The Dial-a-Poem Competition invited students enrolled at a UK institute of higher or further education to enter a poem on the theme of ‘calling’. This brief could be interpreted freely – poems could be directly or indirectly ‘telephonic’.


1st Place: Rose Brennan, ‘The Call’

2nd Place: Michaela Coplen, ‘Phone Sex Script’

3rd Place: Jodie Hannis, ‘Wrists’

NTU Prize: John Rogers, ‘A dial face for John Boot and absent company’

Commended Poets:
Tilly Alexander, ‘Phoning Home’
Mehar Anaokar, ‘GMT +5.30’
Dylan Booth, ‘Lost in [Google] Translation’
Victoria Zoe Callus, ‘Across the Switchboard’
Aleksander Carver, ‘For You, From Me’
Sophie Cornwell,  ‘Call to Sea’
Phoebe Kalid, ‘can you talk?’
Sara Levy, ‘Telephone Calls: a garbled history’
Lucinda Morton, ‘The Quiet Noise’

You can read all the winning and commended poems on our Dial-a-Poem mobile app, available to download for free from Google Play and the App Store.

All prizes were awarded in National Book Tokens. First prize was £500, second prize was £300 and third prize was £200. An additional prize of £100 was awarded to a student currently enrolled at Nottingham Trent University.

The winning poems have been published and recorded for the Dial-A-Poem app and will also feature in a renovated K8 phone kiosk in the City of Nottingham.

The competition was judged anonymously by prize-winning poet Jane McKie. Read her full judge’s report below.

Jane McKie has nine poetry publications, both pamphlets and book-length, some as collaborations with artists. Morocco Rococo won the Sundial/Scottish Arts Council award for best first book of 2007. In 2011, Jane won the Edwin Morgan poetry prize, and in the same year Garden of Bedsteads (Mariscat Press) was a Poetry Book Society Choice. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh.

“It has been a privilege to judge dial-a-poem national student poetry competition. I was thrilled by the variety and quality of the submissions, and I enjoyed every single entry. Of course, this made my job harder: how to select a winner? Ultimately, it was poems that called to me personally across each rereading, whether for their subject or for the elegance or surprise of their composition, that I settled on. Another judge might have made a different selection given the breadth and skill of the work submitted.

‘Calling’ is an evocative starting point. Immediately the mind slides to voice, then to phone calls, especially given the ubiquity of phones in our lives. Phones featured in the majority entries, both in terms of what they represent and in concrete examples of how phones have been redesigned though time: surfaces moving from dial to button to touchscreen, spaces from booths to mobility. Given the separation implied in a phone call, many poems touched on what that separation means in emotional terms: a call for help, the absence of a loved one, or the memory of a past relationship. Among its denotations, ‘calling’ implies a convening, convocation or a summons. This sense of calling permeated other poems in imaginative ways: the call of an animal, for example, or communing with the divine, or even the call of body and blood. Whatever the interpretation of the theme, addressing communication and miscommunication proved a highly fertile challenge, and the entries responded to this challenge in multiple ways: free verse, dialect, rhyme, open field, erasure, cut up, and concretely. It was wonderful to see such diversity and experimentation.

The winning poem, ‘The Call’, has a haunting quality that spills beyond the physicality of its telephone wires and carries through time from a ‘simpler’ childhood to the implied complexities of adulthood, with the addressee of the poem resisting the narrator’s call. There is a delicate patterning of sound in terms of assonance and alliteration throughout – nothing that draws too much attention to itself, or exceeds the poem’s compact bounds – and an echoed patterning of meaning, with the ‘old kulning cry’ (herding call) of stanza three being enacted on the children of the valley in the first stanza, as they are summoned home ‘like lost calves’. I enjoy the fact that there is an ambiguity to this call, that it may not be literal kulning but a more nebulous force of attraction that weakens over the years. And at the end of the poem we are left with the attenuated, resonant hum of the disconnect tone.

The runner up, the ambitious ‘Phone Sex Script’, uses space inside the bounds of its stanzas to playful effect, making islands of particular words and phrases, most notably ‘swollen, incapable’ in the first stanza, which follows directly from ‘makes of us virgin again’. The forced jocularity of some of the ‘script’ contrasts beautifully with moments of loneliness and longing throughout the poem, not least with the extracts of letters from an ‘old soldier’ who misses his sweetheart; we assume she may never have seen him again, so the lines are freighted with possible tragedy as well as being wistful and saucy in their thinly veiled innuendo. This contrast of contexts and registers is deft and exciting, and complements the interplay of body and spirit throughout the piece cleverly.

In third place is ‘Wrists’, a different take on calling. ‘Wrists’ concerns a baptism in which father and child are united by their grip: ‘We clasped each other’s wrists, a // complicated arrangement of shapes learnt in school / angular sound wrapped around out tongues’. The relationships in the poem are complicated too, with mother criticising father for his lack of backbone. His missing strength, and his paternal connection to the child, both ‘flower’ only in the moments before and during submersion. The poem works partly because of what we are required to read below its surface of wrists and stance and gesture, which by virtue of their clarity and vigour suggest a caesura in the family’s emotional life.

The NTU prize is awarded to ‘A dial face for John Boot and absent company’, which crackles with invention. The poem plucks a compelling character, John Boot, watchmaker, from history and transplants him to modern Nottinghamshire where he proceeds to navigate a conversation on a phone (from ‘inside a glass chute’) with a confused twenty-first century stranger. Much funny and poignant miscommunication ensues. The poem is steeped in particularities of descriptive detail and quirks of speech, and it deploys irony to excellent effect: ‘He’s not heard of the preference / for strong mobile networks’. The well-managed nostalgia of the poem is given heft in its penultimate stanza with the lovely image of shoppers who ‘bruise the minutes from II to VII’ before their shadows are stolen by cloud; the neglected sundial, too, loses its shadow just as John Boot hears the pips telling him he is ‘out of time’.

There are nine commended poems; all of them fine poems from exciting writers. One of them, ‘Lost in Google Translate’, is an audio poem that interleaves multiple phone greetings. These greetings – that are so often glided over because they are so familiar – build to a crosscutting crescendo in multiple voices and then increasingly fall away until all that can be heard is the dial tone. The poem asks: when a phrase in English is fed through Google Translate into different language/s and back again how is utterance distorted? And meaning? It showcases the harmonies in our filtering of communication. The competition has coincided with a time of extraordinary disruption, fear and uncertainty, but it is also a time when global communication is of utmost importance. ‘Calling’ would always be a compelling theme, but this year, because of the urgent need for social isolation, calling is one of our greatest consolations.

Winning and Commended Poets

1st Place: Rose Brennan

Rose Brennan is an eighteen-year-old poet from Herefordshire. She studies French, English Literature and History and aspires to study History of Art and French at university.

‘The idea of the Nordic “kulning call” inspired this poem, and how such a traditional and rural thing would fit in with the fast-paced, urban and electronic lifestyle of the modern era.’

2nd Place: Michaela Coplen

Michaela Coplen is a Marshall Scholar and MPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. She received her BA from Vassar College, where she also served as a poetry editor for the Vassar Review. In 2013, she was appointed National Student Poet by Mrs. Obama and the President’s Committee on the Arts & the Humanities. Her poems have been published online with The Atlantic and, as well as in print with the Bellevue Literary Review. She was also recently included in Copper Canyon Press’s eco-poetry anthology, Here: Poems for the Planet. She was the winner of the 2019 Troubadour International Poetry Prize and the 2020 York Poetry Prize.

‘Coming from a family of military service members, staying in contact with the people I love – across distance, and under duress – has always been difficult. Technology has made that somewhat easier; where earlier generations had only letters, now wartime correspondence includes emails and calls. This poem came out of considering that change, and how telephonic immediacy affects innuendo and intimacy – for better, or for worse.’

3rd Place: Jodie Hannis

Jodie Hannis is a Midlands-based poet and spoken word artist who is exploring archaeological writing as part of her PhD research with the University of Leicester. She has performed across the country including at Handmade Festival, Curve’s Inside Out, and Nottingham Poetry Festival and came second representing the East Midlands in Commonword’s Superheroes of Slam national final in 2017. Recent publications can be found in Welcome to Leicester: poems about the city, The New Luciad, and The Blue Nib.

‘When it came to thinking about the idea of ‘calling’, it was difficult not to keep coming back to the intense and, with hindsight, bizarre, religious upbringing I had. We were chosen people, we were special. It was our job to respond the call of that responsibility. I am happy that I stopped answering, as an adult, but do worry about the long term effects to the ego of believing you are one of God’s secret ambassadors for so long. It’s probably why I became a poet.’

NTU Prize: John Rogers

John Rogers is an MA Creative Writing student at Nottingham Trent University. He studied BA English at The University of Hull and was awarded the Joseph Henry Noble Scholarship for continued performance. He achieved a PGDE in secondary education in 2016 and maintains a keen interest in providing English Language and Literature tuition.

‘Dead air is rarely permissible in our mobile world. We only have so long to make an impression. But, as with writing, the listener-reader has a significant role. They choose how far to investigate what the caller-writer has to say. Because more often than not, when the line cuts, much is left unsaid.’

Commended Poets

Mehar Anaokar is an Indian international student studying English and Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham and is currently the Publications Officer for Writers’ Bloc. In addition to her editorial responsibilities, she has also designed the Writers’ Bloc logo and has been commissioned for the Screenwriters’ Bloc logo. Her medium of choice is poetry, which she often publishes on her Instagram, along with regularly creating illustrations for her work as well as themes surrounding her work. Her career ambitions include being an editor and a published writer, and she is excited to be a part of the publishing industry after she graduates.

‘As an international student adapting to and conversing with people in different time-zones is almost second nature to me, and calling keeps me close to friends and family both at home and in the UK.’

Tilly Alexander is an MSt student reading English (1830-1914) at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Her favourite poets include Emily Dickinson, Ilya Kaminsky, and Alice Oswald.

‘I found it fun experimenting with writing a piece for the Dial-a-Poem competition. The project got me thinking about the many ways in which a poem can be read, and how poems are in essence vehicles for a kind of fruitful miscommunication.’

Dylan Booth is a Nottingham-born writer, now based in North West England. He is currently studying an MA in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University, after graduating from the BA (Hons) Creative Writing in 2019. Dylan undertook an internship at the leading poetry publishers Carcanet in 2018. He has worked as a Poetry Editor for Across & Through in early 2019, a literary magazine with an aim to publish writers who are transgender or gender-variant. He also worked as the Social Media Editor for The Black Market Re-view in 2018. Dylan has performed his poetry at the Rich Mix London, collaborating on a piece of innovative poetry with another UK university student.

‘There’s something about conversing with a poem that’s curious to me. Error, silence, breath – that’s where the conversation is.’

Victoria Zoe Callus is the winner of NTU’s Carcanet Press / PN Review Prize (2018) and is currently undertaking an AHRC M4C-funded PhD in Creative-Critical Writing at Nottingham Trent University. Her writing is influenced by her multilingual upbringing in Malta as well as her previous studies and work in graphic design, film and creative media. Her current research explores multimodal forms of literary production, and in particular, the relationship between the text and its surfaces. Entitled Paper Cuts, her PhD research project focuses on embodied engagement with the paper medium in contemporary experimental literature.

‘I wrote this poem using Tzara’s method: picking words out of a bowl, blindfolded, and placing them down in the same order that they’d been pinched up by my fingers. In some ways this reminded me of a childhood game where, eyes shut tight, we would run our fingers through phonebooks and dial up whoever’s number we stopped on.’

Sophie Cornwell-Lee lives in a village called Bearsted in Kent. She is currently studying as an undergraduate at Exeter University.

Aleksander Carver is an undergraduate at the University of York. He lives in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and is currently working on his first collection of poems.

‘Phone calls are fundamentally unnerving, for in the absence of a face, every word has the power to misfire or be missed. ‘For You, From Me’, however, is about the moment prior to the call: the moment of ringing when someone is reaching out into a void and filling it with their own anticipation.  In a way, they say everything they want to before the other person has begun to listen. Now all that is left is to be misunderstood.’

Phoebe Kalid is a British poet and author of Everything’s Great and I’m Still Dying. She studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham and is currently working on a Jacobean-inspired fantasy novel under the fierce scrutiny of her three-legged cat, Mosca. She lives in London.

‘Words and telephones are both about connection. No one writes to say nothing. No one calls to say nothing. There is noise on both ends. And that noise, regardless of its purpose, will mean something to someone, somewhere. The world is still reaching out to you – fluttering pages, ringing shrilly. You only need to answer.’

Sara Levy is a London-based poet, currently in her second year of an MA in Writing Poetry with Newcastle University and the London Poetry School. Her work has appeared in Poetry News and various anthologies.

‘This was an interesting project which appealed to me as I have a close affinity to the phone in my poetry writing practice. I use my mobile throughout the day to record written notes or visual photo prompts, sometimes an overheard quote, the spark of an idea or a scene or object, which I later use to build a poem on. My poem was a reflection on the role the telephone has had throughout my life, and I revisited childhood memories of party lines and pay phones.’

Lucinda Morton is a British writer and poet from Cheshire and is studying English Literature and Creative Writing at York St John University. Published in the university creative writing anthology Beyond the Walls (coming Summer 2020, Valley Press), she hopes to hone her craft before making her way further into the writing world.

‘Hearing from people around the world was never a novelty for me. Being born at the turn of the century brought me into a world of instant communication with those near and far through phone calls, texting and social media. Distance is an interesting concept when it can be diminished in such a way, and this has inspired much of my written work. Now, in the times of Covid-19, this ability to contact others over the phone is a necessity. Having not been far from a phone since the age of eleven, it has impacted me finding my way through life, and that enabled me to properly plug in, if you will, to the prompt for this poem.’