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Jesus MPhil student wins the Cambridge University Poetry Prize

Sylvie Lewis (English Studies MPhil) has won the Cambridge University Poetry Prize (CUPPS) with her poem "The Five Daughters".

Her poem "Wojciech" was also shortlisted for the prize, and Sylvie also won second place in the Robinson College Sykes Prize with her poem "The Crouching Graeae".

We asked Sylvie to explain to us elements of her creative process, the inspiration behind her work, and what she hopes to do next. 

What inspired your two poems? Is there a central theme that unites them?

Currently I’m working on a poetry collection, featuring both poems, which focuses on two key subjects. The central subject is the immigrant experience of my Polish grandmother, which is the focus of “The Five Daughters”. Secondarily, the collection incorporates thematically linked poems on mythological and animal creatures. This is the category “The Crouching Graeae” falls into, inspired by a 1925 silent film adaptation of mythological narratives, including that of the Graeae – the women who share one eye – made by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Often, I gravitate towards groups of creatures, whether in nature or in mythology, to explore the idea of solidarity as a mode of survival.

How long have you been writing?

I can vaguely remember writing and illustrating a story book about fairies (or fairy-like beings) when I was little, and discovered I liked writing poetry in primary school when I wrote a poem about a sea lion. I’ve been writing poetry consistently since I was in sixth form, when I would incorporate bits of poems into paintings I was working on. It was during my undergraduate years at the University of Exeter when I first discovered a community of people interested in sharing poetry, so I’m incredibly grateful for that.

What does poetry mean to you? Why do you write it?

There’s a lot you can do with poetic forms that you can’t always achieve with prose, or that prove trickier in prose – like the way that poems condense vibrant images, convey musicality, and delve into obscurities of feeling. But I’m interested in blurring the two forms too, and some of my all-time favourite reads combine poetry and prose in some way.

As for my reason for writing poetry, I love the transformation that takes place between the isolated act of writing and the supportive, connected environment that can come out of it – whether that’s reading a poem out at a workshop or poetry night, or dedicating a poem to someone. I am optimistic about the possibilities of imagination, and I don’t believe that writing poetry has to be a self-involved thing. Many of my favourite writers prove that poetry can be an act of empathy and a labour of love.

Both of these poems use very abstract and interesting forms – is there a reason for this? Do you ever write different ‘kinds’ of poetry?

In “The Crouching Graeae”, the featured silent film intertitles were intended as part of a playful approach to incorporating early cinema into poetry. The poem features dactylic hexameter and sprawling free verse, to contrast a classical, concise form with a modern form that leaves lots of imaginative room. For “The Five Daughters”, the abstract form – in this case, the fractured vignettes – suggests the fragmented nature of memory when retelling family stories. The fragmentary form also relates to the historical erasure of violence, for instance, when addressing the murder of my great-grandfather in the Katyn massacre.

I am interested in other forms. “Wojciech”, which was shortlisted for the CUPPS prize, plays with the idea of what a sonnet looks like, though it doesn’t rhyme. The collection I’m working on features a villanelle, haikus, and prose poetry. I think trying out different forms allows you to become a more disciplined editor, while giving yourself creative liberty to try out new ideas, rhythms, and voices. I’ve found this helpful in striking a balance between addressing the trauma embedded in this history, while shedding light on the joy of my grandmother’s life.

What does your success in these two competitions mean to you?

The success in these competitions means a lot in terms of taking myself seriously as a writer. I’ve definitely gained confidence in my creative voice as a result.

What has been your most exciting moment of recognition for your poetry?

Hearing that the poems have resonated with people. Especially the ones about family. Even though I’m writing about something contextually specific, it’s a subject matter that people can easily identify with, so it’s been wonderful to hear that “The Five Daughters” has meant something to readers.

Do you hope to continue writing poetry, and if so, have you got any specific goals or plans?

I have a finished draft of my first poetry collection, called The Five Daughters. From now, the plan is to send it to publishers and hope for the best! I’m also working on an experimental historical novel at the moment, though I don’t intend to send it out for publication until a later draft is finished. The plan is, in short, to keep writing!