Julia Copus is a poet and radio playwright. She won First Prize in the National Poetry Competition in 2002 with her poem 'Breaking the Rule', and has since been awarded the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. Last year she was shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry for her radio sequence, Ghost.
Her three collections are all Poetry Book Society Recommendations; her third, The World's Two Smallest Humans, was published this summer by Faber & Faber.
Here’s how it started. I began by entering a whole group of poems – four or five, maybe (this still strikes me as a sensible tactic, by the way) – and, as it happened, the poem that ended up winning was one I’d put in almost as an afterthought. Folding the pages into an envelope, I remember thinking, safety in numbers…
In fact, I’d written the winning poem a year or so before, in the public library at Lion Yard in Cambridge, where I’d recently declined a place on a PGCE course at the university. It felt like a rash decision at the time, turning aside from a lifetime of probable security as a schoolteacher, but I knew my heart wasn’t in it.
So the poem was finished and filed away, and by the time it occurred to me to enter the National Poetry Competition I’d moved up to Blackburn and was working part time as a TEFL teacher at the local college. I lived then in a soot-blackened weaver’s cottage at the top of a steep hill, and it was in the kitchen of this cottage that the phone rang one ordinary afternoon with the improbable news: I had won first prize.
What does elation do to you? The word comes from the Latin efferre meaning “to carry out or away”, and even in Roman times it acquired the sense of “uplifted, exalted” – carried, if you like, out of oneself.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that winning the NPC is responsible for all the good things that have happened to me since, but it certainly gave me the boost I needed at the time and, though I was unaware of it then, it may also have done something to raise my profile. Once won, such honours cannot be unwon.
But to continue with the etymology, by the time I received that implausible phone call, another kind of dissevering had already begun. In the eyes of the British poetry public “The National” is undoubtedly a major prize. Whatever my personal response to the win (and I’ll admit that after the elation, I quickly reverted to a more familiar mode of unease), there was a sense in which another self had been “carried away” into the outside world; a sense in which it was inhabiting an independent (albeit modest) life of its own.
To this day, I am surprised when students on poetry courses or audience members at readings question me about “the poem that won the National”. On occasion it has been the only thing they know about me. If it is enough to bring them out on an evening when they could be curled up in front of the fire or the television then that’s more than all right by me.
This post is part of a blog tour the UK Poetry Society is running, hosting guest posts by poets on a number of leading poetry blogs. You can find the whole tour linked on the Poetry Society website, incuding those that are here on Best American Poetry.
You can also read all the winning poems, and many of the commended poems, going back to the beginning of the competition. Winners, and 2nd and 3rd prizes, are also published in Poetry Review, the UK's leading poetry magazine, which the poetry Society publishes.
The National Poetry Competition - really an international competition - is open to anyone, anywhere, writing in English. The deadline is October 31. Enter here or by clicking the pretty picture in the sidebar! EVery journey starts with a single step...