Nottingham Open Poetry Competition and Neil Astley at Beeston

I was a guest of the wonderfully  hospitable Nottingham Poetry Society yesterday
as winner of second prize in their annual Open completion judged by Neil Astley, editor of Bloodaxe Books.

One of the best things about these awards is the opportunity to meet other writers and have a chat. The winning poets came from as far afield as Sligo in Ireland (Paul McMahon), Exeter, St.Albans (where I used to live) and Sheffield, as well as more local writers like Kathy Bell. It was wonderful to listen to a wide selection of brilliant work in different styles and with widely varying themes from the ten merit prizes and two third placed poems, some read expertly by members of the society in the absence of winners who were not able to attend.

When my turn came to read my poem ‘Relic’, I attempted to recite it from memory, but played safe in the end and used my written copy. Neil Astley said the poem reminded him of the work of the late Francis Horovitz so I shall be looking her up when I get a chance.

Neil provided a typically erudite summary of how he came to his final selection from the  568 anonymous entry’s.

The winning poem by was by Paul McMahon, ‘Milltown Cemetery, Belfast, March 16th ,1988’. Paul’s poem describes his own experience of sheltering behind a gravestone as a loyalist gunman attacked the funeral of three IRA members with grenades and gunfire. It is a very powerful and important poem which I understand will be up on the Nottingham Poetry Society website at some point and I look forward to reading this and some of the other winning poems again.  I enjoyed a brief chat with Paul and shared some recollections of my visit to Belfast in the mid-eighties.

In the evening there was a reading at Beeston Library, part of the recently revived Beeston Poets series, which I understand began and the 1980’s and ran for many years. The anthology of readers from those years reads like a who’s who of poetry, including Dannie Abse, a young Simon Armitage and Carol Anne Duffy.  Jackie Kay read at a very well attended event last month, and last night Neil Astley read from his Bloodaxe Anthology ‘Essential Poems from Being Alive’. These massively popular (in poetry terms) anthologies are a huge achievement, succeeding, I think, in collecting an eclectic selection of work’s which reflect the human and the spiritual in ways which the ‘non-poetry reading public’ can relate to their own lives. Neil read from an uplifting and humbling selection before conducting an interesting Q and A. Needless to say, huge quantities of stocking-filling poetry anthologies left the building.

Here is my poem from the competition.


I’d rather take this road
to that chapel of larch on the hill

but my boy insists, so we step
into a nave of pines

screened by webs
where sound falls dead

except for the rattle of cones.
Each breath is sealed with resin;

he finds a long bone
lifts it from the needles;

fox or maybe badger, I tell him
taking his hand

suddenly aware
of our temporary skins.



    • Thank you Josephine. As with most of my poems it has been distilled quite a lot, and, unlike quite a few, I’m really pleased with it. We were down in Devon on Holiday and my son wanted to explore. The animal bone he found is on a shelf in his bedroom.

      The first draft had ‘a catherdral of pines’ ‘a vestry of midges’ and the last part had skeletons, all of which have gone. Also, my friend Maria Tayor must be credited for commenting on a draft- I dont remember what she said but I know it lead me to change a line – I think she suggested that ‘breaths laced with resin’ could be something else, so it became ‘sealed with resin’. Thanks again for your kind comments.


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