Gunnedah High School student Erin Mitchell was over the moon to hear her poem ‘Space’ had won the Kurrumbede prize at the 2023 Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards.

As the nation’s oldest and largest and national poetry competition, the Gunnedah-based awards fielded 6400 entries from schools across the country – a slight increase on last year.

Among them was Erin’s entry in the Kurrumbede junior secondary school category – for the best entry from a school within a 100km radius of Gunnedah.

Judges described the Year 8 student’s work as a “short, compact rhyming poem” which addressed “the vastness and wonder of space”.

Erin, 13, told the Gunnedah Times she invested her “heart and soul” in her award-winning piece which drew on her experiences from a recent visit to the Siding Spring Observatory in Coonabarabran.

Erin named stars and comets as a special interest but has had a broad curiosity in all things out of this world since she was young.

The teenager said word imagery ran in the family with her Aunty Freddie also a keen poet.

Gunnedah High School teacher Trista Smith said Erin’s recognition was a ‘just reward’ for a job well done.

“It is a testament to how she has applied herself,” Ms Smith said.

She said it was also a big coup for the Gunnedah school and demonstrated what could be achieved when students’ passions and ambitions are embraced.

“It shows the talent we have in our community,” she added.

Erin was one of several students from north west region to win an award in this year’s national competition.

Isaac Munro, 8, from Tamworth Public School, won the Kurrumbede primary award with his poem ‘I Come From Country.’

Meanwhile Cassidy Ryan, 10, from Duri Public School won the David Maher Award for a student from a school with enrolment of less than 30 pupils.

Dorothea Mackellar Poetry Awards president Pip Murray said it was a joy to read this year’s award entries.

“My heart always skips a beat when I open the results,” she said. “Full of anticipation, I am never disappointed. Surprised sometimes but unfailingly rewarded and reassured that our nation’s young writers are on the right track. Their writing, insight and sophistication are a lesson to us all.”

Rebecca Newman (Western Australia), an award-winning children’s poet and the former managing editor of Alphabet Soup magazine, judged the primary school entries.

Rebecca said this year’s primary school entries covered a vast range of topics: celebration, belonging, war, refugees, the outback, school life, family life, science, animals, and many poems addressing the awards’ 2023 theme ‘The Winding Road’.

The secondary judge was fellow author Sarah Day (Tasmania), who has taught creative writing to Year 12 students for 20 years, collaborated with musicians, and judged national poetry, fiction, and nature-writing competitions.

Ms Day congratulated the entrants on their “powerful poems” which featured many forms including free verse poems, ballads, raps, anthems, protest poems, bush poems, sonnets and haiku.

“Thank you to all those students who made me laugh; there were some accomplished limericks,” she said. “Thank you to those students who gave insights into grief, fury, fear, and frustration.

“Thank you to all of you who shed light on experiences I have never had. I was moved by many poems, not all of which made it to the commendations.”

This year organisers opted for an online presentation ceremony instead of in-person awards at Gunnedah.

Ms Murray said it was a “difficult decision” to return online but one that offered greater online reach for a national audience.

“We felt this was the best way to grow the awards after fantastic response to virtual ceremonies during COVID years,” she said.

“There was still a strong local element to the online ceremony. We had a film crew here for three days, collecting footage. The awards were recorded at Kurrumbede and I took viewers on an online tour.

“We also spoke to several local identities, captured local landscapes, had the Deadly Dance group deliver the welcome to country and guest speaker, author and illustrator Sami Bayly talk about her work.”

Ms Murray thanked all students who opened their “hearts and minds” to share their poetry at the awards.

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