Starting to Write
First poem published
Strictly speaking, I had my first poem published when I was seven, in a girls’ comic called Tammy. With the £2 postal order they sent by way of payment, I bought a miniature Pippa doll in a sparkling green evening dress. I say it was lucky because I think encouragements of this kind are incredibly important, at any age, and though I’d have to wait a long time to see my next poem in print, that early success planted in me the notion that such things were possible. Throughout school, I loved writing, and filled my exercise books with stories of Alice-like adventures where no-one was quite as they seemed and holes in tree roots provided portals into other worlds. I continued writing poems too, and reading a few now and then – mainly classics – but very little that was contemporary.
My teenage years were spent in the suburbs of Southampton, on a dead-end road with a chemical factory at one end and a smaller electroplating factory at the other. On summer nights, when it was too hot to keep the windows closed, there was a constant hissing sound above the hum of the traffic. In the daytime, at pretty much any time outside school hours, someone somewhere would be practising an instrument – French horn, ’cello, piano… All three of my brothers eventually won music scholarships to famous schools or music colleges, and two went on to be professional musicians.
For a while, I tried to compete. I took up the trumpet – for no other reason than that it was the only thing they had offered at the village primary school I attended. I schlepped my way up to grade VI, but my heart wasn’t in it and I was never actually very good. In any case, it was always too much of a struggle to find a free room at home to practise in. I longed for quiet, and a space of my own. My solution was to move out, during the year of my exams, to the caravan parked in the driveway. It was here, under the quieter hiss of a gas mantle, that I began to experience the excitement and sense of escape that writing can provide.
But it wasn’t until after university that poetry really clicked into place, like the bolt of a great and heavy door sliding open. I was living in Kent, working as a second-hand book seller, and my boyfriend had given me a copy of Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar to read while waiting for customers. It was one of those books that leaves you wanting to know more about the author so I got hold of a biography and read that too. Finally, I came to the poems. Here was much of the same material (The Bell Jar is largely autobiographical) but framed in such a way that the words – visceral and super-charged – left me changed. After looking up from Plath’s Collected Poems, the world seemed like a very different place. How had the poet pulled off this conjuring act? I wasn’t sure but somewhere inside me I felt it was something I might be able to emulate. I spent the next few months trying.
Reading Plath made me want to find out what poets had been up to in more recent years. The first contemporary poetry collection I read was Electroplating the Baby by Jo Shapcott, which I’d found by chance in Maidstone Reference Library. The poems were surreal, engaging and disarmingly direct in tone, and I began to read other contemporary poetry – whatever I could lay my hands on – and at the same time continued working on my own poems. I joined a local writing group run by the Welsh writer Lynne Rees. Lynne and others in the group encouraged me to keep going, and at one of the sessions, she thrust a flyer into my hands for a local poetry competition. It was judged by the poet Michael Baldwin, who had been friends with Ted Hughes, and I ended up winning third prize. I entered another and won first. These were small contests but the affirmation they provided for a novice was vital. Lynne also pointed me in the direction of the wonderful Poetry Library in London; I sent off to them for a list of magazines and started submitting poems. For the uncertain, fledgling poet, the impersonal process of submitting to magazines and competitions is a godsend: sending a poem out to an unknown editor or judge often feels less daunting than sharing it with someone we know.
In 1994, a year or so after I started submitting to magazines, I read about an award exclusively for poets under thirty, run by The Society of Authors. This was the Eric Gregory Award. By now I had amassed nineteen poems of my own; I filled in the form and off they went in their buff manilla envelope to London. Winning one of the five Eric Gregory Awards for that year was a real turning point for me, as it has been for so many poets – Seamus Heaney and Carol Ann Duffy among them. Carol Ann had since progressed to being a judge: she was on the panel for my award.
It was yet another competition (this one run by The Kitley Trust) that put me into contact with Bloodaxe Books founder and editor Neil Astley. I made up my mind to enter it not for the prize money, which was £10 for each of the ten winning entries, but because Neil was the judge. I was lucky enough to win one of those prizes, and by a round-about route, this led to my first book being published. I showed Neil my best fifteen poems; he was enthusiastic, and over the following year or so, I continued publishing in magazines and occasionally sending bundles of poems off to the Bloodaxe offices. A book began to take shape and before I knew it I was choosing an image for the cover. The Shuttered Eye was accepted in 1994, and published the following year.