The first poetry competition I ever entered was a local one. Test Valley Borough Council had just re-opened a bridge along the canal path north of Romsey, or just a bit of path, perhaps a bench (it was a long time ago) and wanted poems from local residents to mark the occaision.
I was a teenager. I had, I suspect, been writing poems for a while, but I had – or believed I had, which amounts to the same thing – no outlet for them other than songs for our garabe band, and even then I knew lyrics were something slightly different. Why not, I thought. So I sent in a surreal, morbid little poem called ‘Why Birds Fly Into Windows’. (I still think it is one of my better ones). The organisers sent me back a handwritten note saying how much they had liked it, and that I ought to carry on writing – they just thought it wasn’t right for the occaision.
My first thought was if they had liked it so much then they should have given it a prize! Wasn’t the best poem the best poem? My second thought was that they were worried my poem – which, after all, mentioned death – was too dark. They wanted something fluffy and nice instead. I was being censored! My third thought, thankfully, was gratitude – gratitude that someone – anyone – had read and liked it. That’s the thought that’s stayed with me.
Which is all a very long-winded way of saying getting the Hampshire Prize at the Winchester Poetry Festival last week was a very lovely surprise. More than anything it was a great afternoon – brilliant poems – including a genuinely disturbing overall winner from Luke Palmer (nothing fluffy here), brilliantly compered by Jo Bell – who had some wise words about prizes and about poems generally (don’t be afraid of short ones), brilliantly run by the team, and with an impressive show of local support, including from local businesses (thank you to Warren and Sons for my very fancy pen). You can get the anthology here. My poem, ‘The Sign Says Hungerford’, is below.
Because of the rail strikes, most of the speakers were projected up on a huge screen: there was something oddly effective – and affecting – about being read to from someone’s home, but I want to put a special word in for Nia Broomhall and Vicci Bentley, who were the only to other poets to make it in person and brave the microphone (!) and David Day, for his poem ‘John Clare Makes Headway in the Snow’.
When I was growing up a little further down the M3, poetry felt like a very distant thing. So it means a great deal to be recognised as a Hampshire-based poet, which I feel like I can now always say I am, wherever I might happen to be.
The Sign Says Hungerford and yet when it comes it is beautiful and needs no justification: the canal, the lock, three green narrow boats and suddenly in the centre a single man, white-haired, a throw- back from before electrification climbing steps and about to enter his high-walled garden, which is full of flowering trees and trespassing vines. And then only fields and parallel lines.