Judge’s Report, Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (March/April 2020)
By Mandy Pannett
The twelve poems selected quickly made their presence felt. Unfortunately, so did quite a few others which caused me quite a lot of uncertainty and mind-changing. There were at least another half a dozen or more poems that on another day or with another adjudicator would have reached a final pile. However, I could only select a certain number and I am delighted with them and full of admiration.
I have had the pleasure of judging several Sentinel competitions in the past and am familiar with certain themes that usually recur. This time a huge number of poems overwhelmingly reflect the times we are existing in, the sense of the living moment, the dilemmas and tragedies that fill our daily thoughts and actions. So many heart-felt poems about isolation, loneliness and loss.
There were lots of poems about birds. Loads of them. Have we become more aware of them? Do they sound louder and clearer in this strange silence? It would seem so.
Families too. There are always poems about mothers, fathers, children. Many more now as if we are extra aware of what is precious.
So what criteria influenced my choices? The usual ones of course – well-crafted poems, a strong feeling for assonance, consonance, effective rhyme, a love of words and an appreciation of their range, an understanding of layout, white space, pauses, line and stanza endings, memorable beginnings and endings. All these and, as I say, many of the entries fulfilled them. Several re-readings later I’ve come to the conclusion that what, for me, gives a poem its extra stand-out quality is the layering – a subtle quality whereby an image, an allusion, sometimes even the placing of a word build up to a depth and richness of associations, conscious and unconscious, for both writer and reader.
Many thanks to all the entrants for giving me an enjoyable batch of poems. Congratulations to the ones I have selected. Here are my reasons for choosing them.
1st: My Mother’s Hands
This poem struck me as outstanding as soon as I read the first lines: ‘A mouse was the first death I touched. Soft apostrophe cupped/from grass and carried to my mother’s scream.’ Further details, precise and tender, convinced me: ‘She urges oil/to each dry crease. His knuckles gnarled as root ginger.’ Then there is this image: ‘The yellowed pads I liked/that smelt of smoke. The raw flakes under her wedding ring.’ A poem about death. A poem about love. Compassionate and perfect.
2nd: How ASC Made Her Worth Her Weight in Birds
‘She writes a riddle with each step’ says the narrator in the last line and in many ways this complex and intriguing poem strikes me as a riddle. Then there are those wonderful images and metaphors – ‘The floor is a mystery of worms, a concealment of seeds,’ ‘The air is a flabbergast of blank, a fatigue of liberty.’ Many linguistic delights not least the evocation of sounds. ‘Pitter-scratch, patter-scratch’ is how the poem begins and continues throughout in this vein. There is fabulous writing here.
3rd: Nietzsche in Torino
This is my idea of how to achieve layering. I enjoyed the poem at first reading and when I looked up allusions I could not believe how cleverly and unobtrusively the poet had woven them in. Nietzsche, Gladwell, Ecco Homo, the tipping point – just the mention of them adds depth. ‘Lombardy in lockdown’ sums up the heartache of contagion. ‘We are where we are’ is the key line in the poem. An ambiguous statement that implies the sense of being stuck, being at a dead end but also, implicitly, the question ‘where next?’
Highly Commended: Flying Ointment
Another poem that leaped out of the pile from the first reading. It is original and sumptuous in linguistic devices. I love the Shakespearian tone of the piece, the images and subtle rhymes, the whole sound of the poem. If the winning three places had not already been taken, ‘Flying Ointment’ would have been one of them.
Highly Commended: Infested Waters
The opening is stark. We are instantly in the situation: ‘She birthed a baby shark.’ Most of the poem is written in this impersonal tone of detachment. Details are concise and hard hitting: ‘Her husband, leaving, said …’ Then we have the volte. She is trapped at home, drowning in ‘solitude.’ She is ‘alone.’ The ending is both poignant and shocking. A poem for our times.
Highly Commended: Wintering in Bloomsbury: 1981
This poem is outstanding in its creation of a sense of time and place. I particularly enjoyed the evocation of weather with its cold, grey fog and the lyricism of ‘the crackle of winter branches/freckled leaves splitting under icy arms.’ Details are perfect and the poem is brilliantly structured to bring in alternatives: ‘If it were Spring, I would join John Clare’ and ‘If Summer, I would lounge in parks.’
There is clever layering in this carefully structured poem. I needed to look up several words to uncover precise definitions – I imagine the author assumed the reader would do this – with the result that layers of isolation and loneliness are revealed. There are gems of language throughout such as ‘Eyes that fade to pools of/Green food dye’ and, in reference to texting, ‘’holes in the soles of my thumb.’
Commended: Hooked by Otters
The woman here is ‘hooked by otters’ and the title had the same effect on me. Details throughout are taken from the correspondence between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop but I didn’t need to know this fact to appreciate the lyricism and tenderness of this relationship poem. Fabulous writing.
This poem has been high on my list from the moment I read the stunning first line ‘She’s the brooch that pins the sky’s blue cape together.’ Every metaphor, every detail describing the peregrine, is perfect. The last stanza, where we realise the narrator is like a ‘powerless god,’ an observer hidden behind an ‘all-seeing lens,’ feels quite shocking in its impact.
Special Mention: It was the silence
I love the way this poem appeals to all the senses. There is a great opening image here of being ‘caught out’ for something ‘like the soft middle of a meringue.’ A perfectly crafted poem with the enticing hint of a there being more to tell.
Special Mention: Goreme
Two aspects of this poem especially attracted me. Firstly, the contrast in weather between the warm daytime and the November night and secondly the power and poignancy of the final stanza with its haunting phrase ‘not quite kissing me goodbye.’ A beautiful poem.
Special Mention: Period Charm
There is an intriguing back story here and a contrast between the interior of the elegant house and the chill silence of the mysterious Fens outside. A fine atmospheric poem which perfectly evokes a sense of unease, of ‘waiting for something’ on a cold, foggy-grey evening.
Many thanks, Mandy for a good job.
As I matched the poems with their authors, I was pleased to see some familiar names;
Jocelyn Simms and Mark Totterdell, winners of the SLQ poetry competition (May 2016 and May 2014 respectively).
Gabriel Griffin (Second Prize winner) and Wendy Klein (Commended) in our February 2019 competition.
Al McClimens was highly commended in October 2011 and was commended in one of our fiercest competitions (September 2013) judged by Todd Swift. That competition was won by Jason Lytollis.
I love this history walk because it is a testament of the support the Sentinel Literary Quarterly competition enjoys. We will continue to treat the work of our entrants with care and respect.
I am pleased to introduce the winning entries for March/April 2020
Jocelyn Simms – It was the Silence
Mike Farren – Goreme –
Mary Williams – Period Charm (from The Viewing)
Nathaniel Frankland – Instagramophobe
Wendy Klein – Hooked by Otters
Mark Totterdell – Peregrine
Gabriel Griffin – Flying Ointment
Angelena Demaria – Infested Waters
Jeanine Stevens – Wintering in Bloomsbury: 1981
Al Mcclimens – Nietzsche in Torino
Jane Burn – How ASC Made Her Worth Her Weight in Birds
Cheryl Pearson – My Mother’s Hands