Sarah James

the possibilities of poetry…

Earlier this year, writer Esther Newton contacted me to ask a few questions about the appeal of competitions for an article in Writing Magazine.

Esther’s full article, including quotes from myself and other competition writers, can be found in the April issue of the magazine.

Over the years, I’ve entered – sometimes with success, sometimes to disappointment – a variety of writing competitions. I’ve also been a sifter and named adjudicator for writing contests too.

Although I do have a competitive streak, it’s always been more about personal confidence-boosting and making my work as good as possible than anything else. In this sense, maybe it’s a ‘best compromise position’ against the inevitable impossibility of unanimous perfection – a way of reaching a point (when an entry’s successful at least!) of feeling ‘it’s finished enough’.

Esther’s full interview with me about writing competitions is included below with her permission. Her questions are in bold, with my answers below them.

Overton Poetry Prize Winner 2015

Overton Poetry Prize Winner 2015

You have won a number of poetry competitions including the Overton Poetry Prize 2015. What is it about competitions that makes them so special?

I’m going to guess that the most obvious appeal of writing competitions for many people might include the prize money, a way of being noticed, something for the poetry C.V. and publication opportunities. The latter is still an important factor for me. To be honest though, the rest of these probably motivated me more when I first started writing. Always, and this more and more the main reason now, the most important thing for me about competitions – when entries fare well, at least – is the confidence factor. In particular, when contests are anonymous, so based on enjoyment and/or admiration for the writing and not who I am or whom I know.

How did you feel when you won your first competition? What was that competition and when?

My first poetry competition success was as adult winner of Burton Ottakar’s Poetry Competition in October 1999. Sadly, Ottakar’s (bookstore chain) is no more. But at the time, the competition was an annual one, with regional winning poems, then going into the national round. I was delighted – probably to an extent that I couldn’t come close to recalling now. In 1999, Andrew Motion was judging and the first poet of national public renown to read any of my work! I think the biggest thing it gave me was the confidence, validity and motivation to keep on writing.

twittercollage-2017How has life changed for you since winning that competition?

Life has changed a lot for me since then, in so many ways. I now have four published poetry collections, two published poetry pamphlets, other writing wins and commissions, a poem in the Blackpool Illuminations, festival readings, a touring poetry-play, poetryfilms, a novella (‘Kaleidoscope’) out in 2017, paid work (yes, it really does happen eventually if not as often as I’d like!)… and my own poetry and flash fiction imprint: V. Press. Obviously, these aren’t direct results of that first win – for a long time I was just a journalist (and then a full-time mother) squeezing creative writing in to rare, very short snatches of time. But one thing on another on another all adds up.

Did winning that competition change how you saw yourself as a writer? Did it give you the confidence to believe in yourself as a writer? Did it lead you to want to enter more competitions?

Winning that competition, as with others since, gave me confidence in my writing. It did make me want to enter more – partly to keep pushing myself with the quality of my writing, partly because the deadlines and themes can be very motivating, partly because as a writer I always want reassurance that my work is hitting the spot. On the confidence factor though, I’m always aware of the potential flip-side – not getting anywhere in a contest. (Let’s face it, even without the subjectivity factor involved in writing competitions, this is the more likely outcome of any contest, as more people won’t win than will win.) So I try not to invest too much of my own writing self-worth in the results, and pick the contests that I do and don’t enter more carefully than I did at first.

Did winning competitions encourage and push you to send your work to editors and to publish your poetry collections?

Even from the start, I saw competitions and journal publication as something to be done simultaneously. Different poems tend to suit different journals and/or competitions better. Journal publication also brings its own validation and confidence-boost. Though they operate in different ways, both have always been important to me. I guess success with a poem in a competition, or journal publication, does encourage me to think about including it in a collection. But I’m not naturally confident in terms of submitting whole manuscripts blindly. My first, second and third collections, and one poetry pamphlet, came about through the publishers knowing and liking my work, and encouraging me to submit/commissioning a manuscript. It’s only more recently that I’ve submitted whole manuscripts blindly and had success.

Have any of the competition wins opened any doors for you? If so, which doors?

I don’t think any competition has actually acted as a butler holding the door open and announcing me. But many of the competitions have had award ceremonies, publication or showcasing as part of the prize. They’ve been a way of meeting the judges, other poets and readers, an addition to my CV, a boost to my confidence… Over time these things have then given me the strength and confidence to open doors for myself, or collaboratively with poets and publishers that I’ve met. They have also lead to people pointing out open/openable doors to me. [It’s important for me to highlight that any level of success in any competition, however big or small, is both a confidence boost and a delight in its own right, regardless of anything else that does or doesn’t follow from it.]

p1050944-003What are your plans for your future writing?

At the moment, a lot of my time is taken up by other people’s writing, with my work as editor and publisher at V. Press. I’m looking for new festival/guest poet readings for my poetry collection ‘plenty-fish’ (Nine Arches Press) and my first short novella, ‘Kaleidoscope’, out with Mantle Lane Press. I’ve also been working on three Coventry ringroad inspired pieces with filmmaker Ben Cook as part of a commission for the Disappear Here poetryfilm project. When I get spare time, I have various collaborations, poet in residence projects and pamphlet/collection ideas that are in different stages of development. But I try not to plan too much, or too far ahead, as I also like to remain open to new possibilities and spontaneous projects.

Have you any advice for a writer who is thinking about entering a competition and who is perhaps a little unsure?

I think perhaps the thing I’d say to anyone who is unsure is: “What have you got to lose by entering?” Winning isn’t the only thing competitions are valuable for; the themes can be inspiring and the deadlines motivational. Every time I send a poem to a competition (or journal submission), it makes me take the time to read and edit it. Even if I don’t get anywhere in that competition/submission, the chances are the poem is better than it was before I entered because of this enforced focus, extra evaluation and editing work. Other than that, I’d just advise not attaching too much weight to the results. A win is great. But not winning doesn’t mean the poem isn’t great. I think it’s important to manage possible disappointment. Maybe another way of saying this is: “Enter with hope but not expectations.” (Yes, this advice is easier written than done!)

Can you give some tips for entering writing competitions?

Other than what I’ve already mentioned, perhaps two practical tips. The first is check, check and check again for errors. (Get someone else who is objective/less-familiar-with-the-work to do this too if you can.) The second is don’t send a dog to the Cats Protection…by that, I mean check the rules/details carefully and also do some basic background research on the competition (nature of the organisation running the competition, judges, past winners…) but without getting too hung up on research (judges may change, their tastes not be immediately obvious or different to those sifting entries in earlier stages of the competition…).

Writing Magazine website:
Esther Newton’s website:

‘That Night’ – part of the Wordpool Festival Poetry Competition 2014 prize was seeing this poem animated for Blackpool Illuminations 2014.

That Night from Wordpool on Vimeo.

A brief round-up this Easter bank holiday:


First, up – my talking poetry and sharing poems from Disappear Here and plenty-fish on the Coventry Culture Show at 96.2 Touch FM yesterday. This is on listen again for the next week at: or at – link on Neil Wilkes, April 15th 2017 – on both from 2 hours 16 mins in.

I’ve also been enjoying working on a big prose & poetry commission, which I’m very very excited about! But that’s just the teaser for now. More details of this to come over the next month or two…

Free Books

Meanwhile I’m excited to share details of a Goodreads giveaway of copies of my short novella, Kaleidoscope:

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Kaleidoscope by S.A. Leavesley aka Sarah james


by S.A. Leavesley aka Sarah james

Giveaway ends April 25, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Waterstones reading: An Unconventional History of Maidenhood, Mothering and Mistresses

And, as if this wasn’t enough, exciting advance new of a reading at Birmingham Waterstones in October.

An Unconventional History of Maidenhood, Mothering and Mistresses
Waterstones, Birmingham – Thursday 5th October 19:30 – 21:00

Katy Wareham Morris will be performing poetry from her collaborative pamphlet with Ruth Stacey, Inheritance.

Ruth Stacey will be sharing poems from her collaborative pamphlet with Katy Wareham Morris, Inheritance, and her collection, Queen, Jewel, Mistress.

And Sarah James will be reading from her poetry collection, Plenty-Fish, and from her brand new novella, Kaleidoscope.

There will also be a book signing. The Waterstones event page here.

Happy Easter/bank holiday everyone!



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So I’m excited (& a bit nervous) to finally be able to share the news that my unpublished ‘The Myopic of Me’ is on the longlist for the memoir prize in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2017!!!

While I’m still way too young (obviously!!! ;-)) for a conventional memoir, ‘The Myopic of Me’ features seven versions of my life ( its quirks & serendipities) to date, each one with a slightly different focus/angle/lens…Delighted to have made the longlist, I’m now biting my nails & taking all the luck vibes I can get for the next stage.

In other news, I’m delighted that the Disapper Here project is shortlisted for the Best Collaborative Work in this year’s Saboteur Awards and The Chronicles of Eve (Paper Swans Press) for the Best Anthology. I’m very proud to have been a very small part in both of these!!!

The contest winners are now decided by public vote, with voting open until the end of April. Please do follow this link and register your vote, for these categories and for the others.

Disappear Here was a fantastic collaboration to work on and the range of poetryfilms produced truly stunning! (More about the project can be found later in my blog, or by following this link to the official website.)

The Chronicles of Eve is a beautiful anthology – as can be seen from this link. I have two poems this book, poems that are substantial to me on a topic that is also itself substantial – celebrating and exploring what it means to be a woman.

In other Saboteur news, I was also delighted as V. Press editor to find out that David Clarke’s V. Press pamphlet Scare Stories was longlisted for the Best Poetry Pamphlet. To set this in context, V. Press hasn’t run any campaigning for anything in these awards and David’s pamphlet was only published on March 27 – just four days before the closing date for people to register their nominations!!!

The full shortlist and longlist can be viewed here.

Other Publications


‘First Thing’, a Blackpool-inspired poem, published in the Best of British, Paper Swans Press anthology;
‘Sleeping Beauty’, poem, published in Three Drops from a Cauldron, issue 14.


Just a reminder that I will be on Touch FM this coming Saturday (April 15), talking about my part as one of the poets on the Disappear Here Coventry ringroad-inspired project. The interview also included talking about my wider writing and inspiration, as well as reading one of my Disappear Here poems and two poems from my Nine Arches Press collection plenty-fish.

This was great fun to do and Coventry Culture Show presenter Neil Wilkes so easy to chat to. The interview is due to be broadcast on Saturday, April 15 at 96.2 Touch Fm in the Coventry area, online at The whole show is from 10am-2pm, but I’m told the interview is likely to be broadcast between 12 and 1pm.

I’m also delighted that the opening to Kaleidoscope – as read at the novella launch – is to be broadcast again on this Monday, May 3’s live broadcast at Radio Wildfire. The re.Lit show is broadcast on the first Monday of the month from 20.00-22.00 (UK time).

Kaleidoscope Reviews

Although Kaleidoscope was only launched part-way through March, I’m absolutely delighted to end the month with news of two reviews.

The novella had its first five star rating on Amazon with the following words:



It also received a lovely review from Emma Lee. There’s a fragment below and the full text here. What pleased me most about this review is that it reads as if Emma were in the room/my head when I was writing it! (She wasn’t, of course, but it feels so close to Claire and how her story unfolded and worked itself out during the writing process!)

“…The writing is precise and evocative. Through the fragments, a clear image of Claire builds as someone shaped by her childhood as an ignored but responsible sister to a prettier, sociable younger sister, someone whose grief was sidelined in favour of focus on physical issues and someone who slipped through the safety net health visitors are supposed to provide. Despite the distorting mirrors, the shiny images, Sarah Leavesley is firmly in control, as the body of a kaleidoscope keeps all the pieces in check but still allows the viewer to see what they want.” Emma Lee, full review here

Kaleidoscope can be purchased from Mantle Lane Press online bookshop here.

Signed copies – for posting to the U.K. only (not overseas) are also available using the paypal link below. (Please include details of whom the signed copy should be made out to, otherwise a default unsigned copy will be sent.)

Kaleidoscope (£5.50, including P&P for posting to U.K. addresses only)



I’m absolutely delighted that the opening to Kaleidoscope – as read at the novella launch – is to be broadcast on this Monday’s (April 3) live broadcast at Radio Wildfire.

The re.Lit show is broadcast from 20.00-22.00 (UK time) and features a selection of new spoken word and music from around the world, introduced by Dave Reeves and produced by Vaughn Reeves.

Touch FM

Meanwhile, I was also back in Coventry this past to week to talk about my part as one of the poets on the Disappear Here Coventry ringroad-inspired project. The interview also included talking about my wider writing and inspiration, as well as reading one of my Disappear Here poems and two poems from my Nine Arches Press collection plenty-fish.

This was great fun to do and Coventry Culture Show presenter Neil Wilkes so easy to chat to. The interview is due to be broadcast on Saturday, April 15 at 96.2 Touch Fm in the Coventry area, online at The whole show is from 10am-2pm, but I’m told the interview is likely to be broadcast between 12 and 1pm.

Have I mentioned my novella yet? Okay, so I know I have. But it’s great to also find it being mentioned elsewhere.

These mentions of Kaleidoscope include this piece on The Literary Consultancy website and in the local newspaper here.

There’s so much I could say about the appeal of the novella form to me as both a writer and a reader – the brevity and compression, how such reading fits easily into a busy life with shortened blocks of reading time/attention space, its suitability for a poetic or fragmented style of narrative…

This blogpost also has some interesting thoughts on why the novella is making a comeback.

If you’d like a copy of Kaleidoscope, it’s available direct from Mantle Lane Press, priced at just £4. Or alternatively from me – for postage in the U.K. only – using the paypal link below.

Kaleidoscope (£5.50, including P&P for posting to U.K. addresses only)


I mentioned last week that I’d read some of my Coventry ringrad inspired poetry commissioned for the Disappear Here project on Midlands Today, where I also talked about some of the inspiration behind my pieces.

A youtube copy of this can be found below:

The actual three-part film produced from my three poems by filmmaker Ben Cook is also now live on the Disappear Here website – for this week only! (The films from the other 8 collaborations will be released one collaboration a week on the same website link.)

What to tell you about the background to each of the three poems/parts of Ben and my poetryfilm collaboration?

The first part/poem ‘Underbelly Undercurrents’ features the ringroad and the River Sherbourne, which ‘slithers’ through the city, mostly hidden underground but occasionally surfacing. Both poem and visuals tap into the imagery of circles, snakes and ouroboros (a snake swallowing its own tail that is used as a symbol of wholeness or infinity). It is a poem about the flow of traffic, river, time, lives…

Time also features in the second part/poem, ‘Clocking In/On/Off’. This poem is dropped into a dialogue featuring a mother and daughter, who is having relationship problems and is harried by the pace of modern society. The poem and plot are set against a background that includes the history of the ringroad, Coventry’s clockmaking past and World War 2 when Coventry was bombed.

The words for the final poem are taken mainly from the names of the ringroad junctions and the slightly surreal line “Tickets, please”. Repetition with difference, the sense of a magical mystery tour of Coventry and ghosts of past and future were underlying inspirations for this part. Ben’s visuals pick up on the movement (tracing) of car lights on the ringroad – creating an almost dancelike pattern. The repeated audio words of the poem slowly transform into a reverbed sound that feels almost choral, as well as ghostly.

At least, that’s how I interpret and interact with each part as viewer/listener/writer. It was fantastic to see the launch night and poetryfilms reviewed by Stella Backhouse On Sabotage Reviews. You can read her lovely thoughtful and detailed consideration of the project here. Experience the three-part poetryfilm by Ben Cook and myself below:

The past week has been a bit like spinning on a waltzer – with the jolting, jitters and exhilaration of launch nerves and excitement.

Despite pre-reading nerves, I had an amazing day launching my novella, Kaleidoscope, at Leicester’s States of Independence independent presses fair.


Copies of the novella – priced at just £4 – are now available from the press website or by emailing me on lifeislikeacherrytreeATyahooDOTcom. I also have some review copies, so please do email me if you’re interested, or know anyone who might be interested, in reviewing Kaleidoscope.


For the launch, I read from the very opening of the novella. But an alternative short sample from Kaleidoscope can be enjoyed here.

Disappear Here…

Then, just five days later, it was the launch/premiere screening of my poetryfilm collaborations with filmmaker Ben Cook.

Our three pieces: Underbelly Undercurrents, Clocking In/ON/Off and From & Before/The A4053 were cleverly out together by Ben so as to work as one long piece as well as individually. The second piece includes the poem dropped into a scripted dialogue scenario, with the main role played wonderfully by actress Jane Campion Hoye. One of the loveliest things about the launch was being in the audience watching it with Jane. We also managed to put Ben in the frame/in front of the camera too for once.


A last-minute surprise twist to the event was getting to read some of my poetry on the BBC as part of a Midlands Today feature on the Disappear Here collaborations with project leader Adam Steiner and filmmaker/poet Emilia Moniszko.

And in other news…

Meantime, I was also delighted to get my copy of the latest Tears in the Fence, containing my interview with poet Mark Goodwin. An extra pleasant surprise I hadn’t anticipated were the lovely snippet reviews of plenty-fish and Lampshades & Glass Rivers in David Caddy’s Afterwords.


“…clear stream now green
as a vine snake, slinking up for air
then back below streets and footsteps,
beside subways striped with bright tiles
like discarded reptile skins”

(From ‘Underbelly Undercurrents’, referring to River Sherbourne)

“…Now whirrs the city’s clockface
and round the thrumming ringway,
hour after hour, chop-chop, tock–tick –
lives and dreams motor onwards
in a flow that can’t be stopped.”

(From Clocking In/On/Off)

Spring is in the air, my novella Kaleidoscope is launched and next up for me are the poetryfilms written by me and produced by talented filmmaker Ben Cook for the Disappear Here project commission. More details about this in the official press release below for the Disappear Here poetryfilm launch screening tomorrow. Excited me? Well, maybe just a little!



Thursday – 16/3/2017 @ The Box – Fargo – Coventry – CV1 5ED
18 Artists – 27 poetry films exploring the Modernist/Brutalist superstructure of Coventry ringroad.


Come and see the artist’s work produced over the last few months, find out more about their creative process in a Q&A session and connect with funders, supporters and citizens of Coventry!

Adam Steiner, Disappear Here Project Lead, said: “It’s been a great experience to work alongside emerging and established artists from Coventry and beyond to reimagine the ringroad through a series of poetry films.
“Coventry ringroad is one of the city’s most iconic (and notorious) physical landmarks , acting as both city wall, orbital conduit and dividing line. I feel the ringroad deserves to be celebrated as well as criticized – it is the duty of artists and citizens to engage with issues of public space, control of architecture and the human experience of our built environment – to shine a light on the fantastic, the boring and the universal in the everyday. Coventry has always been underrated as a place to live, work and create – so I hope the films will encourage people to visit and seek inspiration where they can to read, write and attend more poetry events!”

Laura McMillan, Manager, Coventry City of Culture Trust, said: “The diversity of artists, writers and filmmakers will be central to Coventry’s plans for UK City of Culture. This project engages artists in reflecting on an iconic feature of a city that is constantly reinventing itself.”

Peter Knott, Area Director, Arts Council England said: “One of the Arts Council’s ambitions is to use our National Lottery funding to support the creation of new artistic work that entertains and inspires, which is why we invested in Disappear Here. It will be a great experience for people to take a fresh look at Coventry’s architecture and landscape through the eyes of these poets and filmmakers.”

cov-pic-2LAUNCH – INFO
The event is FREE – all are welcome – there will be a bar (with some money behind it for those who arrive on time)
Featured Artists:
Emily Wright X Martin Green
Alex Taylor X Leanne Bridgewater
Mab Jones X Emilia Moniszko
Jack Norris X Cathy Galvin
Sangam Sharma X Cormac Faulkner
Brian Harley X Zoe Palmer
Richard Houguez X Dora Mortimer
Ben Cook X Sarah James
John McCaughley X James Grady

Doors open – 7pm
Screening kicks-off – 7.30pm (with intermission)
Q&A with the artists – 9pm
Event Ends – 10pm

Please RSVP via EventBrite:


A Guardian article about the project, including some sneak previews into the inspiration, approach and subject matter in some of the films can be read here.

The coming fortnight is a particularly exciting one as it features the launch of my novella, Kaleidoscope, and my poetryfilm collaborations commissioned for Disappear Here.


Saturday, March 11 – Leicester launch of Kaleidoscope
Launch of my novella, Kaleidoscope, at 1pm at the States of Independence independent presses day at De Montfort University (Clephan Building, Oxford Street – entrance on Bonners Lane), Leicester LE1 5XY.


From the back cover:
“Claire relives her past but her memories are fragmented, shattered like the remains of a toy kaleidoscope.
A troubled childhood, the loss of her baby, and the end of her marriage are seen through a distorting lens, twisted and unclear.
What really happened? And can Claire find a way through the mirror maze of memories to discover the truth?
Kaleidoscope is a compelling and disturbing tale of a disintegrating life.”


I will also have a V. Press stand at this event.


Thursday, March 16 – Coventry Launch of Disappear Here poetryfilms

Launch of the Disappear Here Coventry ringroad inspired collaborative poetryfilms, including the three commissioned from myself and film-maker Ben Cook. This free event is from 19:00 – 22:00 at The Box – Fargo Village, Coventry, CV1 5ED. More information and tickets here.


Lampshades & Glass Rivers reviewed by Sam Smith in The Journal

Lampshades & Glass Rivers can be bought for £6.50 (with free U.K. postage) using the paypal link below. Alternatively, it can be bought as part of a special bundle with plenty-fish (R.R.P. £9.99) for just £1 more than the usual collection price.


Lampshades & Glass Rivers with P&P


plentyfish cover (1)

Poetry bundle: plenty-fish, & Lampshades & Glass Rivers with P&P


‘How to Escape’ poem accepted for Envoi – now celebrating its 60th year of publication;
Pre-orders live for Best of British (Paper Swans Press anthology), including my Blackpool-inspired poem ‘First Thin’g.

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