Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A women-only poetry prize


My daughter took this pic.... A poem of Susan Wicks keeps coming back to me. It's a new poem about women in a changing room and it's stunningly simple like the best life drawing. I saw it at a poetry workshop group that meets in London regularly. All the participants are excellent poets, we have a range of different styles, we are all women and I like that.

Wicks has a fabulous eye. Her poems carry no clutter, they are contemporary, her voice is modern, she's in tune in the way that Neruda always is. In fact her work reminds me of Neruda, they're working in the same territory. Both sneak into my thoughts when I'm least expecting them to. (I rarely swim without remembering one of Wicks' very early poems, Singing Underwater).

I have wondered for a long time if it's possible to identify a writer's gender from their work alone. I've never been able to make up my mind, although I suppose subject matter and the first person would probably end up giving enough clues. It would be interesting, though, to read work anonymously for a while to cleanse the mind of preconceptions. The North, a magazine published by Peter Sansom and Janet Fisher, used to ask poets to critique an anonymous poem. I think it's a great idea.

Anyway, this is leading to another kite flying exercise - an alternative, women only, Forward prize 2009 shortlist to blow apart the increasingly restricted group of men who appear to be regarded as Britain's best writers (regardless of who's judging it, it seems). Another excellent poet, Catherine Smith, alerted me to the list. I wouldn't have had a clue since most of my time at the moment is spent on the allotment.

(I came back from Womad to a picking frenzy - armfuls of chard, some French beans, broad beans, bags of peas, beetroot, lettuce, onions, raspberries and blackberries.......)

Anyway, the big cash prize of £10,000 has a shortlist of five men and one woman. One of those men's books isn't even out yet. Glyn Maxwell, Hugo Williams, Christopher Reid, Peter Porter, Don Paterson and Sharon Olds are the people in question.

I have to go back to Neruda to sum it all up. Perhaps shortlists don't matter.

Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or from a river.
I don't know how or when,
no, they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

The poem sends me back to moments during two of the highlights of Womad when that summons was present on stage - the Malian singer Rokia Traore with her funky French band and the Corsican singers who closed the festival, A Filetta, introducing songs with quotes from Rene Char and Fernando Pessoa.

Rokia Traore