“Read books about embroidery or euchre or how telephones work, or about art history or about the art of art history,” offers Stephen Sexton. “Don’t become complicit in your own failure by not trying,” says Fran Lock. We’ve been speaking to a few of the ten poets who’ll be reading at the National Poetry Competition’s 40th anniversary readings at Kings Place, London on 20th March 2019 – enjoy two of these prize-winning poets’ thoughts on everything from their early poems to entering competitions below.
What first encouraged you to write poems?
I don’t totally understand whatever impulse led me or continues to lead me to write poems. I remember one or two instances at school where I had to write something resembling one as an assignment of some kind. It wasn’t until I took a creative writing class at university that I felt something click. In other words, it wasn’t until I interacted with other writers that things began to make sense. I’ve been fortunate to have had tremendously nurturing and generous teachers, such as Paul Maddern and Ciaran Carson, as well as Sinéad Morrissey, who won the National Poetry Competition in 2007.
What top tip or tips would you give to a young poet or a poet starting out ?
Everyone says it, but read. Read poems, read novels too. Read books about embroidery or euchre or how telephones work, or about art history or about the art of art history. I once read most of a book about trout by a man who really revered trout. In other words, be curious about the world and the things in it. Some of those things might snag on your imagination. Often they come with their own terminology, and you might end up with a new angle on a word. Which reminds me, read the dictionary. Look up etymologies; they’re their own little narrative.
I wish I had a regimen of writing I could recommend. It’s tempting to think everyone has their own method that works for them, but a high proportion of successful writers seem to get up very early in the morning. I have no first-hand evidence of the fruitfulness of this approach. I can’t imagine there’s a wrong way to go about writing though. That said, when you get around to it, I feel you should sit down to write poems, not poetry.
Fran Lock won third prize in the National Poetry Competition in 2014 and was commended in 2015 and 2016 with poems ‘Last Exit to Luton’, ‘Epistle from inside the Sharknado’ and ‘Gentleman Caller’. ‘Last Exit to Luton’ was also made into a filmpoem, which you can watch below.
What first encouraged you to write poems?
I don’t know that I was encouraged, which sounds entirely too gentle, so much as I was provoked. I remember that I knew quite early on that quotidian English wasn’t adequate to the things I needed to say, and in any case belonged to people and institutions I wanted nothing to do with. I have a fraught relationship with the English language, but it’s the only language I have. Poetry is a way of reclaiming it, of occupying it, of feeling a little less at its mercy. I think about my use of poetry as a textual counterpart to squatting: repurposing and subverting stale structures, making something new, in the same way an abandoned block of government offices becomes a community café, or a derelict Georgian townhouse becomes a gallery, a studio, a rehearsal space, a home.
Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote? If so, can you tell us a bit about it?
The first ever poem I wrote was about dogs. I was about seven, and obnoxiously zealous about animals and animal rights even then. This was at school. I don’t think we were asked to write poems, I just decided my report would be in the form of a poem because reasons. Actually, I think it was probably because we’d been reading poetry in class. It was silly stuff, kid’s stuff, but instantly more exciting to me than prose. I was hooked. I liked the urgency of poetry, its precision. I’d also recently discovered the metaphor. My poor teachers.
What words of encouragement would you give to those considering entering the National Poetry Competition this year?
I suppose the only words of encouragement I’m qualified to offer are those aimed at poets like myself who struggle with the notion of themselves as poets, who feel isolated and alone, and that their voice will not be valued or accepted by the wider writing community. For people who are socially marginal, or struggling with conditions of economic precarity, I’d say that we need your voices most of all and more than ever. Life is such that there’s already a queue of people stretching half way round the block ready to do you down: don’t become complicit in your own failure by not trying.
Even if you don’t place the first time round, the work that you’ve done honing your piece is important and necessary work, and just taking that leap of faith, putting your piece out there, that act has meaning too. I really struggled with this. I struggled to justify the money it cost to enter, to myself more than to others, but ultimately I had to decide it was worth it, that my work was worth it. Realising that is already a win.
What top tip or tips would you give to a young poet or a poet starting out?
Perhaps the best I can offer is read widely, observe closely, and don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself. Also, more importantly, if anyone should tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t write, that it isn’t for you, that you should be realistic. Ignore them. Vehemently.
Hear from six more of the readers from the National Poetry Competition’s 40th anniversary event:
- “Get stationery that you love, of course. Poems: read, read, read / watch, watch, watch / listen, listen, listen. Find out what you love.”: hear from Mary Jean Chan and Caleb Parkin
- “Be playful, fearless, adventurous and write the poems you feel you must write”: Liz Berry and Mark Pajak reflect on their journeys as poets
- “If you want to be a poet, go for it”: Ian Duhig and Geraldine Clarkson share words of encouragement
Find out more about the National Poetry Competition and get inspired to enter.