Mimi Khalvati. Winning, lockdown and life

In 1989, when I was already 45, I entered the Smith/Doorstop pamphlet competition, then in its infancy, and to my amazement was a co-winner with David Morley with whom I had a co-pamphlet published, my first ever publication. Michael Schmidt was the judge and he subsequently wrote to me and asked if he could publish my first full-length collection with Carcanet Press. I don’t think I fully realised then how lucky I was. I certainly do now, when things are so much more difficult – there are so many more competitions, but also so many more people writing poetry and entering them. Getting to the point of having your first collection published takes, I think, an average of ten years, ten years of hard work, of attending courses and workshops, of solid reading and going to readings, of giving and receiving feedback and developing one’s work.

Unthinkable

I was lucky then, and I am privileged now, over thirty years later, to be judging this year’s Bridport Prize. But who would have thought we would all be in the strange and fearful position we are in now, isolated, worried for our family and friends, for our society and the unthinkable global situation? And for some of us, it seems unthinkable too to set pen to paper.

But as writers, we are lucky in that our work has always been done in isolation and I want to reassure you, as I would myself, that an immediate response to a situation as unprecedented as this is probably beyond our capacity at the moment. It takes time, time to assimilate, accommodate, time to let it filter through our consciousness and into language. And in the meantime, we notice that our senses are sharpened, in the silence that pervades we hear birdsong more clearly, in deserted streets we look up at the sky through blossom, and above all, we listen to people’s voices with keener attention and with gratitude, we feel the connections and our commonality. In another context, which I feel is relevant to ours, John Montague, in his poem ‘For Love in a Time of Conflict’, wrote:

When no true word can be said, or heard,

And you mirror each other in the script of hurt,

When even the silence has become raw and torn,

May you hear again an echo of your first music.

What I’m looking for

Whether we are responding to the present moment in new poems, or working on older ones and bringing them to fruition, whatever the genesis, subject or style, our writing will inevitably be inflected, unconsciously perhaps, by the angle of light shed by the past and by the life we are leading now.

It will be a huge pleasure, particularly with so much time on my hands and in isolation, to be in the company of the poems submitted to this year’s Bridport Prize and to listen to all your voices. What will I be looking for? Poems that leap off the page, that surprise with flashes of illumination and discovery, that come from and go straight to the heart; a marriage of form and content, imaginative freedom and control, linguistic energy and verve: in other words, poems that persuade me I am in the presence of a singular poet. I very much look forward to reading all the entries and wish the entrants the very best of luck, with the hope that you will all keep safe and well.

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