What makes an award-winning poem?
Jean Cooper Moran achieved 1st place in the Poetry category of our Hammond House Publishing 2020 International Literary Prize with her poem ‘Walkabout’ which impressed the judges with its powerful, evocative and highly original description, giving voice to a form of life that has no words. Her use of language is brilliant, like all the best poems it does not give up its meaning too easily. It invites the reader to unwrap the layers of its mystery telling the story that is tender and sad but ultimately hopeful.
Jean is a retired science professional living in a small village in the wonderful Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire. Studying the craft and writing fiction full time is a long-awaited fulfilment for her. She loves story-telling, reflecting in her poetry, stories and plays, experiences of life and of work, the world of nature, the world of the city, and the fascinations of science and discovery.
Jean is now a judge in our 2021 International Literary Prize so we caught up with her to ask her about her writing, her inspiration and what she is looking for in this year’s entries.
What inspired you to write Walkabout?
It came from my work in East Africa in the 70s. I was working on overseas projects for the UK government as one of a small unit of technical specialist advisors training agricultural officers in Malawi and Kenya, East Africa.
A contact from a UNICEF clinic told me how moved she was by the courage and determination of women who arrived there with a sick child or baby. Some had walked great distances to reach treatment for their child or themselves, in the case of a pregnant woman.
Their stories inspired me at the time and gave me a lasting respect for the women and their achievements for those they loved. When I wrote this poem, it was with one of these mothers in mind.
What is your writing process?
For Walkabout I began by writing the narrative from my memories: of Africa, of the facts I was told, and the scenes they evoked. Because it was a narrative it needed a voice. My choice to write it from the POV of the child gave me freedom to explore the sensual environment of the womb and contrast this with the mother’s physical experiences on their shared journey.
There were many drafts; one of the latest was shared with the poetry group in Gloucestershire that I belong to, and they gave me feedback on construction and impact.
If anyone asks me where I find my poems, I have to say I don’t really know: they arrive as a phrase, a word, a memory. Sometimes I begin with a desire to open out an experience through a poem for other people to share as a feeling, or an image that’s worth thinking more about.
I read a lot of poetry from writers all over the world and this is essential; understanding poetic forms and how other cultures express their voices can only add to a poet’s understanding of what they are trying to do.
I write on paper not on a laptop, because I like the physical connection with the page. Using a laptop can be inhibiting, luring you into a false sense of completion. I always read my poems aloud in development. It is revealing of how much more work is needed.
In our interview with you for the 2021 Awards Event, you mentioned you were a scientist. How much of your profession is reflected in your writing?
Yes, I’ve always had a deep interest in the natural world and in science and technology and been happy working in those areas. My professional science journals and websites and those of my physicist husband contain an endless amount of information, sometimes startling, and often making me think about what we take for granted: the wonders of the world we live in. I draw on that.
I have worked in healthcare areas, in the medicines development industry and in an engineering environment, helping a large business find and put new technologies in place to improve what they do.
There is a great sense of excitement and discovery in going ‘out there’, to the far horizons of science where technology is in the making, to see what you can find. I would like to convey some of that in my poetry. One day, hopefully with a friend’s help, we can team up to paint those pictures in poems.
What do you think makes a good poem?
You can read a world of books and still be learning. New forms and striking new voices are appearing all the time. A favourite of mine are praise poems introduced to me by our poetry writing group in Ruardean. A poem that experiments with form, structure or language does attract me but I would have to be further on in my journey to judge these as they deserve. My immediate reaction to a poem is on the emotional level, a personal response.
Mason Nunemaker from the USA, also a winner in the 2020 poetry competition, said something I found arresting. He said that he sometimes ‘Takes a theme of shared sorrow and makes it into something beautiful’ in his poetry. I would agree with that.
Poetry offers a writer the chance to be transformative in their writing; to create a new perspective on an event, an experience or a memory seeming at first read too dreadful to lend itself to that. In this way, poetry can cause us to reflect and be mindful, even help to heal.
What advice would you give to people entering the 2021 competition?
Write the poem you want to write. Write one that you believe in, and love to work with. One that tells us about an experience, an object, a scene or an emotion by your choice of words, of rhythm, and overall structure in a way that helps us to enter into your thoughts, and share your view, your story. A good poem stays with me, is one I’ll read again and again because it speaks to me and I want to.
A poet can interpret a competition theme in so many ways, which is part of the joy of poetry. And you can focus down on the smallest detail of life or reach out to a grander universe. But be yourself and create your poem with your voice: be singular, surprise us and make us listen.
And edit carefully, obey the competition rules and read it aloud before you complete it. Poetry is meant to be spoken even if it is only to yourself, and you can sometimes hear where more work is needed just by listening.
As a judge in our 2021 competition, what are you looking for in a poem?
Vivid, purposed language, an economical use of words to paint a picture so clearly that we can enter into the poem and share it with the writer, from their perspective. A sense of recognition for the reader that stays with them. The choice of words can challenge, surprise, soothe or make us laugh but the skill lies in creating a poem reflecting a true voice, the poet’s own.
Jean’s award-winning poem ‘Walkabout’ is featured in ‘SURVIVAL’ which brings together award-winning poets from across the globe in an eclectic, moving, funny and inspiring body of work. Beautifully illustrated by talented artists, each poem explores what it means to survive in this increasingly volatile world.
Please order SURVIVAL Award-Winning Poetry here:
Finally, please visit the competitions page of our website where you can find more information and all the details for this year’s 2021 International Literary Prize – there are 4 categories to enter including: Poetry, Short Stories, Scriptwriting and Songwriting.