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How to write a prize-winning Rosemary McLeish Prize poem

The theme for this year's Rosemary McLeish Poetry Prize is the climate, so it made sense to team up with Medway River Lit to announce the winners in November!

We asked the prize's judge Sarah Hehir what she's looking for in a potential winning poem.

Sarah is a writer of poems, plays, radio and tv drama. She writes regularly for BBC radio's The Archers and she has a blog where you can read her poems.

photo of Sarah Hehir reading a poem
Sarah Hehir photographed by Chris Tong

1) What was your relationship to Rosie? Did you know her as a poet? As an artist? As a person?

I first met Rosie through Wordsmithery and their mentoring scheme. I was mentoring another poet and I read some of her work - I was immediately captivated by her fierce, original voice and her lyrical storytelling. Her poems have strong messages - she knew what she had to say to the world and she was gifted in the way she said it.

I got to know her on a more personal level at a Wordsmithery Christmas meet up at Sun Pier House where, in her quiet voice, she was funny, outspoken and outrageous.

I got to know her art later. She is one of those truly creative people whose views and personality come through whatever medium they choose. Her art and sculptures are personal and political, eccentric and gorgeous. (See some of her work on her website.)

Over the years, it was always a better night if Rosemary was there. I'm pleased I became her friend and feel honoured to have heard her read and to continue hearing Richard, her husband, keep her poems alive at exhibitions and open mic nights across from Medway to Edinburgh.


2) Why is it important to remember female poets/artists after they're gone?

The canon has embarrassingly few female poets and artists, so we need to really celebrate those who we have. It's our responsibility to blow the trumpet about their work and their lives to inspire new generations of women to write. It's hard to be a poet. It's even harder to get a platform if you are female and if you don't have money or connections, it can feel impossible. But poets like Rosemary showed that you can fight the odds and make it - keep creating and writing and find your people: your champions. There are competitions, journals and poetry nights out there and you don't have to be young, male and white to take up space.


3) What are you looking for in a prize-winning poem?

I'm looking to be moved. Surprised. I would like to get a sense of an original voice excited about using words to tell a story or transmit a feeling or message. It doesn't have to be tricksy or clever. Just fresh.


4) What would your advice to entrants be?

Mine something inside yourself. What matters to you? Why? And how can you write it in a way that no-one else could?

I write a quick excited first draft then go back and craft it. I play with the words and challenge myself when lines don't feel right or honest. You'll have your process, but I do think leaving the poem and returning with fresh eyes and ears rarely ruins it - my dad liked the word ‘hone’. He was a shift chemist on Immingham Docks and wrote poetry almost secretly. Like him, write with passion and then hone it.


5) This year’s theme is the climate emergency – how does that chime with you?


Poetry is at its best when it is both specific and universal. The climate emergency is affecting us all. Because things feel desperate and fragile, the natural world feels all the more beautiful. How does this play out in your life: your garden and your hedgerows? What do the sunsets say about us as people? How much does a dog know? Where would we be without the bees? And where would a bee take you if you could travel wing to wing with it? 

I'm excited to read how you poets tell our story.

You can enter the Rosemary McLeish Poetry Prize here. (Open to UK based poets only. Full T+Cs available at that link.)

Good luck!

We hope we'll hear you read your winning poem at Medway River Lit in November!


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