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Journeys in Poetry with Chester Cathedral

by Poet in Residence, Julia McGuinness

From a falcon’s flight to a traffic jam; the drowsy romance of a train ride from Barcelona to a failed romance and a leap of despair. These were some of the subjects tackled by our winners in Chester Cathedral’s 2020 Young Poets’ Competition on the theme of Journeys.  The Competition itself was a journey  – a first for both the Cathedral and myself. I’m usually an entrant rather than the organiser.

We launched in January, with the generous support of Mark Mitchell, DL, High Sheriff. Our judge was York-based poet Carole Bromley, experienced in working with and encouraging young poets. We set up two categories: 16s-18s and 19s to 25s.

Initially, entries were slow to arrive. A contact at Lichfield Cathedral advised me to ‘Think national, not local.’ As I did, the Poet in Residence e-mail’s in-box started to fill. Entries arrived from the length and breadth of the land. We ultimately reached triple figures, a respectable take-up for a poetry competition in its first year.

There was a wide variety of writing from free verse to rhymed forms. Journeys were physical, emotional, relational, spiritual. The standard was high, particularly among the 19s-25s. I was relieved not to have to judge them, balancing creativity of language, capacity to move the reader, skill in using poetic form alongside that X factor that somehow makes a poem memorable. I realised how much goes into the mix of a poetry competition, and vowed not to pout in future when I’ve entered one and not been placed.

Interest in the Competition went global. I had to turn away a would-be entrant from Seattle. We were UK-only, at least this time round, hoping that winners would come to Chester for a prize-giving. Then Covid-19 made its appearance and the Cathedral went into lockdown. The last rush of poems arrived with good wishes for my health in ‘these strange times.’

Our locked down judge could give her full attention to her tough task, and we soon had the results. Alongside three winners in each category we added a Poet-in-Residence’s and a Vice-Dean’s Commendation to acknowledge a couple more poems from a quality short-list.

My most pleasurable task of all was contacting the winners. They responded with genuine delight: it means so much to me; it’s made my week; brilliant news!; an honour to have my work chosen.

Our winners come from Somerset to Gateshead and include a prospective Engineering student as well as English undergraduates. I was delighted that there were at least two young poets who had entered a competition for the very first time.

In lieu of a physical prize-giving, Canon Jane Brooke suggested a celebration via the now ubiquitous online platform of Zoom. It proved to be a lovely occasion. These young people were as adept at reading their poetry as writing it (something that cannot be said for every poet, however distinguished!). We would never have been able to gather them all into the same space had we held an event in the Cathedral Refectory.

It has been a privilege to encourage this generation of upcoming poets as they develop their God-given creativity and the potential of language to make something beautiful, as well to draw them beyond the everyday towards the deeper insights that poetry can particularly help us to explore.

Read the wining poetry, and download the Poetry Booklet here.