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As the saying goes: judging poetry is like judging a friendship, or flavours of ice cream, or whether you can make the jump from one low wall to another. Nobody knows how or why you’d want to do it, you have to try very hard to maintain objectivity and you’re likely to end up lying on your back with no friends, covered in ice cream.
That said, judgement and being judged is fairly central to any creative endeavor. When I talk to students at open days I try to put their minds at ease about the whole marking process. How can you assign a numerical grade to a work of art? It’s no different, I argue, to the reality of professional (or semi-professional or committed amateur) writing. Whether by an editor, an agent, a producer, a critic, a reader standing in a bookshop deciding what to buy: your work is going to be judged. Deal with it. (It now strikes me that this probably isn’t very reassuring at all).
I remember getting my first poem published. It was after years of trying and, in all callowness and hubris, aiming far too high and being surprised when the TLS didn’t respond to my submission. It was the year after I took an MA in creative writing, and I was working in data entry at the local council, a job which was boring and untaxing enough to leave me desperate to write most evenings and, indeed, during the less busy hours at work. (This was before social networks so it was harder to waste time on the internet unless you [shudder] joined a message board). It was a long absurdist poem about the psychiatrist-client relationship with a focus on synaesthesia and bad jokes. (N.B.: Please don’t take this as an indication of my exclusive taste in poetry – I’d be mortified.) When it was accepted by Reactions 4 – a University of East Anglia anthology edited by the poet Esther Morgan – I left my dented Fiesta in the carpark and ran eight miles home, whooping like Daffy Duck. My dad had to drive me to work the next day.
The first poems you publish really stay with you – that feeling really stays with you: that somebody else has encountered something you’ve made and said yes to it. It goes without saying, really, but it’s the first, vital step in finding an audience for your work. Anthologies such as Eyewear’s The Best New British and Irish Poets series give new and emerging writers that opportunity.
At the moment it’s fashionable to describe an honour or opportunity as “humbling”, so I’ll deliberately avoid that. Humbling would be lots of people saying I’m not up to the task or shouldn’t be editing it, or saying That Kennard; he’s everywhere, he is, like shit in a field. So it’s not humbling to be asked to edit this anthology: it’s a great joy and responsibility to be entrusted with the task and I’m really looking forward to choosing the poems.
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