Sunday, March 12, 2006

National Poetry Competition 2005

Well I got back from London yesterday evening, but was too tired to write anything. Or perhaps still suffering the after-effects of the evening before.

My poem, In the Last Few Seconds, had received one of ten commendations in the UK National Poetry Competition, so I took the train down to collect the award. By the time I’d paid the fare and so on, I’d more or less spent the prize (the first prize was £5000, but the cash drops dramatically by the time you get to the commended poems), but I felt that being there had to be better than getting a cheque through the post, and I was right.

I met up with Harry Rutherford and Katy Evans-Bush. It was great meeting them both. You never know what to expect when you meet Internet personae in real life, but we all got on well. We had a quick drink and wandered over to the City Hall, a curious, upside-down, glass beehive of a building on the outside, but inside it was impressive, with a scale model of London covering the ground floor.

After passing through the security channels, we found ourselves in a roomful of poets, editors, and other movers and shakers in the poetry world. This will either sound like a vision of heaven or hell, but if the latter, you could wash it down with free wine (in what seemed like unlimited, constantly replenished quantity) and finger-food (even less than it sounds).

Perhaps it was the wine, or the beer in the pub afterwards, but everyone I met seemed so friendly and interesting. I dislike networking when it's purely a method of buttering up people until they're ready to do something for you. I hate the falseness of that. But when it involves chatting with likeable people over a glass of wine, you can count me in. My favourite people were:

the woman from “The Institute of Ideas” whose mission was to further public debate and discussion of important issues (which included poetry) through the media etc – she told me that people kept phoning her and saying “I’ve had an idea, if you’d like to hear it”, and “I’ve invented a new design of tin-opener…”

Janet Phillips, who produces the Poetry Society newspaper Poetry News, who was simply a fab person;

Bernardine Evaristo, one of the judges, who (I think) had a soft spot for my poem. I certainly liked her immediately. Her speech from the floor was the best of all the judges, although she did get to introduce the winner, which I suppose must help;

Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review – that’s the second time I’ve met her, and the second time I’ve been impressed with her acuteness of mind and warm enthusiasm for poetry. One of these days I’ll have to submit something;

John Duffy – another Scot with a commended poem (there were three of us). I didn’t know his poetry before, but I certainly intend to check it out;

Melanie Drane – the competition winner, the first ever international winner (she is from the USA). Her poem was well-crafted and multi-layered, a Tokyo earthquake and flood as the backdrop to a new marriage, with an ambiguous but satisfying close. A worthy winner, I think. I mean, I’ve read all 13 winning and commended poems, and it’s impossible to choose between them, but I wouldn’t argue with the choice made.

Roddy Lumsden, a fine Scottish poet and keeper of the excellent Vitamin Q site (see my link column). He seemed like an easy-going but deep-thinking person – if that isn’t a contradiction in terms;

Angel Dahouk, who deals with educational matters for the Poetry Society. It would be impossible not to like someone called Angel. At least, I found it impossible. Until this late point in the evening, I had been thinking that everyone seemed far drunker than myself – a poor assumption, because when I spoke to Angel, I realised that might not have been true;

Alison Brackenbury, another of the judges, the only judge whose poetry I had known to any extent beforehand (it’s very good). I must admit, I was impressed that she could recall my poem and discuss it cogently by that stage of the proceedings. I was trying desperately to keep up and remember what I’d written and why I’d written it. Apparently, the judges had debated the final stanza of my poem for quite some time;

Sally Evans – editor of Poetry Scotland. I had met Sally before, but it was nice to meet her again. In fact, I sat beside her for part of the train journey back to Edinburgh, and we witnessed the ultimate cliché of this drunk Scotsman attempting to start a fight with this (innocent) English guy. It took four train-staff to break it up to the background of wailing children and inarticulate threats from various sections of the carriage, and a woman from the Niddrie area of Edinburgh who kept shouting, “You’re a disgrace to Scotland. What are they English gonnae think of us now?” and “My mammy could batter you, the state you’re in. A disgrace to the nation, that’s what it is!”

People I missed:

Ruth Padel – now how did I manage to miss noticing that Ruth Padel was even there. I like her poetry and would have really liked to meet her.

Mark Ford, the third judge – again, I would have liked to have spoken to him, as he seems like an interesting guy, and I’m intrigued by his poetry, but I didn’t get the chance.

I shook Jo Shapcott’s hand as she handed me my envelope and felt that what John Sait had said, on winning last year’s award, was true (and it’s just as true for us commended poets as the actual winner) – that this was one of those rare moments of recognition and success that pass by infrequently in a poet’s life.

As if to underscore the point, I arrived home in Edinburgh and found a rejection letter for all 6 poems I’d sent to Envoi magazine. It was nice to go to London, and nice to return home and find life carrying on as it always has.


Hedgie said...

Congratulations, Rob. Well deserved honor. The official announcement is supposed to be on the Poetry Society's website on the 13th (not sure why they've waited, but that's when they say it will be up).

Rob Mackenzie said...


The Independent had a page on it (page 28 of the arts supplement, not exactly high profile) yesterday, with reflections from two of the judges, and published the top 3 poems.

But the Poetry Society should have all the winners and commended poems up later today at the PS website.

shug said...

Congrats on the award.

Never seen so much concerted name dropping, though, since Donny O' Rourke's newspaper column in the Sunday Herald closed, deservedly.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Shug, I never have any names to drop, so I thought I'd make the most of it.

Of course, I slip them in to give an accurate representation of the event, not to suggest I actually know these people.

apprentice said...

Well done, you must be really chuffed.

And I enjoyed the name dropping.

Nothing like a bit of recognition to warm the heart and soul.

ren said...


Rob Mackenzie said...

apprentice, ren - thanks very much.

I don't agree with Shug's idea that I was name-dropping. If I was to say, "I was walking down Sauchiehall Street the other day, and bumped into Simon Armitage. 'How's things Simey?' I said, 'It's at least 48 hours since I saw you last at Seamus Heaney's birthday party (by personal invite only)', that would be name-dropping.

But a few tongue-in-cheek references from an event populated exclusively by poets, editors and others with an active role in poetry surely isn't.

I suppose I could have written, "I enjoyed meeting Editor X from Y magazine" if I'd really wanted to be enigmatic about it.

shug said...

It's Si actually. Or it was the last time I met him in Sauchiehall Street.

Don't get your underwear in a fankle, Rob. Everyone deserves a wee gush now and then, especially if you've achieved something good, which you definitely have.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Shug - I've untwisted the underwear. That's the Internet for you. It's sometimes hard to know the tone of voice people speak in. But thanks for making things clear.

And next time you're over at Geoffrey Hill's place, say hello from me.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Wonderful snapshot of how the event went off for you, Rob. I enjoyed Evaristo's "The Emperor's Babe" very much. Alison Brackenbury was a discovery I made browsing in a bookstore in Singapore. Congrats, again!

Rob Mackenzie said...

Thanks Jee. I've heard the Emperor's Babe is excellent and plan to read it very soon.

SallyE said...

Well covered, Rob! I didnt mention The Fight in my short account in my not-quite blog (This Week on my website) but yes.

No fighting however in London's new "Eiffel Tower" and yes, being there was well worth the train fare and what a nice smooth journey. I could swear I saw Billy Cornwall get off the up train at Peterborough, and Thelma Good was on it too, visiting her son.

Incidentally I got back to Stirling five minutes arfter the bus - I'd left my car in Callander - so I got a taxi to the start of the country road out of Stirling, hitched home (wthout telling my husband who hates me hitching) and got in an hour before the snowstorm of the winter started, snowing us in.

Thanks for the read

Rob Mackenzie said...

Nice to hear from you Sally, and I'm glad you got home in one piece.

Your new site looks as if it will be good. I'll add it to my links in the next few hours.


Robert Fraser said...

Congrats too. I was a commended poet in 1985, when Ruth Padel was one of the others. Since then, she has shot into cyberspace. But keep on trying. It would be silly to stop now.

Nowadays I only write poems in stanzaic structures that nobody seems to like. Ah, well. Have you tried my "Most Beautiful Line in English Literature" competition? It's on the blog.