Sunday, October 28, 2012

UK Poetry Awards and Gender

Just a few harmless statistics on UK poetry awards and gender:

Forward Poetry Prizes from 1992-2012:
Main Prize winner - women 4, men 17.
First Collection prize - woman 9, men 12
Best Poem – women 11, men 10

T.S. Eliot Prize from 1993-2011:
winners - women 4, men 15

Costa Award, poetry category, from 2000-2011:
winners - women 4, men 8

Scottish Poetry Book of the Year (2007-11):
winners - women 0, men 5

There are various conclusions we might draw from these statistics.

The first alternative is that that women do not often write good books. They very rarely write the best poetry book of any year, and never do in Scotland. Their first collections are usually stronger than anything they do afterwards. But they do write good individual poems, even slightly better individual poems than men.

The second alternative is that something is slightly askew with the awards systems.

The third alternative is...oh, I don’t know...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rhian Gallagher on the National Poetry Competition

Surroundings is pleased to be hosting an article from New Zealand poet, Rhian Gallagher, in support of the National Poetry Competition, which you can still enter here before the end of the month.

Rhian Gallagher lived in London for eighteen years and returned to NZ in 2005. Her first collection Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press, 2003) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for First Collection. Gallagher received the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award in 2008. Her second collection, Shift, was published by Auckland University Press, NZ, in 2011 and by Enitharmon Press, UK, in 2012. Shift won the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry.

Her fine poem, Embrace (scroll down), took third prize in the National Poetry Competition in 2001, and her article reflects both on writing poems for competitions ('Big Day Out') and the effect this can have on a writer's life ('Where It Took Me'). It's part of a National Poetry Competition blog tour, the full details of which can be found here.

Big Day Out

• Be serious about the writing and light-hearted about entering the competition. The freedom of being anonymous can be very energizing — an opportunity to be playful and exploratory; generally it’s more daunting to submit work with your name on it to the editor of magazine you respect.

• Poets are a suspicious lot. You may be a dab hand at hexameters but if the poem has nothing interesting to say then no matter how technically correct it is I suspect it won’t grab a judge’s attention.

• Read competition winners from the last couple of years. Purists will say ignore anything that’s gone before but if you’ve never entered the NPC previously how else will you get a sense of the quality of the work that the competition yields.

• It’s not a body of work that’s being judged but a single poem – it’s a bit like an audition in this regard. You might want to ask is your poem memorable: read it aloud – if you get bored half way through you’re in trouble. A fresh take on a subject, precision in word choice, musicality, a sense of energy being sustained through the whole poem (even the saddest poem needs energy); the x factor I suspect is a degree of originality – not something that can be defined.

• Road test your poems before submitting them: have a friend read them. At the very least this will help avoid sending work with obvious glitches.

Where it took me …

‘Embrace’ gained third prize in the National Poetry Competition in 2001 – I’m not sure where this took me, aside from to some swanky law offices in the city of London where the prize reading was held! Ian Duhig and the late Michael Donahy were on the panel of judges – I hold both poets in high regard and their acknowledgement of the poem did make a difference. I was working towards a first collection — ‘Embrace’ is a love poem and, for better or worse, through the competition I gained confidence to write more love poems.

In a strange kind of way the competition also helped in my negotiations to cut back to a four-day week in my day job. Although my poetry had been published in magazines, the competition gave a different kind of visibility and this registered with my boss in a favourable way. One free day in the week made a huge difference and enabled me to finish my first collection.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Best Living British Poets #97

#97 Philomena Béserk

Philomena Béserk is an acclaimed poet-critic – acclaimed, at least, by poets she has herself acclaimed, which comes to very many indeed. Her major critical works, My Canon: Everyone's Canon and Nepotism for Beginners were marked by trashing poets who had offended her (whether the offence had been deliberate or not), even omitting famous poets from subsequent editions if they had inadvertently won prizes she knew she ought to have won. Generally, she favours writers who approximate her own style and several times has accidentally quoted lines from her own poems to illustrate their strengths. Each of her sixteen collections has won prizes, coincidentally always the year after she herself judged them.

(photo from Cea's photostream)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

From Blank Screen to Hamlet

I’d had a few thoughts on this blog over the past few months: how to revive it or how to give it a decent burial. I contemplated erasing it entirely, which may actually happen at some point. But, instead, here I am with a new post, mainly because I have been trying to write a poem and have come up with a blank screen, a highly attractive shade of luminous white.

The poem is a new opener for my next collection, as I feel there is no real opener among the poems already written. What makes an opening poem? Well, there’s no formula, although it has to be really good and has to act as a doorway into the rest of the book. Perhaps those twin demands have simply made its writing impossible up till now. Also, it’s the last poem I will write for the collection (I may delete poems, but not add any more) and, somehow, the final step towards completion of anything is often the most difficult of all.

And there’s Hamlet. Yesterday evening was a chilly, damp affair and I spent most of it curled up on the sofa reading Hamlet and thinking of how Shakespeare managed to knock off over a hundred pages of brilliant poetry, full of memorable lines and deep thoughts, whereas I have been struggling for days to write a poem that will fit inside a single page. Perhaps Shakespeare had those kind of days too. “Write something!” the creative writing tutors shout in near-unison, but “To be or not to be...” was not just “something” and may have needed days or weeks of silence before it all poured out. I have written something – this blog post – and I am thinking of Ophelia. Ophelia was a sap, wasn’t she? While Hamlet makes his “to be or not to be...” speech for himself, Ophelia ought to have listened in more carefully. She chose not to be in the end but, really, she chose that with every decision she didn’t make and farmed out for other people to make for her. Hamlet is quite nasty to her as time goes on. If it were a modern play, Ophelia's character would be condemned by many as an example of misogyny. She is certainly a tragic figure, all the more so because of how easy she is to identify with for more or less everyone, including me. But even poor, conflicted Hamlet finds making his life count for something almost impossible, even though he articulates his dilemmas with an emotional clarity most people can never approach. We don’t all have Shakespeare’s help. Only the clown, who also happens to be the gravedigger (a Shakespearian masterstroke), seems to find fulfilment in life, a fulfilment that comes from immersing himself in death. His work, at least, will outlive all the others.