Sunday, 12 January 2014
To the Eliot Prize
Later this morning we'll start for London. As a performer I am to be at the Royal Festival Hall at 5:15 which means getting a 2pm train from Norwich. The readings start at 7.
This will be my third shortlist reading. I go, as I did the last two times, with zero expectation of winning, in fact I was so surprised to have won nine years ago that I was utterly lost for words. Zero expectation is quite nice. It means I am not holding even a soupçon of hope in reserve and that I will be genuinely pleased if any of those poets whose books I have properly read and admired wins it.
Do I feel nervous? Under the circumstances, definitely not, but I don't feel nervous about readings anyway. The poems are what they are - the way I read them is not going to change that. Ultimately poems live in the reader or listener's head not in the performer's mouth. People will either like them or not. Ingratiating oneself is loathsome. Playing up to an audience is loathsome. Treat the audience as you would any one single previously unmet human being. Be courteous, friendly, intelligent and no more expansive than you need to be. If that means being brief, then be brief. The RFH is no different.
Big audiences don't faze me: small ones are slightly more likely to do so, especially those with current students. It is, I think, more difficult to be 'a poet' when the relationship with the people in front of you has been as 'a teacher'. This suggests that both roles are performances, and indeed they are, and different, but that is saying no more than that one behaves differently in different circumstances. The advice to 'just be yourself' implies that there is a single all-purpose 'you'. The self is more various and being true to it is more a matter of being aware of its history than of some ever fixed mark. Your wardrobe is an extension of you. You wear it to occasion.
Prizes are great blessings if you receive one but to claim them as matters of deserving is putting it too strongly. All the judging panels I have been on have veered between choices during discussion and the winner that emerged was the product of a particular feeling at a particular moment. Speaking for myself I never thought I 'deserved' the Eliot for Reel. What I felt, intensely and clearly was: 'Heavens! They've chosen me!' I felt gobstoppingly lucky.
Prizes are both blessings and bollocks. To be considered at all is a thrill, not because it makes you great, but because those who had the power to choose at the time, chose you. Somebody thinks you're worth it. Lucky for you it's that somebody and not another. You don't write poetry to win prizes but to write the best poems you possibly can. Let what will come of that.
The abbey bells are ringing. Radio 3 is playing Schumann's Carnival. The sky is quite bright and there is hardly any wind.