At an Edinburgh Book Festival event, the writer Chris Dolan told a story about fellow Scottish writer Janice Galloway. She had completed her astonishing first novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, and it had been well reviewed. One major American newspaper said of it that every word and phrase was “nothing short of perfect”, or something to that effect. Of course, Janice Galloway would have been pleased at such a review, but when she started writing her next novel, she couldn’t get going. The words wouldn’t come. Nothing she wrote seemed “nothing short of perfect”. For two years she struggled to get anything on paper that she was willing to keep.
As a follow on to my last post when I mentioned my hope to write another prize-winning poem for the UK National, let me say that I can't bring myself to believe that I’ve written a poem in the last year that’s a patch on In the Last Few Seconds, which was commended in 2005. Now the thing is – when I completed that poem, I was pleased with it. I thought it was a good poem, but not necessarily the best one I’d written. But everyone who read it told me they loved it, and then it won that commendation, and everyone I know seems to like it and connect to it. And now each time I write a poem, it never seems good enough, compared to that one, which didn’t seem remarkable at the time.
In my more lucid moments, I realise that the prize-winning poem is just another poem, one of my better ones, but nonetheless just a poem that got lucky. But it’s interesting how what other people say about a poem can affect how I look on it, and on the rest of my work. I wonder if Janice Galloway still believes, several years on, that The Trick is the best thing she’s ever done. I suspect not. I hope not, irrespective of whether it is or not.