Café Writers Prize 2016

Learning to Read #5


You know how it is, you send a couple of poems off to a competition and you set your expectations with a bit of modesty and realism but also with some optimism too – mid table, maybe? Perhaps? Just possibly you’ve found the magic touch this time, somehow, a minor place or a commended?? Then the results are out, and you read the biog for the winner, and there is a grudging recognition that you were in there with some big fish, you were up against some proper talent. And then you read the winning poem and you think wow. Simply, wow. That’s a serious bit of poetry there.

Go and look up the Café Writers 2016 prize winners, here. The first prize, chosen by Andrew McMillan, is Liz Lefroy’s “This Is Not To Exaggerate” Bang, that’s a winning poem alright. I’ll make an immediate confession here –  I’m not a huge fan of poems that throw words over lines and leave fragments hanging in unexpected places, not since an unfortunate early encounter with some particularly spaced out 1970’s word randomness. So I was a little nervous about the structure, but this lasted till about half way through. I have a unfair prejudice that this format is often a sign that the author is trying to be clever or cool, and is inserting a quirky structure almost without thought, to disrupt and or to deliberately make the work disjointed. I didn’t feel this here. I found the structure gave emphasis, and form and gave a direction to my mind as I read through. It feels placed, formed, worked.

It’s a short piece, so I’m not going to quote large sections of it, and my blog formatting doesn’t do it justice, but here is a short extract.

“like the act of grasping at an apple stalked
to its green branch,
and, finding it resistant,
twisting it
against its own fibres till they break.”

The words almost create a texture in my head as I read, they connect with me in a very direct way. “an apple stalked to its green branch” is an image that has a physicality, and this appeals to me. I’m a lazy reader sometimes, and I don’t want to go and google a reference to a marginal figure from Greek mythology to understand the key reference in a piece of contemporary poetry. I’ve also got a social media attention span, so I’m a sucker for something with an immediate grab, but which will stand up and present real depths on repeated reading. I think this poem manages to do this.

its juice is sour powder, drying out the tongue
which hoped for sweetness.”

You can taste it, you know the way that this feels, but the poem gives it context and meaning. It’s a great little piece of phrasing, and choice of language. And a great choice for winner, too.

Oh well. There were over 2000 entries for this competition. I saw several tweets that basically said “I don’t know why I’m entering, I’ve got no chance, but here goes…..” and I can completely relate to that. Why do we sort and sift the best of our words and tie them to a cheque, when we know the odds are overwhelmingly against us? Because we can, because it gives us a focus for our writing, because you never know, because getting better is 95% disappointment and 5% exhilaration. I’m happy to fail, as long as I enjoy the process and I feel I’m getting a bit better.

Liz blogs, and you can find that here.

PS I seized the moment, and bought Liz’s third collection which is called “Mending the Ordinary” (as per the picture). It’s available from Fair Acre Press on this link. I’m just working through this, but two pieces caught my eye – there’s one called  “Durham Cathedral” which I like for the sharp imagery and (shamelessly) because it reminds me of when I was a student at Durham University. And then opposite this is a clever idea called “Question    Answer” which strikes a huge chord with my life and how I interact with people! It’s a nicely put together pamphlet for less than a fiver. Sorted.



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