Sticky note poetry in actionAlex PC with permission for Varsity

On the third floor of Waterstones, I am invited to add to a “Frankenstein’s poem”, tacking on my own line of poetry while being unable to read the previous ones. Drinks and sweets are offered; the napkins are as pink as The Mays’ logo. The workshop offers the opportunity to run through some collaborative creative writing exercises and, subsequently, to discuss an unfinished piece of writing with one of the editors.

The response exceeds expectations; all chairs are quickly filled. Students spill into the adjacent room and sit among the bookshelves. We have two minutes to pick any line from our Notes app and put a sticky note in a bowl, which will serve as inspiration for another person. The following five minutes are spent bent over a piece of paper, scribbling away ideas. The resulting poems are stuck up on the wall and a few read aloud to the group. The takeaway? It’s surprising how a mundane prompt like “must buy fruit” can provoke some witty prose.

“Anyone can be successful – you just need your voice to be heard”

The editors then separate us into smaller groups to discuss extracts from a variety of poets, from former poet laureates to fellow Cambridge students. What is striking about the form? How do title and meaning intersect? Finally, students tagging along have the chance to discuss unfinished pieces with the editors. I must be quick to grab hold of the wine provided.

The reaction to the workshop is an excited one. As we drift back out onto Sidney Street, I catch snippets of conversations: it’s nice sometimes to be forced to write, it’s surprising how much can be written in five minutes, the editors do not look as intimidating as expected. The number of participants also speaks for itself.

Two days before the workshop, the editors of The Mays 31, Lotte Brundle and Ellie Austin, sat down with me over a cup of tea to answer a few questions about their vision for this year’s anthology. We met in the Varsity Offices, where old editions of The Mays are stored alongside old Varsity print editions.

“It’s surprising how a mundane prompt like ‘must buy fruit’ can provoke some witty prose”

The Mays is sold in bookstores across the UK and distributed to major literary agents. It is also widely credited with launching the career of novelist Zadie Smith; a literary agency came across one of her short stories in the 1997 edition, which led to a contract for her then-unwritten debut White Teeth.

“We don’t roll out the Zadie Smith example to scare people off,” explains Lotte Brundle. “Instead, we want to show students she was like you once too. She was a student too. Anyone can be successful – you just need your voice to be heard. And that’s what we are – a platform to put people’s work out there.”

The Mays can be perceived as intimidating, even elitist. To disperse this image, Brundle continues: “We want to make submitting seem open to all, and we want everyone who’s got an interest in any kind of creative writing to feel confident to submit their work. We’re not looking for perfection, we’re not looking for finished products. We’re looking for things that are interesting and creative, and if you have that, please don’t be put off and do send it our way.”


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Since the editors work between Cambridge and Oxford, they get to compare the two creative writing scenes. Ellie Austin says: “We tend to get a lot more prose from Oxford and a lot more poetry from Cambridge. I think it’s because there are a lot of zines which encourage short texts and poetry. Whereas there are hardly any zines, as far as I am aware, in Oxford. But they have quite big writing magazines like The Isis magazine.”

As a STEM student herself, Austin emphasises that they encourage submissions from students all over Cambridge and Oxford, no matter the degree. “Being creative is for everyone,” Brundle chimes in.

So, look through your grocery lists and grab a pen and paper. Perhaps you’ll find the spark for a brilliant poem.

The Mays is open for submissions until 15 February.