Manchester Metropolitan University

Thursday, 30th March 2017

Creative writing student wins national competition with 'attention-grabbing' poem

Bernie Cullen awarded first prize for 'Birdsong' at literary festival

Bernie Cullen with contest judge Antony Dunn

Bernie Cullen with contest judge Antony Dunn

A POSTGRADUATE student has won a national poetry competition with her 'great, attention-grabbing' work.

Bernie Cullen is studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University's renowned The Manchester Writing School and came top in the 2017 York Literature Festival / YorkMix.com Poetry Competition.

She wrote the winning poem, Birdsong, while Poet in Residence at the Yorkshire Arboretum in the grounds of Castle Howard stately home near York.

Struggle with musicality

The Scottish-born student, who teaches creative writing to students with autism and learning difficulties and works as a university administrator, said: "Winning this prize was very special: Antony Dunn, the judge, was my first poetry teacher on Poetry School seminars over 15 years ago.

"The struggle for me has always been to find a way to write so the reader can hear the musicality of my voice.

"That I finally achieved this with Birdsong cannot be measured in certificates or prize money, but I’ll take that too, very gratefully."

Bernie was selected as the winner from a record entry of 1,110 poems, submitted by 471 poets from throughout the UK.

She said: "The creative process has been slowly accelerating and intensifying throughout this three year part- time MA.

"In my writing-up year, the need to pull together a collection has necessitated clarity of process.

"I fought hard to get this prize-winning poem into shape: I heard Alice Oswald at the Edinburgh Book Festival last year talk about the process of writing her dawn poem Tithonus.

"She spoke of sitting in a field watching the dawn, writing down every thought for 46 seconds.

"At the Yorkshire Arboretum where I am Poet in Residence, I resolved to distil the writing process down to pure listening. A poem came through."

Weird and different

Bernie, who lives in Malton, Yorkshire, said she originally felt Birdsong was so weird and different she almost abandoned it but taking home first prize in the competition has given her the confidence to trust her instincts.

Judge Antony Dunn said: "When your poem’s up against 1,109 competitors, it doesn’t hurt to submit something out of the ordinary, which is exactly what our winner has done.

“Immediately attention-grabbing, this poem went straight to the top of my 'Yes' list and stayed there.

"Of course, it’s very easy to be attention-grabbing – dazzling, even – at first glance, but to be, ultimately, without substance.

“This winning poem is emphatically not that type of poem. It was great on the first reading and it remained great on the 10th. It remains great now.”

Manchester Metropolitan University is one of the most extensive higher education centres in Europe with 37,000 students and more than 1,000 undergraduate, postgraduate and professional courses. The University educates and trains large numbers of legal and business professionals, scientists, engineers, teachers, health workers and creative professionals.

The University is in the top three nationally for environmental sustainability and has an 85% research impact rated world-leading and internationally excellent.

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