Prizes for poets
Jean Sprackland - 4 October 2009
Hello and welcome! I'll be here throughout this term, blogging about some of the things I'm doing between now and Christmas. The coming week is dominated by the Forward Poetry Prizes, which will be announced this Wednesday evening.
Forward Prize night is one of a handful of occasions when poetry gets a little bit of the limelight - it doesn't have the profile of the Turner Prize or the Man Booker Award, but it does raise poetry's visibility for a few days. This year I'm on the judging panel, along with Josephine Hart, Tishani Doshi, David Harsent and Nicholas Wroe. The five of us will be spending Tuesday locked in a room at Forward's offices in London until we arrive at a decision in each of the three categories: Best Collection, Best First Collection and Best Single Poem.
Judging a book prize is a mixed blessing. It's an honour to be asked, of course. And there are all those juicy new books to read. On the other hand... well, there are all those juicy new books to read. Hundreds of them. They arrived in instalments throughout the summer - boxes heaved out of the van and up the path by an increasingly taciturn delivery man. Finding space for them in my tiny office was just the start. They were all going to have to be read.
Poetry is by nature so dense and complex, you simply can't read very much of it in one sitting. It's a slow-burn experience, taking its time to release meaning in the way a cake in the oven takes time to release its delicious aroma. Some of the books were never going to make it to that stage , but when one did catch my attention I found I had to read slowly, returning again and again, letting it work on me gradually. It just wasn't something I could rush.
There are plenty of worse ways to let a summer slip by. There were delights in that reading - the surprise of discovering a new poet, or of finding an old favourite saying something new. There were moments of revelation and recognition. If I'd been feeling rather jaded, it reconnected me with the pleasure of reading.
By getting involved in making a judgement, you stick your head above the parapet and invite the rest of the poetry world to take shots at you. It doesn't matter how seriously we take the job, how long we agonise or how strenuously we point out that there are many more good books than places on the shortlist - some people will not be pleased with the result.
Then there are those who disapprove of the whole business of poetry prizes. It's true that pitting one book against another can feel artificial, a bit like comparing animals to oranges (to quote the great Arto Lindsay). Furthermore, in a world where finding a publisher for your work is like passing a camel through the eye of a needle, do we really need yet another element of competition?
It's a fair question. Still, the effect of having one of your books shortlisted for an award can make a dramatic difference to your writing life. It raises the profile of the work, and in an environment in which many poetry books sell fewer than 500 copies the extra attention can bring vital new readers. It can boost confidence too, encouraging poets early in their careers to experiment and take risks in their future writing. As a way of identifying "the best new books", prizes for poets are far from perfect... but as a way of highlighting exciting new work and celebrating the state poetry is in, it works. So here's to Wednesday, and a chance to celebrate.