The Picador Poetry Prize: a view from the shortlist

Everything Don Paterson said about the reasons for setting up this new prize (Guardian, 22/1/11) sounded absolutely right.   I don’t know how many hopeful unpublished poets actually got as far as jumping through the initial hoops demanded by the competition – many of which were to do with presentation – but in the end there were 10 short-listed poets.   Including me.   The surge of happiness that shot through me and out at the ends of my fingers on reading the email that began ‘Congratulations on being….’ was tremendous.   But it brought turbulence in its wake:  having told myself I didn’t stand a chance, and that brushing up enough poems to enter was the real point, to learn that now I had at least one chance in 10 made sleeping almost impossible (see ‘The delivery’).

There began to exist an odd split in my head:  85% of me knew quite well (not least because Don Paterson had already turned down a collection from me) that winning was impossible but the other 15% began to daydream deeply, almost at moments sure the prize was mine.   I remember that same state of mind from the week the Lottery was set up.   I had bought one ticket and then spent the rest of the week planning how to spend the money.   Madness.  A friend of mine had exactly the same day-dream:  we agreed to split the money in case just in case one of our tickets was lost.  But I suppose if there isn’t that 15% capacity to daydream there’d be no room for hope in a life.  And where there’s hope there’s life, not the other way round.

20th January 2011 was the day of the announcement.   Ten poets plus a few guests each joined a large noisy party in the basement of Pan Macmillan.   My day-job has meant I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of public lectures and seminars here and all over the world, but I have never in my life been more anxious or incapable than I was during the hour before the reading began.  Being about to read meant it was impossible either to have a drink (fatal) or to talk normally to anyone at all, including family.   It took over an hour before the readings began – apparently because One Poet Still Wasn’t There.  Don Paterson introduced us in alphabetical order and said something generous about each of us – but it was clear to me and a few others as well when he introduced Richard Meier that this was his favourite among the ten good poets there on the day.  And so it turned out to be.   That 15% of me dissolved back into the other 85% and right then my main feeling was immense, but immense, relief it was over.   Richard’s wife immediately burst into tears of joy, which was very touching.  He is a good and original poet and it was a strong choice.  (Richard used to go to Colin Falck’s Worskshop, so I already knew his work.)

I felt sad over the next few days, having lost the dream, but perhaps that’s better than feeling nothing at all.  I don’t believe in ‘not minding’.  And actually it feels OK to lose to someone truly good.  What would have been painful as well as sad would have been to lose to someone I didn’t rate that highly.  So.  On to the next poem.  And then the next.