A postcard on the restorative effects of sea air after a nervous breakdown by Ellora Sutton
What the judge said
‘In this prose poem in letter form, Sutton’s use of language is extraordinary: energetic, vigorous and surprising. As the scenario unfolds it manages to embed a description of a relationship within the experience of being at the seaside’ Karen McCarthy Woolf
The winning poem
A postcard on the restorative effects of sea air
after a nervous breakdown
I wish you were here where I am delicious and nothing, cud on the beach’s tongue, too good to swallow. I could take the spear where sea meets the sky and shake it like an Amazon. A child is watching me. A child. Cannibal with raspberry sauce. Her mother spits her clean. Cruel beach. The stones leave bruises but aren’t sharp enough to make me bleed, make me part of the sea, make me edgeless, make me touch the Isle of Wight, fill me with the filthy guts of hovercrafts and cruise ships.
The sea rattles her numerous white keys. The sound of longing is an ice-cream van’s alarm. Crying myself sick because I wanted another flake. Crying myself sick because a snot of seaweed touched me like a man would. The arcade shakes its jackpot of teeth. The ferry coming in perhaps from France trails bridal tins and white flowers on strings, as always a little bit disappointed. Seagulls bicker over half a fair-shack mini doughnut. Little Icaruses. Still warm. Little bit warm. Palm on the back of the neck.
I don’t know that I’m not Jesus. I might be. I might be a little bit Jesus. I plan to walk and walk and walk and under my feet each smirk and curl and current will blush, menstruate, gut. Sunset. The sun is dissolving like a pill on a tongue. I know this.
I want a sugar cone full of red sauce and rainbow sprinkles and a knuckle of pink bubblegum at the bottom just for choking on, just for me. What will the headlines say? Something autoerotic. Something holy.
I can’t feel my toes. I think the sea may have eaten them. These shells are my toes. These crushed beer cans. I will send them ahead, wrapped in newspaper and reeking of vinegar. I may need them. I may need them later, for a project. I am in talks with the sea. I am in cahoots. Something big. Think coastal erosion. Think small metal hammers sold to tourists for toffee or fossil-hunting. I hope the ammonites reach you with their crazy eyes intact. Hold them until they are hot. Fist. Puck. Think of me in my silver gladrags dancing into the sea. Think of my gladrags fanning out about me like a Virgin. The sea entering my body like a sword. I think I might be Jesus. I suffer like Jesus did.
I really do. Wish you were here.
How I did it
‘This was my first proper attempt at a prose poem, but now I’m obsessed with them. It arose from an exercise on my masters at the Open University – to freewrite for 30 minutes, then excavate what we could and turn it into a prose poem.
‘My BA was in Journalism and Creative Writing at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, which meant I could live at home with my grandparents; I chose the OU for the same reason. They’ve been looking after me since my mother died when I was 15.
‘I chose poetry for my final year project on the BA on the advice of my supervisor and have been a poet ever since.
‘Prose poems are liberating because there are no expectations attached; they occupy a liminal space, neither poetry nor prose. I feel I can try anything within the form – it seems to invite surrealism and associative leaps.
‘The first draft of this poem was a “normal” poem. But the idea of sending it as a letter to someone really helped develop a voice for the poem. Caroline Bird says that writing a poem is like writing to someone who can’t reply. I really took that on board.
‘Also I’m a massive Jane Austen fan. She wrote an epistolary story called “Lady Susan”; it’s so interesting to compare the voices of Lady Susan and her daughter. So although my poem has a contemporary setting, I had in mind an Austen woman who’d been sent away to get some sea air.
‘I did try to turn it back into a conventional poem, but it lost its wandering aspect and its voice – so I changed it back again.
‘I’m building a collection of poems about women and madness. Mental illness seems to run in my family. I’ve been on medication for depression and anxiety since I was 14, with freak-outs and hearing voices. My mother was hospitalised with bipolar, which is why I started living with my grandparents. And my great great aunt was incarcerated with ‘religious mania’ as a teenager. I feel there’s lots more to write about before I exhaust that seam of inspiration.’
Ellora Sutton works in visitor services at Jane Austen’s House and studies Creative Writing part-time with the Open University. Aside from poetry, her other big passion is Pre-Raphaelite art. During lockdown she’s been sending letters with wax seals... In 2020 she won the inaugural Poetry Society and Artlyst Art to Poetry Award, and her début chapbook All the Shades of Grief was published by Nightingale & Sparrow.
The other finalists
Georgi Gill, ‘Scur’ (2nd Prize)
Kim Moore, ‘Also my ex’ (3rd Prize)
Erica Jane Morris, ‘Another love’
Maria Ferguson, ‘Springfield Road’
Eleanor Kedney, ‘Imagine’
Abeer Ameer, ‘The tattooist’
Julie Irigaray, ‘Americanoa’
Veronica Zundel, ‘Mozart’s sister’
Marian Fielding, ‘Recipe for a lover’
Kat Dixon, ‘Instructions’
Jennifer Harrison, ‘Clown’s mouths’
Helen Bowell, ‘Together we’ll meet in down-facing dog’
Bebe Ashley, ‘I have watched so many people cry over cake’
Lucy Wadham, ‘Night swim’
Prea G Kaur, ‘How Taljindrr met Tarlochan’ (Unpublished Poet Prize)
Penny Sharman, ‘Oxbow Lake River Windrush’
Frances Megan, ‘The day room’
Tess Sinclair Scott, ‘Penang in the Eighties’