2013 Stanza Poetry Competition

Jan Bay-PetersenJan Bay-Petersen 

Brian ClarkBrian Clark 

Chris Bridge

'I begin to stink, brilliantly.'

Congratulations to this year's winner, Jan-Bay Petersen (from the Cambridge Stanza), and the two joint-runners up: Brian Clark and Chris Bridge, both from the York Stanza. All three were picked out by Neil Rollinson from 219 poems on the theme of 'drought' sent in (anonymously) by 155 poets - a record entry for this competition.

Neil also commended poems by Annette Volfing (Oxford II), Michael Scott (Swindon), Keith Bennett (Lymington), Jeri Onitskansky (London, Palmers Green), Olivia Dawson (Portugal), Jane Kite (Rural Yorkshire), Julie Corbett (York), Carole Bromley (York), David Van-Cauter (Letchworth, Poetry ID), and Will Kemp (York). 

This is the competition's seventh year, and is open exclusively to Poetry Society members who are also members of a Poetry Society Stanza. The winners are announced on National Poetry Day each year.

WINNER: Jan Bay-Petersen (Cambridge)
Owner of an emptiness

I am smooth, delicate, enclosed.
A mere sigh would ruffle my composure

but I live deep, where no breath falls.
Darkness is nothing to me, moisture is all.

I am forced to gulp the falling bucket, but deflect
the blaze of blue, the hands, the cameo head.

Once a child fell in. Vainglorious on the rim,
terrified in his fall. I drank deep of him.

There is less of me than there was. Every day, the pail
takes longer to fall, and longer still to fill.

Last week a cat tied to a heavy stone
was dropped in by a woman who loathes

this place, the man who dragged her here.
I begin to stink, brilliantly.

The nights have been restless with the bleats
of children, their mothers, thirsty goats.

When I cease to be a well
all of them will cease to be.

Jan Bay-Petersen is a New Zealander who came to Cambridge to do a Ph.D., and spent twenty years at an international agricultural centre in Taiwan. She worked with Asian scientists who collected technical information that could be used on small farms, and distributed it free of charge. She began writing poetry when she retired and came back to live in Cambridge. She has some poems published in recent issues of Artemis, North and The Interpreter’s House.

Jan: "This poem was started some time ago and then sat inert in a file. When I went back to it a few months ago, somehow it came alive: it felt like a hook that pulled out all sorts of unexpected stuff from my mind. I don’t really know where it came from, although I can remember seeing small farms in Asia after a typhoon and having a strong sense of how indifferent Nature is to the fate of human beings - like the well."

Neil Rollinson: "This is an intriguing psychological portrait of the 'personality' of the well, an object that has always harboured some of our deepest fears, but which also obviously feeds us (quenches our thirst). The portrait is nicely dark and sinister, with some wonderful imagery. Its interesting verbs and original, effective phrases, 'to stink, brilliantly', 'vainglorious on the rim' keep us interested the whole way through. It is a well-controlled poem, with an easy grace, well lineated, and thankfully, these days, clear."

JOINT RUNNER-UP: Brian Clark (York)


They dug up the dead
and knocked the church down.
We’d sung our last hymn on Sunday
filled to overflowing, in candlelight:
Now the day is over
night is growing nigh

everywhere flattened
and that was the end of West End.
They re-buried the already dead
in a forlorn field of gravestones
high up on Thruscross ridge
to mark a village that died
before its time, sacrificed
to satisfy the cities’ thirsts.

But they left the humpback bridge
where I used to watch brown trout
and from the fence that blocked the road
I saw the River Washburn rise
filled to overflowing.


    Thruscross reservoir
    drained by unforeseen dry seasons
    reveals its drowned, knocked-down history.

    The bridge rose again
    and I crossed it. 

Brian Clark returned to writing poems four years ago, since when he has won a variety of prizes and commendations including Ledbury, Barnet, Segora, and Poetry on the Lake. His work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in various anthologies. He is currently preparing his first collection in the hope of its publication. In 2012 he co-founded the Ryedale Writers group at Helmsley Arts Centre in North Yorkshire. He is a member of the York Stanza.

Brian: The theme of 'Drought' evoked a montage of evocative images: the quiet, unspoiled Yorkshire village of West End I visited regularly as a teenager; its evacuation and partial demolition in the sixties prior to the dam completion in 1966; then a lake for nearly a quarter of a century until the droughts of 1989/90 and that surreal experience of once again walking over the narrow stone hump-back bridge. I was almost tempted to write about the farmer I met who swore he could still hear the church bell tolling from the depths.

Neil Rollinson: "At first you think this is too obvious a subject for the theme of 'drought', but its first line really grabs you and its tight, elegant phrasing keeps you reading. There's a serious engagement with the subject and the poet keeps an enviable distance from it. It would be too easy to get emotionally involved and start reaching for the cliché manual here, and the stirring music (which it almost does at the end of the first stanza). How much more powerful is it to be equivocal? The last two lines are masterful."

JOINT RUNNER-UP: Chris Bridge (York)
In Time of Drought

Yesterday we scattered Frances on the moor,
placed her where coming over the fourth hill
you can at last see Whitby Abbey and the sea,
for her the start of childhood holidays.
The four of us - the old and older still -
standing in heather that was tinder dry,
spread gouts of ash that fluffed and breezed,
so we consigned her to our memories.

Fred shook the final specks; I took the urn. 'Listen,'
he said, 'Things were much better then. There were
real communities. Most families lived close by
and the lady two streets down did all the laying out.'
I want to challenge but the past is his safe place.
He goes there as the present dries, knowing the ash
will soon be his. We walk across a crumbling crust,
layers of yesterdays, kicked up, becoming dust.

They love these parts, so I drive them round. Memories
like sunshine bound across the moor. It's never
the same scene. Differently sad, we watch the land
stretch out, and flex to touch a vivid sky.
This winter's been too long. But as we turn for home
the thickening clouds begin to spill and spatter rain.
The dust first dances then subsides. She's gone;
it will be spring; it will turn green again.

Chris Bridge was born in Hull in 1947. Since graduating from Nottingham University he has had two parallel careers as teacher and writer. In the first he has been an English teacher for 40 years and a Headteacher for 17 of those years. He has also been an educational consultant working mostly with schools in difficulties. He has always written poems, stories and plays. In 1981 he wrote a school musical and took it to the Edinburgh Fringe. His poetry has been published in several magazines including Tribune, Scrip, Poetry Nottingham, Pennine Platform and Other Poetry. He was commended in the international Hippocrates Prize 2013. He lives in North Yorkshire.

Chris: "This poem has travelled a long way. I began by wanting to write about the fallibility of human memory. I put some elephants in the first version, by way of contrast, to highlight their accurate water-hole finding memories in time of drought. Then my Stanza group persuaded me to drop the elephants. The moment I did that the people from that sad spring day shouldered their way to centre stage and I found I could say everything I wanted to say through them, with sympathy, and still express my own faith in the future."

Neil Rollinson: "I always fancied this poem for one of the top three. Its narrative is deftly handled, managing to eschew the all too easy pitfall of sentimentality. I like that it just tells it straight. As Marianne Moore might say - Tell it as it is. Full of vibrant imagery, it has a touching understated tension and affection between the characters. It's a powerful poem. Very visual. The last stanza is admirably composed and the whole poem closes like a film."

Commended: Annette Volfing (Oxford II)

Bring it on

so we can crack
the very bones of summer,
pick them white and dry.

Let us pour out

another gin, then lie
as breathless as two bales
of tawny grass.

The sky is dust. My skin
drinks oil and butter
by the hour.

Even our sleep is singed.

Commended: Michael Scott (Swindon)
Clock Swallower

On another day he would be plucky Hector
or Chaska Star Spirit of the Selva
gazing gormless into CrocCam™.
This lifetime his film crew are eating sandwiches
and mocking up spider habitats in Borehamwood,
not staring into the fruitless eye sockets
of a dried up reptile on a Peruvian cocha.

A confiscated luxury belt buckle,
now way out of its league,
extracting a month old caiman
from a concreted sandbar
is not archaeology,
but requires skilled use of long nosed pliers
and sometimes fishing line through the nostrils.

He could have been a contender
he had it all - the malevolent grin of nasty poesy,
the back story of chip chip chipping the glossy egg
prehistoric mummy dumped on the bank,
the daily cut and thrust
with those freaky enemies in the lake.

The sky just got lower and lower,
like it does,
until one day
unable to slither to the safety
of an upturned pineapple under the sea,
his water ran out.

Commended: Keith Bennett (Lymington)
A Consultation on the Weather

We sent word to the pigman
it being the fifteenth of July
the jet stream screaming north
of Oban, grey weather, dry.

What starts without precipitation
will become impossible to beat
even just sitting sweating
was enough work in this heat.

There were thirty-nine steps to follow
each one drier than the last
enough to make a thirsty man shout
‘Enough, my throat’s thistle-furrowed
put an ice-berg in my glass.’
The pigman nodding yes, drought.

Commended: Jeri Onitskansky (London, Palmers Green)

It was the summer you taught me how to hurt
in the way your leaving would make me grow free,
your hands on mine as I hacked the sapling’s
knotted roots, releasing them to feed heartily underground.
I’d wished for the mercy of hidden springs:
outside our back gate the sleepy foal
at his mother’s teat and behind your distraction—
blue oases beaming kindness.
But when we flew to the ancient town,
our troubles were met by an Andalucian sun
leaving hills so parched that it was bells that nourished,
around the goats’ necks like tinkling rain
and also swinging high in the church tower.
From my side of the bed I dreamt
of the earth’s thirst. I pitied everything in that place
until out of our silence a passion vine
climbed the veranda without anything left to sustain it.
Taproots bound crumbling rock. Over our bodies
the air was lightheaded with lavender.

Commended: Olivia Dawson (Portugal)

This evening the air thick with resin
clings to our hair and skin

dust powders our lashes
and floats over stick-dry clothes

scattering ashes over shirts
pegged out like penitents.

Pine cones pop with heat
spitting seeds that twist

in a mad choreography
and a monster moon looms

through a bendy mirror
like a red balloon.

Papery fronds curl at the bottom
of the lily pond

and we race to fill it
to the brim with water for the birds

before we flee to the beach
to the salty incoming wind.

Commended: Jane Kite (Rural Yorkshire)

Today I have nothing to say.
Your mother’s breath was loaded
with dust from the mountains.
You were oil dunked on account
of the dryness. You slept all afternoon.
Your father called you pimpernel.

Today I have nothing to say.
Your mother’s eyes were blue, not black,
your father traded olives for a gun,
stole swallows out of their nests.

Today I have nothing to say.
I would feed you almonds and oranges.
Your sweet name gluts my throat.
You were gone for weeks.
I came outside and scoured the sky,
found you asleep in the sun.

Commended: Julie Corbett (York)
These Roses

Become dark, more muted shades of crimson
as they reach their permanent wilting point.

Remarks about romantic weekends away
one subject in a thorny bunch of talk.

Fretting over choices, asparagus in season,
potted Cromer crab or watercress soup.

We courted through an English drought.
Married in one that became a must have

designer accessory for rock and roll stars,
had us singing and dancing in parks and streets

for a while. Things change or maybe it starts
to rain. Yes, maybe it starts to rain.

Commended: Carole Bromley (York)
Sunday Evening, 1941

after the painting by Russell Drysdale

Last night I dreamt I was a bairn again
back home in a Perthshire garden,
mouth open to catch snowflakes.

I woke before I could taste them.
It was dawn and already the sun
was torching the trees. I lifted the sack

and looked out; no green shoots cracking
the parched earth, just red desert,
his bike propped on the gum tree,

my washing line – trousers, short pants,
grey nappies. In the distance blue hills.
My man planted firm as a pitchfork,

all skin and bone, right hand
in trouser pocket, nonchalant.
At his side the wee laddie.

Now I sit, legs apart, on the kerosene can,
behind me the lassie, legs astride, barefoot
next to the water-butt.

My hands, big and brown now,
cradle the baby. There is nothing
to feed us here if the rains don’t come;

all we have are a hut, a patch of earth,
and this bonny bairn
newly lifted from the water bowl.

Commended: David Van-Cauter (Letchworth, Poetry ID)
The Orchid

The end of term,
a long, dry spell.
Someone gave you an orchid with seven flowers.

On the mantelpiece,
each pink head seemed to loll its tongue,
its mouth wide open,

holding its breath,
clinging to the stalk
that drooped to the left.

We fed the orchid, watered it,
and then the good news came.
The image showed us nothing more

than a tiny dot,
but you kept it by your bed,
kissed it at night.

We encased our secret,
spent those hot days
trying not to spill,

every day
another notch
on the strained barometer.

A hosepipe ban,
and the garden was crying
long, dry tears.

It took six weeks
for the first flower head to fall
and the rain to come:

the garden spread out like a swan,
its wings drinking the air.

Commended: Will Kemp (York)
July 1976

Everywhere hot, still.

A shimmer above
the corn melts

the blue cavern
of the distant woods.

Wimbledon pick-pocks
on television sets

as Liz and I bike
up Vicarage Lane,

sun flitting through
the trees, then run

over that striped lawn
to dive at last

into the Johnsons’ pool.