Bristol Poetry Prize 2018 Results


Judge Helen Ivory's statement

helen ivorysqweb

It was a pleasure to judge The Bristol Poetry Prize. It is always a big responsibility to judge prizes – especially when you are sole judge. You are frightened that you will miss something so read everything very carefully, alert to the fact that there are so many ways to write a poem. With some, it’s clear from the beginning how the poem is going to end and that the writer knew pretty much what they were going to say when they sat down to write. These poems, I tend to put aside after first reading. With others, there is the excitement of not knowing where the poem is going, and sometimes the added bonus of not knowing how the poem got to where it ended up. There is a kind of poetic sleight-of-hand at work – poet as magician - which made me put these types of poem in my ‘read again’. pile.

None of this means that the first type of poem is not written from a genuine poetic impulse, by a human being with human feelings and what they have to say is in any way, wrong. It simply means that the poems I tend to read again are those whose writers have spent time learning how to make a piece of art which can stand independent of its author. Ultimately, I think that the poem is made somewhere between the writer and the reader; that the reader is almost as important as the writer in making meaning from a poem. So, when judging a competition, it is always going to be a highly subjective thing. Here are my choices:




Hardware Visitations (after Allen Ginsberg, A Supermarket in California)

Dominic Fisher (Bristol, UK)


dominic fisher

Helen Ivory: This poem is written after Ginsberg’s 1955 poem A Supermarket in California, which centres on an encounter with Whitman and Lorca in the supermarket aisles, in a time of flux. Hardware visitations imagines encountering Ginsberg himself, and also Wilfred Owen amid the brackets and fixings of a hardware store in the present day – also a time of questioning and flux. Hardware Visitations works so subtly that before I knew it, I was reading a state-of-the-nations poem, a political poem, a war poem – or moreover a peace poem. That’s the sleight-of-hand I mentioned earlier. The poem uses incongruity, humour and mild trippy-ness to make some very serious points, and seeing kinship in Ginsberg and Owen, wants to invite them to a picnic of wine and fishes: ‘You who fought having written that the sweetness of death by war was a lie / and you who blew dope smoke in the face of war, I wanted to introduce you.’ This poem, I put on my ‘read again’ pile four times, knowing I couldn’t consume it all at one sitting – which is ultimately I think, what I want from a poem.





Tom Sastry (Bristol, UK)

tomsastry300x350Helen Ivory: An analogy of the Tube as the underworld: The dead pass though turnstiles into the earth the poem begins – and I am there too. It’s a strange feeling when you are in your own in a room with hundreds of poems – some leap out at you and take you with them. This poem speaks to that otherworldly feeling I get whenever I am on the London Underground where it’s easy to imagine ‘steps that spill out onto the shore of the thin black river’ and where ‘Posters convince [travellers] that wherever they’re going / they need whiskey and economic news.’ I enjoyed the dark lyricism here - some kind of Blakeian vision of hell: ‘The smash-irons of ghost factories / chant in the darkness like choirs.’






Yesterday's Child

Laura Potts (Wakefield, UK)

laurapotts250x300Helen Ivory: I enjoyed this wild dark nursery rhyme of a poem the first time I read it. It demands to be read out loud, the music of it is so strong, and the music of it is so strong the meaning only hits with the second or third reading, despite all evidence being there from the outset. ‘And overhead a mouth of moon / has called the mourning on this room, and soon / an ever-bloom of moss will clot the loss of you’. A poem about the loss of a child, which woke for me the rhythms of a nursery rhyme, made that loss even more poignant for me.






Highly Commended

(in no particular order)


Reading all of these poems a week or so after I chose them for prizes, I realise that they would all sit happily alongside each other in an anthology of making strange, or transformation poems. It is clear, knowing my own predilections that the ten poems that reached the top of my ‘read again’ (and again!) pile, were always going to be there, from the moment the authors sent them.

Here are some lines on the seven Highly Commended poems:

Her Future Husband Appears to Her in the Shape of a Hawk

after Victoria Brookland

Abigail Ardelle (Malta)

Helen Ivory: Written from the work of the wonderful artist Victoria Brookland. A visceral poem which set my imagination on edge, about the invasion of a woman’s body so entire that ‘Each month wet feathers line her uterus.’ On second reading, I found myself metaphorically looking over my shoulder from the first three lines: ‘She never knows by which door / he enters, but suddenly / he is inside her.’

21 grams

Sally Davis (Southsea, UK)

Helen Ivory: Written partly in the language of a formal scientific study, using the prior proven theory that the body is 21 grams lighter after death – a conclusion being that this is the weight of the soul. The poem then goes on to show a further experiment into the quality of the soul. I loved the language of this poem, and how it talks of the intangible and metaphysical in empirical terms.


Joanne Key (Crewe, UK)

Helen Ivory: Written in sparer language and with a cooler tone than the previous two transformation poems. ‘The replacement baby / is an empty plate. / No heart. No face.’ I enjoyed not knowing if this is a poem about how alien it can feel to become a parent with a strange new creature in your house, or whether it’s a poem that tunes in to the primal fear that exists around dolls and other human simulacra. Perhaps it is. both.


Exit Daughter

Diane Mulholland (London, UK)

Helen Ivory: E
ssentially I think, about a daughter educating herself and then leaving home. The way the poem does that is by following a complete yet surreal logic that reminded me a little of Ivor Cutler’s sung poems about family. ‘He kept The Complete Works of Shakespeare / underneath this armchair, in place of the missing leg. / Whenever she wanted to read it / she had to prop it up with her own small head.


A Man's House Catches Fire

Tom Sastry (Bristol, UK)

Helen Ivory: A matter-of fact telling of a man living inside a burning house: ‘It’s been a month, now / with the fire still raging / and me not dead / and no help coming’, shows to me, just how much you can put up with a situation, which when you outside of it, might look intolerable. At the end of the poem, he says ‘nothing is burning’ as he steps back into the house ‘which is still on fire.’

My Hotel

Scott Elder (St. Priest des Champs, France)

Helen Ivory: A strange little poem I was instantly drawn to. It’s all sensation, concrete and symbolic imagery, brimmed with paranoia and claustrophobia and a sense of threat. Its title runs on into the first line, so it begins: ‘My Hotel / runs through your thoughts / like an iron horse.’ which made me think of a Victorian locomotive and also a steampunk horse. I also thought of the iconic creepy hotel in The Shining, especially as the poem closes: ‘I’ll crack the door at midnight / and listen for your footsteps // one then one again / each a little closer.' The extra space in that line makes all the difference and shows that silence is as important as ink in a poem.

The Fox Wife

Nicola Daly (Chester, UK)

Helen Ivory: Another invasion, but this time wilier. The Fox Wife gets to know a woman’s life and body so intimately by the end she confesses ‘So I fused our bones together . . . knowing that once / I was living in your skin not even your husband would know what I had done’. A dark folktale of a poem, and the narrator is very believable if you enter the poem’s world with wide open eyes.