Competition 2012: winning poems

Winners of the Fire River Poets Competition 2012

First Prize     (£100)     Mark Totterdell for the poem Wasp
Second Prize  (£75)     Annie Fisher for the poem Sister Hildegard
Third Prize       (£50)     Graham Burchell for the poem From a Table of Wind

Highly Commended

Anne Kealy for the poem Wordless Dream
Jonathan Pinnock for the poem Bloody Italians
Mark Totterdell for the poems Pet Shop, Pied Wagtails and The Kelt
Peter Wyton for the poems Robots on Robots and The Comma in Waterstones




Judge: Anthony Watts


Well, that was an interesting and varied selection of entries.  A handful of striking and original poems emerged – precisely what you hope for when you’re judging a poetry competition.  Others were good, but didn’t impress me quite enough to make the shortlist.  Others were less good.  A few shouldn’t really have been entered into a poetry competition at all. Putting a few hackneyed rhymes together is not good enough; neither is ‘letting it all hang out’ with no regard to form or rhythm or whether the reader has been given enough information to know what you’re trying to express. Poetry is a craft, and a major part of it is acquired by reading lots of good poetry (including modern).  So if you seldom read a poetry book, now is a good time to start.  Reading will provide you with a standard against which to measure your own efforts and hopefully a much better chance of winning the next competition.


To those of you who do read and who know you’ve entered a decent poem that hasn’t made the shortlist, you can always assume that the judge is an idiot (I don’t mind, honestly, it’s what I always do.) But please remember that, however objective one tries to be as a judge, it is impossible to be entirely rid of the subjective element of personal taste.  With another person judging, the results may well have been different.


The hardest part of judging a competition is deciding which of your shortlist of really good poems is the best.  All of them were selected because of some special quality that marked them out from the rest.  After living with the shortlist for several days, during which I changed the order several times, I finally decided to award FIRST PRIZE to Mark Totterdell’s strikingly descriptive poem ‘The Wasp.’  This is the kind of poem where you know the poet has held the subject in the focus of his imagination until exactly the right words appeared on the page (‘its mini-monster face / with forelegs poised like paws’).  Through brilliant use of imagery, it shows you the familiar in an unfamiliar way.  After reading this, I will never look at a wasp in quite the same way again.


Sister Hildegard by Annie Fisher (SECOND PRIZE) appealed to me for quite different reasons. This one was a slow burner.  It started off well down the shortlist and slowly climbed to second place as I came to like it more with each successive reading.  In contrast to Mark’s bold metaphors, Annie’s language is straightforward, conversational and unassuming, but it reads beautifully.  There’s not a word out of place and the poem is infused with a sense of fun coupled with a warm humanity that gradually won me over.


THIRD PRIZE goes to Graham Burchell for ‘From a Table of Winds’.  The imagery in this poem is often quite surreal and quirky (‘A cloud approaches.  It’s the size of a housing estate’).  In this, the style is similar to Mark’s.  To mention the ostensible subject – a gust of wind blowing stuff about – gives little idea of the worth and originality of this poem.


I didn’t deliberately set out to produce a final shortlist of ten poems.  It just so happened that after I had found reasons for rejecting as many as possible I was left with ten that refused to be ignored.  Here then, in no particular order, are the seven remaining poems, to each of which I have awarded a SPECIAL COMMENDATION.  


Very few of the entries were written in a traditional form, but two of those that were (both villanelles) made the shortlist.  They were totally different in content and mood, yet each poet handled the form with admirable skill.  Peter Wyton’s villanelle, ‘Robots on Robots’ was an amusing, satirical look at people ‘working out’, ‘all running, riding, rowing, staying still’.  Peter also receives a commendation for ‘The Comma in Waterstones’, a highly imaginative look at a butterfly in a bookshop (it finally leaves the shop ‘sated with culture’.)  Anne Kealy’s ‘Wordless Dream’ was a very moving villanelle about bereavement.  Bloody Italians by Jonathan Pinnock describes a relationship crisis in terms of operatic styles (‘…it’s a Puccini kind of day today’).  Finally, I was unable to ignore three more fine poems by the winner, Mark Totterdell.  They are ‘Pet Shop’, ‘Pied Wagtails’ and ‘The Kelt’.  All three show a keen eye for detail, a strikingly apt use of metaphor and a deeply-felt affinity with the natural world.


I’ve been on both sides of this competition malarkey, so I’m aware that the one thing you’re dying to know, apart from whether you’ve won, is how many entries there were.  If you don’t know that, the results don’t mean very much.  Yet surprisingly few competitions bother to tell you.  Not so this one.  The final total of valid entries received was 245 poems.  If you reached the shortlist – well done.  If you are a prizewinner – very well done.  If neither – better luck next time.


Anthony Watts

January 2013




FIRST PRIZE – Mark Totterdell


In high-vis tabard, it’s the hazchem symbol
for itself; all chevron segments,
points and angles, dangling undercarriage.
It’s jasper

the picnic villain, seeking to steal the sweetness
from the glass.  Those hazy wings,
sugar-fuelled, keep it buzzing through
the stump of summer.

It seems so other – meshed eyes, the oddity
of exoskeleton – as if it had scouted out
from some domed, humming, matt-grey

but when it wipes its mini-monster face
with forelegs poised like paws, can you not sense
the subtlest of tugs on those tight-wound strands
that bind us into kin?


SECOND PRIZE  –  Annie Fisher

Sister Hildegard

Sister Hildegard disturbed the air lightly
With the musty odour of nunliness,
Slept under shivering blankets,
In the room abutting the boarders’ dormitory.

Each night at ten, after chapel prayers,
Her large feet, in a pair of men’s sandals,
Creaked along the corridors and up the spiral stairs,
Past our whispering, giggling beds
To her tiny, white-walled cell.

One night we set booby traps:
Soap on the door knobs,
A sticky-out-drawer,
Slippers, hairbrush, flannels on the floor…

O blest, irretrievable, innocent days
Of Bunty comics and ballet shoes,
And interlock knickers with pockets in regulation grey,
My perfectly pointless first bra: thirty double A…

So there we were, singing softly:
“Hark! I hear the foe advancing,
Hildegard’s great sandals prancing.
Sh-sh-sh……she’s coming!”

Dear, shy Hildegard, we meant you no harm.
Anyway, we knew
Your guardian angel could see in the dark.

And, to be sure, there was never a slip,
Not a curse, not a cry.
Just the creak of your careful feet,
And a reassuring mustiness,
As you wafted by.

THIRD PRIZE – Graham Burchell

From a Table of Winds

A seafront diner dedicated to Geronimo,
has dream-catchers, fluffy tomahawks
and prints of him looking disgruntled.
Every object is beaded and feathered.

Being feather phobic I choose to sit outside.
The air is still.
There’s the arc of a polystyrene cup
lifted from table to lips.  Silence

interrupted by a slurp, a gull’s scream
and harder breaths as I free a sandwich
from its wrapping.  A fly and a wash of breeze
feather my face.  My napkin shudders.

A cloud approaches.
It’s the size of a housing estate.
Behind it a cherub flies, cheeks inflated
like the child on the next table.

Light dims. There’s a chill.
Tables become rinks:
my cup, three-quarters empty, skates, spins,
sprays tea into the cherub’s blown breath.

Paper, plastic spoon and wrappings
are hovercrafts.  My napkin becomes
an airborne ghost of the gull I saw yesterday,
tripping over rocks with its broken wing.








Wordless Dream    Anne Kealy


I dreamt that you were with us all today,

so vivid and so real you seemed to be,

you smiled, you never spoke, just turned away.


You buttered toast, and laid the breakfast tray.

You boiled the old range kettle, made the tea.

I dreamt that you were with us all today.


You never stopped, nor saw the children play.

Instead you polished all the cutlery.

You smiled, I never spoke. I turned away.


Your face was drawn, your features gaunt and grey,

but still you cleaned and worked on endlessly.

I dreamt that you were with us all today.


I begged you please to stop, to rest, to stay.

You placed your age-worn hand upon my knee,

We smiled, we never spoke, we turned away.


A tear slid down your face, I saw you sway.

I wanted you to stop.  Stay here with me.

I dreamt that you were with us all today,

you smiled, you never spoke and turned away.




Bloody Italians      Jonathan Pinnock


The steak knives were a wedding gift –

bone-handled, unstylish even then.

Tournedos Rossini was their favourite:

Fillet medium-rare, topped with finest

Auvergne pâté,


and afterwards they’d make

mad, operatic, accelerando love –

until another stole her shiny man

leaving nothing but

silk stockings full of ladders.


But it’s a Puccini kind of day today

as she gently rolls her sleeve,

bares here slender wrist,

prepares the jagged blade

for its appointed rôle.


Yet as she does so,

the light glints on the metal

and at once the libretto changes:

she no longer sees serrations,

but a row of peaks and troughs,


and realising what the logic

of the drama now dictates

she throws away the knife

in triumph, screaming “No!

I’m not Madame Fucking Butterfly!”


Then for the first time in months,

she puts a CD on

and humming along

to the Barber of Seville,

she begins to cook

her supper.




 Pet Shop  Mark Totterdell


Though every shelf is shrieking with its load

of pets’ knick-knacks in gaudy packaging

those bright gimcrack displays cannot compete

with gorgeous paintbox birds guantanamoed.


Cacophanies of squawks from the macaws

and cockatoos contain real human words,

but though each sad hello pecks at our hearts,

we know we share no true tongue with mere birds.


That craved connection only goes one way.

They’ve picked up speech by mindless mimicry

and can’t see innocent eye to eye with us;

parrots and people have no parity.


What, then, are we supposed to make of this?

The pure white cockatoo unlocks her beak

and, with black tongue, plants on her gaoler’s nose

one lingering and tender-looking kiss.




Pied Wagtails      Mark Totterdell


You’ve seen them.  On roads, on rooftops, white and black

like x-rays of themselves, their long tails pumping

as if they worked the legs that run, then stop,

then run again, on an unending quest

to feed those meagre frames, their narrow beaks

speaking what sounds a lot like ‘chiswick…chiswick.’


As energy drains from the air, they go

proverbial, flock in their multitudes

(for warmth, for safety, for companionship?)

to the bare branches of the council trees,

making a winter miracle; birds for leaves.

Today they’re gone, leaving their splatterings

on paving slabs, a map of last night’s stars.




The Kelt     Mark Totterdell


Half-seen, obliquely, through the cloud-patched skin

of a winter river,

there’s something strange, an arm’s length,

irregularly dark and light,

that could be a limb of fungal wood,

but for a hint of symmetry,

that could be some whole wild thing,

but for its piebald pelt like a dairy cow.


A quiver of fins gives an answer;

having been here before, gone far, swum back,

having been alevin, fry, parr and smolt,

here, now, its passion spent, the kelt

is poised in shallows, riddled with pale rot,

still just afloat,

resisting, for this moment,

the tug of the flow downstream.






The comma in Waterstones.

A ragged bibliophile on auto-browse,

Flits fitfully from Nietzsche to Sartre

Along the existentialist shelf.

Transferring to Modern Biographies,

The butterfly flirts outrageously

With Debo the Duchess and poses

On Lawrence Dallaglio’s spine.


Seduced by art, it clings tenaciously

to a Kandinsky calendar for ten minutes

Until energised by Creative Writers in Performance

Whom it harasses with aerobatics.


Unobtrusively, the branch manager

Arms the work experience girl

With a fly-swat and instructions

To ‘get rid of that moth’.


By this time, sated with culture,

Polygonia c-album has left the building.






Inside the tastefully converted mill,

Our work-out warriors are on parade,

All running, riding, rowing, staying still.


No hurtling down or struggling uphill,

The temperature controlled, the fees pre-paid

Inside the tastefully converted mill.


Bold Blackbird, strutting on the windowsill,

is baffled by this static cavalcade,

All running, riding, rowing, staying still.


The bird prioritises: lunch to kill,

Then songs to sing.  The muscle-bound brigade

Inside the tastefully converted mill


Go absolutely nowhere, drink their fill

Of energy enhancing Nutri-ade,

All running, riding, rowing, staying still.


Robots on robots, jolting through their drill,

Strangers to sunshine, suckers for the shade,

Inside the tastefully converted mill,

All running, riding, rowing, staying still.



 Mark Totterdell

Mark was born and brought up near Taunton and now lives in Exeter. He began writing at an early age and his first published poem was in the Huish’s Grammar School magazine in 1977. For reasons not entirely clear to him, he gave up on poetry for decades and it was only in 2010 that he began to write seriously again. His second published poem appeared a third of a century after the first, and since then he has had work accepted by magazines such as Agenda, Ambit, The Interpreter’s House and Stand. He is a member of Moor Poets, based around Dartmoor, and enjoys reading his poetry in public, at Uncut Poets in Exeter, at Poetry at The Brewhouse in Taunton, and wherever else he gets the chance. He has been placed or commended in several competitions; this is the first time he has won a first prize.


Annie Fisher

Annie is a semi-retired literacy consultant and a storyteller in schools. She enjoys writing both light and serious verse, and also writes poetry and stories for children. In September, she decided to ‘try some poems out’ in the open-mic session of Poetry at The Brewhouse organised by Fire River Poets. Encouraged by that event, she began to submit poems to magazines and competitions. She has had pieces published in ‘Other Poetry’ magazine and two on-line magazines: ‘Snakeskin’ and ‘Lighten Up Online’. She won first prize in the 2012 East Coker poetry competition. Her poems, including her free verse, usually contain some element of rhyme, for she believes that rhyme is not a crime, and that, when done well (e.g. Sophie Hannah, Wendy Cope, Kit Wright, Roger McGough), it can be sublime!


Graham Burchell

Graham was born in Canterbury and now lives in Dawlish, Devon. He has lived in a host of places in between including Zambia, Saudi Arabia, Tenerife, Mexico, France, Chile and the United States. He has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. His latest collection ‘The Chongololo Club’ based on his life in Zambia in the early 1980’s was published by Pindrop Press in June 2012. He has won, been placed or short-listed in a number of competitions and has been published in many magazines. He is the 2012 Canterbury Festival Poet of the Year.


Anne Kealy

Anne started studying creative writing with the Open University following a serious car accident, which left her a wheelchair user. Poetry became her natural medium of expression. It has always been part of her life, as a child she loved listening to her Uncle reciting long Irish ballads. She feels herself lucky to live on the Blackdown Hills, where she grew up on the family farm. The Somerset countryside, the people she meets and the ups and downs of life inspire her work. She is currently working slowly towards an English Literature degree and still writing poetry for pleasure.


Jonathan Pinnock

Jonathan has had over a hundred stories and poems published in places both illustrious and downright insalubrious. He has also won a few prizes and has had work broadcast on the BBC. His debut novel “Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens” was published by Proxima Books in September 2011, and his Scott Prize-winning debut collection of short stories, “Dot Dash”, was published by Salt in November 2012. He blogs at and he tweets as @jonpinnock. Mrs Darcy has her own website at, and there is more about “Dot Dash” at


Peter Wyton

Peter is a widely published page and performance poet based in Gloucester.  He has presented his work regularly at festivals in Cheltenham and Ledbury and both performed at and ran the Open Mike at this year’s Aldeburgh Poetry Festival. He is currently Poet Laureate for the Towton Battlefield Society in Yorkshire. He is no stranger to events in Somerset, including competition judge at Wells and Bradford-on-Avon in recent years. The latest of his eight collections ‘Not All Men Are From Mars’, the profits from which go to ‘Women’s Aid’, can be obtained through a link at