In search of grass roots po­etry that sur­prises

This year’s York­shire Open Po­etry Com­pe­ti­tion is be­ing judged by TS Eliot Po­etry Prize win­ner Philip Gross. Nick Ahad spoke to him.

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HAV­ING won the TS Eliot Po­etry Prize, you might ex­pect Philip Gross to be ‘above’ a smaller event like the York­shire Open Po­etry Com­pe­ti­tion.

His en­thu­si­asm for the York­shire Post-spon­sored con­test could not be greater.

“It’s a com­pe­ti­tion I have been aware of for some time now and it is some­thing I al­ways en­cour­age my stu­dents to en­ter,” says the poet, author, play­wright and pro­fes­sor of creative writ­ing at Glam­or­gan Univer­sity.

“One of the rea­sons I en­cour­age my stu­dents to en­ter is be­cause it is a com­pe­ti­tion that has healthy roots in its own lo­cal­ity and isn’t a national com­pe­ti­tion that has sim­ply been es­tab­lished for the sake of hav­ing a po­etry com­pe­ti­tion.

“I be­lieve very strongly that it is vi­tal the national cul­ture of writ­ing po­etry builds on its lo­cal grass roots. There has al­ways been this anx­i­ety that Lon­don some­how owns the busi­ness of high cul­ture. If that were so it would be an un­healthy sit­u­a­tion. In fact, what has hap­pened again and again in po­etry over the years is that there has been an up­surge in var­i­ous parts of the coun­try.

“Not so long ago there was a resur­gence in Hud­der­s­field that pro­pelled a whole num­ber of ma­jor names like Si­mon Ar­mitage onto the national and in­ter­na­tional stage. Be­fore that there was a group of writ­ers from North­ern Ire­land; the con­tin­ual re­seed­ing hap­pens around the coun­try and it is helped along by com­pe­ti­tions like this one.”

Gross is the sole judge for this year’s com­pe­ti­tion, which is now ac­cept­ing en­tries ahead of the clos­ing date in just un­der a month. The com­pe­ti­tion, now in its 27th year, at­tracts over 1,000 en­tries from around the world.

The first prize of £750, plus pub­li­ca­tion in the York­shire Post, may not match the £15,000 prize Gross won for his poem The Water Ta­ble, which took the TS Eliot Prize in 2010, but is a sig­nif­i­cant amount for a po­etry com­pe­ti­tion.

“When I have judged pre­vi­ous com­pe­ti­tions I have al­ways been as­ton­ished by where the en­tries come from. I ex­pect them to ar­rive in York­shire from around the world,” he says.

“The main rea­son for that is be­cause po­etry is a medium that trav­els – the nat­u­ral habit of the medium is to put it­self about a bit. A lot of po­ets want, and need, to be in touch with other po­ets and a com­pe­ti­tion like this is a great way for that to hap­pen.”

Born in 1952 in De­labole, north Corn­wall, Gross is the only child of a wartime refugee from Es­to­nia and the vil­lage school­mas­ter’s daugh­ter. He started writ­ing sto­ries in ju­nior school and be­gan writ­ing po­etry in his teens – he was also briefly in a band called Waste­land, af­ter the TS Eliot poem.

He won his first po­etry com­pe­ti­tions in the Eight­ies, which was also when his books be­gan to ap­pear – first for adults and later for chil­dren.

He says: “It is so im­por­tant there be a struc­ture for young writ­ers to grow up and find a place and com­pe­ti­tions are vi­tal sign­posts along the way.

“There is some­thing for a writer know­ing that lots of other peo­ple will be fix­ing on a par­tic­u­lar date, that they are all work­ing to­gether to­wards that point.”

Know­ing how im­por­tant a com­pe­ti­tion can be to a writer – he says win­ning the National Po­etry Prize in 1982 “changed every­thing” – he will be tak­ing his role as sole judge of the YOPC very se­ri­ously.

What will he be look­ing for when it comes to choos­ing the win­ner of this year’s com­pe­ti­tion?

He says: “I’m afraid the an­swer to that may be a lit­tle frus­trat­ing.

“If I told peo­ple every­thing I wanted in a poem and they pre­sented it per­fectly, with every­thing I had listed, it would not win.

“Above all, I want to be sur­prised.”

COM­PE­TI­TION JUDGE: Poet Philip Gross is judg­ing this year’s York­shire Open Po­etry Com­pe­ti­tion.

COM­PE­TI­TION WIN­NER: Ju­lia Deakin, the win­ner of last year’s York­shire Open Po­etry Com­pe­ti­tion.

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