Renfrewshire Council

Musings of the Tannahill Makar: The Janet Coates Memorial Poetry Prize

In 2020 the first Paisley Book Festival happened in many differing vibrant venues and certainly had the live feel about it, however this time due to the pesky pandemic it was all virtual and zoom and suchlike. Even in its new form, due to the diligence of the organisers, authors, library staff and many others it was still a successful result for Paisley and bookaholics in general.

The theme of the festival taken on board by the Janet Coates Memorial Prize for poetry this year was Radical New Futures, motivated by the importance that green spaces played, as places of solace and recuperation. Up for consideration were grand places of outstanding beauty and also small resilient patches of nature in the hearts and towns of where we live. They could be anything from parks to window boxes and all stops in between. They could be memories whilst we experienced lockdown, places we walked whilst in lockdown, or they could be the anticipation of we had yet to look forward to. Some perfectly manicured and some unkempt and wild.

In an event that epitomised the old cliché "staying in is the new going out" but going out, in a manner of speaking, is what we did at the prizegiving event via the wonderful array of poems that did, indeed, take our imaginations out and about.

As Tannahill Makar I was fortunate enough to be invited to join in with Jackie Kay and Dave Hook in the final judging of last year's competition , and, in conjunction with being involved with Liz Lochhead and Nadine Aisha Jassat, in this year's judging. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of sharing the poems submitted and the thoughts of all involved in the judging process.

 This year there were poems dealing with trees, beaches, trumpeters, bikes, birdcages, seagulls, treehouses, walks and gardens in amongst other subjects ripe for the theme. Of course, poems are always about more than the constituent parts I've mentioned which makes it interesting for me to ask the question, why and how does a judge pick one poem over another? Sometimes it's due to our personal filters or the unique point of view the writer has taken, or a use of language or subject matter that intrigues us. Or perhaps we see a poem as being complete with no further work suggesting itself to fine tune it? Of course, it's all subjective. Sometimes, it's just a poem that simply stops us in our racks for whatever reason.

Hats off to all the entrants, having the wherewithal to submit a creative piece of work under the most difficult times within which we are living. So well done to everyone who shared their work with us which I'm glad to say, reflected the vibrant poetry scene that is currently flourishing in Renfrewshire.

I particularly like the 3 judge structure as you're sure to have a healthy debate as to the whys and wherefores of a poem with interesting points touched on by all the judges.Of course there quite a few judges in essence, with the initial batch of poems submitted being sifted through by library staff and others at the festival prior to the shortened longlist being put to the judges.

Janet Coates was part of the renowned thread-making family J&P Coates. The eldest daughter of Margaret Glen and Thomas Coates, who was one of four brothers that inherited the Paisley-based thread manufacturing company. Janet's literary aspirations resulted in two volumes of nature-inspired poetry, one of which was published as Verses and Rhymes, in 1899. Janet Coates was the wife of the publisher, James Tait Black.

Due to the amount of quality entries I'll only site the two winning poems, one for the Adult's section and one for the under 18's section.

The winner of the adult section was BACKGROUND PAPER 3 written by Morag Smith, in which the writer interspersed the language of officialdom with translation of the reality of the Dykebar housing proposal that the gobbledygook of officialdom tends to mask the true meaning of what's really going on. The following is an extract from Morag's poem ...

Background Paper 3 (Proposed Housing Develoment, Dykebar) by Morag Smith.

An indicative masterplan has been prepared

for this teenage Devil's Playground
where gargoyles smile from burrs on trees
and lockdown lovers kiss in the patients' garden,
slow-grown, gone in a blink
Garlic. Daisy. Hawksbeard. Bluebell.

Owners confirm the overgrown buildings
are surplus to current operational needs

Life overwinters in rubble
dead wood is never dead, shelter
found in the hollows of a snag
Earwig. Weevil. Stonefly. Spider.
Perforated steel sheets the eyes
of B-listed ghosts, all blind
to milky sweep of winter sun while moss
coats the trucks of their sentinels

Possible adverse impacts have been examined


The winner of the Under 18's section was BREATHE by Gemma Livingstone (S1 Castlehead High School) where the writer charts the lifespan of newly planted tree as it comments on the effects that the passage of time and of how humans have treated the environment during his passing time where the tree finally pleads for a bit of post pandemic understanding of how important the environment is leaving the reader hoping that such a plea isn't too late if the humans deign to answer and acknowledge what their neglect has done to the planet. Another very powerful piece of writing. The following is an extract from Gemma's poem ...

Breathe by Gemma Livingstone (S1, Castlehead High School).

Seven decades ago I began to breathe
A new life watching over a new house
Part of anew estate being built
The town growing into the green belt
The houses spewed black smoke as coal fires burnt
The cars pumped out an awful smell into the air
And when I looked up
The same engines were in the sky
But the houses aren't so black now
The cars are not as odious
But the planes still fly overhead
Now in ever growing numbers 
Today there are no planes flying by
The cars are not moving
The people are in lockdown
And I am still standing here breathing
It has become so much easier


Runners up in the adult category were:

The Gull's Lament by Marka

A Trumpeter by Angus Bhattacharya


Runners up in the under 18 category were:

Poem 3 by Emma McCallum

Let that be Our Green Spaceby Alistair Napier.


Congratulations to all.


Brian Whittingham

Published 5 May 2021