Mary Jean Chan and Caleb Parkin: National Poetry Competition 40th anniversary Q&As

Ahead of the National Poetry Competition’s 40th anniversary readings at Kings Place, London on 20th March 2019, we’ve been speaking to some of the ten poets featuring at the event, who have all been winners of the National Poetry Competition in the past. Over the next few weeks we’ll be sharing their insights into writing poetry, entering competitions and more – dig in!

Mary Jean Chan at the Forward Arts Prizes 2017, smiling and looking downMary Jean Chan

Mary Jean Chan won second prize in the National Poetry Competition in 2017 with her poem ‘The Window’.

What first encouraged you to write poems?

I’d always loved poetry as a teenager (both English and Chinese poems). Then I went through a tough time at university when I was about to leave business school in Hong Kong to transfer to the United States as a sophomore for a degree in Political Science/Literature, and I found that writing poems helped with my mental health. I particularly remember reading aloud Thomas Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’ (often past midnight) when I should have been completing my finance problem sets!

What was it like to be a National Poetry Competition winner?

It felt (and still feels) somewhat surreal. I felt like I’d been incredibly lucky that year, and was honoured to have been selected as one of the winners by Pascale Petit, Hannah Lowe and Andrew McMillan – three poets whom I deeply admire. 

What top tip or tips would you give to a young poet or a poet starting out?

I would encourage young poets to find mentors – either formally within an institution/program or informally among your peers – who understand you and your creative ambitions. Having another person offer critical feedback on your work is one of the surest ways in which to develop your poetry.

Caleb Parkin

Caleb Parkin crosses his arms, holding a model of a brain in one hand and a giant coral-coloured clothes peg in the other
Photo credit: Paul Samuel White

Caleb Parkin won second prize in the National Poetry Competition in 2016 with his poem ‘The Desktop Metaphor’. His poem was adapted as a filmpoem by Helmie Stil; you can watch it below.

What first encouraged you to write poems?

We’d always read poems at home – and just enjoyed the sounds of language and peculiar, incongruous images (this still comes through in my poems, I’d imagine!). Thankfully, I grew up in a house where making things – whether from words, wood, fabric – was very normal and encouraged. My brother and I were often out making rickety tree-houses, imaginary zoos, or experimental structures…

When I was in Year 10, we were allowed to make a small collection of poems as part of our GCSE coursework. That was a real turning point for me and my relationship to writing poems. I started keeping a notebook of writing all the time, paying attention to the world in a different way. That collection of poems really got me taking poetry seriously as a ‘way through the world’ I think.

What was it like to be a National Poetry Competition winner?

When I found out about the NPC second prize, I was just leaving a workshop in a school in south Bristol (where I worked as a Writer in Residence, with First Story), pushing my bike along and laughing in incredulity down the phone to Judith (Director at The Poetry Society). I’d been taking poetry seriously for a few years, and this was perhaps the third year of entering the NPC. Of course, the piece that won was the ‘wildcard’ – a poem I’d carried around for a bit, then re-titled quite last minute and intuitively before entering it. The more worthy or ‘competition’ poem didn’t even get placed, of course.

Winning second prize really bolstered my sense of myself as a big p Poet. It’s also helped find more of a profile – and to feel more confident that the things I write about, and the sometimes slant way I approach them, has value and can reach an audience. Obviously cash prizes are much appreciated! But this sense of a poem really ‘landing’ with judges – and then with audiences of the filmpoem (brilliantly realised by Helmie Stil) was invaluable. The fact that Helmie’s film of the poem won the Weimar Filmpoem prize gave me a real sense of the poem going off, having a life of its own with audiences – and it’s one of the first times I’ve really experienced this.

What words of encouragement would you give to those considering entering the National Poetry Competition this year?

Give it a go. If you’ve got work which you think says what only you could say, in the most interesting way possible, and you love reading and writing poetry – then why not? Worst case scenario, you’ve just chipped into the prize fund and to keep The Poetry Society going. These are both worthy recipients of your hard-earned entry fee.

In what way do you feel competitions create a sense of community?

I’m still in touch with other shortlisted poets from 2016 and have connected with poets from the last year, too. It’s given me a sense of having ‘peers’ rather than ‘poets out there somewhere’ and made me feel like I can make contact, have things to offer other poets, and a vast amount to learn from them.

What top tip or tips would you give to a young poet or a poet starting out?

Get stationery that you love, of course. Poems: read, read, read / watch, watch, watch / listen, listen, listen. Find out what you love.

Make little pockets of time to write – ten, twenty minutes can be enough to keep the energy in your practice. Poetry gets scarier the further you get away from it. Stay close, and it’s just about playing and saying things as you think they are.

Get stuck in with the opportunities on offer to you, too. I know from working with First Story, Paper Nations, other school projects, with the Museum Service, and hearing about all the opportunities for young people – they are out there! And, at the risk of sounding fogeyish, they didn’t seem to be when I was at a (very nice rural Suffolk comprehensive) school. We didn’t know about the Foyle Young Poets, or other young people’s competitions – so I didn’t enter.

So get researching – Google ‘opportunities for young poets’, or ‘young poets competitions’, keep a document with these in, and make a system for sending work out. If you can get organised to this level in your teens or twenties, you’ll be way ahead of the pack. Inspiration, craft and love of poetry is only part of the picture: the other part is a lot of graft, organising, networking, crafting. So it’s important to nurture both aspects.

Find advocates, teachers, mentors, or people to have a whinge with: I can’t say enough how important these people are. Find – create – your Poetry Kin. I’m still working on it, and appreciate those people immensely.


Hear from six more of the readers from the National Poetry Competition’s 40th anniversary event:

 Find out more about the National Poetry Competition and get inspired to enter.

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