HappenStance Competition 20 adjudication

(Scroll down to bottom of page for details of new competition 21)

We had 36 entries for this competition on the topic of ‘Something that was said to you, something that has stuck’, and they were more than usually emotive. The subject prompted all sorts of poems and much food for thought —it was particularly interesting to read them, and many deserved publication. The adjudicator, D.A. Prince (who read them anonymised and made her judgement without knowing any of the authors’ names), has commented on some of the poems below, as well as the winning poem by Sheila Aldous.

Comments from D.A. Prince

Among the competition entries this time round, teachers, school friends (or enemies), parents and partners made frequent appearances. There were chance encounters where a short exchange had left a permanent print, clear in the memory. There were the stings and pain of childhood experiences, the agony of being on the sharp end of casually unthinking words.

Or werethey unthinking? Those are the memories that haunt, the ones that come back on sleepless nights, or when you’ve made a mistake, again, and feel as though you’d never grown up.

Fortunately there were funny and loving words as well, as in ‘Cartography’ by Tim Kiely, where in the first fumblings of a new relationship the poet has forgotten to silence a phone, and —

a voice observes from the unbelted driver’s seat
in an unfamiliar accent, sunnily,
You’re such a dork

I love the ‘sunnily’ — and it prefigures a happy ending.

A triolet (‘This one time, in gym class’, by Tracy Davidson) used repetition to underline how a sneering comment sticks, returns, and won’t let go. Not all triolets manage the tricky combination of form and subject but this one does. I have to quote it, with the author’s permission, in full because what’s the point of half a triolet? Besides, this is a good one —

Nice legs, Trace,he said with a sneer,
trying once more to make me cry.
Of all his slights, it’s this one jeer –
Nice legs, Trace, he said with a sneer –
that sticks and stings, remains quite clear.
Such easy prey, a girl so shy.
Nice legs, Trace,he said with a sneer,
trying once more to make me cry.

One poem (‘The Message’, by Craig Dobson) played with the idea of a message to one’s younger self, cleverly combining this with hearing the message from ‘myself from years to come’. The selves are nicely differentiated, with ‘the teenager who’s barely listening / but mumbles something nonetheless’ and the earlier self of the baby, ‘its face a bawling intransigent mask’. I found it quite consoling to share the message that ‘There’s nothing we could’ve done.’

Superman’s message (in ‘How to save the day’ by Ben Ray) that there’s always another way out was a happy reminder of how those TV series worked on our childhood brains.

‘Nameless’, by Mary Anne Perkins, showed how devastating a teacher’s comments can be —

A teacher took my name one day
and broke it in half.
Fit for a child,she said, but not
for the woman you must become.

The monosyllables show the unalloyed pain, with no way to argue an alternative or reclaim the name — and, by implication, the self’s sense of identity. Although the poem has a happy ending when someone loved unites the halves, it’s the child’s pain that remains with me.

The poems that made the greatest impression on me all used the theme to find something beyond anecdote; they touched on a wider, more universal experience, which is what nagging memories do.

So it was this combination of vivid memory and recognised truth, reaching beyond circumstantial detail in another poem rooted in childhood  — harsh, uncomforted, and not a detail forgotten — that made, for me, the most memorable poem. It left something unresolved, and that’s also what nagging memories do. The immediacy of ‘Confession’, by Sheila Aldous, with that specific of ‘Ajax’, that wince of hard physical detail (‘my chin shoved into the the cold of the butler sink’), and that cruel thump of repetition, spoke of this poet’s pain — and of the rest of that iceberg, still under water.


She scrubbed my mouth out with Ajax once:
she held my head under the scullery tap
my curls scrunched into the heat of my neck
my chin shoved onto the cold of the butler sink.

Don’t let me hear it
don’t let me hear it
don’t let me hear you say it
that bloody word again
not ever again.

There was a ripe plum swelling on my face
a clump of hair at my bare feet
a rabid tongue that burned in sacrifice
a line of teeth foaming a gurgled spit.

When finished, pillars of innocence shone
with no stain of sin and I would be fit,
she said, for confession on the morning.

But I couldn’t tell, not anyone, what she did,
the other thing she’d said.

        — Sheila Aldous

HappenStance Competition 21: Heroic Couplets 

The challenge this time round is to write in rhyming pairs, iambic pentameter. (Think Alexander Pope, or even Geoffrey Chaucer.)  

Your topic is the cheery matter of age/aging which hopefully you may approach with some degree of wit.

Here’s an example from Helen Nicholson’s debut pamphlet, Briar Mouth:

Heroic Couplets with Handkerchief

To write the perfect parody of Pope
You need more graft and steely wit than hope.
If cribbing from The Dunciad won’t pass
Don’t dream of scribbling on the bus, pre-class.
It won’t suffice to find a ready rhyme—
Such stratagem’s sub-standard, not sublime.
To match the jewel of the Enlightenment
Employ ‘strong sense’ and rigorous argument.
Don’t look to Latin or to Strawberry Hill
For inspiration. Look round. Take your fill
Of sleazy deals, small hurts, and all that’s vile
On which it’s fruitful to expend your bile.
And if you think your foggy, snot-filled brain
Is master to the task, then think again.

       —Helen Nicholson 

Rules of competition:

  • No more than 20 lines.
  • Unpublished work please.
  • Only one entry per person.
  • Winning poem to be published on this page.
  • Deadline: Sunday February 3, 2019.
  • Judge: Helen Nicholson, author of Briar Mouth.
  • Prize: any two HappenStance pamphlets (your choice)

Please type your entry into the box below. If you need italics, indicate them with an asterisk at start and finish of the italicised section.

  1. Please type your entry and contact details into the boxes below, then click the 'Submit' button.
  2. Enter your response here(*)
    Invalid Input
  3. Your name:(*)
    Please type your full name.
  4. Your email address:(*)
    Invalid email address.
  5. Please complete the Captcha challenge(*)
    Invalid Input