Buzzwords poetry Competition 2023 - RESULTS!


Buzzwords Poetry Competition 2023 – Results

Please scroll down for judges’ report and poems.


Main Prizes

1st ‘The Big One’  by Damen O’Brien

Runner up ‘How to be a widow’ by  Kathy Pimlott


Highly Commended

‘A Blessing of Found Words’ by  Maggie Reed

Where my body used to play is air’ by Rachel Goodman

‘Violin Lesson’ by Mary Hastilow

‘pig town, o the shame of you’ by Mary Mulholland

‘I visit my dad in heaven’ by Joanne Key


Gloucestershire prize:

1st ‘Unpick your framed cross-stitch of Moscow’ by Catherine Baker

Runner up ‘How to Venerate an Icon’ by Anna Saunders


Judges’ Report

It is always a daunting privilege to be asked to judge the work of your fellow poets. Of course, we all have our particular tastes to be aware of, and it’s important to put these into the background and try to be objective.  It helps being a pair, in so much that we are very different writers: Helen is drawn towards folktale symbolism and the anthropological metaphors of myth, whereas Martin looks to a more socio-political perspective. We were looking ultimately, of course, for poems that transcend personal taste. When judging a poetry competition, it’s always important to step outside of yourself.  It’s much more evident that this is what you are doing when you are sitting next to another person, articulating the merits of particular poems.


Poetry competitions are always good barometers of what is happening in the world politically  and what concerns we have as humans living in our bodies and on this planet.  We are all alive in extremely  troubling times – the war in Ukraine and the climate emergency features large in the things people are writing about. And there is also the personal grief that prompts a poet into writing; poetry often become a conduit for distress, and this dominated the entries.


Just what is it that lifts some poems, above the rest? When you read a few thousand anonymous poems, it becomes more and more evident. The first thing we looked for is the imaginative use of language. It’s a hard fact that if the language doesn’t engage the reader in some way, or the metaphors become mixed, or you just cannot see the imagery, then no matter how heartfelt the motivation behind the poem, it will not be able stand up on its own.  It is difficult, especially for longer poems (of which there were many in this competition) to sustain themselves through these fundamental tests of language to the end.


With some of the poems we set aside after a first reading, it was clear from the beginning how the poem is going to end, and that the writer knew what they were going to say when they sat down to write.  With others, there is the excitement of not knowing where the poem is going, and sometimes the added bonus of not knowing how the poem got to where it ended up.  There is a kind of poetic sleight-of-hand at work – poet as magician - which made us put this type of poem in the ‘read again’ pile, from which we ultimately chose our winners.


Above all, it’s not enough to have had an experience, or to have felt something deeply – if the poem does not reach out to the reader and take all of their attention, then the translation of experience into art has not been completely successful this time.  Every poem we write is an opportunity and a challenge to take language and form it into something new; something which startles you as it lands itself on the page. 


Here are the poems we chose:


The Gloucestershire Prize


Of the poems that referenced Russia,  Unpick your framed cross-stitch of Moscow by Catherine Baker immediately struck us with its surprising premise. We admired how it stuck very closely to its metaphor as step by step, thread by thread it unravels all its ‘gaudy’ history and power and lays it bare – reduces it to the staple of life.

A close runner-up is Anna Saunders How to Venerate an Icon. Using Catholic instruction on piety and how to treat icons and relics, the poem considers objects of worship. Galileo’s middle-finger is raised to the heavens – a young girl’s dead hero / lover is all but papered over by new heroes in the record shop, only his fingers clasping the neck of a guitar.

Main Prizes

First prize goes to Damen O'Brien with The Big Lie, an ‘instructional’ poem both wide in its scope and scrupulous in satirising the notion of ‘the lie’ becoming common currency in the worlds of God, war, global politics and money. It maintains the conceit from beginning to end,  deftly skewers its target and leaves us wondering how we let them get away with it, how we ‘believed in the flames’.

Second prize also goes to an ‘instructional’ poem: Kathy Pimlott’s How to be a widow. A poem that is unflinching in tackling the matter. Underneath the heartbreak, there is a subtext of dark humour in how the protagonist attempts to quantify their progress with jigsaw pieces and percentages. It unsparingly details the moment of loss and takes us into the unimaginable aftermath, how to face the everyday and how the everyday struggles to respond. The poem attempts to alleviate the grief by putting it into perspective – looking out to the wider world and its greater tragedies; ‘colonies collapsing’ and children ‘taken to the streets with semi-automatic guns.’ A wise and profoundly moving poem that asks the impossible of itself and us.

The highly commended poems were not so far behind.

A Blessing of Found Words by Maggie Reed blesses language – our currency as writers –  and all it can do by way of small things, hopes that ‘may the black-magic never rundown,/ never become silent.’

Rachel Goodman’s Where my body used to play is air takes the impact of climate change and the resultant coastal erosion, which is very real here in East Anglia and makes it metaphysically personal. Past generations are literally falling away while remembering ‘rests its wing on thermals’ – nothing is fixed or certain.

Violin Lesson by Mary Hastilow writes after Helen MacDonald’s memoir ‘H is for Hawk’, which is a memoir of grief and depression. Violin Lesson draws a metaphorical equivalence between the hunting flight of a hawk and music – ‘commotion ensues, the air is charged’.

 Mary Mulholland’s pig town, o the shame of you caught our ear, not least by dreaming of Swindon and singing pig mothers. This poem enters the realms of the imagination to create an emotionally charged, personal exodus from Swindon. It regresses to an anechoic chamber in Minnesota, people can go mad within minutes, to where ‘you start hearing / your heart beating, your lungs and stomach/ you become the sound you knew before birth.

Last,  but not least is I visit my dad in heaven by Joanne Key.  This poem sets out for revenge – a dad in a heaven of all the things he would hate and ‘plays havoc with his knees’.  We enjoyed that the narrator’s idea of heaven is indeed a hell for their dad – a place where he can only dream ‘of the Red Room with the dark bar / the smell of real fire / stale beer leather cigars’ – and in a satisfying/ unsatisfied ending, he is driven to open ‘all the bottles/ of sparkling water / just to feel the twist of a lid / listen to the hiss.’

We think we have chosen a terrific and inspiring bunch of poems. If yours isn’t amongst them, then I hope in reading you find some comfort and pleasure in knowing that you only just missed out to some excellent work.

 Helen Ivory and Martin Figura

Norwich, October 2023


1st Prize - Damen O’Brien

 The Big One 


the lie has to be so big / that it must not fail / bigger than Bear Stearns / bigger than Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae / hide under the bed with your eyes closed big / cross your fingers and your toes big / the lie must be comfortable with Jesus and Santa Claus / hanging out like they’re just three cool kids / the lie must bend space / nothing should escape the lie / the fallout from the lie should / cover 16 city blocks in complicity / that is how to be successful / make me want the lie more than the truth / make the lie more beautiful than the truth / enlist me in an army of volunteers / desperately shoring up the lie / make the contradictions so enormous / I have to shade my eyes / make it such a whacking great whopper / that my jaws are dislocated / tell me that you averted a nuclear war / tell me that we need a wall / tell me that the Reds are coming / tell me that the land was empty / tell me that they’re building weapons / in some hidden bunker in a poor country / I want to fear the truth more than the lie / I want to fear that the lie might be true / the fabulists are door-knocking / two houses up but coming soon / they want to know which way I’ll vote / they want some money for the flood / they want to give me a copy of the Watchtower / I want to tell them the biggest lie / I want to invite them in / I want to introduce them to my wife / she’s cold as stone upon our bed / there’s not a mark upon her but / the lie has got her or the truth / combination hook and sucker punch / after Belsen everything was true / after Burundi everything was true / after Sarajevo we were so far / from the curve of truth that / we could see the back of our heads/ so far from the lies that / everything the liar says could be true / in a world one remove from this / where everything is the same / but one big lie floating / like the echo of a tree / falling in a valley past that hill / the sound of that one lie / reaches us from the next world over / thirteen hours in the haze of hell / I watched them walk out of the fire / standing because they are too tired to fall / the fire has smoked their faces black / but it is out now / finally out /the hill is bare but when it raged / the flames clawed at the sky / and it hurt to look upon it /but for thirteen hours / I believed in the flames.



Runner up – Kathy Pimlott

How to be a Widow


I do two of the just-one-things the radio doctor

promises will make a difference: drink water

and balance on one leg with my eyes closed.


I’ve written my menu for the week. Today is chowder.

I manage ten pieces of the 1000-piece jigsaw’s scenes

from Jane Austen. Tomorrow I’ll visit friends and say


it’s alright, really, it’s alright, 70, 80 percent

alright, their condolences in quote marks, “sad loss”,

“tragic accident”, little pegs pinning the laundered fact


to the line, blood-streaked mucusy froth washed out.

Who wants to talk about death? No-one. No-one.

Not while the world’s burning. Him as lost glacier,


landscape cracked into vast spaces, the loss of all

my excuses. I was on the phone, then peeling potatoes,

then scrubbing a tea-stained mug and then he was dead.


Who wants to hear about the colours? Normal, then purple

then grey in a moment like the sea changing as light

shifts with the clouds. No-one. Colonies are collapsing.


Children have taken to the streets with semi-automatic guns.

Words no longer hold and I’ve been picked up and dropped

into a foreign land in which everywhere looks the same.


What I said to the two policewomen: do you want tea?

Someone radios someone. Someone calls them back.

Someone has found a wad of new bank notes on our street.


What I said to the paramedic: yes, I moved his legs.

No, no beat as we took turns to try to bring him back,

husband, dad. We stand and sit in our kitchen, open windows


flooded with noise: people at pub tables, drinking, losing cash.

At moments I feel I might step over him at the foot of the stairs,

run up Tottenham Court Rd, along Euston Rd, into the park.


It gets dark. All we want to do is lie down or scream

but we make conversation with the officers from 6 until 11,

say it’s odd he didn’t swear as he fell, being very sweary.


We stand and sit in the kitchen, wait for it to be otherwise.

It isn’t. The mug with the tea stains was that one on which

Alice tucks a flamingo under her arm, gets on with the match.



Highly Commended  - Maggie Reed

A Blessing of Found Words


Bless the hand-operated - the tasks of this day.

Praise be to the owlish bird-speak,

            the language of chigger.


Blessed be the toothpick, the pin-picked seaweed.

All hail the manicured rifle bolts,

            may they marshal all weathervanes.


Praise be to the palm leaf fan.

Praise the thumb-tacked silversmith.


Alleluia to the dapper heel.


May the gusts of birthday candles be longwinded,

may the tawny kittens holler


and glory be to the snow-shovel,

the great, great galactic pterodactyl.


May the black-magic never rundown,

            never become silent.



Highly Commended – Rachel Goodman


Where my body used to play is air


on the cliff by the house by your childhood

before mine


the edge has moved backwards

borrowing from the field –


there are notices across the broken

line to stop us stepping out –



has sprayed the grass red




                        this is new territory – it’s absurd

              my mind is not trained

                                                    for the both/and of death


                        how you can appear to be gone

                                            but you do not appear

                        to be gone              it’s not the height that makes me dizzy



I never thought about falling when we lay in the thrift

flicking grass seedheads over the edge –


you showed me how to loop the stem round the bullet

and pull – pointed out skylarks, and shadows in the sea –


there are cassette tapes I should listen to but

there is too much body in a voice, in Brahms, in hyacinths –



on the cliff by the house by your childhood

before mine


remembering rests its wing on thermals rising

from the taken-away land



Highly Commended – Mary Hastilow


Violin Lesson

after Helen MacDonald’s ‘Hawk’


Take up this maplewood box with a falconer’s flair

and summon stamina in the left arm. Carry it

at the height of the heart and make eye contact

with the neck. Note the lift inherent in the feathery

weight at odds with its bulk, flecked and curvaceous.

Quietly furious in its confines, it is primed

for a hunt and kill cloudburst. You can live in a wood

full of hawks and never see one, but touch

the scroll of a violin and know talons tightening

on sinews. Before you are ready (are you ever ready?)

commotion ensues, the air is charged, the space

too small to contain maiden flight; the attempt

ricochets, but the room is transformed. In the chink

between fear and dream make yourself visible, become

airborne. Let the sound soar and hunt you down.




Highly Commended – Mary Mulholland


pig town, o the shame of you


In the Bahamas swimming with pigs, a man

with a pig heart said, 'We are the unbeloved,

but life happens at the edges'.


That night I dreamed I was cradled again in Swindon's

old arms. This shadow on my passport I've tried to wipe

from my life. Who wants to belong to a cloven-hoofed


scavenger, left out of the ark, the eighth worst place to live?

But that night I heard my pig mother singing me to sleep,

and I dreamed I could outrun racehorses.


Some say sows eat their young, others that piglets turn

on their mother. I left Swindon before I was one to live

in a desert land. As a mother I learned all houses are built


from sand. I've a scar from when I ran from my ayah

and tripped. Did I run squealing? I don't remember.

Footprints from childhood are silent.


It's said there are one hundred types of silence.

In the anechoic chamber in Minnesota few manage

without sound for forty-five minutes.


Most people go mad after three. You start hearing

your heart beating, your lungs and stomach,

you become the sound you knew before birth.



Highly Commended – Joanne Key



I Visit My Dad in Heaven


he thinks i imagine him 

in heaven just to get revenge

that’s paranoia for you

not one bit grateful 

everything makes him queasy

he hates the rhythm the hymns 

says the music is shit

he’s still convinced there are monsters everywhere 

even in this light 

i can see the fear 

moving under his skin

blooming into bruises

he’s in the sick room 

heaving over the basin

next there’ll be insects

the shiny pearl necklace

of their eggs

it’s winter in heaven and the cold 

plays havoc with his knees

the sounds drive him mad

constant clink clink clink

of ice in a drink 

the chink of glasses a choir

of crystal goblets singing everywhere

he’s all over the place

in the corner in the attic

on his soapbox in the eaves 

never once in his whole life

did he think it would come to this    teetotal

all day the lessons

the lectures Venn diagrams 

weekdays he drives the white van

weekends he paints houses 

one-coat white over magnolia

spends hours stripping decades 

of wood-chip wallpaper 

to reveal more layers

peeling like dead skin

he admits the pull is still strong in him

the feeling 

it never leaves

he tells me sometimes he falls

asleep at the wheel 

and dreams 

of the Red Room with the dark bar

the smell of a real fire 

stale beer leather cigars

at night winged heavies guard the door

he’s disturbed by the sweats 

hears voices through the vent

opens all the bottles 

of sparkling water

just to feel the twist of a lid

listen to the hiss



The Gloucestershire Prize


1st – Catherine Baker


Unpick your framed cross-stitch of Moscow


Steady yourself, raise your arms.

Lift it from the wall, the nail should fall

neat into your husband’s tool box.


Brush off blooms of grey-mist cobwebs,

return them to the spiders. Lay it, face down,

on your oilcloth covered table.


Pick at the furling, sticky, masking tape,

reel and rewind. Ease out the glass,

set aside the gaudy frame for future use.


Admire and fondle the old linen and silks.

Begin with The Kremlin, hold it firmly

and needle-free the last stitched cross,


tug sharply, slide the beautiful, foxy thread     

around your thumb and unravel Red Square.

Assumption Cathedral will come away


in little puffs of white and gold, like snowfall

on a sunny day. The verdigrised Tsar Cannon

should slip out smoothly as a falsehood.


Wrap each fraying stitch around an empty reel.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is complicated, be careful

as you scissor those goose stepping, dark uniforms


with guns. Pick up every tiny scrap, including Lenin.

Loosen all that’s knotted, fastened and fixed.

One day, sew another, it will grow fast as wheat.




Runner Up – Anna Saunders


How to Venerate an Icon


The saints skull is in one country, and the thumb in another.

Even after death it is possible to worship a body.


A girl still goes into a record shop, the poster of her lover

is still nailed to wood.


The Body of the loved one is to be venerated.  


Another poster overlaps his.

It obscures the rest of his body.

His disembodied hand is all that can be seen.


The components of the hand as limb of God.


Across the waters the Saint’s

thumb, on a plinth, draws pilgrims.


Even when the body is split it can contain God.


And Galileo's middle finger

is contained in a small glass egg which nestles

among lodestones and telescopes.


You must worship the body.


One part of the body can represent the whole,

like a synecdoche of skin.


Even when the body is split it can contain God.


Her dead-lover's fingers, clasping the neck of a guitar

(The relics are the handiwork of god)

are white, as if cold, but she can almost feel their warmth again.


The relics will be revenerated.



Note - The lines in italics are from a catholic instruction on piety and how to treat icons and relics.


















Judges:  Helen Ivory and Martin Figura

who will read all entries

Closing date for entries. Midnight, 10th September 2023.

1stt prize-£600.          Runner-up £300.   5 x commended £50 each.

The Gloucestershire Prize £200. (for Gloucestershire residents only).

Gloucestershire runner-up £50 (donated by Alison Brackenbury)

 Helen Ivory is a poet and visual artist. Her fifth Bloodaxe collection is  The Anatomical Venus (2019). She edits the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears and teaches creative writing online for the UEA/NCW. A book of mixed media poems Hear What the Moon Told Me is published by KFS, and chapbook Maps of the Abandoned City by SurVision.  She also has work translated into Polish, Ukrainian, Spanish and Croatian as part  of Versopolis. Wunderkammer: New and Selected Poems (2023) is published in the US by MadHat Press. She is currently working on her next collection for Bloodaxe Constructing a Witch which will appear in 2024.

Martin Figura’s collection and show Whistle were shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award and won the 2013 Saboteur Award for Best Spoken Word Show.  Shed (Gatehouse Press) and Dr Zeeman’s Catastrophe Machine (Cinnamon Press) were both published in 2016.  In 2021 he was Salisbury NHS Writer in Residence, with a pamphlet My Name is Mercy from Fair Acre Press. A second pamphlet from Fair Acre Press Sixteen Sonnets for Care came out in October. The Remaining Men is due out with Cinnamon Press in 2024. The show Shed is returning to the stage in April 2024, three years after its Covid Postponement.


Entry fees: Postal entries; £4 per poem or 3 poems for £10.

Email entries will carry a surcharge for admin & printing costs. For postal entries, go to to download the entry form and instructions

Proceeds of the competition will be used to fund ‘Buzzwords’, which is the longest running and most respected regular poetry gathering in Cheltenham.


Rules of Entry.

1     Poems should be no longer than 70 lines.

2     No translations are accepted.

3     Poems must not have been previously published in print or on the internet.

4     Entries must be clearly typed on single side(s) of A4 paper in a clear font e.g. Arial     12 point. No curly or obscure fonts please. One poem per page.

5    Please leave a reasonable margin on the paper so that it is legible when printed and filed.

6      Handwritten entries will not be considered.

7     Entrants’ names should not appear on the poems. An entry form or email should accompany all entries and contain name, phone number, address, email address and titles of poems entered.

8       Entries must be received by midnight on 10th September 2023

9     Entries for the Gloucestershire prize should mark their poems with ‘GL’ in the top right hand corner.

10.     Gloucestershire, for the purposes of the competition, includes South Gloucestershire

11.     Results will be published on the Buzzwords Competition Website.

12.     Prize winners will be contacted in November 2023; winners will be welcome to read their poems at the next ‘Buzzwords’

13.   The judge’s decision will be final and we regret that no correspondence will be entered into.

14.   Copyright will remain with the competitor, but Buzzwords reserves the right to publish the winning ppoems on the website, or to use them in publicity, for 12 months after the results are announced.

15.   Poems may not be altered after entry.


Email entry instructions

 Pay for the appropriate number of poems through the paypal button below. Please note, you do not have to have a paypal account and can use a debit card through paypal.

Send the poems, one per page, as an attachment to . No name or identifying marks on the poems, except for ‘GL’ on the top right-hand corner if you are a Gloucestershire entrant.

 In the body of the email, include the paypal receipt or transaction number, name,  phone number, address, email address and titles of poems entered.



Top of Form

Number of Poems

1 comment:

  1. Curious. Is there a reason this is called Buzzwords? Is there something I should know? Does it have to be about bees hah hah