1st Face - Elaine Chiew, London
2nd A Pocket Guide to Infidelity for Girls - Joanna Quinn, Bournemouth, Dorset
3rd Little Bad - Sara Levine, Evanston, USA
Runners-up (alphabetical order)
One for you, one for me - Lorna Bruce, Larbert, Scotland
On such a night - Sarah Evans, Welwyn Garden City, Herts
Curl Up and Dye - Fran Landsman, Bath
Going for a Turkish - Guy Mitchell, London
Portrait of a Lady - Anna Raverat, London
The Greenhouse Effect - Geraldine Ryan, Chester-le-Street, Durham
Breathing - Amy Shuckburgh, London
Irrational Acts - Eve Thomson, Edinburgh
On the Edge - Hilary Wilce, Hawkhurst, Kent
The Butcher and the Thief - Matthew Wright, Hamnavoe Burra, Shetland
1st Still Water, Orange, Apple, Tea - Anne Stewart, Orpington, Kent
2nd Finistère - Elizabeth Speller, Cirencester, Gloucestershire
3rd Time-Travel - Ama Bolton, Wells, Somerset
Runners-up (alphabetical order)
One of us had already tipped the waiters - Sally Flint, Exeter, Devon
In the garden - John Gerard, Cork, Eire
The Novices - Christopher James, Haverhill, Suffolk
Travel - Chelsea Jennings, Seattle, USA
View from Bulbarrow - Jenifer Kahawatte, Dover, Kent
The Joy of Fitze - Hilary Menos, Totnes, Devon
Three Six Five Zero - Conor O’Callaghan, Manchester
The Path - David Swann, Brighton, E Sussex
Percival Lowell - Rosamund Kleïs Taylor, Dublin, Eire
Wild Turkey - Anne Pierson Wiese, New York, USA
The Dorset Award
A Pocket Guide to Infidelity for Girls - Joanna Quinn, Bournemouth, Dorset
The first thing to say is this: if your own story is not on the list of winners, do remember that all such competition judging is subjective, and that every judge has his or her blind spots. You should also know that your stories went through a team of ten careful and skilled reader-sifters before the short-listed manuscripts landed on my doormat. Astonishingly, this short-list represented just a small percentage of the total number of entries, so if your name is here you can feel very pleased with yourself.
I found that many of the stories I read improved as they went on – after an unpromising first page or so, they would often get into their stride and be really impressive towards the end (and I include the winner of first prize in this observation). This is not ideal, for the short-story reader’s patience is far more limited than that of the novel reader, and out in the real world any story which does not harness the reader’s attention on its first page (indeed with its first paragraph, its first sentence) will likely be cast aside. The problem is easily remedied – take more trouble. Many stories on this list read as first or second drafts. Also, when in doubt, cut. At least half the stories I read would have benefited from being shorter. Short stories often are short. I smiled when I read the covering letter which arrived with the stories from head story-sifter Jon Wyatt – ‘You would not believe the number of stories that purport to be 4998 words long.’ Just because there is a limit of 5000 words for the Bridport Prize, you don’t have to meet it. Is that length the right length for the story you are writing? If not – cut!
The stories that most satisfied me had the ring of emotional truth as well as some sort of intentional shape or form. Several short-listed entries reminded me afresh that although a slice-of-experience piece of writing may be moving as a document of pain, unless it is transformed by art it is not a story. Also, the choice of ostensibly weighty subject matter (for example, terrorism and natural disasters) does not in itself guarantee a good or well-written story – in fact, perversely, it often does quite the opposite.
A surprising number of these stories were written in the present tense. The accepted wisdom seems to be that this will increase their sense of immediacy and emphasise dramatic moments. I’m not so sure – the present tense can also lead to a sort of solemn, frozen, sitting-on-the-fence quality. This is emphatically not the case, however, with the winning story, Face, where the present tense is used to recount an old woman’s moment-bymoment perceptions of a quietly devastating day. Dramatised in short telling scenes, alternating dialogue with the main protagonist’s observations and memories, Face is powered by real emotional honesty.
A Pocket Guide to Infidelity for Girls, winner of the second prize, uses both the present tense and the tricky second-person viewpoint, as pioneered by Jay McInerney in Bright Lights, Big City. This viewpoint is good for a wired-but-detached tone when describing addiction of one sort or another – here, that of a young woman’s obsession for her married lover, told with utterly convincing intensity. In third place, Little Bad, a story about parents coming to terms with their two-year-old daughter’s diagnosis of epilepsy, shows some rare, welcome pleasure in language. Even if the word play is not quite in Dorothy Parker’s league – ‘good cope, bad cope’ – the bravely wise-cracking dialogue and drily witty tone give the story extra poignancy, particularly in its second half.
Of the ten other winners, Irrational Acts contained some excellent vivid lines and powerful images, but needed work on its shape and general coherence. The Greenhouse Effect, too, rambles on confusingly – at times I was tempted to rename it Under the Influence – but after a while demands to be read aloud, its energy contained in a sort of syncopated forward momentum. On Such a Night is another story which gets better as it goes along; at first I was put off by less-than-careful writing (for example, the main protagonist is ‘self-depreciating’) but found myself gripped by the second half.
Curl Up and Dye is a blackly comic story about old age and death which put me in mind of Muriel Spark’s brilliant Memento Mori. One for You, One for Me was as short and sharp as the slaps exchanged in it; I admired its scene-splicing and vigour. On the Edge was a well-structured story about new parents torn between the buzz of city life and the sunlit patios of the suburbs (it was a shame about ‘Berkhampstead’, though, as misspellings shake the reader’s confidence in the writer). Portrait of a Lady, describing the aftermath of a husband jumping ship, is told in a fluent chatty voice with a nicely-judged edge of hysteria. Breathing is an oblique account of the disintegration of a marriage, sensitively written from a child’s viewpoint.
Finally, the contrast between two very different stories reminded me of an interesting distinction Angela Carter made between the short story and the tale – ‘The tale does not log everyday experience, as the short story does,’ she wrote in her afterword to Fireworks. The casual prolixity and naturalistic surface of Going for a Turkish lulls the reader along so that when an apparently comic character begins to issue threats it is all the more alarming. However, The Butcher and the Thief is quite different in method and approach – brief and elliptical, with repeated motif-like images of meat and fruit, this is definitely a tale rather than a short story.
‘Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose’: an over-quoted remark of Ezra Pound’s; and here I am quoting it again, since maybe the lesson still has to be learned by some. Pound didn’t mean written like prose, of course, though while judging this prize I did sometimes find it difficult to say why the piece of writing in front of me deserved to be called a poem. I mean, it was a piece of writing all right; but a poem? Who says?
Poems can seem a cinch – they don’t have to fill the page, the lines stay shy of the margin: no problem. Take a look at your Waitrose list. Seem a contender? Could be… There are ways of telling, sure, but that doesn’t mean I can offer the formula for a poem. The very notion of ‘formula’ is nonsense, though too often there was evidence that formulaic constituents had been applied: the emotion encapsulated, the shining moment preserved, the opinion flagged. What I can say is that a significant number of poems among those I was sent made me itch to give notes: a line too far; a redundant grace-note; a leaden sound in the music; a sudden string of dead adjectives; a wilful line- or stanza-break; a piece going along quite nicely until the expected arrived with a blind eye and a heavy hand. It’s not that the batch contained an unusually large proportion of total duds; more that I was frustrated by the missed chances, the near things, the close calls. It’s one thing to Frisbee a poem into the ‘nix’ box because the bum notes in the first couple of lines told you all you needed to know; it’s quite another to have thirty or so ‘maybes’ buzzing round your head like illtempered hornets. You know, really, that the poem won’t do; on the other hand, it so nearly does, and a nip here and a tuck there would have sent it to the ‘this clicks’ box. In the end, the ‘needs a fix’ box was the one that overflowed which is, frankly, a crying shame.
I had said I’d be looking for poems that didn’t seem to be a first or a second draft (or even a third) and I was moved to wonder how many of the poems silted up round my ankles had benefited from serious revision. If the answer is not many, that’s annoying. If it’s quite a few, that’s depressing. I’d find myself re-considering a poem for the tenth time and thinking, ‘No, look, if he/she can write this line, and this line, and this line, how in hell did this line get in? More than that, how did it manage to get in and lock the door?’ It’s not a matter of being original: that word isn’t at all what it seems; you can write about death or loss or sorrow or love, of course you can; just don’t do it as if you had everything to hand from the outset. You need to be looking over your own shoulder; you need to be the sceptical voice in your ear.
Since I seem to be in the business of quoting the over-quoted, I might as well iterate the opinion of a few (hundred) poets who have taught or judged, and say that it’s pretty clear that not enough people who write poems read poems. In truth, it’s not an option. If you want to stand a prayer of writing well you have to be well-read. It’s more a question of absorption than of copying, though influence is a necessary stage, something to be got through and not at all unpleasant: much like a slight illness during which you take to your bed, drink whisky, gain resistance to the bug, and emerge to write better than before. Beyond all that, of course, there’s a small matter of aptitude, which, in its more mysterious and potent version, might be called ‘gift’. It’s there or it’s not. There’s no remedy for a tin ear; or, to put it another way, creativity can’t be taught. However, it can certainly be encouraged and celebrated by competitions like the Bridport Prize out of which, whether or not the year’s entry is more nix than clicks, good things always come, a fact made evident by the selection printed here: pieces of writing, all of them, that have a clear claim to be read as poems.
There were thousands of entries for this competition, of which I was sent several hundred. When you get down to the last twenty, ‘ability’ has long since given way to ‘touch’ and there are always reasons for shuffling the pack. A different day, a different way? Well, no, I think I’d always have made this pick though, of course, there were those that came close. You might say that, when I got to the final few, the discards were poems that worked, but didn’t work for me. In particular, each of the three prizewinners had caught my eye at once with a line or an image, or made me listen to its music: qualities that stayed with me and became more evident when I went back to read again.
My third choice, Time Travel, is a study in melancholy. It’s of a piece in tone and narrative drift alike. It carries a ghost-novel between its lines. The poem gains, I think, from remaining deliberately unemphatic; the lines do their work without becoming strident or sentimental. The list – letters, ration-book, photo, lock of hair – finally extends to encompass the mother who, by the time the piece closes, has become almost a part of the narrator’s collection. The deliberate retreat from questions, from the gently implied weight of risk in the past, provides a nicely-pitched emotional alternating (therefore tyrannical) clocks, seems to leave us on a held breath.
Second prize goes to Finistère, a poem of invocation, a chant, almost, that uses an insistent scheme of near-couplets to sustain its brief, fierce energies. Like the wind blowing through its lines, the poem doesn’t let up; images are strong and keen, not least the arresting ‘… here on the Pont du Raz the salted man leans in/to the force of the wind …’ – clever line-break, compelling set-up for the mind’s-eye. Repetition is a crucial aspect of invocation (and of lament) and here it has a dual purpose: as musical device and as charm, since names, in such a context, have talismanic properties. The rhythms of the poem are sustained in a way that provides emphasis, not least when an openly risky octameter causes the voice to rise and extend at just the moment when it becomes most anguished and darkly lyrical.
The winner is Still Water, Orange, Apple, Tea. It might be said that this poem is about nothing more than ‘I’m not you and don’t have to be’, but what marks it out is the way this emotional commonplace is adapted to language. I’m guessing that the poet found, as things progressed, that she wanted to frame the piece up so that no line lacked a surprise, and it’s pretty much paid off. I liked its briskness – celebratory but never cloying – and liked, too, the fine-tuning: the way the rhyme-scheme of the chosen form (a Petrarchan sonnet) works for a tone of voice that promotes brevity. Abruptness, in fact, is part of the deal: a sort of Post-It Note poetry, where the notes in question sing and tease and intrigue. There’s a real confidence in the way the poet has gone about getting her effects, and the internal energy builds nicely to the double entendre in the final line.