The writing muscle – becoming a writer

Originally published in Poetry News in 2011

What moment made you a writer, asks Mike Sims. An inspirational course or tutor? The first time your poem was accepted for publication? The realisation that dogs bark – better do likewise? 

For some, becoming a writer is not a single moment of epiphany. For Simon Barraclough, for example, “it was a confluence of events: a relationship had come to a end, I’d stopped commuting, having moved to London, and suddenly had lots more time, and I had an intuition that I was generally disgruntled because I wasn’t writing much – I certainly wasn’t finishing anything I?attempted.” The next steps took planning and patience. “I decided that I would only read poetry from then on (a regimen I kept going for about five years though with some non-fiction thrown in), and that I would join some kind of class to see how others were writing and how my efforts held up in comparison. I chose Michael Donaghy’s classes and met lots of interesting poets, many of whom I count among my best friends and most inspiring colleagues today.” 

Tim Turnbull too experienced “not so much a turning point, rather a creeping realisation that writing is the most important thing I do – what my head’s full of most of the time. It’s about the activity, not identity. Dogs, as far as I know, don’t think, ‘Oh, I’m a dog, I’d better bark.’ They just bark. Well, ours does anyway. The puzzling thing is that other people read my writing. I have occasional vertiginous moments when I talk to someone and discover they’re familiar with one of my poems. I think – ‘How the hell do you know about that? Oh yeah, it’s in a book.’ There have been a lot of little moments like that, which, I suppose, are cumulative and make me think it’s okay to carry on barking.”

But a residency can move a writer on, both literally and metaphorically. Being the Wordsworth Trust’s Poet in Residence in 2010 has, says Helen Mort, “changed my whole life, but in particular my life as a poet. Being in a landscape where I felt utterly at home (as a keen fell runner and climber, Grasmere was heaven) and having time I’d simply never had before to devote to writing, editing and re-drafting, I was able to finish my first collection. When I started to relax about my poems a bit and give them space, a book deal soon followed – sometimes a change of attitude is as important as the graft!”

And for many, winning a competition such as the National Poetry Competition can trigger the transition. Up to the moment her poem, ‘horse underwater’, won the NPC in 1998, Caroline Carver had been wondering whether to turn to other sorts of writing. “The prize redirected my life, literally overnight, towards amazing new paths. It also instilled that most precious of all commodities: confidence.

She continues: “Here I am now, in 2011, thanks to the win, in touch with wonderful friends, with my fourth collection due out early next year, and with poetry and the love of it filling every nook and cranny of my life. Without the win, I don’t like to think where I might have finished up. As a friend of mine said afterwards, with a bit of an edge to his voice (he was a big-time business executive) – ‘your name will be remembered’.”

Remarkably, at the time of his highly accomplished ‘Robin in Flight’, 2010 winner Paul Adrian was a relative newcomer to poetry. Several months on, with the Ledbury Poetry Festival behind him and the Cheltenham Literature Festival in prospect, he feels surer of his poetic voice, “which I think stems from the confidence that the endorsement of the NPC has given me.” He adds, “I’m more comfortable with being myself on the page, rather than always trying to reconcile what comes naturally to me with what I think people want to be reading.” 

Even for an experienced poet winning can be invigorating. Stephen Knight’s winning poem, ‘The Mermaid Tank’, in 1992, was a departure from the poems in his first book, then just published. “Its formally traditional qualities were a change in, or perhaps a development of my style, so, winning the competition marked an aesthetic, if not a publishing, turning-point. It was a timely encouragement to continue down the new path it opened up.” 

Of course, the NPC’s founding in 1978 was an important turning point in the development of the Society’s activities. For many, the NPC is their first introduction to the Society and the step towards membership. The number and quality of entrants, with well-known writers competing against beginners, is key to the NPC’s deserved reputation. Get involved by entering and by encouraging others.  “I looked myself up on Google last night and there are pages of entries!” notes Caroline Carver. “Not a one would have been there without the Poetry Society!”

 

At the time this article was published: Simon Barraclough’s second collection, Neptune Blue, was just published by Salt. Caroline Carver’s Three Hares was published by Oversteps Books. Stephen Knight had published one novel and four collections of poetry. Helen Mort’s pamphlet Lie of the Land was published by the Wordsworth Trust in 2011. Tim Turnbull’s Caligula on Ice and Other Poems is available from Donut Press. 

This article was first published in Poetry News, the Poetry Society members’ newspaper, in autumn 2011. © The Poetry Society & the author