Not ideas about the thing.
I’ve had a strange and wonderful few weeks, so strange and wonderful I hardly know what to write about it.
Last month I found out I’d won New Writing North’s Andrew Waterhouse Prize – a development prize awarded in the memory of the poet Andrew Waterhouse, for a selection of poems which ‘reflect a strong sense of place or the natural environment.’ I can’t overstate how much this means to me, both in terms of recognition and financial support. I still can’t quite believe it’s real.
The awards were announced at a dinner event at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle on May 17th, made extra special by the fact I knew five of the other six winning poets already – Andrew Forster, Andrew McMillan, Kim Moore, Phoebe Power, and Ben Wilkinson – through connections with the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere and Lancaster University. The sixth, Julian Turner, turned out to have been a frequent visitor to Grasmere when Paul Farley was in residence at the Wordsworth Trust. Ben – who I had met only a few weeks beforehand, when he was launching his Smith/Doorstep Poetry Business Prize-winning pamphlet For Real at the Wordsworth Trust – brought previous Wordsworth Trust poet-in-residence Helen Mort as his guest. My partner and I had driven over with current Wordsworth Trust poet-in-residence Zaffar Kunial, who won a Northern Writer’s Award last year. Maybe hope really does rise up under Grasmere.
I was also delighted to recognise the winner of the Cuckoo Young Writer’s Prize, Jasmine Simms, and highly commended Ila Colley, from the shortlist of the Lancaster Writing Awards this year. Everyone seemed to be deeply impressed by Jasmine’s poems (read on a video message as she was busy revising for an A Level the next morning) and I only wish we could have heard more from the winning writers.
A good year for the poets of the North-West, it seems, in a prize that until last year only took entries from the North-East.
On Saturday 21st, I went down to Manchester to attend the Poets and Players awards reading. My poem ‘Causeway’ had been placed second by judge Vona Groake – another very welcome boost both to bank account and confidence. It was great to hear from the other winners, and from Vona, plus some amazing improv music from Corey Mwamba and David Kane. The winning and commended poems, with judge’s reports, are up on the website, including Kim Moore’s ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’. The event, including Vona’s reading, was filmed, and can be watched on the Poets and Players Youtube Channel. The Lancaster University Creative Writing MA Showcase was on that evening at the Gregson Centre, and I managed to catch some of my excellent ex-students doing their stuff before chasing the last of the long light evening home. I came away with a copy of the great MA anthology Lightsink, and issue 6 of Cake, to keep me busy.
The day before, I’d found out Shadow Dispatches has been shortlisted for the Lakeland Book of Year.
Just before all of this, I’d found out I’ve got a three year Lectureship in English and Creative Writing at Strathclyde, starting in September, and a Knowledge Exchange fellowship to cover a research trip to Canada in August. Those two bits of amazing news even came on the same day.
This week things have got back to normal, with a rejection from a literary development programme. I think it’s important to talk more openly about the things we don’t succeed with, the prizes we don’t win, the jobs we don’t get. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this year, after reading something by an accomplished poetry tutor which suggested they considered their students to be ‘failing’ in some way if they weren’t winning prizes with their work. This made me so sad – for the students, for the tutor, and for the poetry world. Is this really what things have come to? Is that really how we judge a poet’s worth – not on the work itself, but on the prestige of the prizes it bags?
Back in April, Jessica Maliphant, an old friend from my undergrad days, wrote a post on facebook about the #100daysofhappiness phenomenon, calling instead for #100daysofreality – for showing one another the full spectrum of daily disasters and little earthquakes that even the best bits of our lives are really made of. Her argument was that things like #100daysofhappiness – all those instagrammed meals and holiday shots – create a false performance of our lives as a string of perfected moments, and encourage us to place ourselves in competition with our peers, even our close friends, in some spurious contest to win the most likes for the best life. So a hundred days of happiness actually equates to a hundred days of judging oneself against a fictionalised version of our friends’ and acquaintances’ lives. More often than not, we will find ourself lacking, even as someone else is judging themselves against our lives and feeling the same. She has now co-authored a blog post exploring these tensions – ‘Sharenting: Raising a Footprint’ – with another old friend, Dr. Sarah Martindale, who is now a researcher in the area of Digital Economies.
In some ways I think these questions are even more pertinent for our professional lives. Does the humble-brag default mode of social media encourage us all to judge ourselves not against our own potential, but those partial glimpses of our peers’ successes? I’d also been drawn to Uschi Gatward’s Mslexia Blog, in which she is keeping a public record of all her submissions, rejections and successes this year. I’m not brave enough to do that in public, though I’ve been doing it in private for years. Sometimes it’s demoralising flicking through page after page of struck through submissions, but I made a pact with a friend a long time ago to see every rejection as part of a movement forward. It’s hard to convince yourself of that sometimes. Just before all this good news came, I had spent a night in tears of frustration over missing out on a great opportunity. You can’t be successful with everything. I suspect most, if not all, of us go through phases in which it seems like we’re successful with nothing. The only thing that helps me, when I feel like that, is to concentrate on the one thing that I think really matters – the work itself. This might be a kind of magical thinking, but I still believe that if you keep developing, keep pushing yourself to make the best work you can, the work will make it’s own success. It might not look like an infinity pool, but it will be as real as anything you know.
Over the summer, I’ll be judging Blackpool Wordpool‘s first poetry competition. I’m reading at the festival on July 4th to launch the competition, the theme of which will be ‘Light’. The prize winning poem will be made into an illumination and turned on on National Poetry Day in October. Please do send in your luminous words. I’ll be reading every entry, and reading them alert to how much difference winning something can make to a writer, at any stage of their writing life.