Literature, Manchester, News

Manchester Writing Competition: New judges join the 2023 Manchester Fiction and Poetry Prize panels

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The Manchester Writing Competition returns this year offering the UK’s biggest literary awards for unpublished work.

Hosted by the esteemed Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University, the competition was launched in 2008 by Carol Ann Duffy (UK Poet Laureate 2009-19). 

It offers two distinguished prizes of £10,000 each: the Manchester Fiction Prize for the best portfolio of poems and the Manchester Poetry Prize for the best short story. 

This year, new competition judges Clare Shaw, Momtaza Mehri, Lara Williams, Laura Barnett and Oliver Harris will join the two panels, alongside returning Poetry Prize judge and award-winning poet, theatre-maker and multi-disciplinary artist, Malika Booker.

“This year I am joined on the Manchester Poetry Prize judging panel by Momtaza Mehri, a former winner of the competition, currently shortlisted for the Forward Poetry Prize, and Clare Shaw, an extraordinary poet,” said Booker.

Momtaza Mehri is a poet and independent researcher working across criticism, translation, anti-disciplinary research practices, education and radio, and a former winner of the 2019 Manchester Writing Competition.

Mehri took home the 2019 Manchester Poetry Prize for her collection of four poems Amniotica, Milk Teeth, Haematology #2 and On Finally Seeing Astarte Syriaca I Am Overcome With A Longing To Text You A Meme Only You Would Laugh At.

Poet Clare Shaw will join Mehri and Booker to complete this year’s Manchester Fiction Prize judging panel. Their latest collection Towards a General Theory of Love (2022) is a poetic interrogation of love, absence and bereavement, and gained a Northern Writers Award, and was crowned Poetry Society Book of the Year.

Shaw lectures at the University of Huddersfield, and is a regular tutor for Wordsworth Grasmere, the Royal Literary Fund and the Arvon Foundation. With a background in mental health and education, Clare is a keen advocate for writing as a tool of social and personal change.

Shaw said: “I was invited to judge the Manchester Poetry Prize by the chair, Malika Booker, just after I’d seen her and Safiya Kimharia deliver one of the most heart stoppingly unforgettable poetry performances of my whole life – I would have agreed to almost anything involving Malika at that point. And in addition to the privilege of working alongside Malika and Momtza, is the pleasure of coming home to Manchester.

“I grew up in Burnley, and so many of my most formative moments took place in Manchester. My poetry career was formed and launched here in settings like Survivors Poetry, the Royal Exchange and the Manchester Writing School. And through the Manchester Literature Festival, the Northern Poetry Library, Poets and Players and the Manchester Poetry Prize, Manchester is still very much at the centre of my writing life.”

Reflecting on what they are most looking forward to as a judge in this upcoming writing competition, Shaw said: “For a short time, reading becomes my job. How amazing is that! And judging requires you to read in a different way – with concentration and undiluted commitment; with a particularly sustained, deep focus. I’m looking forward to arriving at the final selection – I love lining up the poems I’ve chosen and admiring them and how they speak to each other. I love how it introduces me to new writers; how much I learn about the process of editing and drafting; how searching and critical I become when I’m editing my own work.

“But there are aspects of competitions I don’t enjoy. A badly written poem is never going to win a big prize, but I’m horribly aware that brilliant poems remain on the long and short list which perhaps, on a different day, may have been placed. I don’t enjoy not placing extraordinary poems, or disappointing great writers. I hope everyone who enters competitions does so with resilience and pragmatism, knowing that lots of excellent poems and poets will not be placed.”

When asked about what advice Booker would give to aspirational poets entering this year’s competition, she said: “To send in work that they feel is outstanding, reflects their voice and has something to say. Work can be themed or demonstrate multiple poetics. Make sure the quality is consistent.

“Think about the ordering of your poems. Sometimes a portfolio has three strong poems but two are not as well developed, remember we consider both the individual poems and the entire selection.”

“As a judge I am impressed by poems that are original, formally dynamic, work that provides new insights, poems that take risks, poems that are formally inventive. And most importantly I am always impressed when I read through a portfolio and the poems make me forget I am judging. When I lose myself in the work.”

Manchester Fiction Prize

Chairing the 2023 Manchester Fiction Prize judging panel is award-winning Manchester-based writer, Lara Williams. Her novel Supper Club, published in 2019, won The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize.

Williams expressed her excitement at being invited to judge this year, explaining the dynamic nature of the competition and how the “quality of the fiction entries is very high”. She said: “It aims to surface excellent writing, to celebrate short fiction and everything it encompasses, and to push the boundaries of what can be done.”

Joining Williams on the judging panel is Laura Barnett and Oliver Harris. Barnett is a novelist, journalist, and teacher of Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her debut novel, The Versions of Us (2015), was a number-one bestseller. Harris writes the Nick Belsey series of crime novels and the Elliot Kane series of espionage novels, as well as teaching Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Barnett emphasised that the competition seeks diverse new voices: “Whatever your age, background, ethnicity, or life experience, we as judges are looking for fresheners and voices, for a unique perspective or something interesting or different you have to say.”

Discussing the broader goals of the Manchester Writing Competition, Booker shared: “This competition aims to raise awareness of contemporary writers producing quality work on an international level. To highlight and spotlight the preoccupations of these writers, as well as celebrate, and reward quality work.

“This is an international competition, open to all age groups. It is unique in that we ask for a portfolio of three to five poems (120 lines in total) [for Manchester Fiction Prize entries], so that we can see a cross section of the poet’s writing, and the writers are judged on their collected work.”

Booker added: “There is no doubt that we feed into the international poetry ecology as our shortlisted poets and winning poets, have hailed from the UK, USA, Australia, and Wales, and have gone on to have illustrious careers.”

When asked about the impact the £10,000 prize may have on the competition winner, Barnett explained how this could give the winner confidence and comfort that they are on the right path.

Barnett revealed it can be very hard to secure an agent and publisher, especially at the start of your career: “This is something that will make agents take note. Agents are always looking for new writers, and it’s this kind of prize that they will be looking for.”

The judges also shared what key elements make a piece of writing memorable and impactful.

Harris said: “For me, the best writing always carries an element of surprise—surprising honesty or clarity of sight, often a surprising will to approach new, complex subject matter. It maintains that element of surprise at the level of language; good writing involves finding new ways of saying things. Memorable writing is not afraid to provoke the reader, to make them sit up.”

Barnett shared they are looking for someone who is ambitious or may experiment with form or voice: “Someone who is writing from a really authentic place. What you have that’s unique to bring to the table as a writer.”

Harris, who also lectures at Manchester Met, describes how teaching others to write serves as a daily reminder that you are not the only person who wants to do it. He said: “It has taught me that the best work is rarely the most crafted; rather, it’s writing that has an urgency—that has something to say and gets to the point.

“The most rewarding aspect of teaching creative writing is simply knowing you’ve created a space to take seriously the deepest and most ridiculous of things: making up stories, playing with words.”

In 2017, Barnett presented a TED talk on originality in fiction, and when asked for advice on how to write with originality, she explained: “Originality is less about feeling that you have to do or create something you’ve never done before, which is unlikely. It’s not about doing something that’s not been done before but about you owning your particular perspective on it.”

When asked about stand out moments of her time judging the competition, Booker shared: “Each year the memorable moment for me is hearing the poets read at the ceremony. I am always impressed with the quality of the work. The different voices, poetics, and thematic concerns of the individual poets and the profound readings.“There is nothing like hearing the poets read their own poems, especially after we have been deliberating over them as judges. There is something magical about the readings and it is something I experience each year.”

Former chair of judges Dr Adam O’Riordan from Manchester Met’s Department of English will launch The Centre for Fiction, founded and co-directed alongside Dr Helen Mort and Dr Ginnette Carpenter, in September 2023 as the newest specialist research group in the Centre for Excellence in the Creative Industries (CELL).

The centre aims to forge and celebrate new stories, with a focus on Manchester’s rich literary heritage and its global outreach. It will bring together internationally acclaimed fiction writers and offer opportunities for collaboration and strategic bidding across academic levels, from MA/MFA to PhD.

The centre boasts a diverse range of researchers, including prize-winning novelists, custodians of literary legacies, critical experts on contemporary fiction, and writers specialising in expanding fiction’s audience beyond traditional readers.

Its emphasis lies in the process of fiction writing, the connection between critical and creative writing, and the collective identity that emerges from it. By promoting the achievements of its fiction writers, facilitating funding bids, and curating material for future impact case studies, the centre aims to enhance the university’s cultural life and reputation.

Key themes of focus include fiction as a craft, Manchester as an international city, critical-creative collaboration, hybrid forms of storytelling, and promoting environmentally conscious practices within the writing industry.

The 2023 Manchester Writing Competition is open to entries until 5 pm on September 1, 2023. Entries cost £18 per submission for either the poetry or fiction prize. 100 reduced-price (£10) entries are available to entrants who might not otherwise be able to take part in the Competition.

For more information, visit mmu.ac.uk/writingcompetition, join the mailing list, and follow @McrWritingSchl on Twitter.

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Lucy Vincent

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