It begins twenty years ago. I am standing
in a sports hall, arms crossed, round-shouldered, flat-chested,
goose-flesh and all. I am the last girl left to be picked and even
then I am taken in a gesture of magnanimity and goodwill. Less accepted
than tolerated. These girls, I think - no Iím sure - are supposed
to be my friends. But Iíll show them. I lumber around with my arms
in the air. I jump up and down on the spot. I cry out for the chance,
the ball is passed - away from me. I cry out, the ball arches over
me. I cry out and the ball is thrown offside or anywhere - rather
than to me. An hour of despair passes like this. Yes, it really
is that simple. It all began with being not very good at netball.
It all began with shame.
Thatís when I first knew that the myths my
parents had written for me - or wished for me - were just that.
And if I was no sportswoman, then perhaps, after all, I wasnít pretty
or clever either (I wasnĎt). So, in fact, I was a beta
girl. An also-ran. I spent the rest of that afternoon in History
looking out of the window onto a playing field patchy with snow,
hating my parents for those myths. In this way, at least, I had
become a writer in that moment (because, even though there were
great existential issues at stake, I still noticed the snow), though
it would take me a further 15 years of failing at most things I
turned my hand to to realise it.
Where the story really begins, though, is
where it might just as well have ended. Twelve years later, I am
studying towards a Masters at the University of York. I am told
that I am analysing masculinity in the English Romance. I am agreeing
with people a lot in seminars though Iím well aware they are talking
crap and still, still, I do not shine. My supervisor tells me I
require application. It slowly dawns on me that I do not feel passionate
about my passion at all and that I find my supervisor repulsive.
He has long, yellow nails, I note on our last meeting. The same
impetus that sees insurance salesman kiss their wives goodbye of
a morning only to disappear forever drove me. This was no breakdown.
This was a break-up. But it was, finally, a cowardly and honourable
one. I went AWOL, finished by thesis, left it in the in-tray of
the secretaryís office and never looked back. Well, thatís not strictly
true. I never looked back in the same way.
I would move to London. I would go into PR.
I would earn good money. I would go blonde and have a boyfriend
I spent four months in the sports hall of
the grown-up and court-shoed, being interviewed for every gig in
town. And it could have happened to me, I swear. But it happened
to someone else. Eventually, I got a job as a clerk in the darkest
back room of the civil service. I remember that there was lots of
paper but never any space to actually put it somewhere.
By the time the next summer had come, I had gone beyond my friends,
the pub, the lash that blocks out Monday morning. Weekends were
my room, a second adolescence. This was the preparation.
It was a friend who suggested that I enrol
on a writing course. I am certain now that he thought I should write
a novel. Yes, Iím sure he said that. But in the end, I picked up
a brochure from the University of London on evening classes. A poetry
class run by the late Michael Donaghy was what caught my eye. I
knew nothing of Michaelís work - but I liked his name. It was an
Irish name. Being Irish he was ethnically programmed to understand
my predicament, I thought. Being Irish is almost like being Welsh,
but itís more fashionable and has a better soundtrack.
I enrolled. And my verse was wretched. My
attitude to criticism was personal, foolish, wrong. But somehow,
I became addicted to my Thursday nights. Here was a room so similar
and yet unlike my workday life. Beta people making a virtue and
authority out of their limitations. Someone wrote a sequence of
poems about the Yangtze river. There was a bloke whose nose was
always scabby with tissue fluff who wrote about Van Helsing. There
was myself, working sub-Plath lyric. We were an allegory of hope
flying in the face of all experience. We were shit.
But if you wait long enough, something will
always happen. And eventually, it did. At work one day, at around
3pm, I wrote what I now know to be my first real Ďpoemí.
From one came many more. A year later, I
had secured an Eric Gregory Award. I was included in Anvil New
Poets 3 and got some good notices. In 2004, my first collection,
The Never-Never, was published by Seren. It arrived with
no fanfare and even less hype. It could be found in a few bookshops
in London. Only if you looked very, very carefully of course. Therein
the predicament. Poetry was about being a beta person, being the
last of the last chance disco outsiders; poetry, the poor cousin
of the novel. But now a card-carrying poet, I longed to be alpha.
My book only seemed to enhance my feeling of anonymity rather than
redressing it. I spent some months in gloom. I bit my lip to blood
as I checked my Amazon Sales Rank. July, though, proved an auspicious
and fortunate month: I was buoyed by a nomination for the Felix
Denis Prize for Best First Collection. Suddenly The Never-Never
seemed to be in every bookshop. I had cracked it. I had been one
of the lucky ones. So never say never.
These days, for young and/or new poets, prizes
seem less like an honour, the cherry on the proverbial top of the
cake, than a mandatory requirement - especially if you come from
one of the independent publishing houses from across the UK - if
you can expect to see your book comprehensively stocked in the retail
outlets and acknowledged in the newspapers. In an age where poetry
is read by about as many people who still watch TV in black and
white (and often these two groups coincide), award nomination -
with admittedly some exceptions - is often the only way in which
people will actually bother to read - and hopefully buy - your work.
And thatís if the whim takes them. In no small part, this situation
is exacerbated by the status anxiety that surrounds poetry. Even
those who take an active interest in contemporary poetry seem less
than certain of its standards - and of their own taste. People are
told poetry is elitist (because it actually bothers to exploit syntax
and meaning in a line) by people who never read poetry anyway and
people believe them for some murky reason. Readers often look to
the establishment to point out what is of merit, what is less so.
They look to awards to make the invisible visible - or at least
appear so. But the Forward Foundation's Felix Dennis Prize, the
major award for new poets in the UK, has only 5 possible nominations.
Normally, this wouldnít prove such a problem
for either judges or poets. But 2004 highlighted a major difficulty.
This was the year in which the finest clutch of debuts for many
years - particularly erudite collections by women such as Kona MacPhee,
Sasha Dugdale or the ebullient Cheryl Follon - emerged. All deserved
the nod, arguably. But there was not enough jelly and ice-cream
to go round. The knock-on effect of the Next Gen promotion also
detracted from the overall achievement of this new wave of poets.
Readings and press attention had already been allotted elsewhere.
Exposure proved elusive. What should have been one of the best years
for new poets proved, for most of us, to be an annus horribilis
of the highest order.
But it serves to highlight the chanciness
of the vocation. And the great paradox. Poets must counter the establishment
rather than represent it. And yet to be out there, to survive, they
need the establishment. Success is a messy business. Certainly,
at the heart of any poetís critical success lies the internal, infernal
problem. To be effortlessly self-reinventing, to challenge your
art, wide approval can be deadening. Too much success and many poets
seem condemned to be stuck in the groove of the taste that they
have carved out or filled for critics and public, blandly serving
up cold seconds of the original article. Or poets are tempted to
fly in the face of their own convention, to assert their aesthetic,
their ambition; the ensuing loss of an audience confuses and shakes
the poet, with his fragile, monumental ego. The successful poet
often canít win. Only the truly great manage to transcend the issue.
But too little success and our poet is damned also. As a marginal,
neglected practitioner of a marginal, neglected art, they may be
tempted to explain away their vocation as caprice and become a HR
Consultant. Enough people will tell them to. But as history proves,
posterity frequently belongs to the overlooked, the wrongly-shelved,
the lambasted and the low-key. This thought is what keeps many of
As my father has always said, itís not polite
to talk about money. But I will. Beaming-faced, beatific young poets
will always say, long before the book deal and the strangulation
of insecurity and paranoia, that they are not 'in it' for the money.
This pragmatic and entirely reasonable attitude undergoes something
of a sea-change, however, once the work is bound and out there in
the wider world. Suddenly, those young idealists find themselves
desperately pecking in the coop with the bigger birds - and theyíre
a lot bigger - while simultaneously teaching the art of the villanelle
for what is a fraction of one weekís salary in the real world of
watercoolers. Why, they deserve it as much as the next person! And
if they do get it, they expect to be able to make a living
out of it and soon realise they canít. Days turn into weeks turn
into years spent emailing around for commissions, applying for residencies,
praying for the readings and not writing any poetry. Bitterness
can threaten at every turn. And in a small world of slim-pickings
and over-familiarity your greatest enemy quickly proves self-revealing:
When I discovered that I was nominated for
the T.S. Eliot Prize I was less delighted than astonished. Okay,
okay, then I was delighted. For several years, I have tried
by hook and by crook to subvert security and find some way to get
into the awards ceremony and see the poets at play. Needless to
say, my efforts in this direction have been consistently fruitless.
Now, strangely, I find my presence - under order of the Poetry Book
Society - not just tolerated but requested, no less. Knowing that
such moments are few - and rightly so - adds a certain sweetness
to the occasion and provides the added security that I might happily
slip back into oblivion at any moment. My art is safe, but my ego
is massaged. Prizes are not proof of excellence - nor should they
necessarily be interpreted as such - but that my book was chosen
by three poets - Douglas Dunn, Paul Farley and Carol Rumens - whose
work has influenced and informed me since my first tentative steps
towards becoming a poet feels personal, somehow. And while I wonít
be the star-player of the evening, thereís no doubt that for a girl
like me itís nice to be passed the ball just this once.