What’s in a nomination?

I’ve never won the Forward Prize, and probably am not likely to. However, I have been nominated four times (twice by Orbis, once by Wasafiri, once by The Journal). I thought the Pushcart Prize was for US writers only, but it seems it’s international, and a poem of mine has just been nominated by Neon Literary Magazine.

My ego is pleasantly groomed, of course, and, who knows, maybe the poem, ‘1984 in 1968′, will be one of the winners. It’s not a bad little poem at all, but I wouldn’t count it as one of my very best. However, judges and editors are strange beasts, and what they might choose may well be very different from the choice I’d make. That’s one of the pleasures and puzzles of publication.

But it made me wonder whether a nomination means very much, beyond what it can do for the poet’s ego. It does mean that one of your editors judges your poem amongst the best she or he has published. That’s nice. And it does mean they think it has a chance of a prize, more chance than others that might be considered. Yet there must be hundreds of poems nominated for a Pushcart, There were 64 winners last year, including such notables as Louise Gluck and Philip Levine and I’d dearly love, of course, to be in their company. So, yes, the prize itself would be great: one of the sixty four best poems published in little magazines around the world? Similarly, each of those four Forward nominations led me into a little fantasy of being shortlisted, appearing in the Forward collection, winning that prestigious prize. So I’m not going to complain.

But if there are 64 winners, how many nominations were there? If all the magazines on Duotrope which take poetry each submit 6, then that’s over 20,000 nominations. Now, obviously the actual number is nothing like this, because that would make the job of deciding almost impossible. Even so, there must be hundreds, if not thousands of nominations annually. The competition is massive, but the nominations pretty numerous, too.

Still, do I care? I’ve been nominated. I’m going to add it to my list of successes. Like the Ancient Mariner, I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen. At least it gives me something to talk about.

Last night was great fun reading with Linda Goulden and (eventually) the wonderful Kim Moore*, at Writers in the Bath in Sheffield**.

My poetry year has been pretty mediocre, since March when Out of Breath was launched. It seemed, quite literally, that I was out of (poetic) breath, inspiration becoming expiration. Although I produced an okay piece for the Summer Poetry Festival, Skylines, of which there’s a little description on this blog, I wasn’t happy with most of the poetry in it, and that was the best poetry I’d been able to write for months. By June I was fed up with my lack of imagination, lack of skill and, indeed, lack of real interest in poetry. I began to think that I’d reached a peak, and written all that I was really capable of – but then when I read the book, I found quite a bit in that which dissatisfied me, too.

Other poets, writers and artists seem to go through a similar thing. A sort of post-partum slump. Though I don’t think the relatively easy task of writing a few poems compares at all with the business of nine months labour or the pain of birth, there’s a partial analogy. I was keyed up by the collection, excited by it, all my energies focused in the months before hand on the various decisions involved in getting the book sorted, then out into the world. And then, suddenly, it’s there, and, after an initial flurry, the world says “so what?” Even Helen Mort, who could hardly have wished for a much better response to her first collection (Division Street, which you must have come across – but if you haven’t, you can read my review in Antiphon) said that she was having problems working on “that difficult second album”. Whilst I’ve fantasised about a second collection, I had no real sense that I was likely to get even close to it.

Helen’s solution was a turn to prose. She’s writing a novel. Mine, it turned out, was the same. In July I sat down to write what I thought was going to be a short story – an attempt to spend an afternoon doing something different, to knock my lazy mind into some sort of activity. Late in August I got up from my desk with 70000 words of first draft in my hands.

I became re-excited by words in the process of writing the novel. It rather took over me, so that pretty much every spare moment I was noting ideas or scribbling sections to be inserted. It felt something like reading a page-turner, with me wanting to know what I was going to write next, how things would slot together. Although, from almost the very start, the shape of the whole story seemed before me.

Then, the moment I finished the draft (actually, quite literally, I put the pen down saying “There, done!”) and picked it up immediately to scribble down a poem, a reasonable version of a poem.

I’d noticed in my collection that I’d no real love poems, even though I’ve been writing them forever. There are a couple of sideways allusions to love, but nothing that really takes romantic or sexual love as its subject. I thought I knew the reasons, so I promised myself I’d make the attempt. (I’ll write another post about this shortly, I think). Anyway, following the novel, love poems seemed to arrive. Admittedly, some of them have been a bit hard fought and for every one that seemed to work, there was another which I’m rather suspicious of. Even so, I put together a set of 19 which I’m actually quite pleased with. I tried two of them out on the audience last night, and the response I received was probably the best feedback on a reading I’ve ever had.

This is all very strange. But very welcome. Now, one of the worst years I’ve had as a poet – in terms of creativity, publication and success (since the book) right at the very end seems to hold promise again, with both a working draft of a novel and the core of a new collection sitting on that desk.

—–

*KIm, who was the star of the show, drove down from Barrow. She left at 3.30, and arrived around 9.00 in Sheffield, the motorway having been a terrible drive, apparently. She then gave her reading, wow-ed everybody, had a pleasant chat, and then was off again driving back. Now, that is dedication to your art. I’m really looking forward to her collection, The Art of Falling, due from Seren in April.

** Writers in the Bath is a loose, but excellent, group of writers meeting on the second Tuesday of the month in the Bath Hotel, Victoria Street, Sheffield, run by the energetic and resourceful Cora Greenhill. The programme for next year includes Helen Mort and Linda Lee Welch (Jan 13th), Liz Cashdan and Julie Mellor (Feb 10th) and Sarah Corbett, Carola Luther, and James Caruth (March 10th).

I’ve not posted here for months. I expect any followers I may have had will long ago have sloped off to richer pastures.

My silence has had no clear cause, merely that poetry for me more or less dried up following the release of Out of Breath in the spring, and I’ve not been enthused by much that I have written, or, indeed, read, and most of my poetry activities have also been somewhat unrewarding. I’ve been wondering whether to stop being Reviews Editor for Orbis, as it’s not that exciting; and even Antiphon has assumed the position of something I need continually to get to grips with, rather than something I’m excited by. Workshops and readings seemed to me generally rather superficial, more social gatherings than engaging with the words, and being no longer a student of writing, as I finished both the MA and the Poetry Business Writing School some while ago, with their many stimuli and wonderful poet-friends. Worst of all, though, was that my older poems seem rather vapid, yet I’ve not been able to find a way to new things that are better. In fact, I seem to be going over the same ground again and again, with very limited imagination, and little creativity.

Strangely, much of this feels as if it’s due to the book. I didn’t expect it to be world-shattering or prize-winning. In fact, I pretty much expected what has happened: one or two pleasant reviews, a couple of small readings on the back of it, a few personal compliments, and a small number of sales. I was overjoyed by the launch, and the book itself, and it was a lifelong ambition realised. But now I find it mediocre and, apart from a few poems, very limited.

So, on the one hand, I feel that I’ve acheived something I always wanted to, and, whilst it’s a perfectly decent book, it doesn’t seem to be as good as I feel capable of. But on the other hand, having achieved that, and so being “released” to do almost any kind of writing I feel like, I find I’ve no idea where to go or what to do to create a better book.

In fact, over the summer, I did find the writerly excitement again, in drafting a complete novel which, I think, has some strengths. The thrill of the first draft, the way it all came together, was wonderful, but since then life has got in the way of pursuing a second draft.

However, where I have found some satisfaction has been in mentoring. This has surprised me a little, in that it has happened more or less by accident. Cinnamon Press asked for writers to help support their enterprise, as funding was getting tight, so I volunteered, and found myself mentoring a poet who is just starting out and keen to figure out how to make a success of his work. Then a friend, who has been quite successful in one field of writing, but not published much as a serious poet, asked if I’d take up a similar role in relation to his work. Three other poets have asked me for feedback on their draft collections – and each time seem to have been quite pleased with what I’ve been able to offer them. And now someone else, whom I only know as an ex-colleague is asking for advice on how to achieve her writerly ambitions.

All of this is sort of flattering, because it means people value what I have to say (and, to be fair, if I take on such jobs I am to be as thorough and as detailed as I possibly can, so I give a great deal of my energy and attention to the work) but it’s rewarding, too, because it means I get to grapple with kinds of work and issues in writing that might not occur to me within my own work. So there’s learning for me, too – things I could try, things I should avoid, approaches I’ve not thought about, and so on.

They also give me a sort of benchmark. The draft collection of one of my friends, Kim Moore, is nothing short of brilliant, for example. Examining that for her suggested to me several key weaknesses in my own approach – a lack of risk, for example.

And they help me formulate a sort of poetics. There are many ways of looking at poetry. Some of them seem to me to lead to good poems. Some do not. If I’m going to advise other people on what might make their poems work better, I need to know what I think works but also, more importantly, why. This amounts to a “theory” of poetry, rightly or wrongly, which other poets can take or leave, according to their own proclivities and preferences. Of course, it’s not really a closely worked out “theory”, and there are certainly contradictions and tensions in what I think makes good work, but at least I can explain where I’m coming from in a way that others can react to.

There’s a big risk here, though. To the extent that others trust what I have to say, and move their work in that direction, they are likely to move towards “my sort of work.” This might not suit them. It might not please them. They need to be their own poets, doing their own thing, and that means they have to feel able to reject what I say, so the “theory”, the poetics, has to be something they can argue with, and come to their own conclusions.

For example, I’m fond of saying that writing good poetry is a balancing act, in which different considerations are matched against each other: word choice, sound patterns, line length and so on. But another poet may feel that the “best” poetry comes by driving to extremes, pushing certain aspects of poems as far as they can go. (And, indeed, I could cite a couple of examples that would illustrate this).

So mentoring feels of benefit to both mentor and mentee, as long as they share the process. I recommend it.

Just received my contributor’s copy of Iota #94. They’ve kindly published three of my poems: Melusine, which came from an aborted sequence, Hawkmoth, and In the Dark, a strange fantasy drafted on the lonely platform of Denby Dale station late one winter’s night in 2012 after I’d given a workshop.

I was pleased to find myself rubbing shoulders with poems by my good, and very modest, friend, Stuart Pickford, recent winner of the Yorkshire Prize in the Poetry Business Competition. He has a very dry, laconic observational style, his poems very often grounded in family life, with an honesty and accuracy that attaches the reader’s experience to his. (Somewhat of a contrast to the more histrionic and fantastic voice that seems to creep into my work….but variety, spice, life and all that).

There’s also a review of Will Kemp’s Lowland, a book I’d recommend. You can read my review in Orbis #167 if you want to know why – but, basically, his narrative lyricism carries you through his poems so that you find yourself reading more and more of them to sustain the experience. Will is one of the winners of the inaugural Cinnamon pamphlet competition (I was shortlisted – must try harder).

Most of the other poets in this issue are unknown to me, so this is going to be an interesting read.

Here are a few images from my installation Skylines which, with luck, you’ll be able to see before my reading tomorrow. (Click on an image to expand it. Unfortunately, the resolution isn’t good enough for you to read the poems. You’ll have to visit the Bank Street gallery for that.)

Firstly, a view of part of the skyline:

Skyline exhibition 005

Here’s one of the “mobiles”:

Skyline exhibition 007

and a view of another part of the skyline

Skyline exhibition 011

And finally, a sort of epigraph:

Skyline exhibition 004

Well, not quite Midsummer. It’s the 15th of June, in fact, as part of Sheffield’s Midsummer Poetry Festival, at Bank Street Arts Centre, with Katharine Towers, a poet whom I love and feel privileged to read alongside, and Kath McKay, a poet whom I don’t know much about, but who has an excellent rep. Details and tickets here.

Meanwhile, in case you can’t make it, here’s a couple of pictures from the launch of Out of Breath in March. Firstly, a tubby poet gets a little excited:

Image

And here’s the rapt audience, some of whom even appear to have momentarily stopped drinking:

book launch 070

 

I finished the installation today, so the relevant page of this blog has been updated. It’s some way from what I envisaged, but pretty effective, I think. Certainly it’s been a struggle getting it into place, so I’ll need a few days before I can judge it objectively, but I think it works, and I think it’s interesting. Whilst there’s more to do on it, I believe it should be a good resource for people taking part in the upcoming festival.

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