A step along the road taken

What does a National Poetry Competition win do for a poet’s work and career? And how, looking back, do poets view the poems that brought them such success? We asked past winners to tell us what the prize meant at the time, and how they feel about it now, including Carole Satyamurti, Ian Duhig, Medbh McGuckian, Neil Rollinson and Allison McVety, as well as Micheal Hulse, who won the very first National Poetry Competition in 1978. 

The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition was established in 1978 as the world’s pre-eminent single poem competition. It has more than lived up to its ambition. Many winners – Carol Ann Duffy, James Berry, Tony Harrison, Jo Shapcott and Ruth Padel among them – have established themselves as leading poets of our time. And we feel just as confident about the prospects of more recent prizewinners, as well.

A key aspect of the competition is that it is judged entirely anonymously. It means that a writer such as Paul Adrian, whose first-prize-winning ‘Robin In Flight’ was the first poem he’d ever had published, shares the same stage as more established poets such as Sinéad Morrissey, Helen Dunmore and Colette Bryce, who had each published at least one collection by the time they won. Over the years, our prizewinners have furnished readers with a fascinating, eclectic poetry anthology.

How does it feel to win and what effect does it have on a writer’s work and career development? As the years pass, how do poets feel about their prize-winning poems? In its fortieth anniversary year, we asked some winners about their experiences. Their answers testify to the felicitous impact of the competition and its unique contribution to the landscape of contemporary poetry.

Carole Satyamurti, winner 1986

Carole Satyamurti.
Carole Satyamurti.

I am a social scientist by background, with no connection to literature except as a reader, and when I wrote ‘Between the Lines’ I had only been writing poetry for about four years. Although some of the poems I wrote around that time slightly embarrass me now, this one doesn’t.

The subject matter of that poem is representative, I think. A lot of my work is directly or indirectly autobiographical, rather than being about the natural world, for example. But I am perhaps more alert to the formal resources of poetry now than I was then.

Winning the National Poetry Competition was enormously exciting – almost shocking. It put me in touch with a poetic community I hadn’t been part of. And it drew the attention of the poetry editor at Oxford University Press, who wrote asking if I had a collection ready. In fact, I had already sent her my first collection which, it turned out, had been sitting in her slush pile for months. My first collection, Broken Moon, came out from OUP in 1987.

Some people are very critical of competitions, and it’s true that there is a lottery aspect to the big ones, with thousands of entries, no matter how conscientious the judge(s). Hopeless poems are easily eliminated. But when it comes down to the last few contenders, so much depends on the judge’s taste. I think that entering competitions adds something to life’s excitements – provided that one doesn’t place too much weight on the result, or feel put off writing by not being successful.

 

Ian Duhig, winner 1987 & 2000

Ian Duhig.
Ian Duhig.

‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ and ‘The Lammas Hireling’ do and don’t feel ‘representative’ to me. I don’t feel the need for a single voice behind my poetry, or even within the same poem, but they certainly represent things that continue to interest me.

An element of both poems was gender fluidity, but I wrote ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’ closer to the time I’d worked in a hostel for young homeless people, some of whom had been thrown out of their parents’ homes because of their sexual identities. Everybody loved hearing about the outrageous Manuel Palafox but some prominent poetry critics assumed I made him up. Nowadays they could just google him but it strikes me how some issues still need to be resolved among good people, never mind bad, although the world of knowledge has been transformed.

I found out recently that tourist guides to the area where I heard the stories that inspired ‘The Lammas Hireling’ are told not to mention its history of witchcraft, or will divert talk from the subject. It’s a small example of how local stories are lost or falsified or simplified to fit a different narrative, and happens in poetry too – I’m thinking of John Riley’s fate.

‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, my first win, prompted an approach from Bloodaxe, or at least as part of a manuscript that was sympathetically read as a result; everything else came from that, as The Bradford Count was shortlisted for the Whitbread and got some positive reviews. It’s long out of print, though I’m working on a Selected which will make some of it available again. The second win marked my move to Picador and was the title poem of a book which also did reasonably well. There is an original line – still on The Poetry Society website, I think – about the trapped hireling in “a bloody boot of fox-trap”, which my editor Don Paterson thought was stronging it a bit, but otherwise it’s the same.

‘The Lammas Hireling’ was popular in ways that surprised me, featuring on some A-level courses but also in a short film by Paul Casey, included on a Sorbonne syllabus. Teju Cole and other people wrote nice things about it and all despite the fact that it is far more difficult to understand than ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, something that’s worth dwelling on for a moment. When people ask me about ‘competition poems’ I can only reply I don’t know how many poems the NPC judges received about transsexual Mexican revolutionaries or insane dairy farmers in their respective years but I suspect there were few. Don’t seek formulae is my advice to poets always.

Medbh McGuckian, winner 1979

Medbh McGuckian by Suella Holland.
Medbh McGuckian by Suella Holland.

‘The Flitting’ was a highly important poem for me for its length, its visuality, its narrative voice, its painterly colours. I still relish it for what I feel I achieved in it, as it was a Troubles poem written from the view of a family member who lost her husband and her home. It was also conceived around the same time as I actually conceived my first son so that makes it doubly significant to me.

It does speak for me in that confused reaching towards something ambitious and yet true. I felt the poem was a landmark piece, something I had not attempted, like a small symphony. I was also and still am shocked and humbled by the appreciation it received. I have never forgotten the delight and excitement of that time. It is representative in that I modelled many other poems on it and still do, where metaphor and image cloak an experience that can hardly otherwise be explored, sailing up from the subconscious.

It was subsequently published by Oxford University Press without change in 1982, in my first collection The Flower Master. I usually only change poems while they are being written and certainly given the successful behaviour of this one I would not have improved it at that time. However, looking back I can see flaws and overwritten sections, a rather arrogant stance, a wordiness that belongs to the era and the age of the person I then was, who knew some styles but not others.

It changed my life so I cannot repudiate it even if it is embarrassing now. I think apart from the huge impact it had on my poetic career it still stands out for me as a step along the road taken. I still feel immensely proud of that achievement and remember clearly events and celebrations that coincided with the birth of my son – recently, the writer who came second got in touch with me and brought the evening back. There were two other poems, ‘Mr McGregor’s Garden’ and ‘Tulips’, that kind of shared the triumph. They are poems that seem to sit together and add up to a special way of thinking. In view of what happened afterwards they come across now as naïve, innocent or ignorant. But as a dream sequence reflecting on nature and its disturbance by empire they still kindle my imagination.

Neil Rollinson, winner 1997

Neil Rollinson
Neil Rollinson

I’ve never really liked my prize-winning poem ‘Constellations’, I always felt there was something awkward about it, or forced perhaps. It’s certainly not one of the poems I ever read at events. It has some good imagery and a few good lines, but I don’t think it’s as good as the poem that received a commendation in that same year, ‘Deep-Third-Man’. I remember at the award ceremony Roger McGough, one of the judges, telling me that he preferred ‘Deep-Third-Man’, and I had to agree with him. Perhaps he was voted down! I do have a real fondness for that poem and I read it quite a lot. It covers a lot more distance than ‘Constellations’ – it’s richer, more ambitious and, well, it’s a poem about cricket, so what more could anyone want!

I’d say they are both representative of my work, to some extent, even today. Their central concerns of landscape, memory and death are still themes I feel compelled to write about. I can see where I was going in an odd kind of way when I think about those poems now.

Winning the NPC can do great things for your career. It helped to consolidate my name in poetry after my first book, a precarious time for any poet. What it does for a poem I can’t really say. It throws a lot of scrutiny on your poem. Can it stand up, or will it wilt under the pressure? Both poems formed a part of my second collection so they must have survived the process. The cash is also good of course. Five grand will put a smile on any poet’s face.

Do I think competitions are good for poetry? Yes I do. Especially one like the NPC, which is judged anonymously. I’d prefer to be published in a few good magazines than win competitions, as it’s a more effective way of gaining a publishing reputation and moving on, as a young writer. You’d have to ask a more recent winner than me if you wanted to discover how useful it is these days, but I felt it was a massive achievement at the time, and it helped establish me in a very competitive world. Long may it thrive.

Allison McVety, winner 2011

Allison McVety‘To the Lighthouse’ got me a new bathroom, so I am understandably very fond of it. It gave structure and direction to my third collection, Lighthouses, published by smith|doorstop in 2014. But books are rather like hives, and ‘To the Lighthouse’, while very important, is by no means the queen. I was a late child and my mother promised she would never leave me and years later died, like Mrs Ramsay, off-stage. I realised I had still believed her promise. The lingering edges of promises, like lighthouse beams (and other sources of light), had a transformative effect on the book as a whole.

I remember one of the commended poets saying that there was not much between the thirteen poems which received prizes and I absolutely agree, and never more so than in the year my poem won. However, the 2010 winning poem, ‘Robin In Flight’ by Paul Adrian, was so extraordinary – exquisitely lyrical, physical and intelligent – that it was very obviously the winner. In this respect I think competitions give readers and writers an exposure to all sorts of styles and ideas and if we have ideas we have poems. Competitions, and particularly the NPC, butt the first-time poet (such as Adrian) up against the Shapcotts and Duhigs and I think poetry is the richer for it.

While an NPC win draws a poem out of the shadows I, as a retired poet, stepped out of the light. But going out on a high like the NPC was a lovely thing.

Michael Hulse, winner 1978

Michael Hulse.
Michael Hulse.

At a reading nowadays I am far likelier to read ‘Freeman’ or ‘Wewelsfleth’ (from my collection Half-Life) or ‘The Tunic of Christ’ or ‘To our Unborn Daughter’ (from The Secret History) than ‘Dole Queue’, which I wrote forty years ago (almost to the day). It’s not that I can’t see the poem’s strengths. If I were to publish a collected volume, ‘Dole Queue’ would have its place, though other poems of similar date also written in individually-tailored stanzas of rhyming syllabics – poems such as ‘Village Performance’ or ‘After Rain’ that also went into my first full collection, Knowing and Forgetting, in 1981 – are closer to my heart. At the Commonwealth Institute in February 1979, after I’d learnt that I’d won the competition, Ted Hughes (one of the judges, with Fleur Adcock and Gavin Ewart) told me he’d personally preferred ‘Metempsychosis’, one of the other poems I’d sent in – a poem I now feel confident I’d drop from a collected. De gustibus non est disputandum.

D.C. Somervell’s often irreverent History of the United States, a study first published during the Second World War and reprinted at intervals till I bought my copy to help with A Level history, gave me the information that Tom Paine once made ladies’ corsets, and in later life, having attacked Christianity in The Age of Reason, was refused a seat on an American stagecoach at the request of the other passengers. Somervell also gave me the quotation from Cornelius Vanderbilt, the first American to leave a fortune of more than a hundred million dollars. My interest in Paine the revolutionary, and in the imbalance between rich and poor, was political and moral as much as historical. My politics have remained substantially unchanged since I wrote the poem, and I’m glad I brought the moral issue into focus by giving individual identity to the life of poverty.

A poem must always be more than its content. In 1976 I’d won through to an approach to writing syllabic poems in stanzas that owed something to Marianne Moore, for the syllabics, and, for the love of stanzas, something to Richard Wilbur and to the English metaphysical and cavalier poets of the seventeenth century. Marianne Moore, whom I still revere as the Schoenberg of twentieth-century poetry, put the voltage through me with poems like ‘The Steeple-Jack’, while Wilbur’s ‘A Baroque Wall-Fountain in the Villa Sciarra’ – like Herbert’s ‘The Pulley’, Herrick’s ‘To Daffodils’ or Donne’s ‘The Canonization’, to name just a few – showed the balance, panache, performative tonalities, and sinuous delivery possible in stanzas. All of my writing life I’ve kept returning to syllabics, which strike me as offering the best of the strict and the free options in a single form.

When Seamus Heaney told me in 1984 that he remembered the eight-poem spread I’d been given in Thames Poetry back in 1976, he made no mention of the competition win, and in 1985, when I received my first international invitation to read, it was because Greg Gatenby at Toronto’s Harbourfront was an indefatigable reader, one of that dying breed of festival directors who programme from informed judgement. It happens that I’m the only writer to have won the Bridport Poetry Prize twice, but I’ve never known an organizer in Adelaide or Boston to be especially interested in the fact. Readers who respond to my poetry speak of its European and international perspectives, its range, language and forms, its moving candour, the risks it takes – but not of the awards it’s won. Poetry competitions importantly recognise the persuasiveness of accomplished writing, and accrue a record of wins by impressive writers. They consolidate a writer’s confidence and bank balance, yes, but their key function is to maintain the essential fabric by which serious standards of achievement are upheld.

You can read all of the poems mentioned here and all of the other winners at poetrysociety.org.uk/npc. Don’t forget the deadline for this year’s National Poetry Competition, 31 October 2018, is fast approaching. Judges Kei Miller, Kim Moore and Mark Waldron look forward to receiving your poems. Enter at poetrysociety.org.uk/npc

These articles were first published in Poetry News, the Poetry Society members’ newspaper, in autumn 2018. © The Poetry Society & authors.