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The power of poetry

For many, lockdown has got the creative juices running, not least poet Martin Connolly. Dan Carrier reports on the competition he set up

25 February, 2021 — By Dan Carrier

Jehane Markham leafs through the anthology

WHEN we were told to stay in doors a year ago next month, there was a surge of people turning to their artistic talents to help come to terms with a strange new world.

One such person was poet Martin Connolly – and as his work dried up as lockdown bit, he decided to use the redundancy money he had been paid to encourage others to do so, too.

Martin, who lives in Hampstead and runs poetry imprint Folklore Publishing, had given time to the community aid group The Hampstead Volunteers. While he helped those in dire need, he recalled how his friend, the broadcaster and New Journal contributor Piers Plowright, had talked about the power of poetry during difficult times. He decided to include some artistic sustenance – and sourced 150 poetry books to distribute alongside kitchen and bathroom essentials.

“I contacted Neil Astley of poetry publishers Bloodaxe Books. Together we agreed to distribute poetry anthologies to people shielding – and the response was overwhelming,” he recalls.

“People reacted warmly, finding old and new favourites, so I thought it would be good for people to also have a creative outlet at a difficult time.”

It prompted the founding of the first Folklore Poetry Prize – which has not only encouraged over 1,000 entries to be submitted, but a selection make up a new anthology. It includes the winning entry, When My Mother Says Jamaica by Jenny Mitchell, and a cross selection of others.

Martin Connolly

“This competition began as a way to bring some solace and comfort to people in lockdown and isolation, to help promote well-being and spark creativity in people who needed an outlet,” he writes in the anthology’s introduction.

Martin says he has seen a rise of poetry made public through new media – and it has helped give a new platform to a wealth of talent.

“Through an online community we have gathered on our @folkloreprize Instagram page, we are encouraging more and more people to share their work,” he said.

“I have been lucky enough to have received some acceptances by books and magazines recently, which has been very rewarding, and I find that ‘new’ writers can emerge at all ages and from every demographic. I hope this is well represented in the book.”

Martin, who has a day job as a business consultant and is also a governor at the Royal Free Hospital, chose a judging panel made up of Mr Plowright and poets Jehane Markham and Sean Street.

They read through scores of entries.

“We allowed for full creative licence – anything that would allow people to comfort and try to inspire others, but as so many people have had such a hard time, there were a lot of very close-to-the-heart poems from people dealing with loss and anxiety,” Martin adds.

“The topics touched on many themes, but nostalgia, love, lockdown fatigue and family were also recurring quite often, naturally, as well as longing for a happier time when Covid-19 would be over.”

And entries came from all walks of life, he said.

“The diversity – all demographics, students who had the confidence to submit right through to people in retirement who had the confidence to put their work on display and entrust us to read and review their work with care.

“The talent that is out there is incredible – we could have filled several anthologies. It illustrates how poets can emerge at any age or stage in life.”

Secret Chords, £9.99 from
All proceeds go to Pancreatic Cancer UK.

Winning words

An excerpt from the winning entry, When My Mother Says Jamaica, (After When They Say Connemara, by Geraldine Clarkson). By Jenny Mitchell.

I see scrubland, a hill of gravestones
near a blighted crop that leads towards
three wooden steps of a tumbling shack
Underneath there are boxes, holding it up.

Split at the side, soaked through by humid storms,
the swelling is like a boat at times – three rooms adrift;
eight children reaching for a father
who longs for rum enough to call it his best friend


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