SENTINEL LITERARY QUARTERLY POETRY COMPETITION MAY 2014 – An Adjudication Report

by Dominic James

Poets, in the 209 poems before me there is a great deal of careful, heart-felt and effective writing and I regret many of the entries are not in the top fifteen, but I am not going to apologise.  It was a good competition.  Of the last not on the final list; I listened to Chopin’s Nocturne in F sharp minor, by a stretch of the imagination I did try to “…form my grubby bulb into a thorax” and I was unsettled by the haunted, Mary Rose.  If a Weizen glass would do for schnapps I would have included that Viennese bar in 1913 with its historical giants.  Of the others, where this commentary has bearing on your work, my criticisms are not meant as less than encouragement and I hope you accept the following rationale.  I was unprepared for the high quality of poems received and, for the work as it stands, my congratulations to all concerned.

On the first reading I gauged impressions of content, rhythm and rhyme.  Poems should be heard but we take from the page with our eyes and on the first pass good work was inevitably missed.  All the same, dividing the pile into two as I went – preferred and not – the calibre of the entry and its common themes soon emerged.  Love, loss, regret in various guises, the nature of isolation. I was not looking for the unexpected here, only those poems that matched most closely the words to the thought.  Many passages were admirably accomplished with the laudable appearance of an easy skilfulness. But in their entirety many of these same poems failed to run as smoothly as they should:  rhythm hit obstacles, language was bent for measure and rhyme to bad effect.   Discarding none, I stacked the poems and read them all again.

No more than shuffled in the first pass, here poems were subjected to the universal, three pile method.  My “keep” and “maybe” heaps were to make up about half the total entry.  As I went I made notes, corrected typos, weighed the sound of each piece, read and re-read.  I hefted the dictionary and googled stuff – the Wiezen glass, String theory (again) the amnion.  It was a sometimes difficult list-of-words but I was happy to make the necessary research. English is our pleasure and everyone explored it.  I was pleased to see the language stretched, with studied and sometimes the simplest expression found for every subject, from the sweetest declarations to the most bitter anguish. It flowed.  Even recklessly, the content of much of this poetry provided the complete – which is as much to say as – the contented thought. 

A few words here on form. In its organisation any poem can be assessed on its own terms. Those built on regular stanzas (from couplets and loose ballad types to one sestina) clearly gained from set measure and, where they worked, rhymes shored up their sense.  On the other hand, a phrase against the drift of the poem, which stepped away from the established delivery, perhaps a rhyme used to bang out an echo, failed the piece more drastically than an extra skip or a jump might upset the reader of the wider-ranging forms, such as paragraph or vers libre. However presented a poem must read well.  A quirk of mannerism, an archaic word out of the blue: scuttles the ship.  A regional phrase will fail the piece if the way hasn’t been prepared for it.  In short, we must keep guard on sense and sound.  I would submit that where the writer doubts the use of a a phrase, rhyme or metaphor then there is no doubt: the work is unfinished.

That said, most of the poems achieved their vital tone to good effect.  ‘Tyrian purple’, had an urbane, educated air to match the subject, ‘Rubber Hammer’ stamped out an indiscriminate frustration, ‘Buying a Bicycle in Bosnia’, dropped convincingly into the limited English of an indomitable shopkeeper.  At this stage I discarded poems because I felt elements were missing – the sensation of smell, for instance, in the raising of a stink – there were errors in syntax, a passage that shone might have been dimmed by the comparative twilight of the overall journey.  These faults might have been apparent if the writer had given the poem some distance, that is, put it aside for a time and returned to it.  I recommend as a rule no poem less than a month old should be sent for prizes, it shouldn’t be despatched on a moment of enthusiasm: the competition is too hot.

Sorting through I found I was at the same time carrying, as it were, the burden of the whole argument before me:  an old man (not so old) and his weekly visit to the newsagent, a jackaroo under the night sky, the photo of a friend as a child, an irksome flute, a stab at Kiplingese.  All valid, often familiar, all unique: even set aside all of the poems continued to exert their demands to be heard.  But I digress.

Of the last 25 poems by now a dozen had risen to the top.  At this point a nod to the experienced poets who entered the competition:  several good poems, some from the same hand, were not included among the last. This was not for errors in typography, spelling, syntax, metre, the phrasing was not at odds with the poem. They had been properly revised and read well. Those in this category not among my favourites are omitted for the sake of some quality in others I preferred over them.  In someone else’s judgement these might have been placed first and with good reason. In the final analysis, poetry involves personal choice and, not to detract from the list below, to me there were no clear winners.

A few notes on the commended poems. ‘Things You Have Slaughtered’, a 14 liner emphatically measured, is included for its startling images and mounting tension of associations. This brought to mind the unlisted ‘Blackbird’, which I would like to mention in passing for a rare focus: “his ringed eye daring / me to disagree / that prophets should be fed.”  ‘Belly Sea’ is akin to the memorable ‘School Trip’, and takes a place for its verve. ‘Chalk lines’, set in the lecture room, although one of the least verse-like entries is nonetheless, highly observant, and holds its situation to the light to be examined by all present. ‘The Night My Brother Died’: “Busy chambers paused / their beating rhythm.  // Ventilation shafts tightened, / cutting off the air supply.” telegraphs its ending, and does not.  ‘Glutton’ is included for a carnivorous grin:

“He pulls my teeth away from his belly / both hands at my shoulders, implores // Tell me you want me…”

Commended Poems

Things You Have Slaughtered

Arabesque

Glutton

Belly Sea

Resident Ghosts

Heirs

In the Attic

Chalk Lines

The Night My Brother Died

 

Highly Commended

Care Home

Life Drawing

Stretching a Spare Day

 

‘Care home’ belongs to the common themes. It announces the grave doubts of our leaving behind the older generation with a few, well-chosen scenes.

“We politely ignore her screams… /until the sounds fall apart / In the rusty lock of her throat”

‘Stretching a Spare Day’ has its shop store moment for the senior citizen, “a tinge of dodder in her voice” returning a purchase:  “The queue fall silent – all ogling oil…” I relished that: “all ogling oil.”

‘Life Drawing’, delineates the ancient impulse to capture the world in acts of creation.  Sparely written, it enjoys the contrast of its material:

“Charcoal smuts darken paper:
cave-dweller daubs. Burnt twigs
squeak, shiver.”

Winners

‘Arrival in Leh’, Third Place.  This is a difficult, breathing episode as altitude dictates the pace of the poem which is sensible, uncomfortable and complete.  A 14 liner, if not exactly a sonnet, it is expertly constructed. Take this pattern for instance: “… tsampa noodles / … but polite / … like a noose drawn tight.”  The sequence finishes: “High living has its price.”

‘Keen ‘, Second Place.  I needed two readings to accept a lack of punctuation and a few objections might be raised if the poem was work-shopped.  But that would be unlikely. I have not included an excerpt as the poem is all of a piece.

‘Trap’, First Place.  It took several readings to be sure of its coherence, though from the first the poem’s blamefulness is clear enough.  Quick, short rhyming stanzas were accurate and complicated. The ending is neatly sprung, too clever for its prey, for whom it opens:

“Your false moon
has baffled their systems
and angled them in…”

Me too.  With my best wishes and gratitude to all the entrants to what has been, for me, an engaging collection of poems.

Dominic James.  09 July 2014.

 
The Results
Commended Poems
Things You Have Slaughtered by Virginia Astley (Dorset, UK)
Arabesque by Jeanine Stevens (Sacramento, USA)
Glutton by Jasmine Ann Cooray (London, UK)
Belly Sea by Sophie Fenella Robinski (London, UK)
Resident Ghosts by Eileen Carney Hulme (Forres, UK)
Heirs by Angela Arnold (Oswestry, UK)
In the Attic by Martin Parker (Dorset, UK)
Chalk Lines by Sophie Fenella Robinski (London, UK)
The Night My Brother Died by Tracy Davidson (Stratford-On-Avon, UK)
 
Highly Commended
Care Home by RME Thornhill (Bristol, UK)
Life Drawing by David Butler (Co Wicklow, Eire)
Stretching a Spare Day by Angela Arnold (Oswestry, UK)
3rd Prize
Arrival in Leh by Hugh Sullivan
2nd Prize
Keen by Daniel Roy Connelly (Rome, Italy)
1st Prize
Trap by Mark Totterdell (Exeter, UK)

SENTINEL LITERARY QUARTERLY SHORT STORY COMPETITION (MAY 2014) An Adjudication Report

by Catherine Edmunds

 

First came the sifting. With over 100 stories to read, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to read each one cover to cover half a dozen times. I would have to make a decision about which would repay re-reading, and which wouldn’t, so the first thing I did was to read the first few paragraphs of each story and decide if I wanted to go any further. If I did, it went on the re-read pile. If it didn’t grab me, for the sake of fairness I made myself read to the very end to make sure I wasn’t missing a gem. This way every single story was ensured at least one read all the way through. If people take the trouble to write these stories and send them in, they must get a fair reading.

 

The stories which didn’t progress any further at this point were not terrible. They were all literate, all had something to say – they simply didn’t say it well enough, or in a way that mattered, a way that was going to stay with me long after I finished them. Many didn’t feel new. I had read them before – not these specific stories, but stories very similar, full of comfortable expressions that could slip easily into dozens of other stories without any noticeable change of voice. Some were clearly aimed at children. I’m not a child. There are specific competitions for children’s stories, just as there are specific competitions for Romance, a genre which along with sci-fi and fantasy will rarely do well in a specifically literary competition where the bar is set that much higher. Some stories were so cosy and gentle I felt as if I’d eaten a Cornish cream tea, indulging in one scone too many with extra butter, a huge dollop of over-sweet strawberry jam and – you get the idea. I could imagine them being read aloud in writing groups and the writer being told, ‘Oh, that’s so lovely! You must send it in!’ A useful rule of thumb: if anyone tells you your story is ‘lovely’, there’s something very wrong with it – unless you’re aiming for the sort of magazine that takes ‘lovely’ stories.

 

What I was looking for was something with spark, with originality; something different to anything I had read before. Most of all, I was looking for genuine literature, with resonance that would stay with me long after I’d finished reading. I wanted to learn something new about the human condition, not necessarily in a grand, earth-shattering way, but in a way that would leave my world-view subtly changed as a result of the reading. There is no reason why a ‘feel good’ story shouldn’t do this, but just as a beautiful melody in a minor key is likely to move you more than a cheeky little tune, so the stories with a deep sadness, with genuine ache, are the ones that will stay with you, the ones that matter. That doesn’t mean stories have to be miserable. I would never pick up a ‘misery memoir’ as such things rely merely on a facile manipulation of emotions, on trickery. The genuine literary story, on the other hand, has depth and layers upon layers of meaning. It will make the reader work hard to prise out every last nuance, it will be cathartic, it won’t dole out emotions on a plate for the reader to ingest and then excrete at the earliest opportunity. The genuine literary story also never has talking animals – or that’s what I thought until I read the third placed story. There are always exceptions.

 

Luckily I found plenty of stories that made me want to linger over them and re-read. I made a long-list of around twenty-five stories of the best, and spent a long time whittling them down. Inevitably, some good stories were discarded, but I finally reached a top six.

 

I’ll talk a little about the ones I picked as highly commended first. These were all strong stories that repaid many re-readings and thoroughly deserved their placing.

 

‘Mary, Mary’ takes what could have been a stock subject: a social worker who allows his feelings towards a client to get out of hand, with disastrous consequences. In this storyteller’s hands, however, the situation is turned it into something dark, tragic and deeply affecting. The author clearly knows and has experience of people with Mary’s difficulties so the context rings true and the ‘world’ of the story is completely authentic. The heartbreak lies in its inevitability, given the character of the protagonist. This is the world of Greek tragedy: a hero with a fatal flaw that will be his downfall, and there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it. The best stories can only have one outcome. If there’s any artifice, any misleading, any fake twist in the tale, they’ve failed. This one couldn’t have gone any other way.

 

‘The Cult of Click And Clack’ is a gripping tale about what happens when your passion, your obsession for your art goes way beyond safe limits. The story is nightmarish and hallucinogenic, but it never descends into melodrama because the drawing of the characters is so strong and convincing. These are real people. Tom is a writer, Jenny a photographer. Tom is writing a book called ‘How To Kill Your Wife and Still Sleep Soundly’. His computer ‘killed’ his first draft, so now he types on an old Imperial typewriter. He has bad knees, and takes strong painkillers which have dodgy side-effects. Jenny is a conceptual photographer, fascinated by the technicalities of her new hobby. She is obsessive and disastrously competitive. Foxes scream as the story is played out in a domestic North London setting between waterbed and bathroom. To say this story is original is an understatement. I have never read anything remotely like it.

 

‘A Blackpool Winter’ is only 709 words long, but it doesn’t need to be any longer. It’s complete, and it proves, not that it needs proving, that word limits in short story competitions are just that – limits – and you should never write up to the limit just for the sake of it. With this particular piece, the entire story is effectively told in the first few lines – and that is always a sign of a writer who knows exactly what they’re doing. The rest of the writing fleshes everything out, adds the necessary details to turn it into a full story, and, most importantly, proves the original premise. The plot involves knot-tying, library books, attempted suicide and redemption, but it’s also a love story, and it has a wonderful wit and lightness of touch. There’s a lot fitted into its 709 words, but it never feels rushed. This is highly skilled writing, and the story would have slipped into the top three, had it not been beaten by a whisker by the third placed story.

 

In third place, I put ‘Along Came A Spider’. The narrator, a recovering alcoholic who is crippled by gout, lies in a hospital bed and chats to his neighbour, Mr Urbach, an elderly man who was rescued by the Kinder Transport during WW2. The narrator’s recovery from alcoholism started when a spider called Mr Churchill climbed out of the plaster cast on his leg while he was lying in a gutter outside a seedy Bermondsey pub. He doesn’t remember how he broke his leg, but on the advice of the spider, he has the cast removed. Mr Churchill is long gone, but the healing process is continuing with the help of Mr Urbach, who tells the narrator tales of his childhood escape from the continent to England. There is a gentle confusion to this complex tale, a dreamlike melding of the two men’s experiences which enhances the heart of the story. The image that lingers longest is that of the bench on a cliff top overlooking the sea, seen at a distance at first, but close up by the end.

 

In second place, I put ‘At Lunch, Football’. As I’ve already mentioned, we are often bombarded with well-meaning ‘rules’ on how to write good short stories. This story blithely breaks pretty much all of them, and proves categorically that good writing doesn’t need the sort of facile rules you see all too often on the internet. If the technique, the sheer craft is in place, the rules can be broken. For example, we are always being told that a story of 1500 words can’t cope with more than two, or maybe three main characters, but this one has a huge cast, far too many for such a short story (the rules would say) and they’re all important. Then there’s how you construct a story. This one doesn’t have a nice clear three act structure of beginning, middle and end. Far from it. Also, we’re told that an omniscient viewpoint is old hat, that we should focus in and tell from one point of view. This story breaks that one with a vengeance. It’s about a group of diverse characters kicking a football around in their lunch break, only we don’t see much football; we just get brief character sketches, paragraph by paragraph. That’s the story. Doesn’t sound much told like that. So how come a second place? Because this story insists that you read it over and over and over again, learn all the characters, learn their relationship with each other, their histories, what makes them do what they do; it insists that you ache for them all, but particularly for Jill, the one female character, because of what Mr McLintock did, that one, terrible night. This exceptional story would have been the winner had it not been pipped at the post by a story that in many ways I hated, but judging literary competitions isn’t about loving or hating the stories; it’s about which one’s the best.

 

So, the winner – ‘Family Matters’. If I were a harassed slushpile reader who had a bus to catch, I might have read the first paragraph, thought, ‘You have got to be joking’ and thrown it on the floor, then run for my bus, trying my hardest to get those images out of my mind. I might have caught my bus, but the images would have stuck. Luckily, I’m not a slushpile reader in a hurry. I read the first paragraph, thought, ‘Blimey! Urrghh!’ and put it on the pile to read further. I wasn’t looking forward to the experience. This story hurts. This is not one to read in your doctor’s waiting room, this is not the story you will ever see in a women’s magazine even though – as the title says – it deals with family matters, just as a comfortable magazine might do. Family matters equals brothers and sisters, kids, parents, right? Yes, but that’s a misreading. This is not about matters to do with families as much as the fact that your family matters. The first paragraph is painful, but the thing that makes the story for me is the very last sentence, which is so beautifully done it hurts even more. And there’s another thing – I remember from my own childhood the cloud that forms when Dettol is poured into water. Whoever would have thought such a simple image could be so poignant, so devastating? This is true literary fiction; difficult, painful, searing, heartbreaking and from an entirely different universe to those ‘lovely’ stories I mentioned earlier. This is writing.

 

Thank you writers! I’ve had the pleasure of reading a huge variety of stories, from one written entirely in witty rhyming couplets, to warm little domestic tales, from talking animals to historical fiction, thrillers and mysteries. In the end, however, it was the memory of a long walk on a distant summer’s night that clinched the victory for the writer of ‘Family Matters’.

 

 

Catherine Edmunds, 2nd July 2014

 

 

ADMINISTRATOR’S NOTE

Many thanks to Catherine for the patience in staying with this competition which combines entries from February and May 2014. At the end of the entry period our February competition entries were rolled over to the May competition because the entries had been too few to make the contest viable. Three entrants requested and received refunds of their entry fees but the rest stayed with us. In the end the judge had 121 short stories to judge and reading her report above I suspect she had great fun and these stories will make great reading when they are published in Sentinel Literary Quarterly.

 

THE RESULTS

 

Now to match those stories with their authors.

 

Highly commended

 

Mary, Mary by David Higgins (St Helena’s Island, South Atlantic)

The Cult of Click And Clack by Wendy Ogden (Eastbourne, UK)

A Blackpool Winter by Debbie Jay (Southampton, UK)

 

3rd Prize

Along Came A Spider by by Wendy Ogden (Eastbourne, UK)

 

2nd Prize

At Lunch, Football by Debbie Jay (Southampton, UK)

 

1st Prize

Family Matters by Debbie Jay (Southampton, UK)

 

Read the full Adjudication Report here>>

Submissions to SLQ

Submissions to Sentinel Literary Quarterly are on-going, and we are now accepting submissions for the October 2014 and January 2015 issues.

The over-delayed January – March and April-June 2014 issues are to be released within this month of June. Profuse apologies for the delay.

Please note the addresses for submissions are:

Short Stories and excerpts from long fiction to fictioneditor@sentinelquarterly.com

Poems to poetryeditor@sentinelquarterly.com

Plays, Interviews, Reviews and Essays to editor@sentinelquarterly.com

Get the full submissions information here.