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.

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.

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“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.”

YOPC 2011 Rules of entry

Poems of up to 80 lines may be entered.

Poems should be original work and must not have been published.

All poems must be accompanied by a SAE and entry fee of £5 first poem, then £4 each or £15 for 4. Cheques payable to Yorkshire Open Poetry Competition.

The competitor’s name and contact details must not appear on the poems, but on a separate sheet of A4.

Writers in Yorkshire should mark their poems with a Y in the top right hand corner.

Send entries to YOPC 2011, 32 Spey Bank, Acomb Park, YO24 2UZ. Closing date Nov 10.