BOOKS: GIVE UP THE DAY JOB

Rachelle Thackray talks to the winners of the National Poetry Competition, announced this week
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LOVE, DEATH, family relationships, war and history: these are the stuff of poems by today's aspiring British bards, not, as one might expect, elegies for Princess Di or spinsterish musings on feline idiosyncrasies. A new confessionalism, already seeping across the columns of newspapers, is one of the hallmarks of this year's entries - a bumper crop of 9,000 - to the National Poetry Competition (in association with Montblanc). And while judges noted that some poets are still picking apart and reworking traditional forms, more are harking back to a lyricism lost in the postmodernist smog.

Roger McGough OBE, whose poems once inspired this year's winner, chaired the competition with judges Carol Ann Duffy, Andrew Motion and Moniza Alvi. "The process has become more tiered, so now you don't have to read every single one about the Queen Mother. But what's amazing is that you choose your best 20, and people always come up with the same ones. The good poems inevitably rise to the top," says McGough.

Moniza Alvi, whose latest book is published by OUP, said she was looking for evidence of "personal investment; being brave with topics". "The winning poem was dark but shining, not a typical competition poem about a relative, but more about where we come from. Judging was a valuable experience: you read a few poems over and over again, and my opinions really did seem to change. What first struck me did so less after re-reading. I wanted something that really excited me personally."

Neil Rollinson's winning poem, "Constellations", nearly didn't make it into the competition at all. "I submitted four, and I thought the one about cricket was a much better poem. The one that won, I just thought I'd stick in." Even "Deep-Third-Man", "the one about cricket", made it into the list of 10 commendations. "I love cricket," enthuses Rollinson, 37, who after an art degree in Newcastle did odd jobs and went on the dole to give himself time to write. "But most people are amazed that poets are interested in sport."

He came to East Dulwich from Keighley, near Bradford, four years ago, and was picked up by Cape, who published his first book, A Spillage Of Mercury, 18 months ago - "much to my surprise". His imagination is fired by chat in pubs, streets, buses and trains, and his heroes are diverse: the young Ted Hughes, followed by Brian Patten, Peter Redgrove and US poet Charles Simic. "I've been writing on and off for about 10 years. When you start getting a little bit of success, you keep on."

He concludes that while some poets - T S Eliot and Wallace Stevens - can hold down full-time jobs while writing, even finding the discipline improves their poetry, others need more freedom to ruminate. "I don't make myself work. If there's nothing there to work on, I do something else. It's sometimes a slow process, and I don't like to push it. Sometimes I sit fiddling round on the computer, playing games. I don't really worry about a work schedule. My great pastime is going to the pub, and I love watching football."

He approaches poetry with a simple premise: "I was just interested in how people could write poetry about normal people and normal events, but give them a special angle and make the seemingly normal strange, seeing it through new eyes."

His winning poem grew from a long-forgotten story told by his father. "It didn't really register then, but they used to drown kittens all the time way back then. There wasn't an RSPCA or anything like that. Another snippet came from something my dad used to tell us; his father was fascinated by radio, and I just put the two together."

Many of his poems, he says, are stillborn. "Some of them hang around for months. They just don't want to be finished at all; they're not quite happy with themselves. You keep pulling them out of a drawer and eventually you finish them or they go in the bin. Other times, poems write themselves."

His most enduring battle has been to develop confidence in his own poetic identity. His faith in himself only began to firm up when he won the South West Poetry Competition four years ago, and since then, the successes have been slow but steady. "It takes a long time for a young poet to take himself seriously enough, and when you actually do start to think of yourself as a poet, that's a major step," he notes.

"It came for me when I started going on Arvon courses, which were fantastic. The first one I went on, with Maura Dooley, confirmed to me that I was a poet. For the first time in my life, I was with people who wanted to do the same thing and people who took my work seriously. It was a serious pastime. I went every year for ten years, and eventually did my own course." He wants to have a crack at short stories, but at the moment he's working on a new book. His friends, he says, are awed to see his work in the New Yorker. "Most people go 'Oh wow', but it hasn't changed me."

Vicki Feaver, who won second place with her poem "Bats", is working her way up through the ranks; she came third previously, and has also been commended. She began writing when the last of her four children started school. "I loved Blake and William Wordsworth, but they were probably not terribly good models for a woman. It made me think I could never possibly write like that. I had to read poetry that was more accessible."

Her enthusiasm grew as she read poems by William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath and Edward Thomas, and realised that poetry was deeply rooted in one's own experience. She also began studying for an English degree, in which she eventually got a First. "When I started writing, I was much less ambitious, writing about things close to me; children and relationships and family. My first book was called Close Relatives. My last book was quite a bit about women's lives, making connections with myth, using voices in a way that wasn't just my voice."

"Bats" grew out of a real-life experience: "I went for a walk and twisted my foot very badly, and had to have two days lying in bed; you do need that space for writing, and I find it quite difficult to find time because I teach creative writing full-time. The bats are actually in the roof above the bed in my house, near Chichester, and I'd started to write little notes about it. If you stand outside the house at dusk, you can see them flying about.

"I thought about what the bats symbolised in my life and what was important was the activity of them having babies. Somehow, they had more rights, because I'm past all that. It was the idea of sex without progeny. When I got to the end, I knew it was a good poem. It's that feeling that somehow, all the things you wanted to get into it have got in."

She is one of the great advocates of a return to lyricism, using the first person. "Before, poems had all these references and allusions, but I think there's been a reaction against postmodernism. Lyric poems were formerly quite small in compass; they didn't stretch very far. But now, they are not just confessional poems. They are using a lyric voice to say something about other things; make connections.

"I think they're moving away from the domestic lyric, pushing and engaging with lots of other things. Human beings live in a huge, limitless world that goes back historically and into art. It's an exciting kind of poem, in some ways more so than a poem that constructs a fictional voice. It's the kind of poetry I would like to be writing, but it's quite difficult to do without being pretentious."

Robert Dickinson, 36, won third place with his poem "Proofs", about fifth- century France. The title, he says, is ironic. "I was struck by reading Gregory of Tours' account by the sheer violence and unremitting misery, a period when Europe was threatened by plague and famine and warlords. The poem really arose from that, but the stories that are told are rumours and myths. The shape that they take are proofs of something else, evidence of the society and the fragmented nature of it."

Dickinson, who works as a clerk for the Midland Bank by day, and writes "at night and at weekends", has also produced six novels, all as yet unpublished. "I don't feel prolific, and I never feel I am writing as much as I should be. I spend a lot of time starting things which I find lead nowhere. But every so often, two separate ideas will fuse and suddenly I've got something worth spending a year or so on." 8

CONSTELLATIONS

Beyond the house, where the woods

dwindle to a few stray trees, my father

walks on the lake with a hammer.

He's never seen so many stars,

and wonders why

with all that light in the sky

it doesn't cast a single shadow.

He takes a few blows at the ice, and drops

a sack-full of bricks

and kittens into the hole, listens

a moment to the stillness of deep winter,

the hugeness of sky, the bubbles of warm

oxygen breaking under his feet,

like the fizz in a lemonade; the creaking

of ice as it settles itself.

His father's at home, coaxing voices

out of a crystal set, a concert from London.

Ghosts in a stone.

My father doesn't like that, he prefers

the magic of landscapes, of icicles

growing like fangs from the gutters of houses,

the map of the constellations. He turns on the bank

and looks at the sky, Orion rising over Bradford, Cassiopeia's bold W, asking Who, What, When

and Why? And down in the lake, the sudden star-burst of four kittens under a lid of ice,

heading to the four corners of nowhere.

Neil Rollinson

FIRST PRIZE

BATS

Only at night, the noisy nursery wakes:

the mothers who've taken over the space

in the roof returning from insect-gathering

flights. I can hear the flutter

as they squeeze in under the eaves,

the twittering, chirruping, squeaking,

of milk-sucking, carnivorous throats.

In the day, you wouldn't know they were there,

except for a smell, made up of bits of smells

I thought I'd forgotten - a hamster cage,

grandma's fusty feather mattress,

the iron reek of a birthroom.

I ought to award them honour.

I could take a broom and sweep

their hanging bodies from the beams.

Once, one flew into our bedroom, spinning

above our heads, wings like the contraptions

Leonardo strapped to the backs of men

pattering against ceiling and walls,

stirring nightmares of claws

in the hair, teeth in the neck.

It settled on top of the wardrobe.

I climbed up, saw, in the half dark,

pointed ears move. It was a baby,

just learnt to fly. I wanted it

to be mine: to feed it like my daughter

feeds my granddaughter on the choicest

delicacies, to go out into the wet fields

and search for beetles and crane flies

and moths, to make it a doll's

soft cot, to rear it with the man

who pulled a sock over his hand

and gently lifted it up, launching it

through the window, returning to the bed

where care is not for the flesh of our flesh

but flesh itself, hands, tongues, the body's

tenderest morsels, offered from each

to each, shared like food.

Vicki Feaver

SECOND PRIZE

PROOFS

For we remember Saint Euphorion

whose body stank to high heaven

sweeter than attar of roses

in the midsummer heat by Narbonne.

That year, the harvest did not fail.

We have seen miracles

from men lower than dirt:

Clotus of Avignon,

saint of by-roads and plague pits,

who drank only the water

in which he bathed his rotted feet -

granted thereby a vision of paradise.

And Sigibert, whom our late king,

Chilperic the Cloth-Eared,

staked for a week in the courtyard,

who sang hymns to the falling snow

long after his tongue was thrown for the dogs.

Or Eparchius, the force of whose prayers

caused a gibbet to crumble like sand

in the winter of the great storms,

sparing that thief who then robbed

the Bishop of Metz, whose name I forget.

Truly, the ways of the Lord are strange.

Brief and bitter lives flare like night fires.

In the third year of the famine

I took the hard road to Autun

and saw hooded angels

tallying the roadside dead.

At times He comes so close

we touch His light as if with fingertips.

They say a man in Paris keeps the tongue.

Robert Dickinson

THIRD PRIZE

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