Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Sentinel Annual Poetry Competition 2014, Adjudication Report



This is the fifth consecutive Sentinel Annual Poetry Competition Nnorom has given me the honour of adjudicating. As in previous years, the standard of entries was high, and the task of choosing very challenging, but simultaneously pleasurable. I hope folk won’t mind if I use the occasion to explore the writing of free-verse, the chosen form of over 90% of the entry.
Throughout the Competition Adjudication the definition of poetry I used as the most relevant in giving a focus for my reading and choice is by the American poet and critic, Louis Simpson:
Poetry is thought expressed in rhythm.
What I like about this definition apart from its directness, its brevity and its memorability, is its comprehensive generosity, ideal for an Open Competition. It does not proscribe the type, quantity, quality or intensity of thought. There is no limit to its subject matter, either in type, scope or area – it can be philosophical, descriptive, narrative. Similarly, there is no delineation of its form or structure; no suggestion as to its audience, or its purpose. So the resulting poem can be about nuclear physics or feeding the cat; a religious experience or a political diatribe; an epitaph, sestina, sonnet, villanelle; aimed at the pre-school child, the adolescent, the lover, the mature reader …. It can be serious, questioning, challenging, shocking, humorous, amorous – whatever … But what is important is that the poem reveals and demonstrates processes and explorations of thought. And by thought, I infer that Simpson also includes emotion and imagination: both of which are realms of and/or adjuncts to thought. Thought possesses the dynamic of creative vitality: it moves, shifts, changes, clarifies, muddies, grows, shrinks … It doesn’t stand still. And thought, when shared with others, changes again, and takes on different and subtle levels and nuances of meaning according to the sensibilities and experiences of the reader. The writing of poetry, like the process of thought, is a dynamic activity, growing from an embryonic flickering (mood, phrase, emotion, notion, insight) and developing almost organically into different shapes via the varied processes of recording those very processes of growth and change. These explorations of creativity and emotional intensity, the writing down of thought, become simultaneously both the vehicle for the poem and the vessel in which it is contained. In other words, FORM and CONTENT are interdependent. And this is true in free-verse as well as poems in traditionally-structured prosody such as sonnets and villanelles.
The most important element of both that vehicle and vessel is what Simpson identifies as rhythm. And it is significant that he chooses this single stylistic device from a whole battery of formal constraints and techniques. But let’s be clear what we’re talking about. As I understand it, rhythm is not to be confused with metre. Metre is concerned with the repetition of patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables; whereas rhythm is the tempo of the movement of the words set in conjunction with thought and emotion, sense and feeling. Alter the context in terms of sense and/or emotion – say in an elegy or an ode as opposed to a satiric villanelle – and the same words containing the same number of syllables (stressed and/or unstressed, patterned or not) will be delivered in a different tempo, a varying pace: one that suits the content, and therefore the meaning – not one that suits the patterned structure of syllables. This subtle playing off of the movement of words to underpin sense and emotion constitutes rhythm. Integral to this is the fact that that the choice of diction for such (poetic) purposes as assonance, alliteration, or even just for the pure sound quality of the words as companion to sense/feeling, or for the effects to be gained from the juxtaposition of monosyllabic with polysyllabic words – this choice is in itself central to the tempo of the movement of the words, and contributive to the poem’s rhythmic quality.
What became apparent during the Adjudication process was that too few “would-be” poets have a “good” grasp of this, and in attempting to compose free-verse end up with a product that lacks rhythm and which constitutes little more than prose chopped-up arbitrarily into lines: the sort of stuff that gives modern poetry a very “bad” name. In free-verse what is crucial is the process of lineation (the splitting of the content into lines) a feature which has to be undertaken carefully. It is in no ways arbitrary or to be executed cavalierly. Lineation controls the shaping of the poem’s intellectual and emotional content, its pacing, and rhythmic pulse. Lineation, line-enjambment (the running-on of sense via broken and incomplete phrase or clause over the end of one line or verse-paragraph and on to the next), and the sensitive use of punctuation are essential in controlling the rhythmic pulse in free-verse and help to give it its special musical qualities that distinguish it from prose. All these affect the rhythm and the sense of the line, and, ultimately, the rhythm and sense of the poem. A simple way of monitoring this is to read the lines out loud and introduce the slightest of pauses on an upbeat at the end of the line even though the sense is continuous. Doing this will help to confirm the cadential rhythm or breathing pulse of the lines. Checking this rhythmic integrity will also simultaneously confirm matters of sense: you’ll be able to see whether the line-breaks work against the meaning by emphasising the “wrong” word or part of the sentence, or such things as the auxiliary verb being broken away from the participle, the (in)definite article/possessive pronoun/adjective left hanging mid-air from the noun. Once identified, such matters are easily rectified. This is why it is necessary to “listen” to the rhythm of the lines – a practice which I always apply as part of the adjudication process by reading the submitted poems out loud. (Hearing this from distant rooms, my close family think I’m on the verge of losing the plot!)
Probably the best way to demonstrate this issue of lineation and rhythm is to put these ideas into practice with an example. Using the approach outlined above, read these lines out aloud, at least twice:
A snake came
To my water-trough
On a hot, hot day,
And I in pyjamas
For the heat
Now, adopting the same strategy, read these lines again but with their original lineation:
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
I feel sure that readers are able to identify that there are subtle differences in texture, mood, and feeling between the two versions. And this is encapsulated in and emphasised by the differing rhythm of the lines – i.e. in the tempo of the movement of the words. Given that the tempo is dependent on the context of the sense and feeling behind the events being described, this particular lineation, subtle and pointed, has helped to communicate the thoughts and emotions that D. H. Lawrence wished to convey. And such subtlety lies at the heart of the poems chosen in the final stages of this competition – a clear indication that their authors had an effective understanding of this finely-nuanced creative process, and the way in which the HOW of the poem (its technical means) affects the WHAT (its message and meaning); and vice versa!
Now to the adjudication results:  
Commended Poems
Cousin Vera
Growing Pains
Lost Words
New Year’s Day
Old glass
Postcard from the Algarve
Richard’s Tooth
The Catch
The View from 92
Yeavering Bell Meets Goat Hill
Highly Commended Poems
First Sight of Leeds after Leaving the M1
Knots and Hitches
Night Notes on Sea (British Coast)
War Graves, the Devonshire Cemetery, Mametz
The Prize-Winners:
Third Prize
In 12 lines the poet creates a night-time landscape, and a sense of separation and loneliness that are made tenable and acceptable by a feeling of mutual trust, belonging and wonder. The description delineates with accuracy and precision the relationship between the sheep “like boulders rolled at random”; and the visiting narrator/owner “a statue at her gates”.  Interestingly it is the capturing of the correspondents as made of stone and non-animate material that confirms their bond, even to the final recognition that while others move and depart, “we hold on”. What supports this admirably is the mix of diction: from the quasi-philosophical - “trapped in the antique, silent protocol / of mutual, mute stare, an equipoise” - to the physical and vernacular as one sheep “scrambles, shining, to her pins” and marks her ground with a “rushing piss”. There is an acute awareness of the sharing of two very different and distinct worlds in a level of understanding that inhabits the sense of time and place. This understanding is made more focussed initially by the light shining from distant car headlights which “bleach the nearest ewe to brilliance” and bring her to the narrator’s world, only then to be placed back in the darkness when “car roars away”, leaving poet and sheep in an even tighter bond, “far from home tonight”. This is mature writing, beautifully poised and pointed, in which what is not said is as articulate as what is said: it is the absence of verbal communication that the poem celebrates in its awareness of the presence of a relationship that can know no language.
Second Prize
Initially I almost overlooked this entry, considering that its title was a “cop-out”, the penning of someone who hadn’t thought about the importance of titles, and who had little idea of the nature of poetry and poetry competitions. But how wrong could I have been; the title is so apposite that to have an alternative more attention-grabbing one would have done the poem a disservice. This is a superb example of an extended metaphor, skilfully, cleverly and adroitly created, through its use of parallel worlds of meaning, wordplay, puns, verbal ambiguity, clichĂ© and imaginative probings. To explain its intricacies fully would be to undermine the poem’s artistic integrity and achievement: and, at times, such is the poet’s referencing that the reader has to supply his own interpretation of the parallels; and that’s a clever ploy, if not risk. In the hands of someone less skilful, this strategy might have backfired. Suffice it to say, the poem explores the birth of poetic creativity while simultaneously drawing on a religious context referenced, though not stated as such, by the Biblical emphasis on the link between God/Christ and language/word/belief: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” For Word and God, the poet asks us, read Poetry – hence the title. So, the miraculous birth of Christ (“factotum, carpenter, / weaver of words”) becomes the crucible for this poem produced in “a workshop”. There are times when the sheer mental agility of the poet’s imaginative creativity brought a smile to my face. However, more exemplary is the movingly- understated characterisation of the role of Mary and poet in this birth: the origin of poetic creativity shares similarity with the notion of the Annunciation: “where the seed came from was hard to tell”; so since “No-one accused her of cribbing it”, she “went along with something someone had told her”; and the “poem, true to its humble roots, hid its light / under a bushel”. There is something tremendously moving to the point of being unbearable in the concluding two lines:
Left her lonely at the last,
his hands full of nails.
I am humbled by this achievement: the birth of this poem.
First Prize
136 Jones, Paper-Boy
The title prepares the reader for the poem’s seeringly-critical analysis of the way in which humans are reduced to machines; and identity becomes a number and/or job-descriptor – one more man named Jones in a catalogue of enlisted Joneses - “the apprentice paper-hanger down from / Bawtry, or the newspaper lad from Leeds”- how effective are those place names in “locating” the poem’s 24-lined remit. Individualised only by civilian-profession, and a simultaneous reference to youth, this is the dispensable cannon-fodder of war; these “so many wonderful men”, the essential ingredient in social Darwinism. The adoption of the first-person soldier-narrator allows the use of a bluff sense of humour touched with class-jibing, and sarcastic probing. There is a clear growth of character here, including the use of a four-letter expletive, in no way gratuitous; and, despite the emphasis on the reductive nature of the war-machine, the creation of this individual soldier as a totemic young working-class combatant is masterly. This gives the poem tremendous authority and realism. The poem’s opening line, in its employment of the block capitals and diction of a boy’s comic, “Howl, HOWL, Whizbang!” immediately fixes the element of surrealism in the puerile and facile nature of the reality of war. Such is the layering of meaning throughout the poem that this “Howl” refers not only to the sound of war, but also to the shrieks of the soldiers, and the poet’s commentary on the waste of young blood. Similarly, the way in which class conflict is delineated and continues even during warfare is captured in the depiction of military order and discipline: “No Loitering / says my sergeant. Expectoration Forbidden / says Second Lieutenant Phipps”. The irony here resides in the fact that they cannot help but loiter for though “There is a bit of jostling, a little shove”, and “Chalky is upside down”, the soldiers “fall together, as if on feathers”, their “various pieces” “all present and incorrect, Sir”. The pacing, tone and sarcastic realism are captured skilfully in the use of casually-shifting sentences in which grammatical and verbal ambiguity coupled with the use of the demotic serve to underpin the satiric comment; and any anger is made palatable by the sardonic humour and litotes: “I feel a bit put out and want to pull myself together.” Such strategy means that the horror of events is understated: hinted at rather than graphically portrayed. And any reservation that the soldier/narrator being dead means there is an element of awkwardness or unreality in the poem is countered by remembering that Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting offers a precedent. Indeed, the ironic resolution and realisation of the poem’s final lines “the voices / whispering, ‘Sleep!’ … the body now beside me is my own” share elements with Owen’s strategy of the suspension of disbelief. The poet’s overall commentary about the lost seed of mankind, the demise of hope and youth, and the resolution of death as peace combine to create a disturbing work, which is both intellectually and emotionally questioning, and simultaneously life-confirming in its concern for humanity. This is an impressive poem; enviable in both its conception and its realisation!
Congratulations go to all the authors of Commended and Prize-Winning poems, and my thanks to all competitors for allowing me to share their worlds, thoughts, their laughter, tears and concerns: I learn such a lot from their writing. Finally, my thanks to Nnorom for honouring me with this assignment and for his continuing confidence in my judgement!
Three cheers for poetry! Long may the Sentinel Poetry Movement flourish!
Roger Elkin, 1st March 2015

Monday, 2 March 2015

Results of the Sentinel Annual Poetry Competition 2014

We are pleased to announce the results of the Sentinel Annual Poetry Competition 2014 judged by Roger Elkin. We recognise 27 poems here which will be included in the winners anthology to be published in the second quarter of 2015. The results:


Commended Poems


Jennie Carr – Cordial

Eileen Carney Hulme - Cousin Vera

Frances Corkey Thompson - Freight

J V Birch - Growing Pains

Jennifer Hammond - Intaglio

Brian Clark - Lost Words

Harry Batty - Mula

Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins - Nemesis

Paul Church - New Year’s Day

Jo Haslam - Old glass

Sue Moules - Postcard from the Algarve

Guido - Richard’s Tooth

Peter Branson - Rooks

John Elinger - Water

John Lindley - The Catch

Melanie Whipman - The View from 92

Mandy Pannett - This

Norma Powers - Vintage

Sarah Watkinson - Yeavering Bell Meets Goat Hill


Highly Commended Poems


J V Birch - Therapy

Lesley Quayle - First Sight of Leeds after Leaving the M1

Derek Summers - Knots and Hitches

J.S.Watts - Night Notes on Sea (British Coast)

Doreen Hinchliffe - War Graves, the Devonshire Cemetery, Mametz


Third Prize

Frances Corkey Thompson - Sheep


Second Prize

Carolyn King – Poem


First Prize

R V Jones - 136 Jones, Paper-Boy


The adjudication report is forthcoming in the evening of 3rd March, 2015.


Adjudication Report, Sentinel Annual Short Story Competition 2014



This year’s Sentinel annual short story competition saw a considerable rise in the standard of the entries with many more stories showing an understanding of the required structure. There were not so many stories that had no structure, testing of characters, opting to tell rather than show, and not moving beyond pure description. There were also fewer entrants prepared to experiment with structure and not so many page-turners as in previous years. Most of the stories under review had a developmental arc, drew the reader into their world and had something worth saying. This made the competition much more competitive and harder to judge.


A good number of stories were in some way family-related from children returning home for funerals, responding to visits from relatives, to married couples losing the heart of their relationship and becoming involved in extra-marital relationships, and the difficulties of old age. Twenty seven stories made my long list and they were all worth reading albeit tending towards the traditional with a good number of twists in the tale.


‘He’ won the First Prize. The first person narrative, written from the perspective of a young girl, gradually unfolds to reveal the deep and disturbing connections between a child and her kidnapper. The first part of the narrative shows the young girl to be within a domestic situation with the child drawing and the kidnapper being a substitute parent. There is a strong hint of predatory behaviour eventually leading to sexual possession. It becomes clear that the girl has sublimated her isolation and loneliness with a fondness and appreciation for her captor. She catches his eyebrows, mouth, smile and laugh in a drawing. She draws a lot and shows him the pictures. The girl’s uncertainties are carefully revealed to offer a broader portrait of their relationship. The narrative contains some shocks when it is revealed that the girl is approaching her sixteenth birthday, likes intimate moments with her captor, wants to help him, avoids making him angry, and that her world revolves around reading library books and endless drawing. Whilst she anticipates strawberry or lemon ice cream in celebration of her birthday, her kidnapper suggestively hints that they will celebrate together.

The narrator becomes disorientated from the outset of her rescue and experiences a series of acute emotions, which perhaps replicate her first kidnapping, from anger, tears, fearfulness, loss and solidarity with her captor. There is recognition of strange words, such as ‘parents’, and an eventual collapse and breakdown at the story’s end.

The achievement of the story comes through its consistent understatement and narrative authenticity.


The Second Prize went ‘Jail Grail’ an intricately plotted third person narrative mystery quest involving a series of well-drawn characters connected to Dartmoor prison. Written at a medium high pitch and moving back and forth narrative time, the third person narrative follows Louise’s unravelling of her uncle’s research papers left to her in his will. She befriends Barry, a Kray generation Dartmoor prison inmate, sees an 1806 map of Dartmoor when the prison opened in a local pub, where the landlord, Sully Morland’s family has been around for generations. She researches the railway line, upon which French and American prisoners had reached the prison, and a pattern begins to emerge. Barry gives her a secretly coded acrostic poem suggesting that he has more information for her. Meanwhile Sully Morland, in Paris, realises that his family has a connection to the Bastille, through his ancestor Colonel Francois-Morlan, whose body had been repatriated in a barrel of rum reputedly also containing something else of the highest value. He instantly enlists the help of the Louvre Museum librarian, a French history specialist, to discover more. Barry informs Louise that the secret is in a French stone paperweight in the Governor’s office. She breaks the paperweight to find a magnificent blue diamond. However, the story ends with a twist as Barry unearths the Crown of Charlemagne in a forgotten granite chamber whilst working in the prison garden. The strengths of this story lie in its brilliantly developed plot.


The Third Prize went to ‘Snapped’ a first person narrative concerning the efforts of a furniture maker, obsessed with the aura of becoming a celebrated photographer, who strikes gold when the wife of a famous photographer commissions him to design and make a bookcase and cupboard. The narrator’s life is fuelled by the fantasies and dreams he associates with being a celebrity photographer. The story examines and tests the extent to which the narrator will go to attempt to realise his dreams of being discovered and becoming the man’s assistant or partner. The narration shows the intensity of the emotional impact of the mere possibility of meeting the celebrity photographer and is framed by the steps towards this aim. He is continually thwarted and misses him at every turn. He is mostly dealing with the wife, a former model now described as by him as ‘a rare breed of scrawny chicken’. He doubts himself, his bespoke designs, yet still shudders with excitement at the prospect of being discovered and elevated to the world of fashion photography and supermodels. He becomes fearful that he will never meet the man himself. He deliberately arrives late in the afternoon for the fitting to increase his chances of meeting the man. He feels sorry for the flirtatious wife and becomes agitated as he sees his fantasy slipping from his grasp. The story then turns as the wife, in a too-short skirt, reveals a past life of loneliness and isolation in the modelling business. He tries to turn the conversation around to photography and her husband as she effectively seduces him. When her husband finally returns he reveals the reason for his delayed departure. The photographer, who has an open relationship with his wife, is so affronted by being cuckolded by another photographer that he throws him out.


The five Highly Commended Stories were ‘Feet of clay’, ‘Along the Canal’, ‘The Fiddler’s Rest’, ‘The Animals Came In Two By Two’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’. 


‘Feet of clay’, written in retrospective first person, concerns a teacher whose reaction to the news that his wife is leaving him during their wedding anniversary celebration at a local restaurant is witnessed by Gibson, the school ‘barbarian ringleader’. The tense story concerns his fear of exposure, despite offering to resign from his position, and the changes that the incident brings about in himself and Gibson. It is well structured and has a strong developmental arc.


‘Along the Canal’ is a first person narrative from the perspective of a conscientious violinist in an orchestra. The impressive narrative characterisation of Julia holds the story together as the reader is drawn into the intimate world of the musicians and their love lives. Julia, the narrator, is changed by events and is able to move forward. ‘The Fiddler’s Rest’ is a third person narrative concerning Lisa, a relative failure as a Social Anthropology student, who gets a minimum wage job fron old-fashioned Dave at the Fiddler’s Rest pub. Dave treats Lisa, despite her successes, poorly and she is moved to take action to better her situation. She successfully manoeuvres her self to take over the pub from the incompetent Dave and grows from her experiences.  In ‘The Animals Came In Two By Two’, the first person narrator is moved by meeting her great Uncle Jo to make a stirring speech of support for his work for the protection of animals. She is persuaded by her great Uncle Jo’s sincerity, built around his own self-neglect, to raise money from her family to help Jo and his cause. This works to reform the family’s view of Jo and Jo himself, who is able to devote much needed time to cleaning his home and looking after himself. ‘A Christmas Carol’ is a first person narrative flawlessly written in the formal style of mid-Victorian English. The story revolves around hopes of the narrator to have Christmas dinner with an irresistible woman, and is a page-turner. The narrator resists other temptations and risks increased dismay and desolation as Christmas draws inexorably nearer. Disappointed, he reaches despair on Christmas Day until his luck changes at the last moment.


The five Commended entrants were ‘Cheddar Pink’, ‘Ukuthwala’, ‘There Is Always That’, ‘A Summer (Un)like Any Other’ and ‘Daffodils’.


‘Cheddar Pink’, a third person narrative, shone through its clever use of a plant in the plot. Yvonne, who thoroughly detests her husband, Duncan, of thirty years, has shoelaces, which are always coming undone. After failing to find a lover, she feels trapped and plans a tragic accident for Duncan on their annual Cornish headland holiday. The twist in the tale comes when it her that falls and trips off the cliffs, as a result of her shoelaces, and not Duncan. ‘Ukuthwala’, a revelatory, first person narrative, concerns a Soweto born journalist interviewing academics and students about the cultural problems of Zulu students from rural KwaZulu-Natal. He is a moved by the story of a beautiful and talented third year student and discovers that rural traditions and customs operate above the law. In this way, he finds an important story to report. ‘There Is Always That’ focuses upon a questionnaire interview and its impact on the young researcher, Jen, and the elderly painter, Timmins, to reveal stark differences between them and a lack of understanding between the generations. Timmins finally breaks the spell of the interview when he is able to paint her strange, otherworldliness and finish his painting. ‘A Summer (Un)like Any Other’, a quirky first person narrative, concerns an annual summer fair, where its inhabitants are obsessed by a hurricane survival contest. The narrator effortlessly draws the reader into this strange world of storm competitions. When the town authorities ban the contest, the narrator wins an illegal alternative but it is not the real thing. People leave town as a result of the ban and he embarks on a fool’s errand to find another hurricane contest in another town. In ‘Daffodils’ an unsympathetic first person narrator returns to her parent’s home in a clash between her disobedient lifestyle and her father’s conservatism. The breakdown in understanding and dysfunctional nature of the family is explored during the course of her visit. She is revealed as the spoilt and uncaring outcome of his conservatism, which she completely rejects, and he continues to be a loving father and husband. The developmental arc is gradual and the revelations more intricate being held in small details.


See the results here

Results of the Sentinel Annual Short Story Competition 2014

We are pleased to announce the results of the Sentinel Annual Short Story Competition judged by David Caddy. This year we celebrate thirteen stories which will be included in the winners anthology to be published in the second quarter of this year. The results:



David Smith - Cheddar Pink’,

Tom Serengeti  - Ukuthwala

Erik Löfroth - There Is Always That

Lida Tsvetkova - A Summer (Un)like Any Other

Jonathan Hinden - Daffodils


Highly Commended

Diane Bown-Wilson – Feet of Clay

Catherine Edmunds – Along the Canal

Mairi Wilson – The Fiddler’s Rest

Valerie Knight – The Animals Came in Two by Two

Nick Birkhead - A Christmas Carol. 


Third Prize

Mel Fawcett – Snapped


Second Prize:

Ruth Muttlebury – Jail Grail


First Prize:

Radovana Jagrikova  – He


The commended and prize-winning authors will be notified within 7 working days of this announcement.


Read the adjudication report here