2023 Winners

We are proud to announce the results of the 2023 Cafe Writers Poetry Competition judged by Martin Figura

First Prize goes to Anthony Lawrence


My father had come to stay
after an operation to remove a glioblastoma,
an aggressive brain cancer.

He told the surgeon he’d be happy to remain
awake during the procedure
to entertain theatre with his jokes.

My offer was considered,
but in the end, he said, with a lop-sided grin,
it was ruefully declined.

The tumour was discovered after
he’d fallen and had a seizure
while mowing the lawn. The day before,

he’d been telling me stories
from his previous life
as a Mindoro Dwarf buffalo, in Indonesia

We were watching cricket on television
when he began to spoonerize things.
A bowler was at the end of his run,

scraping a line in the grass with his boot
like a gutting roat.
Fresh blood had come through

his bandages. He tapped his head.
I like counting the scalpels in my stape.
The camera panned around the ground.

Swallows were skimming the edges
from each other’s shadows.
Dad was asleep, his fingers like a pair

of sugar gliders on his chest.
The bowler ran in. A panel of sunlight
slipped away from the boundary fence.

Anthony Lawrence has published eighteen books of poems and a novel. ‘Headwaters’ (Pitt Street Poetry) won the 2017 Prime Ministers Literary Award, and ‘Red Veined Darter’ won the 2023 Ginkgo Prize for eco poetry. He is a Senior lecturer at Griffith University, where he teaches Creative Writing. He lives on Moreton Bay, Queensland.
Second Prize goes to Jane Wilkinson

Jane Wilkinson is a writer and landscape architect living in Norwich. In 2023 she published her first collection Eve Said (Live Canon). She has won competitions including Live Canon Collection Prize, Aesthetica Poetry Prize,  Strokestown International Poetry Prize,  Poetry Society’s Hamish Canham Prize and was placed 1st & 2nd Guernsey International Poetry Prize. She was shortlisted for the Manchester Poetry Portfolio Prize and Alpine Fellowship prize and is published in magazines including Under the Radar, Magma, Lighthouse Journal, The Alchemy Spoon, Envoi, Finished Creatures and anthologies from Emma Press and Live Canon.

Third Prize goes to Judith Shaw

The Towel

My mother was always afraid of losing her marbles.
I’d imagine a black suede drawstring pouch on a red tiled floor,
coloured marbles rolling around. There’s a scene in the camp
from Coup de Foudre before the mother of the filmmaker

agrees to marry the guard. She thinks he is a gentile
and only finds out he’s Jewish at the registration
when he gives his names: Mordecai Simon Korski
and there’s a moment she doesn’t know what to do,

but marries him anyway and of course they do survive
otherwise the filmmaker wouldn’t have been born,
and nothing is shown in the film about all the others who don’t,
before all of that there’s a scene in the camp where the mother

of the filmmaker is drying her hair with a clean white towel
and somehow when I think of how my crazy grandmother
died in Gurs, it gets overlaid with this clean white towel
which I don’t believe but is printed on my memory as if it were true.

Judith Shaw won the Hasting Book Festival Sussex Prize for Poetry in 2023 and was shortlisted for the 2022 Gingko Prize and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Best Poem of Landscape; her work appears in the Competition Anthology. One of her poems appears in Ten Poems about Getting Older by Candlestick Press. Her work has also been published in The Frogmore Papers, Fib Review, Orbis and Obsessed with Pipework and is forthcoming in Black Iris. She is a graduate of the Masters in Writing Poetry run by the Poetry School and Newcastle University. She lives in St Leonards on Sea and works as a psychotherapist and as an educational specialist supporting with people with dyslexia, autism and ADHD.

The Norfolk Prize goes to Sue Burge


Sue Burge is a freelance creative writing and film-studies tutor, writing mentor and editor based in North Norfolk.  Her poems have been published in a wide range of journals and have featured in themed anthologies on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the pandemic.  Sue’s three poetry collections are: In the Kingdom of ShadowsConfetti Dancers and The Artificial Parisienne (Live Canon); her two pamphlets are Lumière and The Saltwater Diaries (Hedgehog Poetry Press).  www.sueburge.uk


2023 Commended Poems

Paul Chapman


If you tread lightly on the world
you leave no trace.
The dinosaur’s a heavy beast,
bereft of grace.

But some have left us with a clue
to their true gait,
A trail of beauty, a kind of
fossilised fate.

What giant limbs paused here one day
to contemplate?
Feel underfoot the shift of some
tectonic plate?

I hope the oozing mud was cool
beneath its foot,
A balm for scorching sand or black
volcanic soot.

And just as our steel-towered cities
will one day rust,
Such marks as I might leave behind
will be as dust.


Jenny Danes


Today my weak-kneed brain buckles
to a panic response at nothing much:
a weekly meeting at work, the frozen aisle
in Asda. Elsewhere, all my unlived selves
are tilting their faces backstage for a final
dab of glitter, are riding the S-Bahn in Berlin,
are dusting their hands after setting a new
deadlift PB, are adjusting a microphone stand
before pausing deliberately to allow the audience
to drink the sight of them, are smiling,
are opening their undry mouths.


Gill Connors

Stephen Keeler

Looking at apples

It was early on a cooling afternoon
I planted an apple sapling

at the bottom of a narrow strip
of garden in the suburb

hoping it would one day block
the bottle factory roof

not knowing how fast apple trees
can grow or understanding

that years so soon become a decade.
It spread its limbs

the way you used to wake
on summer mornings

early with the light
and bore its apples heavier each year

and hard and coloured like the alphabet
we put up on the nursery wall

they fell
like sudden death

they fell among the drunken wasps
and none was ever eaten.

I stack them in the basket
that we used for what you called

our peasant bread and set it
on the table in a shaft of sunlight and

I will sit here a little longer on your chair
looking at apples in the cooling afternoon.

Clare Currie


2023 Honourable Mentions:

Ruth Rosengarten for ‘Hot Burrito’
Livvy Hanks for ‘We have replaced the earth with an en-suite bathroom’
John Osborne for ‘Going to the toilet at the Brewery Tap’
Christopher North for ‘Alternative Truth’
Fiona Clarke for ‘Prime of a medieval visionary’
Liz Lefroy for ‘He sees the smaller picture’

Judges Report

I began reading the poems at the end of an unkind year – aren’t they all? This one seemed particularly unkind, with events in Gaza adding itself to the war in Ukraine. It brought further antagonism, to an already divisive world – even to the mostly ‘caring’ social media echo-chamber I inhabit. Domestically many people were struggling with the cost of living and there was no shortage of cruelty on display in our politics. It’s fair to say I wasn’t expecting a rose garden. I did hope for some humanity, and found it was plentiful – which was an encouraging way to end such a year and face a new one.

We all have ‘aversions’ and ‘preferences’ in our tastes, and I’m no different. I am not foolish enough to specify them – what a hostage to fortune that would be. I honestly did my best to set them aside and to approach each poem on its merits. I do think we need to take especial care when writing of other people’s suffering – presumptions can be easily made, there can be a thin line between compassion and appropriation or virtue signalling. When writing of our own experiences it takes imagination, to lift it above the anecdotal – to have it reach out to the reader and gift them something of value.

A pile of well over a thousand poems, is a forbidding prospect and the bar must out of necessity be set high, or we’ll never get there. The thing I look for on a first reading of a poem, is an interesting use of language – essential to a second and third reading enjoyable. I set out to get to 50 on that first reading – and ended up with around 100, and so it continued. I’ll spare you the details, of how I got there, it came at the cost of setting many terrific poems aside. The competition was fierce indeed. The selected poems survived numerous readings and much agonising – some moving up and down the rankings. I have allowed myself half a dozen poems that I couldn’t bear not to give an honourable mention to. How I wish the competition awarded thirty commended prizes, my life would have been so much easier!

First Prize goes to Anthony Lawrence’s poem Cricket. The care with which this poem has been made, honours the subject of the poem, the writer’s father. There are no overblown poetics or emotional fireworks – it draws on the love between them, their shared pleasure providing the most subtle and gentle of metaphors. The father is at his most vulnerable, yet Lawrence gives us the full man so skillfully in the second and third stanzas, after the simply stating the situation in the opening stanza, it carries us through. Such a clear and tender expression of love is rare. It is certainly heart-breaking, but also a celebration of a man.

Second Prize is for The Radio by Jane Wilkinson. A poem that has your attention immediately with a simple six-word sentence No one sits down to listen.  It’s a powerful and intriguing opening, that has us all complicit. The poem personifies the radio – it has a pulse, is warm to the touch. The radio argues with itself in the mirror and it repeats your dreams. It is omnipresent in the house and a little unsettling, it is trying to tell us vital information. One day we’ll listen, but for now we want a lullaby, to be sung to sleep. It takes great skill, to pull off a poem of such imagination that asks questions of both the writer and the reader, that holds it nerve and doesn’t put a foot wrong. It’s a poem that caught me completely off guard.

Third Prize goes Judith Shaw’s poem The Towel. It references the French film Coup de Foudre (entre nous) (love at first sight), a film personal to the filmmaker, as the poem and this is to the poet – both are about their mothers. It opens with the poet’s mother and a metaphor, which is then immediately cleverly imagined as a cinematic image. Both stories are from the darkest time of human history – and there is something of the miracle for both the poet and the filmmaker in how they came to exist at all. The mother’s improbable white towel from the film, somehow metaphorically purifies the death of the poet’s grandmother in an internment camp, whose craziness explains the mother’s fear of losing her marbles. I can’t be sure I have this absolutely right – and I think that’s ok.

Sue Burge wins the Norfolk Prize with Sometimes I love water more than people. The state of our water, is very much in the news these days. Water is fundamental to our existence, this poem pours down the page, declares its love in the first two words – is part celebration, part warning. Water comes in many guises and is conjured here in many great and surprising images. The thought of statues gazing over water as if they’ve just spotted a loved one, is splendid. And what a fabulous last line, of how when dogs play in water they never ask how deep.

These poems surfaced to the top, of a very completive pool indeed (with far better metaphors than that!) to be commended.

Clare Currie’s poem Hilda said that the seals were in pupping season. is a feat of the imagination – a great example of how ‘metaphorical truth’ and transformation, can carry more emotional weight. It conveys the experience of motherhood slant – in a very physical and powerful way.

Paul Chapman poem Ichnology (the study of fossilised tracks) literally steps lightly in five four line stanzas, each with rhyming 2nd and 4th lines. I think it was Don Paterson who said that rhyming is like entering a room on stilts, very impressive if it goes well. This poem goes very well indeed, consistent in its syllabic count, carrying with it one of the ‘big themes’ – human existence. This is not an easy thing to do with such elegance. It has the feel of a Ghazal, without being one – it was the simple pleasure of how it sounds when read out loud, that so engaged me and had me stay with it.

Elsewhere by Jenny Danes – perfectly evokes one of my most persistent nightmares (thank you Jenny!) – anxiety at presenting ourselves in front of others – from a simple weekly meeting, to supermarket shop, to the stage!

Gill Connors poems The right words to say tackles a difficult subject deftly, demonstrating how words can be misused – to control and manipulate. A truly powerful and original poem.

Stephen Keeler’s  Looking at Apples  looks at grief with the lightest of touches –  we know only how the subject used to / wake on summer mornings and not until the very end, do we know the narrator is sitting in their chair looking at apples in the cooling afternoon.

Honourable mentions to those top amongst those, who, if I had my way would have got a prize are: Ruth Rosengarten for Hot Burrito, Livvy Hanks for We have replaced the earth with an en-suite bathroom, John Osborne for Going to the toilet at the Brewery Tap, Christopher North for Alternative Truth, Fiona Clarke for Prime of a mediaeval visionary and Liz Lefroy for He sees the smaller picture. Each one deserving of more.

Writing this report and going the through the poems once more, I can’t help but feel encouraged (and intimidated) by the health of poetry. I’ve been moved, surprised and delighted in so many different ways – which is what we want, isn’t it? If you’re reading this and got this far, and your poem hasn’t been mentioned, the chance is are, it only missed out by a whisker. Thank you everyone who entered and sharing your work.

Martin Figura