Keshia Starrett wins Poetry Rivals UK Slam Competition

Derry-born poet Keshia Starrett has won the Poetry Rivals UK 2016 Slam Competition.

Coming out top from a daunting twenty-nine other finalists in an event in Peterborough, Keshia performed in front of a live audience and professional judging panel which included poets Mark Grist, Laurie Bolger (Bang Said The Gun), Clive Birnie (Burning Eye Books) and Morgan Walton (Bonacia Ltd).

Her winning poem, ‘In Canada They Call It Tylenol‘, was originally selected from a list of 100 poems, published in the Poetry Rivals 2016 anthology.

As winner, Keshia secure a contract with Burning Eye Books to publish a poetry pamphlet. We speak to Keshia about her victory.


Tell us how you felt when the announcement was made that you had won.

The funniest thing is that I had to leave to catch a train because the competition ran over, and I missed the announcement for the winners! I only found out the next day when I was standing in the middle of Primark and I happened to check Twitter! I was absolutely delighted and completely taken aback because there were so many great poems and performers that I felt sure I hadn’t actually won. It was the cherry on the cake because I had enjoyed the slam so much – it was one of the most encouraging spoken word events I’ve ever been a part of.

Were you able to get any feedback from the judges about your poem?

Yes actually – Mark Grist made a point of telling each performer what he liked about their poems when they finished performing and why he had chosen them – which was really lovely! He said mine was one that he felt should be reread a few times to completely unpack it, and that he felt like a detective uncovering layers and layers in it because it was so dense. I was thrilled when he said that actually because it’s something I work really hard on in my poems – trying to incorporate layers and tying all the elements together.

Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your winning poem?

My poem was actually about something really painful that happened in summer 2016 – someone very close to me tried to kill themselves. Thankfully he survived. When the paramedics came, he was speaking in Irish (which is his first language as he learnt English when he was seven). The whole thing was very difficult and terrifying, and under all that I thought about how I had never learnt Irish, and how terrible it was that nobody in the ambulance understood what he was trying to say – worse still that I wouldn’t have known his last words if he had passed away. So the poem is an expression of that pain and how it was almost made more so by the language barrier that came to light that day.

What can we expect from your pamphlet with Burning Eye Books, and do you know yet when will it be out?

When I write I like to take ordinary things and make them unsettled – to put the reader in a position to rethink something, and as I’ve mentioned I like to layer poems and provide different avenues to wander through them. A lot of the time, my own life experiences will feed into my writing, but I try to show them through different angles. I’m also interested in playing around with the space on pages from time to time, so this will be a part of the pamphlet – how poems operate visually as well as technically. As for dates, I’m not too sure yet but I’ll definitely keep everyone up-to-date on social media!

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