Tuesday, December 31, 2013

At the End of the Year

This blog is about poetry, often about my own, but not necessarily about me. It isn't a diary or a place to record personal thoughts. At least I don't see it as such. This is probably one of the reasons why I haven't posted anything of significance here for a while. I've been too caught up with myself to say anything worthwhile on other topics - and this is not normally the place I want to write from. The chief reason has been a pleasant one. My pamphlet, Gaud, which was published last year, was nominated for the Michael Marks Award, and was subsequently named the winner at a dinner in the British Library in November. What's more, my publisher, Flarestack, received the award in the publisher category. Since then, I have felt like I ought to write a post about the experience, but haven't really known where to begin.

I've received many congratulations, and I'm immensely grateful for all of those; but I never quite know how to respond. It just seems like enormous luck to win faced with a very strong shortlist, including much better known and more widely published poets than me. Also, as anyone who tries to write poetry for publication and who seeks an audience will know, to get anywhere you need to go through hearing a lot of people telling you your stuff is no good. Feedback is essential, and we all know poets who attend workshops year on year, never getting any better because they brush aside any negative comment. Nobody wants to be that person (I hope!). Rejection and criticism are part of the process, but it is also part of the process to know how to deal with that in a discriminating way.

I have quite a number of poems in print that have at one time or another received pretty short shrift from other quarters; not that their being in print is a seal of quality, but it does at least demonstrate how widely even well-informed views can diverge. Reading reviews of Gaud has brought this point home even more forcefully: some reviewers are positive, some aggressively negative, others slightly bemused. Now, I could take the Michael Marks Award as finally blowing all of these views (except the positive ones, of course) out of the water. But somehow it doesn't. The doubt about my own work remains, and I suppose always will remain.

At another prize-giving event not along ago (where I had a poem commended), the judge reminded us that we shouldn't get hung up on prizes, which could distract us from the poetry itself. The judge in question has won or been nominated for just about every one of the most prestigious and lucrative prizes available in the UK. So, a little, cynical voice inside me thought, 'easy for you to say!' But she was right, of course. It would be great if winning the Michael Marks Award (which still seems entirely unreal to me) meant that now the whole world loved what I did, and that masterpiece after masterpiece just flowed from my pen, only to be snapped up by every journal worth its salt. Sadly, no prize, no recognition, no praise can do that. I will still mostly write mediocre to bad poems, occasionally a good or very good one, maybe before I die at least one excellent one.

However, what winning the Flarestack pamphlet prize and now the Michael Marks Award has given me is a sense that my poetry could be good enough to make it worth my carrying on. I would always write for myself, but writing for others is a different matter, and recognition by the judges is the best encouragement I could have not to give up on that goal. That is the thing I'm most grateful for. Also, the award has already opened some doors: I'm in discussions with a publisher I really like about a first collection and my work will be included in a forthcoming anthology alongside poets whose work I admire. These are exciting opportunities, and the Michael Marks Award allows me to feel that I could produce some poetry that would be worthy of them. That's an invigorating, if slightly daunting, way to end 2013.


  1. What a thoughtful post, and true. It feels to me that competitions by their very nature bring out a kind of negative neediness (in me, at least!) which can't be good for the writing. But at the same time, if you're ambitious, and comfortable with admitting it, then competition success is just too tantalising to ignore. The Michael Marks Award is a bit different in that I guess you were entered for it after its publication, in other words you weren't thinking of winning a competition when you compiled the pamphlet. But I understand what you mean that no matter what the success, it doesn't necessarily mean everything one writes is therefore brilliant. Or that you even imagine it's the case. There's always a degree of uncertainty. Thanks for offering your honest opinion on a subject that can be difficult to air.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I'm pleased the post struck a chord with you.

  2. Alan Buckley and I were just talking about you and saying how lovely the pamphlet was - a well deserved win!

  3. Thanks, Jo! Alan's pamphlet Shiver is one I've often returned to.

  4. Some very perceptive and sincere comments here, Can relate to a lot of what you're saying, David. Loved reading this post and congratulations again on your win.

  5. Yes! To feel like one has permission to continue. That's what publication means to me.