We would like to thank all our five judges, Mairibeth MacMillan, Deborah Moffatt, Jim Mackintosh, Stuart A Paterson and Leela Soma, for their care and diligence in judging what turned out to be a bumper entry across nearly all categories. Their reports are below.
Flash Fiction Judge’s Report
Judging this year’s flash fiction competition was an absolute pleasure. There was an incredible range of styles and subject matter. One of the main things I looked for was the presence of an actual story. Something had to happen, some kind of change to the character or in the situation. Some entries were well written but more like anecdotes while others were overly reliant on a single sentence at the end that altered the perception of the events that had just unfolded – sometimes this was really effective, but other times less so. Many entries were clever with great punchlines, many brought a real smile to my face. Others were disturbing and unsettling. One thing is certain: the sheer range made choosing the winners very difficult.
I was very impressed overall with the standard of the entries. Very few were eliminated due to poor writing and major grammatical errors.
There is no one way to write flash fiction and my choices, in the end, are personal, based on those which lingered long after I had read them. I was looking for stories which portrayed change, whether that was in the main character or in the reader’s understanding of the situation varies between the chosen stories. All the stories on the shortlist expanded beyond their word counts, hinting at whole worlds that they themselves were only a small but significant part of. There are a great many stories not on this shortlist that I believe will find homes elsewhere and I wish everyone the best of luck with resubmitting them.
Some of the stories required more than one reading to fully appreciate, while others were less impressive on a second read. In the end, the winner, Self/Less, was a story that stood out the very first time I read it. The narrator steadily declines, but in a way which echoed my own experience of watching two parents with dementia. Faculties dim and return, then dim again. It is unpredictable and confusing, and this story made these factors tangible. The title is also works on more than one level — literally! Moreover, it is a story not only told through the words, but also through the placement of those words on the page — and at times, the missing bits of those words or missing words themselves. The confusion, frustration and loss experienced by the narrator really stood out for me, but it was the combination of story and use of visual aspects that made this one the winner.
Blackbird was one story amongst a great selection from one author. The comparison between the past incident and the present gave just enough of a sense of doubt to the truth of the consultant’s words. The visual imagery is very clear throughout the story and the sense of melancholy adds to the feeling that the narrator still does not fully understand what has happened and that there is still more to come in this chain of events.
Boundless was a story that again used the title to great effect — it stood in opposition to the idea of lockdown, both the covid related one and the one experienced by Chloe in the story. The literal and figurative levels overlap constantly and add depth to a rather sad story of both a relationship and lockdown ending.
The two Highly Commended entries were fantastic challengers for the top spots. You Don’t Like Your Dentist unravels slowly and convincingly. It was disturbing with some great images that made the previous events almost tangible within the story’s present. The
Settlement also used rather disturbing imagery but with a different purpose. The main character in the story in a sense achieves the ultimate fulfilment of his goal and the dystopian setting becomes more understanding because of it.
The Commended entry, In This Sequestered Place, was another story that lingered long after I had read it. The title was haunting and captured my interest immediately, and the story was strangely relatable after the events of the previous year and a half.
I’ll finish by saying a huge congratulations to all of the winners, and a thank you to all the entrants for the privilege of being able to read your stories. Best of luck in the future with all your writing endeavours!
Gaelic Language Judge’s Report
Bu mhath leam taing a thoirt do na bàird a chur na dàin aca a-steach dhan cho-fharpais seo am-bliadhna. Tha e gu math follaiseach gu bheil bàrdachd Ghàidhlig ann an deagh chor.
Chaidh na dàin thairis air sreath de chuspairean, nam measg galar ’s bàs, poileataigs ’s tachartasan eachdraidheil, gàirnealachd, eilthireachd, ’s mar a bhios dùil, gaol. Bha caochladh stoidhlean a’ nochdhadh cuideachd, agus ged a bha iad uile ann an “free verse,” bha mi a’ faicinn, no a’ faireachdainn, ruitheam agus co-fhuaim neo-fhoirmeil anns a’ chuid as motha de na dàin.
HIGHLY COMMENDED: Galar
Chan eil e na iongnadh gun do nochd dàin a tha ceangailte ris a’ phandemic anns a’ cho-fharpais am-bliadhna. Anns an dàn, “Galar,” ’s iad na “fir lachdann” – fir a bhios a’ cruinneachadh aig dorsan nan taighean-seinnse ann an Glashchu – a tha fo chomhair na bana-bhàird, agus i a’ meòrachadh air na thachair dhaibh uile anns na mìosan fada dhen ghlasadh-sluaigh. Tha corra ìomhaigh chruthachail, dhrùidhteach, a’ nochdadh anns an dàn, gus dealbh a thoirt air beatha nam fir sin, ’s iad sgapte, no caillte nan aonarachd, gun “an aon laimhrig bha gan cumail air bhog.”
DARNA ÀITE: Ròs Geal
Is e “mar chuimhneachan air Jo Cox” a th’ anns an dàn seo, a rèir an òs-sgrìobhadh air an dàn. Ach chan eil iomradh idir air Jo Cox gus an dàrna rann mu dheireadh. Roimhe sin, le sreath de ìomhaighean cumhachdach, àlainn, tha am bàrd a’ dol do chridhe a’ bhaile far an robh Cox air a marbhadh. Chì sinn am baile mar a bhios e air latha cumanta – bhan an èisg, nighean-sgoile air a’ chabhsair, sealladh nan cnoc ‘s nan dàlaichean bho uinneag na sgoile. Tha a h-uile càil sìtheil, misneachail, sunndach, anns an àite agus anns an dàn mar an ceudna, gus an còigeamh rann, nuair thachras am murt, cha mhòr gun fhios gun fhaireachdainn, mar a thachair e ann an dha-rìreabh air an latha ud ann an 2016.
’S e dàn ioma-fillte a th’ anns an dàn seo, a’ gabhail a-steach chuspairean cudromach, duilich. Tha e soilleir, cuideachd, gu bheil faireachdainn làidir aig a’ bhàrd, ’s e làn gaoil airson an àite, agus làn feirge dhùrachdach ris na thachair an sin.
CHIAD ÀITE: Gàirnealachd
Tha an dàn seo a’ tòiseachadh le tuairisgeul de dhuine “air a ghlùinean” ann an gàrradh. Bho thùs, tha e soilleir gur e gàirnealachd annasach a th’ innte, ’s an duine “a’ cruinneachadh ùir mar ùrnaigh na làmhan.” Tha iomadh ìomhaigh dhiadhaidh a’ nochdadh anns an dàin seo – ùrnaigh, altachadh, aiseirigh ’s baisteadh nam measg. Tha iomraidhean sònraichte air Eden agus Gethsemane, dà ghàrradh ainmeil , agus iad nan gàrraidhean ainmeil airson a’ chron a rinneadh annta – an tuiteam o ghràs ann an Eden, agus brath Ìosa ann an Gethsemane. Còmhla ris na h-iomhaighean diadhaidh, tha am bàrd a’ toirt dhuinn ìomhaighean nas saoghalta: fionnarachd ann an oisean a’ ghàrraidh, gathan grèin na òr-spruilleag, smùir agus fallas a ghnùis. Agus ged a tha coltas ann gur e dàn cràbhach a th’ ann, tha am bàrd a’ moladh a’ ghàrraidh agus obair a’ ghàirneileir, seach a bhith a’ moladh Dhè.
Tha aonachd choileanta anns an dàn gu lèir, eadar brìgh ’s ciall, ìomhaigheachd agus briathrachas, ’s a h-uile càil ceangailte ri chèile gu grinn, gu cuimir. Gu h-àraidh, ’s i a’ Ghàidhlig fhèin, ’s mar a chleachdas am bàrd i, a mholainn gu mòr, agus i na Gàidhlig shiùbhlach, nàdarrach, ùghdarrail.
I would like to thank all the poets who sent in their work to this competition this year. It was a pleasure to read every poem, and I was impressed by the overall quality of the entries. The poems cover a wide number of topics, including death and disease, politics and historical events, gardening, emigration, and, of course, love. All were written in “free verse” although I had a clear sense of both rhythm and rhyme in most of the poems.
HIGHLY COMMENDED: Galar
I was expecting a poem or two about, or relating to, the pandemic. “Galar” approaches the topic through a side-door, or more specifically, from outside the doors of the pubs in Glasgow, where the “fir lachdann” – the habitual drinkers, sallow and sickly – gather on the pavements, bent over the doorstep, smoking and coughing and slugging back pints. The poet asks what has happened to these men during the lockdown, imagining their lonely existence with imagery that is evocative and original.
SECOND PLACE: Ròs Geal
According to the poet’s epigram, “Ròs Geal” is written for the memory of Jo Cox. Yet there is no mention of Cox herself until the penultimate verse. Before then, the poet takes us to the heart of the town where Cox was murdered, in images that capture the essence of every-day life – the fish van going about, the children on their way to school, the hills and dales stretching out beyond the windows of the school. All is peaceful, inspiring, pleasant – until, in the last three verses, there is tragedy, the body of a woman, lying in the street, killed by the bullet of a gun.
This poem is complex in meaning and in construction, with its change of tone, half-way through, heightening the horror of Cox’s death. It is clear that the poet has both a great love for the place of which s/he writes, and also a great anger and sadness for what has happened there.
FIRST PLACE: Gàirnealachd
This poem begins with a description of a man “on his knees” in a garden. Right away it is clear that the man is engaged in a slightly unusual way of gardening, “gathering earth like a prayer in his hands.” Various religious words and images are used throughout the poem – prayer, communion, resurrection, and baptism among them. There are references to Eden and Gethsemane, two gardens from the bible – both of which, as it happens, are associated with harmful events, the “fall from grace” in Eden, and the betrayal of Christ at Gethsemane. Along with the religious imagery, the poet gives us more secular images – a cool corner of the garden, the golden drops of sunlight, dust and sweat. And, although the poem might appear to be religious, the poet is praising the garden itself, and the work done it, rather than a God of any kind.
I find an elegant unity in this poem, a unity of meaning and spirit, of imagery and vocabulary, all seamlessly linked together. In particular it is the Gaelic itself which makes this poem stand out from the others, Gaelic which is natural, flowing, and authentic.
Poetry Judge’s Report
BEYOND THE VERNAL EQUINOX
Vernal equinox, two moments in the year when the Sun is exactly above the Equator and day and night are of equal length; also, either of the two points in the sky where the ecliptic (the Sun’s annual pathway) and the celestial equator intersect.
Before anything else I must express two important points:
Firstly, such creative opportunities like the Vernal Equinox poetry competition could not happen without the unassuming yet passionate enthusiasm and efficient administration of dedicated people such as Anne Clarke. Put simply you wouldn’t have a competition and I would not have had the seamless and gorgeous connection with some many outstanding poems. On behalf of the contributing poets and myself – Anne, thank you.
Secondly, the competition is nothing without the poets plucking up courage to expose their words to the world. Thank you to everyone of you. As a poet myself, I know it’s not easy.
Prior to the Competition, Anne asked me for a few words of what I was looking for in the poems. This is what I said –
All poems are good in the sense that anyone who has engaged in the struggle between their inner thoughts and the blank page in front of them deserves my respect. To release your thoughts into that white void, to bridge the gap between pen and page with words in a semblance of order deserves an award but, and there’s always that but.
I could mention someone’s meat and someone else’s poison and waffle on about rhyme and meter, imagery, word choice, economy of language and ask you to sit up straight, don’t pass notes under the desk and eat your greens but the most important of Buts are: be true to yourself, draw from your own life experience and be proud of your craft for that is what good poetry will always look and feel like to me – the words of a person who has committed to the white void with honesty, care, pride and respect for the craft. And if you can slap me on my forehead with a beezer of a poem that knocks me off my feet then take the rest of the day off.
And I wasn’t to be disappointed – all two hundred and fourteen of them arrived via Anne and everything I had hoped for in my words before the Competition landed on my lap.
Not that I’m looking for sympathy because I’ve had hours of pleasure reading the poems but two hundred and fourteen poems is a lot for an individual to read whilst at the same time to do two necessary things: ensure an equal measure of critical assessment whilst not forgetting the craft and courage of every one of the contributors and secondly I was still spinning the many plates of my own creative adventures. It was necessary and fair to all involved that I find space to respect both.
To do that and to achieve the spirit of consistency in my judgements, I determined to read all of the poems in my Thinking Shed, a purpose built space at the bottom of the garden where I’m lucky to be able to retreat and work. I strove for consistency and sat in the same chair whilst listening to the same music – Dvorak’s Tone Poems if you’re interested in the detail and mostly I would read them first thing in the morning between 7 and 9 with a gallon of coffee, and a blackbird on the roof as my sole/soul companion.
I read all of the poems at least three times and reluctantly discarded too many until I had a long list of thirty. This was an incredibly difficult task and indeed I put the whole adventure to one side for a few days to ensure I was not missing their drive and aim before I revisited this long list decision with a coffee reload and the cushions in the Shed freshly plumped.
The Long List was then printed off. Each poem given its own space on its own fresh white page to breathe, to be appreciated anew. I hope you’ll forgive me the fact that I hadn’t printed off all of the entries but honestly I was doing my bit for the planet and of course selfishly, the long list of thirty gave me a personal one-off collection of anonymous poetry.
I will of course find out the identities of the ones chosen to be further awarded as the top three but in some way the identity of the poet doesn’t matter. That said, I will be delighted for each and every one of them, congratulate every one of them but also humbly apologise to all the poets whose work I have discarded.
It also raises that age old question of how much knowing the identity of the poet whose work you’re about to read influences your approach, your perception of the piece and not just as a judge of a competition. That’s a given but in the normal circumstances of ‘pleasure’ reading perhaps at times it exposes our guilt edged snobbery of praising the established poet without questioning whether the poem is not so much literally good or bad but fundamentally whether you really like the poem or not. But that’s a debate for another day. For now with Dvorak on a never ending loop and Colombia increasingly nervous of coffee shortages, I sat with my Vernal Equinox (Long List) pamphlet and immersed myself in the daunting task of narrowing the list down even further.
The range of subject, style and structure across all of the poems was wonderfully enriching and satisfyingly challenging. It came as no surprise that the extraordinary events and the impact of this never ending bourach that we all continue to endure featured either as the subject of poems or in some way clearly influenced the writing and by and large was delivered successfully.
It was also intriguing to find what I believe was a positive counter reaction to the trials and tribulations of this pandemic on some poet’s creative process and choice of subject matter. Perhaps that was to be expected across two hundred and fourteen poems but I found more than a fair share of poems reflecting memories of parents, happy places and the precious bond with our natural surroundings and the responsibility for it which we all share. If that’s an emerging approach then long may it continue to be relevant.
The coffee was running low, Dvorak was wearing thin and the deadline was creeping towards me. I wouldn’t feel rushed but the need to whittle down the choice to a short list and from that ‘winners’ was all part of the end game – pleasing a few and disappointing many. Please don’t hate me. It’s never personal.
So I drew up a short list of sixteen. And that was tough enough. I then took the sixteen around with me. They were read in the open air, in the sand dunes below the machair with only the brutal judgement of gulls assistance, half way up a mountain just above the midge line. They were read sober and with a few drams. They were read out loud and even read to me by an impartial pal with and without drams and in the end I have chosen three because Them’s The Rules. I have deliberately not included a detailed critique of the winners or indeed any of the poems. I don’t think it’s necessary. All of them in some way met the criteria I had set in my introductory remarks to the Competition. All of them are worthy ‘winners’.
Congratulations to the poets I have chosen and again I’m genuinely sorry for the poets I haven’t chosen. It’s not personal. Well, actually it is personal. They are the ones that resonated with me in the early morning still of my Thinking Shed, on the sunset machair or the midge free hillside.
My Top Three
3rd – Kate Young Summits and Spires
2nd – Glen Wilson – Untamed
1st – Niki Brennan – Chimera
The remaining thirteen have all been commended.
If you don’t agree with me then blame Dvorak, blame the Colombian coffee producers, blame the blackbird on my Shed roof but most importantly don’t blame yourself. Respond to my error of judgement by writing more brilliant poetry. The most important judge of your work is yourself. Nothing else matters.
I’m off to write poetry. Judge me if you will.
All the best,
Makar of the Federation of Writers Scotland
(Retired Competition Judge)
Scots Language Judge’s Report
The number & quality of entries written in Scots which have been submitted to the 2021 FWS competition should have surprised me. But I wasn’t so much surprised as chuffed to read the high standard of work sent in from across Scotland & beyond.
Scots has again been, absolutely rightly, enjoying an increasing & widening recognition as a longstanding European language of literary provenance, acclaim & relevance to the wider cultural & real worlds in which it’s intermittently thrived over the past 800 years. Like any indigenous language standing in the way of cultural empiricism, Scots (i.e. its speakers & writers, its people) has had to endure, overcome & battle just to ensure it doesn’t disappear down the monoglot thrapple of the present. Our language is now very much in a position to not only commemorate a notional, national past but to tackle head on the global present & also a future it very much belongs to & in.
Scots is a language. Like all world languages it is very much the sum of its richly varied geographic & linguistic parts. These entries reflect this in the most vibrant ways possible, from Gala to Glesca to Granton to Dundee to Dyce to Durness to Scrabster to Stromness to Scalloway & all Scots points in between. The subjects covered are as diverse as the modern Scotland their language thrives in. Sure, it’s a competition but all credit to the FWS for again encouraging writers from right across the country to create & have showcased their poetry, stories & all-round crack.
I hope you’ll trust me when I say that the commended & ‘placed’ work featured here is commended & placed by one person, one writer, myself, but is very much representative of the wider high standard of all work submitted, its accessibility & its craft. Congrats to those whose work is placed here. Equal congrats & thanks to all whose work I’ve read, enjoyed & hich ensured that the choices I had to make took so much reading, re-reading & appreciation.
Scots is in safe hauns, harns & heids aw owre the ship. It’s haudin furrit, makkin siccar & singin an chantin in mony the braw vyce in wir chorus o guid braid Scots.
Stuart A Paterson
Short Story Judge’s Report
I am delighted to announce the winner of the Vernal Equinox Competition 2021. The standard of entries was extremely high. As there was no set theme, the short stories covered a variety of topics. The entries were written in Standard English, Scots. Some included dialects in the dialogues. It was a fascinating task for me as a judge. I enjoyed the range of topics the stories touched on. I was encouraged by how the writers’ imagination had been sparked by this competition.
The winner is Richard Hooton for Subjugation: The play. This short story had shades of the latest Epstein saga doing the rounds in the media. The author has handled this theme with sensitivity and has given it an excellent twist at the end. It had all the hallmarks of a great short story that readers would enjoy.
Second Prize goes to Brenda Crane for Lily Thistle and Rose The story of Mary Queen of Scots is written from her viewpoint. I liked the use of the language that dated back to the times she inhabited. The strength of Mary, her steely determination and her eventual beheading is told in a way that feels like reading this tale anew. Short stories need to push the envelope and try new styles. This certainly did just that.
The Joint Third Prize goes to:
Alan Kennedy for The Pagoda in His Mind. To write a short story that is infused with humour and laugh aloud sentences is difficult to achieve. This writer has managed this with aplomb. The Westerner ‘seeking refuge’ in Eastern mysticism has evoked this short story. It was a great read.
Kate Blackadder for My Sister’s Eyes. A short story with a blend of Biblical, Greek and Scottish mythology, this story had a style that was appealing to me. This was a well-written story with well-researched facts lending the theme of this fictionalised story.
The winners have been chosen. I congratulate the winners and all the writers for making this an interesting competition to adjudicate. Keep the pens moving, let the words flow. Good luck with your writing.
Scriever of the Federation of Writers (Scotland)