And the Winner is…

The fabulous Martin Figura has finished judging the Fledgling Award for the best “first book” by a poet over the age of forty, and we are both delighted to announce that the prize goes to:

Jemma Borg – The Illuminated World.

Jemma BW-14 (2)

Photo: Anne-Sophie Olive

Martin sent generous comments in his Judge’s Report about the ten books he read:

“A couple of years ago, I flippantly posted on Facebook that I was too old for a Gregory, too Young to die. It got a certain mileage, a good old moan about the young taking everything, or the usual suspects winning existing prizes. There was talk of creating a prize for the over fifties publishing a first collection. I got as far as setting up an event, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of The Who’s My Generation and then failed to organise it. Luckily Judi Sutherland is made of sterner stuff and via her Stare’s Nest instigated the Fledgling Award for a first collection from a writer over 40 and asked me to judge the first one; I could hardly say no.

A few weeks ago I was delighted to receive ten collections/pamphlets ( filtered from 35 by Judi) , they were:

Jemma Borg The Illuminated World (Eyewear Publishing)
Meg Cox Looking at Sodom Over My Shoulder (Hen Run)
Barbara Cumbers A Gap in the Rain (Indigo Dreams Publishing)
Leslie Ingrams Scumbled (Cinnamon Press)
Camilla Lambert Grapes in the Crater (Indigo Dreams Publishing)
Di Slaney Dad’s Slideshow (Stonewood Press)
Frances Spurrier The Pilgrim’s Trail (Cinnamon Press)
Mark Totterdell This Patter of Traces (Overstep Books)
Matthew West Seagulls and Spitfires (Ravenshead Press)
Ruth Wiggins Myrtle (The Emma Press)

After much deliberation, the result is . . .

1st Jemma Borg The Illuminated World (Eyewear Publishing)
2nd Ruth Wiggins Myrtle (The Emma Press)

Highly Commended:

Di Slaney Dad’s Slideshow (Stonewood Press)
Leslie Ingram Scumbled (Cinnamon Press)
Barbara Cumbers A Gap in the Rain (Indigo Dreams Publishing)

I’m sorry not to reward the dry wit of Meg Cox, the explorations of Camilla Lambert, Matthew West’s curious take on Southampton’s historical connection to the Spitfire, Frances Spurrier’s keen observations and Mark Totterdell’s respectful and erudite elegies to the Earth’s creatures; but choices must be made.

Highly commended is Lesley Ingram’s Scumbled. Scumbled is a full collection of ekphrastic poems that take as their starting point the narrative collages and stylised works by the digital artist Maggie Taylor. It is easy to get ekphrastic poetry wrong, to simply describe what you see or drift off into abstract notions. To sustain a full collection on a single artist, especially one whose work is so distinctive, is a considerable achievement. Lesley Ingram’s love of Taylor’s work is palpable which gives the poems a strong foundation, but it’s where she takes them that is the key to the poems’ success. I must confess I find the images themselves a little slick and (dreaded word) ‘dreamlike’. They make seductive book covers, as is the case here. I prefer the poems within. Lesley will probably hate me for this, but I would read the poems without looking at the images, or at least read the poems first and let them feed your imagination. She succeeds by taking the images and creating new mysteries, that awaken the imagination – I love the Zebra, I use/its stripes/like a comb.

Also Highly Commended is Di Slaney’s Dad’s Slideshow – a beautifully designed small pamphlet from Stonewood Press. Another ekphrastic collection! As a photographer I’m wary of poems that use photography (it’s alright for me to do it, obviously). It’s a bit like when you see your job portrayed in a television drama – it’s nothing like that! you shout at the screen. Fortunately Di Slaney has produced a beautiful and evocative book, which gets photography exactly right. There’s a Roland Barthes quote, that defines this book better than anything I might say: ‘All photographs are momento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.’ This is from his seminal Camera Lucida (a perfect companion to this collection), where his stated aim was to explore photography for sentimental reasons, not as a question, but as a wound. The title Dad’s Slideshow made me worry that the poems might be too sentimental, but they walk that line with great skill. The raw love and emotion of family is unravelled poem by poem like a loose thread: Now you’ve mentioned it, I can see clearly// There’s wool in every frame. Background/and foreground, on bodies, on shelves – nearly everyone is wearing something knitted. ….with just enough stitches keeping us protected.

The third highly commended goes to Barbara Cumbers for her collection A Gap in the Rain. Barbara Cumbers is a geologist and she draws on this to great effect; this collection has us scrabbling about in the rocks amongst the rattlesnakes and scorpions. In the first two thirds many of the poems are metaphors for the writer’s own life and its struggles. What saves them from self-involvement is what has brought her through, her love and gentle engagements with the natural world. On Page 48, those earlier contemplations come joyfully to life in the poem Hibernation’s End an elegy to the hedgehog, old boot brush of benevolence. Here’s the last stanza in its entirety:

Small pig of undergrowth, fill the nights
with your huge piggy noises. The earth
is turned. Shake winter from your spiky hair.
Wake up now, and eat.

From here on in, there is a glorious parade: cats, wasps, surprising goats and stag beetles to name but a few. Music issues forth too, even a traffic jam becomes a haven: Glenn Gould still plays/like water flowing, singing to himself/as water does…. Towards the end of this book, I’ve turned over the corner of nearly every page for repeated reading, just for the pleasure of it.

The Runner Up is Myrtle by Ruth Wiggins, a small riot of a book and another nicely designed one (The Emma Press). There are only twenty-two poems in this pamphlet, but they fizzle and crack along, searing themselves on to your retina. Ruth Wiggins harnesses the ancient and modern to bring us love and death at their most visceral; here is someone who has found a confident distinctive voice. It can be poignant, laugh out loud funny and rude all in one breath – This afternoon you fucked me, right out/of my pyjamas and into yours. It is razor sharp in its dissection. And probably/ usurping girls to boot, /who I suppose I’ll just/have to learn to kill. She can also handle subjects with great sensitivity and insight, as in On Fear of Your Flying – I Place a palm to my belly, kick-start/your clutch of cells feel them startle//into memento mori, keepsakes,/poppets, a widow’s company. She comes at myths such as Leda with a pleasing originality: her furious/knit-one-purl throughout the night. Above all she celebrates language, as in Crawk – Prefers the glitter/of earthworms to trinkets, /gutterwater to fizz.

The winner, Jemma Borg’s The Illuminated World is breath-taking in its scope and ambition. I think it’s worth saying that many small presses such outshine the big boys in designing books that are a pleasure to behold – none more so than Eyewear – I digress. It takes some nerve, and time, to build a collection like this and pull it off. Jemma Borg is a well-travelled scientist and environmentalist and brings a fierce intelligence and the wonder of the whole universe to her work, and yet the poems remain human in scale, as expressed at the end of The MathematicianThere were some things/of which he could be certain. The rest was love. This is the balance she manages to hold with great elegance and skill – the jellyfish – /drop again as a heart does into sorrow…..we invented heaven,/imagining sky as a fish might the land:/alien, beautiful on our tongue. These are poems, that, to quote Paul Farley, ‘get around the back of these Big Safe Themes’. She brings us grandeur, but also the humble sensory detail of the everyday as demonstrated in The Black Paintings of Hong Kong.- ….in this city of glass,/from its irreligious towers, perpetually lit,/and from the street sellers’ oil and fizz//and oxtail broth, among the writhing crabs/and the stink of incense and piss,/and the ringing bell… The collection is at its most moving, when at its most personal, as in A summer diary, a poem about the struggle to conceive, is a tender poem of longing and for life, ending with: on the nothingness/ an ’O’ of breath and then another ‘O’ and another.

This is a book with science at its heart, but it is a beating heart that continues to reward, even after three readings and will I’m sure give more over time. It is a clear and deserved winner.”

So, copious thanks to everyone who sent a submission – it has been a pleasure to read them – and a huge thank you to Martin for judging. We are thinking about a prizegiving / winners’ reading in the autumn. Please watch this space!



Fledgling Shortlist

At last, lovely Poets, I have looked through all the wonderful entries for the Fledgling Award, and thank you all – your marvellous poems have buoyed me up in distressing times. If you didn’t make the shortlist I am very sorry, but with hand on heart I can say there was a lot to enjoy in each of the competition entries. You rock!

With much soul-searching I have selected ten books to send on to our judge, Martin Figura, and they are these:

Jemma Borg – The Illuminated World
Meg Cox – Looking Over My Shoulder at Sodom
Barbara Cumbers – A Gap in the Rain
Lesley Ingram – Scumbled
Camilla Lambert – Grapes in the Crater
Di Slaney – Dad’s Slideshow
Frances Spurrier – The Pilgrim’s Trail
Mark Totterdell – This Patter of Traces
Matthew West – Seagulls and Spitfires
Ruth Wiggins – Myrtle

Congratulations to our shortlistees and good luck to you all for the judging stage!

I also have heard rumours of a Fledgling Prize reading in Norwich in the autumn – more details to follow soon. Exciting! I’m going to have to devise a Trophy.