‘It’s so straightforward, so devastating.’
It was the extraordinary child in ‘The Sorry Letter’ that got your votes. Michelle Diaz’s ‘delicate, poignant and compelling’ poem was relatable and familiar to some. Others found it visceral; some saw some vague hints of humour in it. But they all loved that young writer.
IS&T editor Helen Ivory wrote: I connected with the child’s perspective in this poem – she is really really trying to make something extraordinary, and I liked the details here and the passion and the art. I can imagine the mother thinking her ‘too clever by half’ – a way of diminishing and othering a human spirit which just happens to be, for now, in a child’s body. This poem speaks to me of the survival of self. And I like the irony – given that the narrator is speaking the poem now, they are still making a mark and will never have their voice ripped into pieces!
Michelle has been published by 14 Magazine, Poetry Wales and numerous print and online journals. Her debut pamphlet The Dancing Boy was published by Against the Grain Press in 2019. She is working on her first collection.
The Sorry Letter
I’m nine years old & it’s 6pm & I’ve been sent to my room.
I open a new pack of felt tips & grab some Victoria Plum paper.
It’s time for The Sorry Letter.
I want to be in the laughing living room,
watching Knight Rider with my brothers.
I don’t want to write The Sorry Letter.
But I’m a good writer, so I give it my best shot.
I draw a dragon in a hat & some wonky green flowers.
I draw a mini me kneeling,
with one long stick of black hair
& a downturned mouth
& little blue lines coming out of my eyes.
Inside a speech bubble I write –
I’m sorry for my behaviour mummy.
I’m sorry I left my dolls in the hallway.
I’m sorry for answering back facetiously.
Then I throw in a bit from Sunday Mass:
‘I’m sorry above all things for having offended thee’.
I draw a sad God with a thought bubble over his head
& the words ‘Miserable Sinner’.
This is my best ever Sorry Letter.
I make an envelope and decorate it
with vibrating hearts & flowers.
I dab it with Mum’s Lentheric Tweed.
Then, I tiptoe down, carefully avoiding the creaky stair.
I post my exceptional missal under the door.
From the other side, my brother whispers,
Look mum. Look down there!
There’s a rustle & a silence that goes on
for what feels like an aeon. I start climbing
back up the stairs, then sit on the halfway bit.
Like a muppet or Christopher Robin.
There’s a tut and a mutter,
then a series of swift, determined rips.
Other voters’ comments included:
I loved the immediacy of this piece. I was right there in the moment drawing the picture… writing my own sorry letter. Because we were punished in the same way, sent out of the room. No TV… Sitting on the stairs waiting for absolution…
I love the way the language, rhythm and voice captures the character, thoughts and feelings of this smart, plucky,, creative child. The ending is so painful and so relatable. I wanted to give that child a big hug.
A vivid telling of familial cruelty
My heart twanged when I read this poem and it echoed there all day.
Vivid imagery and outstanding diction
This is perfectly pitched – not overly-sentimental but not lacking emotional punch either. And so relatable!
It speaks to my experience both as a child and as a mother. IT expresses eloquently the unmet need of the child for approval, using the only skills and tricks she has, and the heartbreaking rejection of this by the mother. So much said in so few words
As a gen x-er, I found this poem especially evocative. The innocence portrayed is heart wrenching and the ending is really poignant. I love it.
Visceral , moving and well written.
Its imagery: delicate, poignant and compelling.
The poem is sad and sweet and tells a story.
So vivid – I felt like I was there too!
The way the poet enters the mind of a child
Michelle’s poetry is real, raw and earthy. She’s not afraid to discuss topics others shy away from. Her observations of life are profound …
Michelle understands the mind and heart of a young girl who is trying to make amends, and probably not for the first time. There is some of her in the poem.
The letter was magic.
A poignant poem, which reveals intriguing glimpses of a family dynamic.
The poem is poignant and so accurately depicts the girl’s yearning/ attempting to do her best and also disappointment. It’s very evocative
It was very evocative but also funny and I could relate to the era in which it was written. I loved it .
Eloquent, sharp and witty piece, delightfully constructed
Disarming, simple and poignant.
THE REST OF THE OCTOBER 2023 SHORTLIST
His heart sings with each song of Noor
until the day she loses her voice.
Six-year-old with no speech only mime
at a time before endoscopes reach Karbala.
Noor skips, plays with her dolls as before
whispers unlettered air.
Her parents seek refuge in the Lord.
Had Evil Eye befallen their only child?
They pray, give charity, hang up turquoise eyes.
Hands and sandals around doors.
They visit holy shrines, recite litanies, hoping
God might accept prayers through His friends.
They kiss walls and doors of each sacred place
tie green satin, rub knots and wipe bars.
With each mausoleum visit
prayers are more desperate.
Two whole years until her parents accept Noor’s Fate.
It is as it must be. Alhamdulillah in all our states.
The burden of hope lifts
and they sleep well that night.
Fulfil the unkept oath says the man in the green turban.
A family outing to Sayyid Mohammed’s shrine in Balad.
Best abaya, Um Noor holds Noor’s right hand
they approach the tomb.
On the way home the car hits a ditch.
Abu Noor pained to his aorta
as he hears Noor cough in the back.
She gasps, leans forward to breathe,
shrieks words sweet as song
Mama! Mama! Look! A watermelon seed!
Abeer Ameer’s poems have appeared widely in journals including The Rialto, The Poetry Review, Magma, Atrium, Acumen, and Poetry Wales. Her debut poetry collection, Inhale/Exile (Seren 2021) was shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year in 2022.
ode to pelvic pain
outside a herd of elephants
you are number 7 in the queue
you swallow a pill
that numb the nerves
that are sparking
like someone stuck their hand
in the toaster
the hold music is Sade
singing, while being strangled in the bath
you are number 3 in the queue
pink flamingos dance on the lawn
you were once entirely fuckable
the receptionist says
it will be a telephone consultation
you try & imagine
pelvic floor exercises
over the phone
giving you instructions
on how to relax
your pelvis deep breaths
in & out in & out
like phone sex
Rachel Burns is published in magazines including Butcher’s Dog, The Rialto, The Moth, and Magma. Her short stories are published in Signs of Life, an anthology edited by Sarah Sasson, and Mslexia. She has recently been awarded an Arts Council DYCP grant.
For your fear of spiders? Behold, I have sourced this perspex box
and this adult Goliath Birdeater, a type of tarantula which, interestingly,
and contrary to its name, rarely eats birds at all. So I think you know
what’s coming. I will admit have no qualifications in psychology
or indeed anything else. Those framed diplomas on the wall?
Look closer: swimming certificates, bought online. This plush leather sofa?
Found in a skip. That receptionist? My no-good brother-in-law,
to whom I promised a Burger King for this. Regardless, I do believe
very strongly if you shove your hand into the box for, I guess, five minutes,
it will cure your fear of spiders. When I’ve tried this before with others,
they’ve suggested they were expecting more of an incremental approach,
involving discussion/visualisation of spiders, photographs of spiders,
then, in a safe environment, escalating levels of interaction with spiders.
Perhaps this is what you were expecting? In fact I did almost purchase myself
an XXL Goliath Bird-Eater Onesie with eight wet eyes on the chest
and four extra limbs that jounced about like pool noodles. In the end,
I decided, no, because of issues with postage and packing, so what I’d like
you to do now is immediately shove your hand into the spider box.
Believe me, just getting hold of both box and spider was enough of a hassle.
To be honest, that’s the problem with you people nowadays: ungrateful
and too easily rattled and, for hand, box, spider and five-minute period
you can substitute anything. What annoys me the most, is that if I had fears?
If I were afraid of, say, sharks? Let’s just say you wouldn’t catch me
refusing the opportunity to dive into a shark tank. I would be elbowing people
out of the way. I’m from a generation where that sort of thing,
jumping into shark tanks, was normal, and somewhere along the way
we started coddling people. And even if I were afraid of something more
nebulous, more existential like, say, a lifetime of increasing hardship
while my body ages, friendships wither, my labour power deteriorates
as a sociopathic hard-right global hegemony spools its web
of indifferent brutality around larger and larger groups, groups that are
increasingly beginning to resemble the group I myself belong to,
while the planet burns and floods? Well, let’s just say you wouldn’t catch me
refusing the opportunity to do whatever the equivalent of putting my hand
in the spider box for that is. Like, I’d probably jump at the chance
to put on some hi-vis and drill my own 10,000 ft oil well. Or, not that,
I’d at least arrange a steak dinner with the CEO of Chevron, make him admit
he’s far more afraid of me than I am of him, make him promise
if I defend him physically from those who believe vandalism
of fossil fuel infrastructure and the guillotining of billionaires
is now the only ethical option remaining to save humanity,
then he’ll secure me a place on the secret starship or vault-city
they’re all obviously developing for when things finally collapse.
So as I say, it’s fortunate that I’m not afraid of those things,
and that it’s you on the hook here. It’s you with your fear of spiders,
me with my fear of nothing, and, here and now, this perspex box
and this spider, and your hand, and three minutes left on the clock.
Michael Conley is a poet from Manchester, UK. His poetry has been Highly Commended in the Forward Prize. His latest pamphlet, These Are Not My Dreams And Anyway Nothing Here Is Purple was published by Nine Pens in 2021. He was the 2022 winner of the Peggy Poole Prize.
So there we sit, the runts, the overweights, my Jewish friends
who, like me, are more academic than athletic,
when the don’t-give-a-shits, late to PE and with no kit,
are made to join us in the stands,
sidle up next to us, taunt us for being small or fat,
having a nasal voice or braces or greasy hair.
If we ganged together—there’s only two of them—
we could put a stop to this. Maybe.
We stare at our sneakers or out onto the courts
where faster, bigger boys shoot hoops and run drills
—a graceful, interweaving, intangible current
like ones I’ve studied but they know intuitively.
They play shirts versus skins, sweat glistening
on bare chests just emerging out of Roman marble.
How many afternoons have they spent handling a ball
or barbell, their magnetizing biceps coiling
and then releasing, coiling and releasing?
Did they come this way, or were they steered?
I’ve rarely visited my mother’s boyfriend’s gym.
Maybe I’ve had it all wrong, like being too lazy
to mow the lawn or clean my room,
or genetic programming has failed to kick in.
Coach substitutes the runts into the game
so that we get a chance to dribble, pass, shoot, rebound . . .
I try blocking a skin, hands all in his face, like a fan
after an autograph, but the ball escapes between my legs.
I attempt a layup, rehearse how many steps,
where my arms and the ball should be when I shoot,
but can’t remember the follow-through
and freeze beneath the net, one leg in the air,
as if immortalized scoring the winning basket,
as if someone has shut off the electricity.
Charles G Lauder Jr is an American poet who has lived in the UK since 2000. He’s published two pamphlets and a debut collection, The Aesthetics of Breath (V.Press, 2019). His website can be found at https://www.charleslauderjr.
This is about violence
This is about the surprise you felt
as you lay on the kitchen floor
at your friend’s house,
his hands round your throat
their dog barking and whining.
This is about the way
you thought you were strong
(and you were strong)
and the way that you thought
you were better than that,
but you were grieving
and you wanted to feel loved,
and his eyes saw right inside you
(or so you thought)
and sometimes a good thing
can turn into a bad thing
and you can’t read the warnings,
and sometimes the warnings
aren’t there at all.
This is about the way you felt ashamed
and couldn’t tell anyone,
even though they judged you at the pub
for turning your face away from him
when he was all smiles and innocence.
This is about the way we take the blame
for things that are not our fault.
This is about violence –
how sometimes we just don’t recognise it
until it hits us.
Julia Webb is a working class writer, editor and poetry mentor based in Norwich. She is a poetry editor for Lighthouse. She has three collections with Nine Arches Press: Bird Sisters (2016) Threat (2019) and The Telling (2022). She has had two poems highly commended in The Forward Prize.