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11 September 2023

Given Words selects winning poems for 2023

We are delighted to share with you the winning poems from the Given Words competition for Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day 2023. Phantom Billstickers National Poetry Day 2023. New Zealanders of all ages were invited to write a poem including five words chosen from word films made by students at López de Arenas Secondary School in Marchena, Seville, in Spain. Of the 220 poems received the judging panel made up of Mikaela Nyman, Sophia Wilson and Charles Olsen have selected 46 poems to publish on Given Words alongside the two winners and one Special Mention.

Winning poems: introduced by Charles Olsen

It always surprises me how the poems we receive are so varied. Art and artists, sparrows, funerals, illness, inner searching, memories of Granada and Mediterranean skies, family history, neighbours, play… The same five words appear in all of them: broken, reflection, disappear, path and paint.

We are very grateful to all who participated, ngā mihi ki a koutou. We love taking time with each poem and feel privileged you have shared your poems with us. As Sophia Wilson says, 'there were so many terrific entries this year—poems that prompted tears, laughter or thrilled with their freshness and roar.' I’m very grateful to Sophia and to Mikaela Nyman for sharing in the task of choosing the winning poems and we have made a selection of poems, which you can read on Given Words. Before introducing the winners, we are grateful to Read NZ Te Pou Muramura, for letting schools around the country know about the competition, to The Cuba Press and Massey University Press for their support and for donating the prizes, and of course to the National Poetry Day organisers. And congratulations to the winners!

Best poem: transmutations by Elliott Harley Mackenzie


narcissus, would you lie with me
hold my hand in yours, unknotting
your animal posturing—

you’re a fantasy with sickle-shaped locks
the lovers softness discomposed
by sorrow

with bloated secrets of corvine consequence
birds consult among the glyphs of pines
while i contemplate the woodstack & skulk through the undergrowth

phlegmatic temperaments turn savagely to choleric
i shuck my body, grow spurs
& a ring of teeth like a lamprey

narcissus, the city is swallowing itself—deep throating
its darker desires, the soft lap of stagnant water rustles
in the overhanging branches

the plane’s thundering path
houses a wet paint smudge
on the hillside

my signal flickers
a cold block of shadow
a glimmer sliding through, soon to disappear

the room rocks in a vibrant cascade
crashing towards a pounding future
the agitation of water—a body of stretched new snow

the predictability of ritual, proliferate cheek to cheek
a new world of desire germinating
until it roots so concrete

a fertile silence
narcissus gazes at their own broken
& rippling reflection

a stranded self wafts up in a twist of white smoke
its plaintive self-interest so blatant
beneath the lights.

Best Poem by Under-16s: The Broken School by Boh Harris

The Broken School

At lunch not a word is allowed to be spoken.
I think our whole school system is broken.

There are no mirrors to see our reflections.
So it's hard to fix our imperfections.

Every day a teacher disappears.
Is it from theft or out of despair?

There’s not enough money for paper or paths.
Nobody smiles and nobody laughs.

You won't see a wall that's not chipped.
Even the paint is trashed and ripped.

Every day I endure this stuff,
yet my parents don’t think I've had enough.

The judges also awarded a Special Mention to Tim Saunders for his poem My Mother, Deciduous.

My Mother, Deciduous

My mother, deciduous,
tries to recall the breeze
she never saw,
the sun that warmed her,
and the moon that
painted possums in her branches.

She clasps sunlight
and the long-abandoned nests
of birds in fingers
exposed to elements,
naked to the touch,
while wild reflections of us
speckle the path below her
in patches
gently rustling.

She reaches bare hands
to a slab slate sky
like a stone angel
quietly beseeching eternity.
Broken memories scatter,
clutter downpipes and gutters,
reveal secrets and words unspoken.

My mother, deciduous.
As the days noticeably shorten
and become decidedly colder,
the possums disappear
without warning.

About the Poets

Elliot Harley McKenzie (they/them) is a pākehā poet living in Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland. They have previously been published in Starling, Best New Zealand Poems, Tarot and Sweet Mammalian. Elliot enjoys listening to audiobooks, bouldering, ceramics and their job as a support worker for people with disabilities. Their poetry is inspired predominantly by love, heartbreak, queer identity, ecology and visual art. The poem transmutations looks back on a past relationship, exploring turbulent emotions and fragmented memories alongside the myth of Narcissus.

Hi, I’m Boh Harris. I am 12 years old and I've been at Write On School for Young Writers for nearly 2 years. My top two interests are creative writing and drama. When I grow up I would like to be an actor and an author. Poetry isn’t my forte but I am happy with the outcome of this poem and will continue to do more poems in the future because I thoroughly enjoyed writing this piece.

Tim Saunders farms sheep and beef in the Manawatu. He has had poetry and short stories published in Turbine|Kapohau, takahē, Landfall, Poetry NZ Yearbook, Headland, Flash Frontier, Broadsheet, Best Small Fictions, RNZ and he also won the 2018 Mindfood Magazine Short Story Competition. Tim placed third in the 2019 and 2020 National Flash Fiction Day Awards, and was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. His first book, This Farming Life, was published by Allen & Unwin in August, 2020. His second book, Under a Big Sky, was published in August, 2022.