More than 400 poets from 14 countries entered this year’s Transformation single-poem contest from wildfire words at Cheltenham Poetry Festival.
Our Leading Judge Fiona Samson chose the winning and shortlist poems. Fiona’s adjudication of the winning and shortlisted poems makes fascinating reading. The poems themselves can be read by clicking on the links in green type.
Fiona Sampson’s adjudication comments
Winner Turning Words by Emily Webb
This is a poem that has it all. Light touch makes the metamorphosing imagery it uses to evoke memory, distance and childhood into something elegant, not over-wrought. Even the title is – at the risk of a pun – well-turned. But, while Turning Words doesn’t feel self-indulgently confessional, it’s thoughtfully exploratory and evocative. Just look at the important ground it covers: migration, family ties, and the links between language and identity. Yet alongside the immaculate technique, and the profound, personal thought, there’s delight in a material world, of pudgy childish legs or the night sounds of countryside. A delight in language, too, as assonance and alliteration tuck effortlessly into each other throughout the poem, until the final stanza’s wonderful description of the sound of speech.
Second place I Am A Parking Chair by Samantha DeFlitch
I had no idea what a parking chair is until I came upon this poem and googled the term, which is as clearly North American as the poem itself. I Am A Parking Chair is a rich example of contemporary North American poetic idiom: energetic and condensed, busy and intelligent, happy to draw on hybrid sources, which here include myth (‘deep-whirling through/the family lines’), the domestic (‘knit/purl/knit/purl’) and the scientific (‘DSN-V’). The result’s a complex and satisfying portrait of a psyche, and a body, at risk. And it has a great risk-taking ending. Only a slight elliptical tendency mars this very fine poem: there’s a difference between the specific (‘the road to Oakmont’) and the hieratic (‘Forbes at Fifth’ – is it a diner?).
Third place Portrait Of Mustard by Wendy Allen
This prose poem is clever, young (in a good way) and full of what we used to call cultural signifiers. Mainly from art music, though also of course from the supermarket trolley, these reference points make Portrait of Mustard deliciously crunchy. It’s also good to be funny in this artful way, and to be sexy but stop before you end up in some Bad Sex Guide, and – not least – to so brilliantly locate the story of an affair within what pretends to be an artless chain of associations. And within all the consumer freight of a certain kind of ‘Sex in the City’ life. This is writing of great range.
The other shortlisted poems – alphabetical order
This poem has a fabulous sea-waltzing rhythm and momentum. It also glories in sound: ‘heave / went under its weight / wrack / eddied’ is a criss-cross of echoes. The caesura in almost every line claims Anglo-Saxon and oral traditions as poetic context, and allows for some very satisfying alliteration: ‘filled my womb with fin and wreck’, for example, also pivots satisfyingly in the ‘i’ sound, i-o-i-e. Then this delight in the materiality of language reappears in the materiality of world. ‘A whelk’s long muscle’, ‘the sapor of foam’ are wonderfully live observations. This marvellous, headlong list of ‘if’s just lacks its resolution.
The thought and the descriptive work of this poem are exceptional. There’s a fierce, steady gaze which it directs at the painting it evokes or describes – and at mortality – and at grief. Steady, but also subtle, wise and intelligent. The particularity of the scrying Looking At… revisits is the opposite of windy rhetoric. William Carlos Williams’s ‘No ideas but in things’ here makes real sense: not eschewing thought for easy, colourful description, but finding what the poem thinks through that description. The result is unusual and challenging (though the title’s a bit too long – perhaps chose one or the other?).
Emily Webb founded and runs the Change the Word poetry collective with refugee arts and theatre company Good Chance, and previously ran the programmes for creative writing charity First Story, including launching UK National Writing Day. Her poetry has been published in Acumen, The Missing Slate and Good Chance poetry anthologies.
When I was the height of the table leg,
eye to eye with Indian elephants,
jasmine flowers climbing the sheesham wood
of my dad’s childhood, I tried to turn my tongue
around his Tamil, thumbi little brother,
thungachi my sister, but didn’t know
the kneedeep kneedeep calls of purple frogs
that sent him to sleep each night or the thwack
of stick on bush as his pudgy legs roamed
all the way to the cud where rivers fell
off the side of the earth into thick clouds
of shola forest and spirits below.
Now I ache for those sounds, to hear his fine
English vowels transform to the palate-flick,
the glottal rasp of his past; to hear consonants
flitting round his mouth as if they’re water striders
dancing, their spindly legs notching
the surface like time, just for a moment.
Samantha DeFlitch is the author of Confluence (Broadstone Books, 2021). She is the Associate Director of the Connors Writing Center at the University of New Hampshire, where she completed her MFA in Creative Writing. Her work has appeared in The Missouri Review, Appalachian Review, On the Seawall, Literary Accents, and Hobart, among others. She is the recipient of a fellowship from the Martha’s Vineyard Institute for Creative Writing, and she is the 2018 recipient of the Dick Shea Memorial Award for Poetry. She lives in New Hampshire with her corgi dog, Moose.
I am a Parking Chair
Closed beneath winter’s sun.
I am John-across-the-street,
snow thrower blaring in this
cold snap, unrestrained.
I am restraint, though, tight-
ly wrapped around myself.
I am the knit / purl stitch.
I am waking only to sleep.
I am Forbes at Fifth and
pork corn and potatoes.
I am my grandmother, long-
time deep-whirling through
the family lines. I am made
myself small and quick to fit
between generations. I am
starving myself again.
I am made of thirty-seven
parking chairs; I saw them
on the road to Oakmont.
I am disturbance in the way
in which one’s body weight or
shape is experienced (DSM-V).
I am pork corn and potatoes.
I am knit / purl / knit / purl.
I am a bad body but I could be
good! I am awaiting my miracle.
I am made of keeping it tight,
made of imagining my brother
tornado-tracking across the
Ozarks. I am very not him.
I am putting me in the drive-
way of a young Pittsburgh
man. I am going to make me
a casserole just to watch
me rehome it in the trash.
I am scraping the filled-up
can to the curb at midnight;
it is garbage night and dark
snow-piles keep watch from
our cleared sidewalk. I am
tilting my own jaw up toward
the sharp wind and stars and
the archer who rises, lightly,
on the far western horizon.
I could be my brother out there,
a vast perhaps rushing. I, opening.
Wendy Allen is a poet. She spent the last 20 years as cabin crew and is starting an MA in creative writing in September.
A Portrait of Mustard
1 When I walk into Waitrose, I collide with the burn of mustard in the bread section. It isn’t the loaf I want, this sourdough with ginger which I caress to my breast, it’s the feeling that I want it more than the sparkling water/coffee beans/tub of houmous/salt and vinegar crisps in my basket. They suddenly crowd me.
2 At first mustard doesn’t appear to be overtly sexy. Not like the deep pulse purple of the knickers I bought from NET-A-PORTER for this trip to see my lover. It isn’t the colour of fever that spreads in seven seconds when he licks my lips inside the satin trim of panties. When he looks at me from below, looks straight into my eyes, his lips glossed with the slip of my vulva, then this moment becomes the hottest tasting yellow on any chart, sexier than any red or pink could be.
3 There is no lipstick I want in mustard and lipstick is my usual marker of desire, just as masturbation is my Rescue Remedy and Vogue, my monthly shopping list.
4 This is the Eurostar, Paris and the Gare du Nord an hour away. In my mind I picture just how it is going to be. I’m glad I bought my Mulberry Lily bag in mustard and not oak. Mustard will look so much better with the four Breton tops I have brought.
5 A Schoenberg concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall. You reach for my hand as the conductor takes a bow, my tears fall Lento, I lick them quick into my lipstick before they drop onto your hand. This is mustard to me. This atonal bliss.
6 You feel my nipples through the mustard cashmere of my polo neck when we are in the R section of the book shop and I have Wild Sargasso Sea in my hand.
7 Your cock has nothing to do with mustard or my labia which cute sugar pink and glistens I’ve never seen mustard gleam but the moment you peel off my wool mustard socks and kiss the soft part of thigh
8 When I marry again, I’ll wear a mustard velvet suit with Louboutin shoes, Red Riding Hood lips and I’ll remember to wear primer this time, so I don’t look shiny on the steps of City Hall.
9 The syncopation in America from West Side Story is the purest form of mustard found to date. Nothing epitomises resilience like syncopation.
10 The bar under The Festival Hall, 9.39pm, the seat sticky from the drink I spill when you whisper in my ear and tell me what you want to do with me later in the hotel room. The hotel room has a mustard throw at the end of the bed that, even when I want you desperately, I will never put my body near.
11 There is no car that looks good in this colour. This is fact. It makes me love it even more.
12 Mustard is that moment when I lift my floral dress and lean over your face.
13 If mustard could say I love you, it would feel like your hair on my hipbone on a Sunday on the first day in Spring when it rained all day.
14 Mustard is an underdog. It is plush, velvety, corduroy, never silky. It’s the hint of resilience. It’s the chunky cardigan with the merest flash of nipple underneath. It is the front cover of a book that you fall in love with aged 17.
Jane Burn is a Pushcart and Forward Prize nominated, award-winning, working class, bi, neurodivergent poet and illustrator who lives in a wooden off-grid cottage in Northumberland. Her poems are published in many magazines and anthologies and her next collection, Be Feared, will be published in November by Nine Arches Press. She is currently studying for an MA in Writing Poetry at Newcastle University.
if I was all the tiny horses clung
if I gave myself to the heave
……of the sea…went under its weight
if my mouth held all the odours of wrack
……eddied with ruddy dulse…the savour
of kelp’s drowned forests…the sapor of foam
……if I opened my lips to all the tastes
of blue…became the everything of water
…..bound the planet in my rolling skin
if I spread myself like a living sheet of glass
…..filled my womb with fin and wreck
my storm of a body…foraging outlines of land
…..if I hid my own flesh
inside a whelk’s long muscle…became
…..its supple quest…layered my nakedness
with shields of shell…cockled myself in
…..slumped my body along its nacre walls
if I was oceans…the swallowed portent
……of whalesong…the miracle of krill
if I swarmed beneath the moon…swelled inside
……a luminescent wash…wore a radiant meniscus
if I was a deep and permanent cold…a lorn bulk
……of sheer bergs…if I slept beneath a pelt of torn floes
wore ribbons of aurora in my rippled hair
……buoyed the pale mass…of great bears
if I made my head into an urchin’s hollow globe
……and let the hoard of everything…I have lost
remain as ghosts…if I was all the tiny horses…clung
……like herds of hope to threads of weed
if I was an anemone’s shy head…made a curious home
……of benthic depth…aimed for the lure
of distant light…if I was a gull’s drifting breast
……an eternity of salt
Sara Nesbitt Gibbons’ poems have been published in journals and anthologies, and been placed, commended and listed in competitions. They have been performed as theatre in venues as diverse as St Pancras International Station and London museums. Sara is also working on her first novel.
Looking At Her Missing Brother’s Paintings: ‘East Finchley Cemetery’
You can paint layers of darkness till the dark takes on shapes, insists
it’s full of light. I see something in what you’ve shaded between tree boughs
and ground. An elliptical teardrop. Blurred, dusky outline made by the scoop
of that dropping branch, the cup of that one, the slope of wood chips.
It’s almost exactly what I want to show you, in negative. It’s where out-loud
words go, in pictures. My rib bones shade the same shape, over and again.
I am racked with x-rays of ready speech bubbles.
As I look longer,
dear, lost friend of a lifetime, I see it’s a space, that you’ve filled
with barely-visible people. I am a flat-out bulge with a flick of toes.
My body is the speech bubble, bones and the spaces they shade
are open mouths drawn in. I am sure because, as I look, alone here,
I feel myself lying in the chipping, in the distended bulb of shadows.
My throat constricts, to seal me into the shape. I hear my bones cry.