in the rest of the poem on an individual "she" is disconcerting, and perhaps even disingenuous, though the use of the feminine gender helps to contrast with the male window-cleaner, and thus remove any ambiguity!
The Second Prize, My last duchess by Caron Freeborn takes the conversational stance, the use of short sentences, fragments and dashes of Robert Browning's poem of the same title and successfully moulds them into a sestina. We are introduced to three quite distinct characters: the elderly deceased "duchess", an avid and arty collector of "little bits and bobs", "clock, box, cushions"; the caller/collector/ putative purchaser of "her odds and sods, her good stuff"; and the go-between agent, the poem's wonderfully-realized narrator, by turns engaging, encouraging, sycophantic, toadying, scheming, nasty, and finally dismissive. The growth of this shifting and developing portrayal is a real achievement within the complex and demanding sestina structure. Here the repetitions that are integral to the chosen form add tension to the poetic argument. Well done!
The First Prize poem, Green Sun by Sharon Black, is also built on a series of contrasts: this time between negatives and positives. The former catalogue of uncertainties, threats and strangeness - "alien heat", "wasn't sure", "strange commotion", "different", "panicked", "wouldn't make", "wilted", "burning plastic", "lop-sided", "shouting a warning" - is balanced by a more assuring list - "bodies warming", "pale and smooth", "firmer", "led us winding", "hanging like lanterns", "showing the way". This contrast helps to flesh out the enigmatic nature of the poem, with its arresting title, and its suggestions of other lives and situations. The poem treads a careful path - suggestive without being overly sensual, explicit or dramatic in expression - the emotional impact held in place by the clear focus on precise visual detail, and the open-ended final couplet:
as if one voice had given up shouting a warning
and the other was showing us the way.
This is a powerful, understated poem about loyalty, loyalty broken, love and commitment at the point of challenge.
Congratulations go to all the authors of Commended and Prize-Winning poems, and my thanks to all competitors for allowing me to share from the comfort of my home their worlds, thoughts, concerns and ambitions. Especial thanks as always to Nnorom for his continuing confidence in my judgement and for honouring me with this especial assignment!
Three cheers for poetry!
A big thank you to Roger Elkin for doing a good job with this year’s competition.
Please note, this competition was judged blind and I have inserted the names of the authors in the body of this report to make it easier without a need to create a separate document.
We will be in touch with the winners within the next 7 days and by tne end of March we will announce when the winners anthology will be published. All the winning, highly commended and commended poems will be included in the anthology.
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