WHERE I’M FROM: WALTHAM FOREST POETRY COMPETITION 2019
Thank you to everyone who entered our competition – we really do appreciate that you chose to submit your poems to us. We received 600 poems from 300 poets (or thereabouts) and our judge Graham Clifford read every single one. Not everyone can win but there’s every chance that poems that didn’t make it in OUR competition will do well in others – and we welcome everyone to try their luck with us again next year.
Graham Clifford, our judge: “As I suspect is often the way, the prize winning and commended poems all have remarkable qualities, making judging very difficult. Style, voice, humour, humanity and a different or nuanced way of seeing and communicating experience, be that actual or imagined, are all in evidence at a high level.”
All the winning poems are below and you can also read Graham’s report in full. Enjoy!
- Bats by Radka Thea Otípková (Czech Republic)
- Emily’s Longing To Have Ash Blonde Hair Begins by Veronica Aaronson (Newton Abbott)
- Song of the Red Earth Dog by Charlotte Mackie (London SW2)
- Where the heart is not by Sarah Doyle (London N22)
- Cornography by Mark Fiddes (United Arab Emirates)
- A New Collective Noun for the Robin by Jack Houston (London E5)
- On the Ferry by Noel King (Ireland)
- Ode to Denial by Lorna Martin (London NW5)
- Holiday home by Tom McLaughlin (London SW11)
LOCAL PRIZE FOR POETS FROM WALTHAM FOREST (ADULT)
- Fox & cubs, Walthamstow Village by Niall Firth
- Forest Folks by Charlotte Domanski
- Where I’m From by Maggie Freeman
MAIN PRIZE (YOUNG POETS)
- on prayer by Esther Kim (USA)
- Firelight by Sarah Lao (USA)
- Hungerhill Road by Taona Maku (Nottingham)
- at the intersection of the land & sea by Uma Menon (USA)
- Migrating to Elwood City by Uma Menon (USA)
- Asymptotes in Hawai’i by Lydia Wei (USA)
- school days by Lydia Wei (USA)
- When You Love Someone At My Age by Lydia Wei (USA)
LOCAL PRIZE FOR POETS FROM WALTHAM FOREST (YOUNG POETS)
Graham Clifford, our judge: “As I suspect is often the way, the prize winning and commended poems all have remarkable qualities, making judging very difficult. Style, voice, humour, humanity and a different or nuanced way of seeing and communicating experience, be that actual or imagined, are all in evidence at a high level. I congratulate all those poets included in this anthology.
I chose Bats (Radka Thea Otípková, Czech Republic) as the overall winner because it celebrates the oddity of home, and homelands. I don’t know if this is a real experience, or invented, but will find it hard to forget the poet’s exquisite focus on bats pinned up… ‘squealing/not so much with pain/as for the denied flight’. Emily’s Longing To Have Ash Blond Hair Begins (Veronica Aaronson, Newton Abbott) has a narrative so expertly delivered, I find myself winded by strength of emotion. Such great skill is employed here, and such bravery in the poem’s quiet power. A worthy second place. And in third, Song of the Red Earth Dog (Charlotte Mackie, London SW2). It takes a great artist to be able to create a unified whole work of art using raw tools. This poet has taken the archetypal style of folklore and legend, the music of patois and combined these with a fierce energy that bowled me over and utterly impressed me.
What creative risks and joy in language our younger writers demonstrated! There were many very impressive poems which made it harder to decide on winners and commended poems than in the adult aspect. First place has gone to YŎngxīn (Lydia Wei, USA), an ambitious, exciting and vivid portrait of a home, where the poet’s talent gives us a high-definition tableau which overwhelms the senses. This is how home gets into the very fabric of a person, and how a poet can sift for the most meaningful detail. The escape the poet of playing sza (also Lydia Wei) seeks, and achieves, is so fresh and enviable. It is a poem of bold resilience, full of hope. Well done for second place. And resilience characterises the third place winner, Belong(ed) (Ahana Banerji). This is a poem which describes injustice and discrimination, and which manages to soar above with grace and beauty. This is art to heal.
First place in the local section goes to a poem which is so evocative of urban foxes, with an energetic and suggestive style. Fox and cubs, Walthamstow Village (Niall Firth) is also remarkable for its juxtaposition of earthy reality and the pastoral. Next, in second place, Forest Folks (Charlotte Domanski) is a jaunty list poem which takes delight in the exoticism of the poet’s home. And finally, Where I’m From (Maggie Freeman) is a wistful and deeply felt meditation on family, faith and home. It is truly affecting and emotive.
In the local young poets section, The Bedroom (Kate Lucas) wins first place for a poem which combines suggestive ambiguity with some intensely observed detail. There are delightful hints of a story about to begin, a life about to be lived. In second place is Crane (also Kate Lucas). This poem draws attention to the ubiquitous cranes which carry on their work on the skyline forever in the city. The poet is captivated by their seemingly benign presence and makes us think a bit harder about their meaning. In third place, Home Sweet Home (Safiyyah Kazi) is a purely joyful take on home. The poem wonders in the obscure and, in no uncertain terms, directs us to celebrate where we’re from.”
We’d like to thank the London Borough of Waltham Forest and Waterstones, Walthamstow for sponsoring the competition, and Stow Brothers for their invaluable support.
Paul McGrane & Barry Coidan, Forest Poets
Radka Thea Otípková was born in the Czech Republic eighteen years before the fall of communism. She started learning English as a young adult. After she got a degree in English from the University of South Bohemia, she stayed at her alma mater to teach English Phonetics. Her poetry has appeared in BODY, The North, and Tears in the Fence. In 2017 her collection was shortlisted in the Poetry Business International Book and Pamphlet Competition and her poem Coup de Grâce was shortlisted in the 2017 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition.
“I heard the story about bats being nailed to people’s gates to ward off evil spirits when I was a little girl and I remember how sad it made me. I had always wanted to write a poem which would have a bat nailed to a door in it but it never came until one morning when I was late for work. I suddenly stopped looking for my car keys or whatever it was I was doing and sat down and, straight off, wrote this little poem. And then I read it, and then I read it again and again and I couldn´t bear the thought of having to stop reading it. I was very, very late that morning.”
Where I come from
people would hammer them
by their wings
to wooden gates
little furry Christs
not so much with pain
as for the denied flight
Children would stone-feed
their fear, cheer
the tattered membranes
they’d later steal and mend
in their dreams
when all is still
when the trickle of blood
on the age-dried oak
goes no further
Veronica Aaronson is the co-founder and one of the organisers of the Teignmouth Poetry Festival. She hosts the Teignmouth Open Mic nights. Her work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies. She won the Dawlish Poetry Trail (2016), the South Brent Poetry Competition (2019) and has been commended or long listed in other competitions including the Rialto (2018) and the National Poetry Competition (2016). Veronica’s first collection, Nothing About The Birds Is Ordinary This Morning was published by Indigo Dreams last year. https://www.indigodreams.co.uk/veronica-aaronson/4594449130
“I am currently working on a collection about the experience and consequences of being adopted in the 1950s when the identity of birthmothers was kept secret. It based on my own experience, research and material I’ve gathered from working with adoptees in my role as a psychotherapist. The sense of relief at being told was one of recurring themes. This is the first poem in the collection.”
Emily’s Longing To Have Ash Blonde Hair Begins
I’m in front of the fire.
Mother’s second pair of eyes stare down
from her portrait above the mantelpiece.
There’s no warning fanfare, just
a clearing of Mother’s throat:
We have something to tell you.
We’re not your real parents
couldn’t keep you
The words float
like fluff blown
from a dandelion head
in stilled air.
As the seeds settle,
I feel no grief or gratitude, only relief.
Now I understand why
the three of us are only tacked together with cotton,
not stitched in silk thread.
I ask the colour of my birthmother’s hair.
Charlotte Mackie has been been writing poetry for as long as she can remember. She’s recently retired from a career in teaching, so now has time to perfect her craft. She’s a proud mother of two grown up children, and an equally proud grandmother. Retirement has given her the time to start a community poetry group. She believes sharing one’s poetry, without judgement or scrutiny, increases confidence and well being. The group has been a great success. She has recently become Brixton & Streatham Stanza rep.
“My partner is Jamaican. We recently went to Jamaica attend his father’s funeral. Every time I’ve visited JA I have been struck by the pack of mongrel dogs which roam freely around the houses in the area of Bluefields, Westmoreland, including his father’s house. They are not pets; they have names but sleep outside and roam about, particularly at night, ensuring no-one dares to burgle the property. They are working dogs, loyal and fierce. I decided to speak in the voice of one of these dogs, and in Jamaican Patois, for which I got help from my partner. I felt as one of these dogs I would have the weight of tradition, history, myth and folklore on my back, as well as a deep love for the very essence of Jamaica – symbolised by its red earth.”
Song of the Red Earth Dog
Mi bawn wid red eart’ under mi foot,
Hurricane in mi soul and sound of rain
Drummin on tin, splashing in river,
Mi born wid wildness in me vein.
To run and bark and howl and fight
Reared up hard, mi watch me moda
Eat she baby, swallow dem whole.
Only mi survive. Don’t ask me wha mek,
But fear a buried inside me soul.
Mi born to guard de master,
Scare off bad men who mean him harm,
Protect him home from vagabond,
From spell, curse, Obeah charm.
To creep and hunt by white moonlight
And ah, de rule, many, many rule –
Remember me place witin de pack,
Nah challenge fi mi leada, unless him pass,
Subservient me, watch mi back.
But to come alive by light of moon,
Where duppy roam and crock lizard scream,
And patou call, ‘Be se-ee-n! Be se-ee-n!’
Mi fiya cyan quench, mi fiyah burn bright
Den, such wiff of wild dog on de wind,
And bitter smell of blacken stick
On smoke choke fire where sizzling pan
Bring food to nyam – fowl bone, fish.
Me bawn with pans calling de sun,
And how me listen – to mi island of
Mountain and wood and wata,
Mi own wild island – me red eart’ island,
Red Eart’, Red Eart’. Red Eart’ Dog – me.
Eart’ – earth tin – corrugated iron roof (common in JA) Moda – mother mi/me – me
Wid – with Don’t ask me wha mek – don’t ask me why
Witin – within Nah challenge fi mi leada – never challenge my leader
Pass – die (pass over to the other world) Obeah – magic (Jamaican Voodo)
Charms – usually entrapping spells or charms to make someone fall in love with one, or under that person’s spell. A lock of the victim’s hair or a personal item would be needed to create the charm.
Duppy – ghost Crock lizard – loud lizard which makes a screeching sound mainly at night. Folk lore says a man will lose his virility if bitten by a crock lizard.
Patou – Jamaican Barn Owl. Its call is three sounds – one low, one higher and longer, one low
Mi fiya cyaah quench,for mi fiyah burn bright – my fire cannot be put out, my fire burns bright
Nyam – eat Fowl – chicken
Wata – water Pans – Steel Pans (instruments traditional to the Caribbean)
Poet note – when speaking patois, the h sound is usually left off from the front of a word, so howl becomes ‘owl. I have chosen to leave the h’s there, to aid understanding of the poem, but if read aloud the reader can leave the h off if desired.
Where the heart is not
Elephant heart exhibit, Museum of Zoology, London
It was not a calling, a keening, a sound to surge synapses.
Elephant did not stir the pillars of his legs to follow
a path he had not imagined, the slow journey northwest
from Kenya, traversing the curves of an undreamt globe.
Elephant was not daunted in Sudan by Baḥr al-Abyaḍ
with its hurry of water, and nor by the Jibal Alnuwba,
on whose uneven paths a less careful mountaineer might
stumble. Eyes were not smarted by the gritty winds
of Libya’s Sand Seas – Ribiana and Ubari – and feet
went unblistered by Algeria’s rolling dunes. Elephant
was not compelled to swim the Alboran Sea to Spain,
where he did not develop a taste for naranjas as his hips
felled narrow groves. The coils of his intestines did not
know the dizzy fermenting of French raisins de cuve.
Elephant did not experience a thrill of homecoming
at Dover’s mythologised cliffs. Elephant was no pilgrim.
He was not drawn, ever north, to the magnet of London,
to Bloomsbury’s streets where knowledge is cultivated
in university buildings like bacteria on petri dishes.
Elephant did not sway his way to University Street:
did not struggle through the polished oak of Victorian
museum doors, his presence among assorted fragile
terraria announced by a shocked and scholarly silence.
Elephant did not give his heart willingly. Elephant
had no thought of heart: this heart whose chambers,
cradled in deltas of vein and artery, pulsed strong and
red and hot with blood. This extracted heart, bottled
heart, this greying heart in the heart of a grey building
in a landscape of grey, where busy people consider
the heart of Elephant, and turn, afterwards, for home.
(for Geraldine Clarkson)
If you have to tweet photos of cow parsley,
please include the crushed beer cans.
On those verges embroidered with poppies,
don’t forget the fly-tipped mattress.
Show only streams strewn with Tesco trolleys
and valleys planted with wind crucifixes.
Depict the grey logistics depots along the M1.
Because now I live in a most desert-like state
where the sand has drawn a veil over the land.
A tubercular milk of concrete dust smothers us.
Before leaving for work, I stretch a damp cloth
over my mouth and nose, tie it with shoe laces
as the mini-market just sold out of face masks.
If the sun blinks open, you only see cataracts.
Here, your wheat pics sigh cornographically.
Your bosky grotto shots could get me deported.
Better if you find a cheap edition of John Clare,
press wildflowers between your favourite pages.
Let them suffocate beautifully and mail it to me
c/o The Empty Quarter, Rub’ al Khali, UAE.
I’ll see what I can do with the seeds.
A New Collective Noun for the Robin
Few of us are aware that robins live life largely underground,
flitting through the robin-sized tunnels that connect the nests
in which they parent their eggs to the hidey-holes from which
they occasionally appear. And we’d only just begun to explain
to the leaves of Whipps Cross how excited we were – you
in your new suit, me in red as well – when the forest-floor
split open and an inferno of robins flew up and engulfed us,
grappling with their tiny claws to pull us skyward.
We quickly got used to life on the wing, able to envisage
so much more from height, the exhilaration of toes
skipping tree-tops, sleeping high as kites
and blackbirds and the wrens that would soon become our friends.
We even managed to make love in the cumulonimbus.
The robins didn’t seem to mind.
Our first child burst forth and the robins did not falter, kept their grip,
held the three of us as a few flew down to stitch me back up.
Our second baby slipped out blue as an evening, still as a puddle,
and they fluttered tight to rub the breath back in. They know so much
of wing-strain and feather over-flap, but never complain, never tire
of pulling the four of us through the blue, the time spent pressed
between the tangle of roots and everything buried filling them
with a strange and subterranean energy I hope will hold us here.
On the Ferry
I shuffle in the stretch of the geansai you knit me, sister;
wonder how you’ll like the bedroom all to yourself, brother;
eat the last of your sandwiches, Mother;
think over all your do’s and don’ts, Father
and how I will really get on with Aunty Joan in London.
I light a smoke openly outside the bar, no need to hide
my habit here. I stare through the railings at
the increasing distance between me and my country.
There’ll be no need to hide my bit of gayness either,
except from Aunty Joan and her factory husband,
till I’m home again, I suppose.
A man from Waltham Forest starts a chat,
he runs a museum of old cars and things,
gives me a card to visit if I’m in the area.
I hope the Customs men won’t find the magazines
with pictures of naked girls, harmless stuff (no bondage),
I could hardly have let them behind for mother to find.
Over and over again I check the bit of paper
with the name of the man who’s giving me the job,
his phone number and my PRSI number from Ireland.
Ode to Denial
You beautiful fine line, you sickness
You careful you anvil
You palm down, delicate steel
You band around the heart
Your mouth and your heart in separate spheres
You safety warning
You small comfort
You gut-punch, you dragged out longing
You edge of grasping, the act of opening gripped fingers
You empty palm flat of the hand
Rationality giving me a talking to,
outlining the barely conscious form of a body
The mould a child grows to fill
The protections, the bliss in ignorance
The answerable, the way I must explain myself
The assembly of a drafted life
The decision to be one kind of happy and not another
Oh, the kindness
Turf cut from the bog
and left to dry
has been burned in the fireplace so long
its smell is a part of the carpet.
Your playpen is a creel.
Sand piles up
in the corners of drawers.
under the door at night
leaving the kitchen crossed
with silver. A semi-circle
of salt bars their entry.
If you place your hand over the crack
in the bedroom window
you feel a fraction
of the sea wind wheedling in.
The trees in the overgrown garden
cling to you. Your sister explains
they are trying to keep you close
because they love you.
Once you see a rabbit
that doesn’t run away
when you approach.
The swollen eyes keep you at a distance.
The muttering that wakes you
in the strange room
is your sister in the grip
of a nightmare.
It is dangerous to wake her
before coaxing her back to calm.
There is sand in her bed.
It polishes her dream.
WINNER, LOCAL BACK
Niall Firth is a member of Forest Poets who lived in Walthamstow for years before recently moving over the border into Highams Park. His poems have been published widely in magazines such as The Rialto, Lighthouse, Litmus, Butcher’s Dog, and The Interpreter’s House and on websites like And Other Poems and Ink, Sweat and Tears. He was long-listed in the Winchester Poetry Prize in 2018, and took part in the Toast mentoring program. His debut pamphlet, Superposition, came out earlier this year.
When I used to walk home to my house in Maynard Road at night one of the many foxes that lived in the area would cross my path. They would stay there, and stare me down, totally unafraid. Other times I’d see them resting in the large front garden for the retirement home, just oblivious to me. There’s something thrilling about seeing a large wild animal up close like that, and I wanted to the poem to reflect that sense of entitlement they have, as well as the noise and mess they bring. It was like the two of us were existing side by side: we’d meet, have a non-verbal confrontation and then they’d be gone in an instant.
Fox & cubs, Walthamstow Village
wraiths soft clay-red against tarry night road
filthy soft meet don’t-back-down eyes
shriek of mating late in the street’s hush
a baby’s cry stalking orange-glint road & lamp glare
& appley moonlight
see streaky fur yellow-grey & bags ripped
& teabags flop dry and ochre stained nappy straddling the curb
our dirty deadbeats settle in soft grass with daisies in the evening cool
a head-start distant lick a paw
and clatter away over
SECOND, LOCAL BACK
Charlotte Domanski grew up in rural Herefordshire, and has lived in London for 10 years. She had her first photo exhibition in 2018 at the Art Café in Haringey, co-hosts a podcast called Another Look at London, and is also a song writer. This year she set herself the task of writing a poem every day inspired by London, something she’s just about managed to keep up since 1st January. You can see the results on www.londondecade.co.uk
For inspiration for my poem, I reflected on my time living in Waltham Forest since 2017. Whether I’m picking blackberries on the marshes, exploring the vibrant stalls of Walthamstow Market and Wood Street or catching a pop-up film screening in Leytonstone, there are infinite wonders to do and see. And of course, there’s the incredible people who live here: the creatives, the campaigners, entrepreneurs and ecologists, the best bunch in London! Since moving to London in 2008, I’ve lived in five different boroughs, but I knew I’d finally come home as soon as I moved to Walthamstow.
Forest folks don’t dream small
They’re Wild Cards and neon kings
They’re Alfred Hitchcock Hotel plotters
And Vicky’s finest cabaret queens.
They’re Marshes bramble gin converters
Sour dough pros and jellied eels
They’re Dave Octave’s music bingo
Grime and rhymes and lomo reels.
Forest folks are sporting heroes
Volley baller champs supreme
Lea Valley cycles spanning centuries
Lions of the ice puck scene.
They’re Wood Street arcade taco genies
Stocking all your Viking threads
Flower Pot rockers, Duke juke boxers
Giving us daily Eggs and Bread.
Forest folks are Epping trailers
Good Queen Bess out on the hunt
Cats with gators, bait and waders
Fishing on the waterfront.
They’re ecosystem life protectors
Wetlands Eden paradise
Jubilee Park beehive Lloyd Wrights
Bat walk guides on autumn nights.
Forest folks are creative non-stop
Coppermill knitters and Art Trail gems
William Morris in the waters
Brushes, staves, kilns, playwrights’ pens.
They’re wild flower nurturer keen green fingered
Micro library master craftsfolk
Street art Warhol mural aces
Makers thriving at Blackhorse Road.
And Forest folks are caring neighbours
Always keen to lend-a-handers
Passionate and fierce campaigners
With Stella, queen of taking stands.
So I’m proud I’ve laid down roots
Amid Whipps Cross’ best locally grown
Rubbing shoulders with the dreamers
Who call this magic forest home.
THIRD, LOCAL BACK
Maggie Freeman was born in Trinidad and lived there and in Tobago until she was ten. She lived in Essex for 37 years & moved to Waltham Forest two years ago. She taught Creative Writing in Adult Community Learning and has written primary literacy books, as well as 3 historical novels which are due to be republished by Endeavour Press early next year.
My sister came to stay with me last summer, and we started reminiscing about how we went back to Tobago after our stepmother’s death – how strange it had been, having lived there as children, to stay in a hotel, not belonging anywhere, and to discover that nearly all the people we had known had left the island, often to find work. One old Tobagonian we met was Norma, a cousin and close friend of my stepmother’s. Another, at church, was Mrs Alexander, who had taught me as a child.
Where I’m from
St Patrick’s Church with its arched windows
built of bricks by slaves a hundred and sixty years ago –
I step out of its wide-open doors and follow
the priest to under the great tamarind tree
where, in its shade, they have dug my father’s grave
in earth like that in which he cropped
coconuts and cocoa for forty years.
I have come back for his funeral.
The undertakers drop his coffin in crooked.
It jams. While they lift it and lower it straight
I stare out at the land falling away beneath us
green tree cover cut by the tin roofs of Mount Pleasant
stretching out to the blue Caribbean, a haze
over the hills of the rainforest. This is
my childhood home, where I come from.
Where I’ll never again have any reason to return.
Where in future I’ll only ever be a stranger
a tourist: not belonging.
Time changes places. Places change us.
We have to adapt. I have collected up all
the places that I come from in the cupped palms
of my hands and threaded them on a necklace
of memories. They are like the red beads
of a rosary, I can name them all
count them out, Kent, London, Colby
Swansea, Essex, Hälsingland –
an incantation of experience
and if a small bungalow in Waltham Forest
was never where I expected I’d come from
I’m still content.
WINNER, YOUNG POET BACK
Lydia Wei is a 17-year-old writer from Gaithersburg, Maryland, USA. She first began writing poetry after reading the works of Langston Hughes in elementary school. Her work has been recognized by the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award and the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and is published or forthcoming in harana poetry, Sine Theta, Polyphony Lit, and more. Lydia volunteers with Writopia DC, where she helps provide writing opportunities for students in the DMV region, and Arts on the Block, where she designs and creates public mosaics for the Montgomery County community. During her free time, she enjoys making blueberry biscuits and going for very long walks.
I wrote ‘Yǒngxīn’ after returning to China in the summer of 2018. I was visiting my mother’s family in China, and I was enchanted by all the small beauties of Yǒngxīn. As an American, the city felt quite foreign to me, yet I still felt a deep familial connection to Yǒngxīn. In a way, the city was a part of me. So in my poem ‘Yǒngxīn’, I tried to explore this sense of both belonging and wonder, weaving in the rich details of this lovely city.
Consonants sizzle like peanut oil on the tongues of the fishermen.
Their words, peg-legged yet acrobatic, scabrous yet abloom,
Peppered by the monsoon zing, sweetened by their cigarettes,
Sink hooks in dreams and haul them ashore with crude, netted jokes.
Staticky cicada-woven radio tuned to jiù mā’s favorite station plays
Cantopop classics, Zhāng Guóróng’s luminous voice cool as liángfěn in the muggy
Yǒngxīn night. Metronome of steady hands snapping stems off of green beans,
Low purr of mopeds as sweat-damp lovers cruise down side streets.
Neon dreams and guǎngchǎng wǔ, the night air smoky, cumin-dashed.
Jiù jiù orders chicken heart skewers, douses the drained veins in málà chili oil.
When my skewer arrives, naked as a baby—how he laughs, gravel-specked,
At my American inability to stomach Jiāngxī spices’ swinging skirts.
Lǎo lǎo’s matchstick teeth spit out stars like sunflower seeds,
Leatherbeaten hands pat mounds of soft dough to mountainside paths.
Crinkled photo of her ox-hearted lover, hidden in her drawer with a magpie beak:
I finally found it one summer afternoon, let the jade-glistening light kiss its fragile folds.
Yǒngxīn is a county in the west of Jiangxi province, China
jiù mā – aunt
Zhāng Guóróng was a founding father of Cantopop
Liángfěn – traditional Chinese dish usually served cold
guǎngchǎng wǔ – communal exercise routine performed to music outdoors
jiù jiù – uncle
Lǎo lǎo – it‘s common to refer to a person as lǎo (old) followed by their family name
I wrote ‘playing sza’ in the first week of junior year. I remember going to school and feeling like everything had changed: new classmates, new teachers, just a new environment overall — I felt insecure, I think, as anyone would feel. And as always there was the lingering feeling of not being cool enough. I felt like I needed something to ground myself, to remind myself that everything was okay and that I was okay just the way I was. So I put on SZA, and thought to myself — here’s the song, here’s the moment, here’s where I am, I’m okay.
on a tuesday night i find myself
playing the same song
and over again.
that afternoon, i came home
and took off my name
like taking off a sweater,
tired of new teachers dragging it
around attendance charts
like an old mutt on a leash,
tired of classmates
making paper airplanes of it,
tired of boys
running it through
the sun had been slanting through
for hanging this laundry
out to dry.
i put the song on.
you love the way i
pop my top or how i
lose my cool or how
i look at you.
for a while.
appeared like a reflection
at my window.
SZA – pronounced ‘Sizza’, American singer/songwriter. The last two letters in her name stand for Zig-Zag and Allah, while the first letter says can mean either saviour or sovereign
Ahana Banerji was born in London to Indian parents. After her mother gave her an old notebook full of her writing, she decided to give poetry a chance herself. She went on to win first place in the National Charles Causley Young People’s Poetry Prize 2019 and was commended in the Foyle Young Poets Award 2019. Ahana likes to explore themes of identity, race and femininity in her poetry and takes inspiration from Sylvia Plath, Bob Dylan and Sappho.
‘Belong(ed)’ was born of my frustrations of being pressured to choose a single identity: Indian or British. The fusion of the two cultures I have been privileged enough to be born into is a difficult one but has been achieved before. My favourite example is of The Beatles whose song, ‘Get Back’ forms the opening line of my poem; the song is thought to be Paul McCartney’s satirical response to Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. I love amalgamating English with broken Bengali and using Hindu imagery to hark back to my roots while retaining my simultaneous British identity.
‘Get back to where you once belonged,’ her eyes spit at my skin,
as we tip our toes on the wind rose of our separate compass;
words dribble down my throat in thick, burning humiliation as I swallow my tongues
and wonder the chances of being plucked out from a field of magnolia flesh
if I hadn’t hibiscus flush –
I try to imagine a world where I am adored
and adorned like a doll to meet my future
after turmeric is soaked through my pores
like my ma before me
and my didun before her
and my dibhai before her
and then I remember my life is here.
My roots swell through the grey-eyed skies
and the city lights burn my colour
with its staring,
but I don’t mind because
the smoke in mustard-sharp air
the curl of words in the temple
the cling of the starched cotton salwaar
always remind me of the world I could have called
Come April & I fist the days as if
the calendar’s pages were the ruffles
on my sundress. I dress the cuts
on my jaw with springs & hands.
Undress & redress. Make it tick
in time with the neighbor’s world
clock. Let me tell you again about
last Tuesday, when Mama had me
cut her bangs straight across,
the split ends forming all the
unanswered questions on the floor.
Look, the living room is so full
of old takeout and fossils. How
honest. In another life, I imagine
the bones discover themselves in a
sheath of blubber & teach me
to swim with eyes unclosed. Feel
the river’s slow pulse & the slick
of fish coiling around me like twine.
I confess: I want to touch my body
in the dark. Hands light & gullible.
To play cartographer & mark the
frontline of every frontier with
red flags. Should I rewind. Should
I stop the mailman. Should I pick
up the landline. Then maybe this time
I’ll see the lightning before it hits
the prairie. Even suffocate the house
fire in its own exhaust. Already,
my body has begun to count its parts
as both shrapnel & wreckage.
Worship itself into white dwarf
& drought. Here we are, the ground
in splinters of kindling, soot tracking
the grass. Watch: this sky
blemished. This field.
Our two bodies—
like it was meant to.
I am from the cat ears on my little brother’s onesie.
From, ‘The buyer is always near, when the goat is happy’.
Beneath taking home the class pet. Michael Jackson.
Within the silence of my mum’s mum’s reposeful coffin.
I grew silent, look twice at the zebra crossing.
I’m from breakfast club; 2 toast, no butter.
When ‘I’m gonna tell’ would make your heart flutter.
From Aunt Lucy’s house – where you had to yank to flush.
‘By Luther Vandross’. Playing I-Spy on the bus.
And bubble baths and grazed knees and Please stop making a fuss!
I’m from the Father, and the Son, and Noah’s Ark and the dove.
I’m from folk tales, poetry
I’m from all the lines above.
I’m from generational trauma depicted in my melanin.
I once lived on Hungerhill Road.
at the intersection of the land & sea
The story goes that my mother’s land
was born from the fall of an axe &
my mother was born from the rise
of a sailing ship
Each sunset, her eyes meet the sun &
one day like this, before I was born,
she told me that we
are just tumbleweed
so I fall into the ocean & grow no feet
to drown with
My mother draws numbers all day &
sometimes she cannot tell – only count
what she left behind
My mother cannot swim:
her feet are too stiff
to draw circles in the ocean
but her body has hollowed
enough to fly across the sea
a thousand times through
she says we
are an empty people
with our bodies filled
with the weight of incense &
this is why we sink
My mother thought this country
was a language
so she made a voice out of its teeth &
filled her ears with the driest of soil
She fears that one day
my tongue will become
a barren land –
arid & incapable
COMMENDED, YOUNG POET BACK
Migrating to Elwood City
after Sue Ellen
Here, trees tap-dance like the ghosts
of nomads – red curls, invisible
hands, fear, everything else
that adults cannot see. Confection
across the housetop – do you think
they have kids? Here’s what it’s like
to come from a sugarless world.
Now I migrate between
cavities, thread tongue between
lips, hear screaming
down the streets. I promise, invisible
people won’t chase you
down the streets, if they have kids,
anyway. There’s been a heist
at the art museum – is it the immigrant?
the child? the security guard? None
of those, really. I can’t roll
the Mona Lisa into my backpack
or conquer the world. Even spaceships
are made of earth-metals. I wonder how many lies
can thrive in one town. They die
Elwood City is the main setting of the Arthur television series, books, and related media. Sue Ellen is a character in Arthur, described as assertive, proactive, brave, tough, kind, slightly tomboyish, tolerant, honest, and creative.
COMMENDED, YOUNG POET BACK
Asymptotes in Hawai’i
That day, we left before dawn, tying
the surfboard to the roof of the car. All summer we’d
waited for the last golden moment when an idle dream
would press itself against our skin
like sweat, and here it appeared before us in all
its infinite closeness. He read me the directions from
a sheet stained with manapua grease, mumbling makai,
makai—only towards the sea, neverending.
At the beach, he took down the surfboard,
wading out into the cold, starless waters. The surf
farther out was ragged, relentless.
He swam furiously through the arching depths, diving
underwater, throwing himself into the waves until
he was above one, rising, riding—
He came back from the waves, and, shaking
the hair out of his eyes, the glistening beads of water like
swept-up pearls, told me that just then,
he approached infinity.
An asymptote is a line that a curve approaches as it heads towards infinity
manapua – Hawaiian for delicious pork thing
makai – Hawaiian for toward the sea
COMMENDED, YOUNG POET BACK
“debate team meets thursdays”
on a poster hanging in the crowded
hard t’s of carefully constructed counterarguments
hurling in volleys and bouncing off
cedar-wood podiums, straight to my opponent’s
smooth th’s opening our
post-match pizza box, friday night twilight
tapping against the windowpane.
“bring your gym shorts monday”
on a frayed sheet by the girl’s locker room, edges torn
from too much estrogen. smooth syllables
glide off my tongue in arcs of the perfect softball
pitch, the embrace of sweaty fingers
around a quivering ball; galloping gy’s leave
clouds of dust behind, the star rugby players with
flecks of afternoon sunlight in their hair. meanwhile i’m
the bumbling d that trips over monday,
awkward stumbles, butterfingering. soft sh’s of sobs
find hiding places under the mulberry patch
where i’ll bruise myself with jammy lovesick fruits.
“i really love you
a lot” scrawled on a note
that lands on my desk,
shivering handwriting on coarse notebook paper.
i read it again and again: the quiet trickling
of the water fountain in the trembling l’s,
eager e’s and a’s and o’s round as donut holes
begging to be colored in with sparkly gel pens,
a satisfied squish of bubble gum under the table.
suddenly, i feel better about things: i turn over
his note and jump headfirst into my reply, knowing that
will catch me.
COMMENDED, YOUNG POET BACK
When You Love Someone At My Age
What nobody ever understands about young love and what nobody ever tells you is that when you love someone at my age, all you ever see of them is the back of their head. You lean, and lean, and lean, and lean, trying to peer over their shoulders, but all you ever see is the back of their head. In the meantime you study their neck, the way they bend over to take notes—the v of hair at the nape of their neck sharp like the k sound in Hoboken. From then on, whenever you hear the patter of New Jersey rain against your windows in the damp afternoons, you think of them, of the rain rushing down the waterfront and filling up the river, making it as wide and broad as their neck.
WINNER, LOCAL YOUNG POET BACK
Kate Lucas is currently studying Maths, Further Maths, Physics and History at A-level, but still finds time to squeeze in poetry around all of the equations and essays. She has always enjoyed reading poetry – when she was younger her grandma bought her poetry books for her birthday, and her favourite poem was ‘A Smuggler’s Song’, not least because of the beautiful illustrations in the Usborne Book of Children’s Poetry. In more recent years she has enjoyed Kate Tempest and The Liverpool Poets, but is always looking for recommendations on what poetry to read next. She has also started experimenting with writing her own poetry, on a variety of topics, although is often influenced by what she can see from her bedroom window.
‘The Bedroom’ attempts to sum up the feeling of being almost asleep, but not quite, and the random small thoughts that pop into your head at that time, as well as the way the day’s problems seem amplified when all you want to do is forget them and fall asleep.
The books and their unbroken spines
Mock the night-time wonderings of the ambitious man.
In the almost place between awake and asleep,
Shopping-bag-laden eyes, drooping, dip pen nibs into ink pots.
Smallest dreams lie dormant, trapped and warm and
Safe under the ironed bedclothes,
In a room too small for its corners,
But big enough for a little life.
Out of the window, the white lights in the other houses wink
Sharing an inside joke.
SECOND, LOCAL YOUNG POET BACK
‘Crane’ was inspired by the little red lights you see at night in London on top of cranes, to stop planes flying into them. they don’t mean much to most people but without them we wouldn’t have any of the skyscrapers that define London’s skyline.
It is a catapult, slinging progress across a city that hasn’t made up its mind,
A city as old as the wind that blows the hair out of your eyes
It pricks the soft colours smeared above the noise
‘we are here’, it protests in painted steel.
Red orbs like fairy lights litter the night sky,
Fiery eyes scrutinise our attempt at reaching high,
Higher than we ever reached before, high up above
This cobbled together place, stacked bricks and glass
Would they recognise this place they built – all
Concrete and traffic jams? (maybe they would)
We bristle and bustle and catch the train, complain about the news, and all the while
The crane stretches a steadfast metallic arm towards the heaven land
THIRD, LOCAL YOUNG POET BACK
Safiyyah Kazi was 11 years old when she entered this poem (she’s now twelve) and goes to Eden Girls school, Walthamstow – year 7. She is very grateful as her English teacher encouraged her to put her poem forward.
My poem was inspired by previous holidays. Specifically, my short trip to Geneva in Switzerland. To me it felt just like home despite the fact I’m part Portuguese, Mozambican and Indian. I wanted to savour the moment and the best way to do that was to write a poem. Everywhere I went I was greeted with the rich scent of hot chocolate and an amazing view of the panoramic alps. Yes, you’re right there are no beaches, but I also wanted to capture my trip years back to Morocco. I stumbled across sky-blue oceans which I splashed to my heart’s content. Mixing the adventures together I created my poem!
Home sweet home
The place I’m from has sparkling opaque oceans that glimmer all year round,
The oceans tumble in the summer breeze,
And the sun sets to highlight that another glorious day has gone by.
The place I’m from bubbles with rich scents,
Slams the door on hate,
And welcomes every one.
The place I’m from has mind boggling creatures,
Twisted tumbling trees,
And mesmerising plants to make you halt in your tracks.
The place I’m from welcomes you with open arms,
Is there when you need it,
Because the place I’m from is home sweet home.