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2024 Competition Judges

Poetry Judge: David Ashbee

Poetry Judge

David Ashbee is a Gloucester-born poet with centuries-old county roots. He sustained the poetry and music group Holub for over 40 years, and is a founder member of the Cherington Poets, who have run poetry workshops in coastal towns from St Ives to Cromer. He was recently invited to be a selector for South Poetry Magazine for a third time, and regularly reviews new poetry collections for them. His third full collection Poems from the Mind Shop is available from Dempsey and Windle: dempseyandwindle.com/davidashbee.html

What I'm looking for:

For me, a poem has to be distinctive in at least one of these three ways: an unusual approach to its subject, something original in its content, use of language that marks it out from prose in rhythm and tone, awareness of form, either to enhance its impact or as a conscious sculpting.

Poetry is an art form, like painting, music or pottery. A good rhymed poem is superior in my eyes to the same poem presented as prose. But, of course, a rhymed poem is not good if the rhymes distract from the voice or distort what is being said. That’s why free verse is a safer option. It can also be a lazy option.

Poems overtly about current issues or cries from the heart would have to work
very hard to impress me.

I want to be grabbed on first reading and rewarded further on subsequent readings. If a poem baffles me on first reading there has to be something that suggests I am missing something. If a poem baffles me on a third reading, it’s a reject.

Titles play an important part in the reading process.

Photographer: Richard McCleery (rich@mccle.co.uk)

Prose Judge: Michael Johnstone

Prose Judge

Michael Johnstone, writing as Mike 'D.D.' Johnston, is a Scottish novelist and short story writer who teaches Creative Writing for the University of Gloucestershire and the University of Oxford. He’s been described as ‘Bringing light to a dark world’ (The Financial Times), ‘Funny as all hell’ (The Sunday Herald), and ‘One of the country’s most important left-wing fiction writers’ (The Morning Star). His website is http://ddjohnston.org/

What I’m looking for

The authors I love are generous storytellers who communicate democratically rather than revelling in their power over the reader. ‘To Hell with suspense,’ as Kurt Vonnegut put it; so, share the key information quickly and clearly, and make me care what will happen next, rather than leave me to guess who’s talking and what on earth is going on. As such, what the characters do – and where and when they do it – should usually be unambiguous; however, why they do these things – and what it all means – should keep me up at night.

The stories I love can be set in the long-ago past or in an imagined future; they may take place on another continent or in a distant galaxy; nevertheless, they will explore some paradox of the human condition that is so universal that the story will seem to me to have been written about my life.

Joy Williams said that ‘God is (and must be) a transcendent presence in any worthy work of art’. Call it God or something else, but the stories I love involve some element that transcends material fact, biological imperative, and logical self-interest. For instance, if in a fuel-scarce winter, a person saves their money and queues hours for coal, then neither of the obvious resolutions fully satisfies (they get the coal and enjoy a warming fire through the night, or the coal is all gone by the time they get to the front of the queue and perhaps they’ll die in the cold). The magic – call it God or something else – would transcend material logic; for instance, ultimately, they give up their treasured coal in an act of unconditional love.

Finally, the stories I love are unashamedly sincere and heartfelt, even if (especially if) they’re ironic or comic, fantastical or magical. They have the ring of honesty – the sense that the author is struggling to communicate some difficult truth about their experience of being human.

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