Thursday, 15 January 2015

SENTINEL LITERARY QUARTERLY SHORT STORY COMPETITION (NOVEMBER 2014) – AN ADJUDICATION REPORT

By

Clare Girvan

 

I enjoyed reading these stories, and as usual, was amazed at the variety of topics they covered.  I have read lists of ‘stories you must not write’, and very few fell into the categories given.  There were only one or two that I was instantly able to reject, and of the rest, nearly all were well-written and showed imagination and, occasionally, flair.  However, there were some disappointments when a story failed to live up to its promise.  The writer would start off in fine style and then seem to run out of steam, leaving the story somewhat floundering or without a lot of point, and or with an ending that could be spotted a mile off.

     In many cases, I was aware of a lot of exposition going on which took up too much of the story.  You haven’t got time or space for back story and most of it doesn’t matter.  Start your story half way in and cut to the chase.

     Another common factor was lack of dialogue.  I have remarked in a previous report that a short story is a little drama and your characters should talk to each other.  You can get across a lot of characterisation and plot in a few well-chosen words, and they add interest, particularly at the start of a piece.

     Paragraphs seem to be another stumbling block, and too many stories didn’t have them, or had them intermittently, which was worse.  Indenting adds to the look of the page and distinguishes one para from the next.

     So many of these faults could be put right and stories raised to the level of excellence.  I would always recommend joining a good writers’ group, where your stories will be analysed, dissected and improved. 

 

On to the stories.

 

1st prize.   My out-and-out winner is Temperance Tune by Sharon Boyle, a stylishly written piece about the evils of drink.  On the surface, quite slight, but the writing carries it along to the conclusion the reader is waiting for.  I loved the imaginative, original narrative, and would be happy to read more by this writer.

 

2nd prize.  Honey Versus Custard by Helen Victoria Anderson is a slow burner that I initially put aside, but had to keep returning to.  It’s not a story that you get everything out of at first read, but it becomes more compelling as you go on.  What is this woman doing?  Why are her thoughts so disjointed?  Where are we going with this?  It’s a lovely mood piece, perfectly expressing the apparent inconsequentiality of what is going through her head at a time of crisis.

 

3rd prize.  I chose Bee Keeping in Alaska (like the title) by Lynne Voyce because of its unusual subject matter.  The lyrical opening paragraphs draw you in and there are nice parallels within the story - Queenie arrives in the spring at the same time as the bees in their black and yellow parcel, and like the bees, she is also a dancer. (I’d like to hear a bit more about her dancing career which might show more of her character.)  The middle of the story is heart-rending, especially after all Allen’s unhappiness, and we begin to fear that things will end badly, but the writer avoids wallowing in more misery and gives us the ending we were hoping for. 

    

Highly commended

 

The Urban Fox  by Pete Pitman  A quirky story of virtue rewarded, very well written, with a surprise at the end.

 

The Murder and Suicide of Red Mist by Martin Fuller This story of redemption and a new path takes a bit of working out - who is Red Mist and who is Danny? - but it became clearer by the end.  The story is vigorously told, but the writer’s punctuation and layout could do with some attention.

 

Fat by Val Ormrod. Perhaps the theme has been slightly over-worked lately - woman thinks she’s fat but turns out to be anorexic - but this is a very readable version that leads nicely into the end.  I wouldn’t have minded it being a little longer.

 

Commended

 

The King by David Woodfine Very atmospheric.  I could clearly see the mediaeval banqueting hall and all the guests, until it began to change towards the bottom of the first page.  A simple, energetic story, with a twist.

 

Dragon fruit by Eithne Cullen.  A neat take on Beauty and the Beast, but I felt that it didn’t really start until page three, when it ran out of words and left me wondering what happened next.

 

Congratulations to the winners, commiserations to those who weren’t chosen, and well done to everyone for being brave enough to try.

 

-         Clare Girvan www.claregirvan.co.uk

SENTINEL LITERARY QUARTERLY POETRY COMPETITION (NOVEMBER 2014)–AN ADJUDICATION REPORT

by

Mandy Pannett

I found it extra difficult this time to select nine poems – not because the chosen ones aren’t brilliant, they most certainly are – but because there were so many others that ‘came close’, that demanded to be noticed. I started making a list of them to be included in this report but in the end decided not to because there are many.

A number of poets used the technique of line end rhyme. This, I think, is incredibly hard to do well. So often the chosen rhyme is not the best one – it may sound alright and be pleasing to the ear but may not be the best word to convey meaning and emotion. Poems that worked best in this competition, where the poet was keen on using rhyme, was where enjambment reduced the doggerel effect or where the rhymes were ‘looser’ – as in several of the sonnets which I found very effective.

A number of themes recurred throughout the entries. Many concerned personal experiences, families, relationships, the pain of love and loss, assumptions, hope and disillusion. Memory was a strong theme, collective memory and connections with the past as well as the individual and present. Many strong poems described landscape and the natural world and there was an emphasis on Earth as unsustainable, under threat. Imagery conveyed strong feelings and profound thought in poems about war, sickness and malignancy.

This competition brought me a bagful of poems rich in variety and complexity. Here, after a lot of thought and indecision, is my selection.

1st prize: The Terminology of Bells by Mike Bannister

This poem caught my attention from the very first reading. It is a poem about memory and time with the bell terminology skilfully intermingled with descriptions of the setting and matching the mood of each passing moment. I love the sense of place it creates – the names of towns and rivers and the lyrical details of fish and water birds – but I have mainly chosen it as my winner because of the perfect and bell-like musicality of it all. Who could fail to appreciate the poem’s beginning? ‘Sally stroke: early morning, neither a dog bark/nor cuckoo call, only that distant, melancholy peal/a deep-rolling tonnage of bronze’. Or this later stanza? ‘Go: the heart hunting now, headstock and chamber/back behind the tears, for one born by Michaelmas,/who slept in a drawer; was told, and would believe/that the bees sang in the hive at Christmastide.’

2nd prize: The Catastrophe Tapes by Seán Street

An outstanding poem. Comes into my personal category of ‘I wish I’d written it!’ Intriguing and highly original it takes the idea of having a jumble of words and thoughts from a medieval battlefield somehow ‘recorded’ in an ‘old technology’ and left for us to decipher and interpret if we can. The Battle of Towton was one of the most ferocious of the Wars of the Roses, lasting ten hours in a snowstorm so that the white ground afterwards was stained for miles with blood. An idea close to my heart, this connection of the past with the present, the idea of atmosphere and vibrations being forever contained in objects and settings. This poem, however, goes beyond that. To me it reads as all wars, all atrocities. The horrors of Towton are echoed in the trenches, in the rubble of Syria. An incredibly profound poem which leaves us with desperate questions and pleas: ‘surely someone will listen?’, ‘Are you hearing any of this?’, ‘it may matter/ someday, they may need to know it’.

3rd prize: Finger-Wing by Yvonne Reddick

Quotation and commentary cannot do justice to this brilliant poem that uses language so skilfully and to the full. The poet, on a chilly day, is looking at clouds, blows on his fists to warm them and feels ‘the scrunched membranes/that mesh my fingers/and remembers how ‘pterodactyl/means finger-wing’. From this imagery of membranes and bones other associations come fast – the poet notices ‘the sludgy hulk of a decomposing pigeon’, remembers how his/her grandmother was ‘bird-bone hollow, all ribstrakes and wing-scaffold ... knuckly birdleg fingers.’ There are further incredible risks with language: the granny’s cremation is described lyrically as ‘plume-cinder ash...The south-easterly hush-hushed it north’, but then we have a line of harsh consonants ‘I interred the pigeon’s slimy reek in a skip’ followed by the quotation ‘le fruit de vos entrailles est béni’ – a direct reference to the Annunciation, a miraculous birth in contrast to this imagery of death and putrefaction.

Highly Commended: Quince Zone by Dominic James

This is another poem that stayed with me from the first reading. Maybe there are underlying themes – identity, awareness, selection, discrimination, even sacrifice – but I chose this poem for its humour, detail and the perfect ‘voice’ of it whereby the ragged quince on a tree in an apple orchard is personified with ‘warty limbs’ and begs the onlooker to pluck it from the tree so that more fruit may grow. The language is conversational and colloquial but with a lyrical Shakesperian touch – ‘a summer comes’ says the quince, ‘oh ,pluck my fruit,/at night the stars smile through me.’ An irresistible poem.

Highly Commended: We Are All Waters by Shittu Fowora

An enigmatic poem which requires many readings to fully appreciate its layers and depths. This suits me perfectly – I enjoy ‘working’ a poem, teasing out associations and subtleties of meaning. Water in a multitude of forms is used here as the central metaphor for the repeated idea ‘There is no ‘you’, or ‘I’, save ‘we’. Identities merge in the universal, waters ‘variously hued’ may be seen in rain, fresh water, dirty water, puddles, in pots for cooking, tears, clouds, droplets, cesspools, icebergs, ponds – and all these aspects collect ‘the geography of the places you’ve been to’, share love, fear, tranquillity, troubles, ‘percolate the crevices between rocks and questions.’

Highly Commended: Chilson Founder’s Day Harvest Festival by Michelle Bonczek Evory

The narrator in this poem has been ‘camping/in a strange land’ where, for days, there has been ‘a sopping mess’ of ‘rain and thunder, wind whipping leaves’, where even the chipmunks have been ‘washed out their burrows’. Now the sun is out and an assortment of people gather for the celebration. A delightful poem which I chose for several reasons: its effective use of enjambment, the clear and detailed imagery – I particularly love ‘a silver oven/waiting, for the body of a hog to be spun in its space/like a planet too close to a star’ – but most of all for the small, ordinary, incidental aspects of the day: the names of people and places, phrases of overheard conversation, the baked potato ‘still hot in its aluminium wrapper’, the red-haired brothers licking sour cream ‘from their white plastic forks’. Pleasure on this day may be transient but while it lasts it is real and good.

Commended: Mobius by Alison J Powell

I must confess to a touch of subjectivity here as a poem that ‘plays’ with language and uses techniques of circularity, reversal and repetition will always catch my interest. When it is crafted as beautifully and skilfully as ‘Mobius’ it is guaranteed to find its way on to my winners’ list. Here the poet uses the metaphor of a dance to create the ‘infinite loop’ of a courtship with its spiral of resistance, pursuit, delusion, hopes, tears and dreams culminating in ‘the joining of edges’ as the couple ‘cut loose and flew/Dancing.’ A clever and memorable poem.

Commended: Liturgies by Anthony Watts

I find this sonnet incredibly moving. An adult remembers himself as a child playing at being a priest. Here ‘a patterned hearthrug’ served as a church, the swing of the censer could be mimed, the altar was a shoebox with ‘pencils stuck in cotton-reels for candles.’ This was a vulnerable child searching for something beyond the tangible and inarticulate and this is a vulnerable adult too, still yearning, still on the quest for something more, for an ‘Everywhere’. An incredible poem that suggests so much in a few lines.

Commended: After by Julian Dobson

Many poems describe the horrors of war, the anguish of loss, the aftermath of brutality. This short poem is one of the most effective and poignant I’ve read. With carefully selected details and the technique of understatement the poet takes us into the debris of a market where starving people ‘scour’ for food where ‘lemons/rot in shattered boxes’ and flies ‘signal what might still/be edible.’ So far a fairly typical depiction of devastation. But there are more horrors in this scene, an almost casual mention of ‘legs’ which are ‘not of goats or sheep’ and then these lines which will stay with me for a long time: ‘To eat, you must not search too hard./The stomach will not digest/some discoveries.’

mandy pannett

Mandy Pannett. January 2015

All the Invisibles, the powerful poetry collection by Mandy Pannett is available at amazon.co.uk and amazon.com


Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (February 2015) judged by Noel Williams is now accepting entries

First Prize: £200

Second Prize: £75

Third Prize: £50

Highly Commended: 3 X £20

Enter online or by post here