We've really enjoyed our week on Best American Poetry. The UK Poetry Society blog tour will be moving on to the Scottish poet Rob Mackenzie's blog, Surroundings, on Tuesday; please come with us! Here to conclude the week is the Welsh poet Stephen Knight.
Stephen Knight has published one pamphlet, four books of poems – two of which were shortlisted for the T S Eliot prize – and a novel, Mr Schnitzel, which was the Arts Council of Wales Book of the Year in 2001. His collection The Prince of Wails is just out with CB Editions.
Stephen Knight won the 1992 National Poetry Competition with his poem, 'The Mermaid Tank':
Beneath my weight, the duckboards bow.
Two buckets, slopping water, weigh me down.
A cold wind howls around the cages now,
While rain sweeps in -across the town-
Again; and while our rheumy-eyed,
Arthritic monsters fall asleep
I kneel beside
The Songstress of The Deep
And wait. ...
I first entered the National Poetry Competition when I was at university – in 1981, the fourth time it ran, so I must have been 20 or 21. I say entered, though in fact I failed miserably at the first hurdle, sending my batch of poems to the Poetry Society without an entry form. My cheque was returned with polite instructions on how to proceed. Embarrassed but undeterred, I tried every year after that, picking up a couple of £100 prizes in 1984 and 1987, then winning in 1992. It was only when the Guardian article which reported on the competition described “ten years of trying” that I was conscious of my persistence. I had simply considered it something to do every year, long before the National Lottery’s cajoling You’ve got to be in it to win it slogan. (But I’ve never bought a lottery ticket – the odds are ridiculous!)
I hadn’t tried out the poem on any magazine editors before entering it – in a batch of three, if I remember correctly – but it had had an airing at that year’s Hay Festival, when I was one of seven youngish writers fortunate to attend Joseph Brodsky’s masterclass. By the time he read “The Mermaid Tank”, he had already dismissed one or more of our poems. No one was immune. Through the week, he spent more time talking about works by Auden, Frost, Rilke and Milosz than he spent looking at his students’ poems – something none of us properly appreciated at the time. We would meet in various rooms above bookshops: small windows; generously upholstered armchairs with faded flower-patterns; doilies. While everyone was heads down in the shadows reading “The Mermaid Tank”, I caught Brodsky’s eye, and he gave me a wordless thumbs-up. I was elated.
A few months later, when it was time to select a few poems for that year’s competition, Brodsky’s thumb gave me some confidence in one of my choices. I should have thanked him.
Check the Poetry Society website to read the rest of this blog tour.
The Poetry Society also hosts the winning poems, and many of the commended poems from 24 years of National Poetry Competition.
As well as cash prizes, winners of the competition also see their poems published in Poetry Review, the leading poetry magazine published by the Poetry Society. A subscription is included in Poetry Society membership.
The National Poetry Competition - really an international competition - is open to anyone, anywhere, writing in English. The deadline is October 31. Enter here.