It’s been an eventful couple of months, not least because a fortnight ago I found out that I’d won the Poetry Business pamphlet competition judged by Billy Collins, who said of my poems: ‘Funny and quite serious at the same time, these poems cast a fresh, ironic eye on contemporary life and find a wild variety of fields in which to play. The colloquial tone and satiric brilliance might make a reader wish to hear more, ideally over a pint or two.’
For those who don’t read poetry, Collins is probably most popular living poet in America, with 16 full collections to his name if I’m not mistaken, the first published in 1977. He was US poet laureate from 2001 to 2003. So this win is a real confidence boost. At times it really has felt like I would never publish a group of poems. Those who write poetry and try to get poems out there, will know the highs and lows that go with it – just like academia, it’s a lot of rejection peppered with the odd success. But now my pamphlet, published by the Sheffield-based publishers Smith/Doorstop, will be out in a few weeks. There’s a launch reading at the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere in the Lake District on 16 May, and I hope to organize something in London and/or Cambridge later on.
I entered two pamphlets to the competition and it was the fifth year that I had entered. My poems had improved year on year but clearly it was only this year that they were up to scratch and gelled as a series. When I put the pamphlet together – last minute as usual – I tried to get the poems to speak to each other in some small way, be it a word, an image, or an idea. And three of the poems were very recent, written in November on the writing week as part of the Aldeburgh Eight (including the title poem). I find sequencing poems tough and was almost in tears the year before with all the poems laid out on the floor. This year I had them spread on a large table. The only thing I knew was the poem I wanted to begin with and the poem that I would end with. So the sequencing was more or less instinctive. The challenge therefore was to get from A to B in a way that seemed in some way consistent in terms of keeping the reader tuned in. It had to be a journey, some of its serious, some of it light-hearted.
I had more poems than I wanted to put in (hence the second pamphlet) so it meant I couldn’t put all my ‘best’ poems in the one pamphlet. Instead I had to find a way to ‘hammock’ them using ‘relevant’ smaller-but-not-lesser poems, or rather poems that ‘fed the feel’ of the pamphlet. As I put them together it felt like the red thread emerging was curiosity, learning, trying to make sense of the world. The voice in some of them was a child or teenager, in others, the adult looking back. I do wonder why my voice is not more adult. Maybe there’s some resistance or reluctance to speak as a grown-up?
Anyway, I can’t put into words how it felt to get the call from Ann Sansom on that Thursday afternoon. I was at StAnza, the Scottish international poetry festival. I’d twice been to the Aldeburgh but this was my first taste of Scotland’s festival. I’d gone back to the rented flat for a rest when I saw an email from Ann that she’d been trying to contact me so I emailed back there and then and she rang right away. She told me the manuscript had been chosen. I think what she actually said, in a calm, matter-of-fact way: ‘Billy Collins likes your poems.’ Then she told me lots of stuff, information I’d need to provide, but also prefaced it with ‘Don’t worry, you won’t remember anything of what I’m telling you’.
I am so thrilled because I admire the Smith Doorstop pamphlets and have hoped one day to have one of my own poems. The tough thing came afterwards and keeping the good news to myself. I had to somehow not tell the poet friends I was staying with, and this felt morally wrong, like a betrayal or sorts, but I gave my word, and so I tried to ‘keep calm and carry on’. A week later the winners were announced, and I am grateful to be in the company of poets David Tait, Luke Samuel Yates and Basil du Toit. I’ve received so many kind messages the last few days by email, Facebook and Twitter. It’ll take me a while to reply to them all (thank you). In the meanwhile, now comes the terrible, impossible temptation to tweak.