It’s not very often that Clive and I get to travel about together  for work. But when we do, we make sure it’s somewhere as stunning as the Royal Albert Hall. As we entered through the famous stage door, he turned to me and said ‘Allen Ginsburg came through this door’ and although that is true and very impressive, what really got me in awe was that so had the Spice Girls.

The Elgar Room (in case you’ve never been there) is somewhere near the top of the building, when we arrived I thought we might’ve been in the wrong place as the large room was set out in a cabaret style – four seats to a table facing a heavy curtained stage, dim lighting and light jazz playing in the background. It seemed that poetry has finally made it! Clive as one of the judges was assigned a table at the back with fellow judges Vanessa Kisuule, Johnny Fluffypunk and Morgan Walton.

Judge and former Poetry Rivals winner Vanessa Kisuule

The evening laid out into four sections of 7 or 8 poets who each performed the poem they had submitted for Poetry Rivals. Mark Grist hosted this year and was especially brilliant at it. He successfully pumped the audience and nerve-racked poets at the beginning with a poem and an informal explanation of the rules, advice on how to perform and use the space. When each poet was finished, he came back to the stage with constructive, complimentary words which put smiles on faces and boosted morale wonderfully.

A competition of this kind can be very broad and therefore difficult to judge. There were 28 performers, each with their own take on content, performance and character. There were some that left me sniffling into my cider. But there could only be one winner and for me it was clear who that was going to be.

Winner – Jamal Mehmood

Jamal Mehmood became Poetry Rivals 2015 winner by a unanimous vote from the judges. His poem ‘What If They Knew’ was a delicious piece with colour, taste, touch and sentiment for mixed cultures and divisions. Jamal will now go on to publish a pamphlet with Burning Eye, and we caught him for a chat after the competition to see how he was feeling

Hi Jamal! How does it feel to be the winning poet of Poetry Rivals 2015?

 It feels really good! I’ve been working really hard for about half a year on poetry – as I took a bit of a break from performing until late last year – so to win on the weekend was great especially in front of my parents given the content of my poem. In fact one of the first thoughts I had after leaving the venue was “I hope I don’t die now” because it would be really bad luck to die before my collection was put together and published. Not that I want to die after that, but you get what I’m saying. I hope. If not, my apologies.

 Before the announcements were made though I realised that having my parents and friends supporting me at the venue, and others supporting from afar was so much more important than winning. I felt very much blessed to be in that position regardless of what happened. There were so many talented people in the room and to receive kind words from them afterwards was even more encouraging. There were some stunning poems spoken and there were definitely some poets who I’d love to see perform again soon. 


When did you start and what is your inspiration for writing poetry?

 I started regularly writing around 6 years ago, and did my first open mic while at university in Southampton. In terms of inspiration I always find that a difficult question because the answer essentially could be anything. I think an appreciation for poetry runs in my family. My grandmother used to know lots of classical urdu and punjabi poetry by heart, and still does know some, my mother has a book that she writes poems she likes in, and sometimes her own too. So I definitely think there could be something hereditary going on. 

 More specifically to me, a huge inspiration to me was / is the art of rap. I think a lot of MC’s would wipe the floor at any spoken word/ poetry open mic night. Their rhythm, control of intonation, invention of syllables etc. is incredible and I’ve been drawn to that art form since I was very young. I don’t rap on stage but I think in some of my pieces you can hear the influence. In fact after the first time I ever performed a piece – a guy came up to me and said something like “you should rap – like lowkey”. Its safe to say I didn’t really take his advice – I don’t have enough skill or talent to. 

 In terms of content my poems usually sit on two different planes – true for a lot of poets I guess. They’re either about me, my indentity and my past experiences or they are about the world at large – so various social issues. 


Do you have a particular writing process? 

 I do but its not very uniform. I’ll have an idea and I’ll just sit with it for a while, and it’ll swim around in my head until its ready. Like a brew. Music and film inspire me a lot. I often write to music, just keeping it on in the background. Though I recently did a piece over some music and put it on soundcloud. (You can find it here : I wish I had one notebook where I write them all but I don’t; some are on scraps, some in different notebooks, some straight to the laptop so it can be a struggle trying to find them at times. I like writing on paper first, especially with this new pen I have, but I tend to edit the piece later on a computer as I can see it better. My handwriting isn’t very clear. 


Winning Poetry Rivals means you’ve won a contract to publish a pamphlet with Burning Eye, do you have an idea of the collection you’d like to put out? 

 I do! I think its such a great prize and I’m excited to start putting a collection together. I have some poems I’ve done in the past I’d like to use but I also want to write some new ones. 

 I’m also looking forward to choosing artworks and fonts as I’m a fan of good typography, and though the aesthetics are not the main event when it comes to a book of poems, they can help those who judge books by their covers and fonts. I have a name in mind too and look forward to working on all of it with you guys at Burning Eye. 

Left to right: Mark Grist, Vanessa Kissule, Clive Birnie, Jamal Mehmood, Morgan Walton, Johnny Fluffypunk

You can hear more from Jamal on his Twitter and website:


Poetry Rivals was a great day, thanks to everyone involved and the poets, their friends, family and all those who were just there to appreciate and support UK poetry!