December 2014


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.

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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.

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*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).