Reader, we have been invaded. Today the Bell Jar is delighted to host the very first blog from the National Poetry Competition blog tour. The post below is from the stellar, much-acclaimed and gentle poet Philip Gross. For me this is a double delight, because on Wednesday I am reading with Philip at Bristol Poetry Festival – full details here If you’re coming, please do say hello in the bar afterwards!
The National Poetry Competition is a landmark in the poetry calendar. Run by the Poetry Society, it is an immense accomplishment to appear anywhere in its shortlist – and to win it is a career-changing opportunity. Every poem that enters makes its own journey, and given that it receives over 10,000 entries each year, that’s a lot of journeys. Before I hand over to Philip, who won the prize in 1982, let me make a personal plea. I meet a lot of poets every year. I workshop and mentor and just talk to poets all the time – and it’s so frustrating to hear good poets say, ‘Oh, I haven’t entered competition X or Y – I don’t think I stand a chance.’
You know what, folks? If you don’t enter, you don’t stand a chance. If you enter, you not only stand a chance – but even if you don’t win, your entry fee goes towards a vital and vibrant strand of the poetry community, of which you are a part. So read Philip Gross’s blog, give thanks that such a good egg exists in our community. And then go and sort out which of your poems you are going to send in for the National. It might be your lucky year. Now over to Philip!
Philip Gross writes – A Journey, A Beginning
Is this the beginning? It’s a steep climb up the track behind the churchyard, then (out of breath) onto bare open moor. The north west corner of Dartmoor is the most sudden, rising to the highest tors in one heave; you’re looking across Cornwall, to the Atlantic, where the prevailing wind and rain, oh, so much rain, come from. On the shoulder of the moor I stop, and faintly make out ditches, four or five, in parallel. Now here’s a fallen-in, half-buried beehive hut of stone. I’m there.
I ought to recognize it. This is the setting for a poem, The Ice Factory, which I wrote and which won the National Poetry Competition thirty years ago.
But that wasn’t the beginning. I’m remembering the day I found the place, months later. When I wrote the poem, it existed for me only as a line in Helen Harris’ Industrial Archaeology of Dartmoor: ‘Not a great deal is known about this minor industry, which appears to have had a short life.’
So was that the beginning? Years of walking on the moors, yes, that was part of it. That weather. But so was a night at Totleigh Barton, when I heard Michael Longley read his Mayo Monologues. There, I suddenly felt how another voice, not simply yours, can inhabit your poem, and through that other person or persona’s voice a place, its atmosphere, can find a way to speak.
That night did not feel like a beginning either; I went home from the week disappointed, not in the course but in myself, because I’d written nothing there. Not till later, at least.
As for that poem, I nearly didn’t put it in the envelope. I entered several others on which I had worked much harder, editing and polishing till the very semi-colons gleamed. I scarcely noticed myself writing The Ice Factory, the way it slipped into itself. But it won.
Looking back, I see it had that quality of being (almost in spite of me) itself. I’ve learned to trust that in a poem – those thoughts and images that rise out of the undergrowth of language, out of unregarded, almost-nowhere corners of the map. The luck of winning that prize, quite early in my writing life, changed something irreversibly. It wasn’t an arrival, or even comfortable; it was a beginning, with a sense of what I had to learn.
I haven’t learned to make it happen, that arrival of a poem at itself. That’s as well, because if I could, then it wouldn’t be it – it would be me, which was never the point. But I’ve learned a discipline: to pay attention to the possibility of it.
And that can bear some resemblance to hard work – the steep climb up that hillside, up to the place where the weather can find you. Sometimes getting out of breath, sometimes getting the view… but rarely asking Is this the beginning? Because, by the time you’ve thought that, it has (or it hasn’t) already begun.
Philip Gross won the National Poetry Competition in 1982. Since then he has published fourteen collections; The Water Table won the T.S.Eliot Prize 2009, I Spy Pinhole Eye Wales Book of The Year 2010, and Off Road To Everywhere the CLPE Award for Children’s Poetry 2011. Most recently Deep Field, a PBS Recommendation, deals with his father’s loss of language from aphasia, and with voice and language itself. He has published ten novels for young people, including The Lastling, has written scripts, collaborated with artists, musicians and dancers, and is Professor of Creative Writing at Glamorgan University. For more, see: www.philipgross.co.uk
[Jo adds: normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, with news of my new tiny publishing empire with Martin Malone - Small Lightnings. Meanwhile you can follow it @SmallLightnings on Twitter, or on Facebook. See you there!]