On being shortlisted for the costa poetry award

 In Poetry

This week it was announced that my third collection of poems, Reckless Paper Birds was one of the four books on the shortlist for this year’s Costa Poetry Award. I was, of course, thrilled. From the start, I’d set out with this collection to do something very different from my other work. I wanted to write a more political book that explored vulnerability, that probed the idea of having a soul and focussed on the side of myself that is anxious and fallible, incompetent and manic. I’m so glad if the book connects with other humans who feel the same.

Here’s the thing though. I started writing poems in 1995 with very little natural ability – I’d say less than the average. I might be up for prizes now but I wasn’t the best poet in my creative writing classes at university. I wasn’t even the second-best. All I had was patience and a love of other people’s poetry. I spent many years reading, reading, reading and gradually my awful poems got better. I spent longer crafting and editing them, digesting feedback from friends and striving to make my writing more poignant. I needed to have my heart broken and to feel broken by forces like politics and mental illness and then I needed years to reflect on those experiences.

This needs saying because there are still many who believe in the Romantic idea of writing ability as an innate gift, what I call the genius myth. Perhaps it is a gift for a rare few but it wasn’t for me or most folk I know. Poetry is a craft and like any craft it takes thousands of hours of quiet honing. There’s no way around this.

It’s important to be kind to yourself as a writer. We all have our own unique journeys. Try to resist beating yourself up by comparing yourself to others. Celebrate the success of friends who’ve worked hard. When you make a habit of supporting other people, you’ll find support returns to you when you least expect it. I couldn’t be without my own group of writer friends whose events I go to and who I regularly swap work with for warm, constructive criticism. It makes the whole process less isolating. Writing is communal and we’re all in it together, doing the best we can.

Maybe, like me in the nineties, you’re someone who’s progressing at a slower pace than people you started out with but, listen, you’re still progressing. If you’re willing to devote yourself to reading and taking on board feedback you will keep growing. And as long as you see development in your work, as long as you see yourself pushing forward and breaking what is new ground for you, then as a writer you’re already winning.

John McCullough



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