April 2011


I’ve not been sending out many poems of late, neither to competitions nor magazines. Most of my efforts are focused on finishing How to Kill Francesca. Twice.  which is a children’s novel I’m submitting for my MA in May.

However, I’ve just been told that both the poems I submitted to the Wenlock Poetry Competition were shortlisted, although neither merited a prize. As this was judged by Carol Ann Duffy I guess I feel pretty pleased with the result.   The poems are: “Tying the kite” and “A clear sky. Snowdrifts”. I wrote the first draft of the first of these in response to a class by Helen Farish in 2007, but this is its first success. The second resulted from a walk over Sheffield’s Bolehills and into Crookes Cemetery, the playground of my childhood, shortly after a very heavy snowfall last winter, as I listened to Vaughan Williams on the MP3 – although the poem has virtually nothing to do with that!

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Well, Sheffield Poetry Festival has now ended. I gave a Poetry Walk, helped with a Poetry Garden Party, performed in a collaborative poetry event (“Out of Place” with the Tuesday Poets), read with Matter writers past and present, read with current MA Writing students. All of this was fun, enjoyable, interesting, successful. As was almost every event I attended. And I attended nearly all of them.

Simon Armitage’s opening reading was great, flanked as he was by the excellent Nell Farrell and Ed Reiss, neither of whom I’d heard before. I found Matthew Hollis’s talk on Robert Frost and Edward Thomas enlightening and perceptive, and he’s sent me back to both poets. I enjoyed his poems, too. The poets I was most amazed by, though, were both new to me: Elizabeth Barrett and Kathy Towers. Liz Barrett’s reading I was enthralled by: the drama and sensuality of her reading I found mesmerising. I’ve not read her book yet (“A Dart of Green and Blue”) but it’s there tempting me. Kathy is a graduate of the MA Writing I’m studying. If my first collection is half as good has hers (“The Floating Man” – check it out) I well be well pleased. “Music and light” abounds in that work, a wonderful lyricism.

However, one event stood out above all others for me. Perhaps not for a good reason, and perhaps I shouldn’t be blogging about it. But I can’t resist.

As a bit of fun Peter Sansom and The Poetry Business set up “University Poetry Challenge” – an homage to the TV programme, containing entirely poetry and song questions, although, Peter being Peter, quite a few of the questions were a little skewed from mainstream poetry. Somehow, I found myself captain of my university’s team (Sheffield Hallam University, since you ask). Now, I’m not a lecturer in poetry, creative writing or English literature. When I taught literature last, Margaret Thatcher was doing her best to destroy the UK. My team consisted of three English lecturers (Chris Jones, a great poet who ought to be wider known; John Turner, a local poet who excels in performance work; and Keith Green, a linguist, who also writes the occasional poem) and my daughter, Natasha, who volunteered to stand in at the last minute because one member fell ill. She’s a poet, just starting out, graduated from Hallam last year.

Ranged against us were a team of Professors of Literature, Sheffield University’s finest. And their captain? No less than Simon Armitage himself. Simon has recently been made Professor of Poetry at Sheffield, a well deserved role which he seems to be fulfilling well – but a rather formidable opponent for me. I’d attended a workshop he gave for the Poetry Business. He’d workshopped my poem. He knew my mettle.

All set then, one would expect, for Sheffield University to walk over Sheffield Hallam University, and grind us into the dust. And, in fact, they probably should have. Their knowledge of “real” poetry and its literary context proved much greater than ours. However, and luckily for us, and certainly for the entertainment of the audience, Peter had liberally sprinkled the questions with local info, jokes and lateral questions: “In poetry, what do Robert and Gravy have in common?” Answer: Browning.

To cut a long gloat short, we won. According to the scorers, by one solitary point. Admittedly, the scoring systems seemed a little, er, flexible, with points being awarded and deducted for somewhat strange reasons. (We lost six, I think, for suggesting that a quote about tears was definitely not by Ken Dodd.) Nevertheless, a point is a point, and that difference is enough for victory, and we had it.

Of course, it now means that I’ll never be able to attend a workshop run by Simon Armitage again. At least, not if I want my poem to remain intact. And I’m grateful that every competition he judges will be anonymous, because I suspect he won’t be too keen on my presence in any other competitions.

But he’s a generous man, and a forgiving one, I’m sure.

I hope.

Or my poetic career may well be over………