A poetry pamphlet is a beautiful endeavour; it is a larger canvas than a single poem, and easier to sustain than a full collection. As a writer, it allows you to approach a thing from all sides, or take one approach and deepen or develop it, experimenting beyond the confines of forty lines without committing yourself to forty poems. As a reader, it’s a chance to get a taste of a new poet breaking into publication, or an established poet going off piste or riffing on a theme.
Previous winners have given excellent tips on how to put a pamphlet manuscript together. Like many others, I print everything out and lay the poems out on the floor or a big table and rearrange them over a period of days, weeks, sometimes months, looking at how the poems rub up against each other, how themes or narratives develop, whether I have used a particular word too often. I also like to make sure that there is some variety in form so, for example, I don’t have a whole bunch of poems in tercets together, unless there’s a reason for it. I show them to my husband and/or a couple of close friends, and I try to listen to what they say. After a while I get page-blind and have to put it all away for a few weeks. It’s a process of sifting, combing, allowing things to rise to the top, and recognising eventually that one poem is repeat business, another poem does not fit, or that the poem I wrote to fill a specific gap or bridge the distance between two others is simply not working, however much I want it to. The poems that I rescue from the reject pile and grant another go-round generally end up back in the bin. Less is usually more.
Human Tissue was particularly important to me because it was rooted in a very personal experience — donating a kidney to my son Linus. I wanted to get it right for myself, and also for Linus. I absolutely didn’t want the pamphlet to be some kind of bloodletting or therapy. Obviously all poetry comes out of lived experience, but a poem must be more than that; the experience has to be transmuted into something separate, different, something which stands alone and carries its own truth. It must allow for a connection between my experience and that of the reader, making space for others to bring their own stuff to the poem and find their own meaning in it. Happily the three judges of the competition were convinced enough; now It’s up to readers to determine whether I’ve succeeded, and up to future writers to continue to grapple with this issue.
Getting the phone call was joyful and validating and a matter of great relief. The staff at the Poetry Business are a pleasure to work with, and Peter Samson is a very fine editor. Just the process of honing your manuscript is enormously instructive. It’s the best pamphlet competition out there by far, and I’m almost unspeakably proud to be among the number of poets who have won it.