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Given Words, ‘The Spanish Connection’

15 Sep 2018
Poet and artist Charles Olsen introduces the winning poems from the Given Words competition for National Poetry Day.

Written by

Charles Olsen
May 14, 2023

‘It's the hospice, the old provincial hospice.
A decrepit building with blackened roof tiles,
Where in summer in the eves swifts nest
And the caw of crows sharpens winter nights.’

– Opening lines of The Hospice, Antonio Machado (Translation by Charles Olsen)

This poem caught my attention as I was reading the Spanish poet Antonio Machado’s Campos de Castilla for the first time having just been awarded the III Antonio Machado Poetry Residency in Segovia and Soria in Spain, more of which later. So I decided to choose from it the five words for this year’s Given Words competition: decrepit, window, nest, cast and snow. Each participant had from the beginning of August until National Poetry Day 24th August to write a poem that included the five words. Over 120 poets of all ages took up the challenge so I had my work cut out making a selection of my favourites and deciding on the winners.

I find it interesting how the same five words can lead to such a diverse range of poems and I am particularly drawn to those where you hardly even realize the five words are there and also those where the words are not used in an obvious way. These are both true of the piece I chose for ‘Best Poem’, the peculiar Processional with it’s otherworldly use of the five words beginning with ‘the baying of nests’ and the sensations it leaves hanging in the air like the ‘decrepit forms’ in the wake of this quasi-religious funerary procession. Here is Processional by Craig McGeady:



Matching coveralls and wide brimmed hats
three marching in funerary procession
heads bowed beneath the baying of nests
as if that for which they mourn
is yearning from the other side of silence.

The first balances a weed-eater on his shoulder
the second pushes a mower, the third
carries a broom of brambles, as they follow
a stoic path between turning trees
ignorant of the leaves that catch upon their brims.

They wade through waves of decrepit forms
whose flesh once echoed sunlight
while brethren maddeningly cling to bitter boughs
shaken by unceasing winds, announcing
winter on the verge of snow.

Their steps slow, time is a window to the past
the heady cast of sweat and stench
of nests before abandonment took hold
heavily, those final steps are taken
to darkened doors and the silence of home.


For ‘Best Poem by Under-16s’ I chose Seasons Poem which deftly sets the scene with all five words, opening with snow as a cast ‘keeping the broken bones of earth/while they heal’. Although, as in many of the poems sent in, a nest is a nest, a window is a window and snow is snow, each element has its own particular place in the story as it gently unfolds with the change of the season. This is Seasons Poem by Jemma Prileszky, aged 13:


Seasons Poem

winter is here
the snow today is like a big cast
keeping the broken bones of earth
while they heal
a decrepit bird’s nest sits in frost
at the base of a black tree
from the window, a boy sees three eggs
pale blue as a frozen sea
slowly freezing while the unknown bird
is away
he doesn’t want to watch
turns away
asks the air if mother will return
to save her children
spring is here
the cold shell of winter broken
life bursts from newly healed wounds
a black tree is no longer black
instead shimmers pink as its flowers
ruffle in the breeze
the boy wades through ankle-deep grass
boots shuffle
cicada hum
something cracks underfoot
carefully hidden by snow long-forgotten
at the tree’s base
lies the nest
icy ocean eggs have disappeared
along with the cold
something new here
besides the nest
surrounded by delicate spring snowdrops
an ivory skeleton
of the mother bird
she’d been there all along


It was a difficult task choosing just two winners and I encourage you to take time to read the rest of the selected poems on Given Words – they all contain the same five words but each has it’s own story to tell.

So now, as we get closer to autumn in Spain, I’m about to head off to start my residency in the Spanish cities of Segovia and Soria, where Antonio Machado lived and worked, looking for inspiration to write my own poems. Everyone is telling me to make sure I pack warm clothes because – although we like to think of Spain as a hot Mediterranean climate – it can get bitterly cold in the winter months and you realise why the old houses have stone walls over a metre thick and wooden window shutters to keep out the cold (as well as the baking sun). I will be sharing photos from the residency on Instagram: @colsenart, like the one above of the beautiful River Duero passing through Soria that I took during the book fair in August, and my plan is to spend time walking in the countryside and the cities, meeting people and taking time to paint and film alongside my writing. So, as well as finding inspiration in Machado’s descriptions of the Castilian countryside and the people who live there I’m sure something of the two poems above with their descriptions of the changing seasons and the way people interact with their environment will also stay with me during the residency. And I’m going to have a go with the five words myself…

About the winners

Craig McGeady is from Greymouth and lives with his wife and two daughters in Xuzhou, China. He is a teacher at the China University of Mining and Technology. His writing runs the gamut of length and form thanks to a homeroom teacher with a penchant for Michael Moorcock. Poetry first came to him in study classes in the small prefab classrooms on the fringes of Fraser High School in Hamilton.

Jemma Prileszky is a thirteen-year-old high school student. Her main interest and hobby is writing and she is always scribbling or typing; busy capturing new ideas. She has been attending The School for Young Writers in Christchurch for the past four years. When her fingers are aching from typing or holding her pen she relaxes with her pets, including her gorgeous whippets Kirby and Pip and her rescue cat Miss Maple.

The winners’ prizes were kindly provided by Massey University Press and Mākaro Press.