Ramona Herdman
Ramona Herdman.

Congratulations to Ramona Herdman, who has won the 2017 Hamish Canham Prize with her poem ‘My name is Legion: for we are many

The poem, one of twenty-four Poetry Society Members’ poems published in Poetry News between summer 2016 and spring 2017, was selected by judges Carole Satyamurti (chair) and a Poetry Society team of Sophie Baker, Paul McGrane, Mike Sims, Phoebe Walker and Kate White.

The Hamish Canham Prize is awarded annually to the best members’ poem in Poetry News. It was founded in 2004 by Sheena and Hugh Canham, in memory of their son, Hamish Canham (1962-2003).

Judges’ Choice

Sophie Baker said: “It’s always a pleasure to be handed the bundle of eligible poems to read, and, as ever, there were several poems that judges brought to the table as possible winners. This year our decision was unanimous.

“We felt that ‘My name is Legion: for we are many’ had many hidden depths – that it used parable in a way that spoke immediately to us on a symbolic and linguistic level that only got deeper and clearer through rereading and discussion. This is a poem that contains much darkness and despair – and particularly distilled into that almost too-much-to-bear final line – and seems to come from a very personal and specific experience. And yet it speaks across many interpretations, conjuring the sheer power of the emotions involved without betraying or compromising either of its settings: it is both a description and extrapolation or a biblical parable, and firmly set in, and relevant to, the modern world. We all agreed it was very deftly and viscerally done, and we’re delighted to be awarding Ramona the Hamish Canham Prize this year.”

Recovering miracles: Ramona Herdman was interviewed by Mike Sims about the making of a ‘difficult’ poem

Mike Sims: Could you tell me about the history of the poem? I think you said it had been a long time in the writing, that you wrote in it in quite different phases.
Ramona Herdman: This is one of those poems that was really hard work! I’d been trying for ages to write about the situation at the end of the poem – the modern day bit – and, perhaps because I was setting out with too clear an idea of where I wanted to go, it just didn’t work. The poems I was writing were over-emotional and simplistic. So I put the subject away for a bit.
Then in summer 2014, after hitting a dry spell, I was using writing exercises to generate poems. I found something online that suggested using a bible story as a start, so I flicked through my bible and came across this very weird story of Jesus casting out demons from a possessed man (or men) into a group of pigs, who then ran into the sea. I’d never come across it before, though of course I’d heard the “we are legion” quote. I was really struck by the open oddity of it. And I think the good thing about bible stories as source material is they are so bare and flat – no characterisation – which in this case made me wonder what it must have been like to be one of the onlookers at this crazy event.

And somehow, perhaps because I was empathising with the people in the story, it just seemed right to turn at the end to the contemporary story. I felt there was a definite read-across between the biblical idea of demonic possession and how we feel about mental illness, including addiction, now. For me, this was a much better way of approaching the present-day bit, and also allowed me to keep that bit quite ambiguous, which is important to me: I think most families have someone like the “you” in the poem who is struggling with mental illness or addiction or something, so I wanted it to be broad enough to encompass lots of situations. It seems to me that the dominant discourse in our culture is that everyone is fine and if you’re struggling then it’s your fault and you’re the only one and should be hidden away – so it is important to me to be one of the people saying that actually it is incredibly common and we all have a responsibility to engage with it. (Not that I have the answers! And the end of the poem is acknowledging that, too.)

Even when I’d got to the basic shape of the poem, it took another eighteen months of redrafting before it found its final form. I’ve always had faith in it, as have my friends from my Stanza group, who workshopped it with me, but it’s been through a lot of rejection in its earlier drafts! Looking at my list, I can see it went out to four magazines and two other competitions with no success. But every time it came back I’d look at it and think what I could improve about it, so although instant success would have been nice, I’m sure it’s ended up a better poem for the work.

MS: Would you say this poem is typical of your work? We discussed that the poem has both brutality and great intricacy of thought.
RH: I struggle to say what is typical of my work. It is definitely typical in that all my poems are about people, and they often look at the way we misunderstand and mystify each other. I don’t think I’ve written a landscape or nature poem in my life! I mostly write in free verse, too, though I’ve been playing around a bit with form lately.

And I’m a big believer in writing the unsayable. I think that’s part of the reason I am so interested in poetry – there’s a lot it is difficult to say in conversation, because you’re worried about upsetting people or your brain (at least my brain!) doesn’t work quickly enough to express something intricate or paradoxical or confusing, but I still really want to be able to express it. Poetry gets me closer to being able to do that. And sometimes life is brutal and I think if you’re expressing that clearly you need to do it brutally. Also, although I am trying to be an increasingly good person, sometimes I’m not very nice myself and I don’t want to cover that up in my poetry, to pretend that I am some wise and benign presence commenting on life – I want my poems to be honest.

MS: Can you say something about the form – is it 17 or 18 lines?(!)
RH: Good question! I’d call it eighteen lines, as I need that stepped line to be part of a tercet for the form to work! And the reason for that step is that there’s a long pause there, a shock –it’s a sort of pivot for the poem. It started out as a sonnet and I am really interested in those sonnets where the turn happens within a stanza, not on a stanza break. So the stepped line is kind of doing that too – it’s a kind of mini-turn in form, before the major turn which is the switch to the modern-day scene at the end (and then the last line has another mini-turn in it, too).

It’s been through all sorts of shapes in terms of stanza length, but I ended up with tercets because I wanted quite a lot of white space, to slow the poem down, to avoid it becoming over-emotional and also to kind of echo the eerie flatness and calm of the language of the original bible story. Tercets also lend themselves well to enjambment across stanzas, which I wanted in order to emphasise the muddle and ‘contagion’ and bleed across between the different groups of people in the poem. And they let me muddle the present-day bit in with the bible story in the penultimate stanza, rather than having as a totally separate thing in its own stanza.

MS: Tell me what you’re writing now – you have a pamphlet coming up…
RH: Yes, HappenStance are publishing a pamphlet for me this autumn, so we’re just working on finalising the contents now. ‘Legion’ is in the current draft, so hopefully it will make it through! I’ve always been very interested in writing about alcohol and intoxication and I’ve been concentrating on that theme for the last few years, so poems of drunken delight and regret are the backbone of the pamphlet. One interpretation of the “you” in ‘Legion’ is that they’re an alcoholic. Nell from HappenStance is a fantastic editor and has taught me an awful lot through her comments on my poems over the years – including on ‘Legion’.

And I’m one of the members of the Poetry Business Writing School this year, which is prompting me to write all sorts of unexpected poems and opening me up. So far we’ve been doing a lot of writing in response to other poets, which is a great way for me to stretch out a bit after concentrating on a theme for so long.

MS: Would you say anything about your break from writing?
RH: Yes, it is quite a significant thing in my life, so I would like to talk about it. I did the poetry MA at UEA and found it quite a draining experience, after having had a truly wonderful three years at UEA as an undergraduate on the ‘Eng Lit with a minor in CW’ course, which was really inventive and fun and brought me together with an amazing bunch of writers. So I didn’t write much on the MA, which was much less collegiate and just rather low key and dispiriting for me (this was in 2000/1 – I’m sure it’s much better now). Pretty much everyone else on the poetry course was living in London and just coming up for the seminars, and my undergraduate writer friends had moved away or stopped writing, so I found myself a bit high and dry.

I remember having a cup of tea with Ali Smith (who was one of the very best things about my excellent undergraduate experience – she was our tutor for a while) soon after the MA and telling her I wasn’t writing and her saying, “You are a writer, you will write again, whether it’s in seven weeks or a year or seven years.” And it did turn out to be seven years – it just dropped out of my life and somehow I forgot about it, even though to me it is the most important thing in life!

Then my dad died and I did that classic thing of reevaluting my life and realising I was missing the most important part. I signed up for a one day refresher at UEA with Anna Reckin and she recommended I apply for the poetry diploma evening class coming up that autumn and that just got me started again. I had the lovely Michael Laskey as the first tutor on that evening class and he is so good at sharing his enjoyment of poetry, just making it so exciting and fun again.

I’m happy to report I have my poetry community back now! There’s loads going on in Norwich and I am very lucky to have lots of poetry friends to keep me writing. It’s good to know lots of people who get as excited and incensed over a word or a line break as I do!

MS: Has it been useful to you as a writer to enter competitions?
RH: I don’t really enter very many competitions, to be honest. The attraction of the Poetry News competitions is that they don’t tie your poems up for long and they are free! However, I do quite like entering poems in competitions that support a good poetry cause – for example the annual Cafe Writers competition is the way we manage to fund our programme of monthly readings, which bring some fantastic poets to Norwich. So I’d definitely encourage people to enter that and similar things!

MS: Any special plans for the money? Or do you regard the occasional win as poetry’s peculiar way of irregular paybacks?
RH: I’m putting the money towards an Arvon course this autumn, which I’m really excited about. I love the luxury of having a whole week to devote just to writing – but the courses are quite a lot of money! So the prize money makes it much easier to be able to afford to go. I’m really grateful to Hamish Canham’s family for their generosity and to The Poetry Society for the work you put into administering the competition. It’s not just the money of course, as a poet you do doubt yourself a lot, so I’m really happy that people like the poem, especially as it’s been through a pretty long journey to get to this stage!

You can read Ramona’s prize-winning poem, ‘My name is Legion: for we are many‘, in our online poetry library.