Welcome to the National Poetry Competition blog tour where selected poets associated with the competition have been invited to submit contributions to various poetry blogs. If you’ve missed any of the previous posts you can catch up with the tour here.
Philip Gross is featured at Jo Bell’s The Bell Jar; Matthew Caley discusses competition tactics at the Writers’ Hub; E-Verse Radio features Jon Stone; Stephen Knight, Julia Copus, Paul Adrian and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch appear at Best American Poetry, and New Zealand poet, Rhian Gallagher, looks back on her success at Rob Mackenzie’s Surroundings.
Peony Moon is delighted to host Zaffar Kunial who won third prize in the 2011 National Poetry Competition with ‘Hill Speak’. Born in Birmingham, Zaffar now lives near Leeds and works as a full-time writer for Hallmark. He is working towards a first collection.
There is no dictionary for my father’s language.
His dialect, for a start, is difficult to name.
Even this taxi driver, who talks it, lacks the knowledge.
Some say it’s Pahari – ‘hill speak’ –
others, Potwari, or Pahari-Potwari –
too earthy and scriptless to find a home in books.
This mountain speech is a low language. Ours. “No good.
You should learn speak Urdu.” I’m getting the runaround.
Whatever it is, this talk, going back, did once have a script:
Landa, in the reign of the Buddhists.
… So was Dad’s speech some kind of Dogri?
Is it Kashmiri? Mirpuri? The differences are lost on me.
I’m told it’s part way towards Punjabi,
but what that tongue would call tuvarda,
Dad would agree was tusaana –
truly, though there are many dictionaries for the tongue I speak,
it’s the close-by things I’m lost to say;
things as pulsed and present as the back of this hand,
never mind stumbling towards some higher plane.
And, either way, even at the rare moment I get towards –
or, thank God, even getting to –
my point, I can’t put into words
where I’ve arrived.
I’d stayed late after work that evening, trying to get my entry together, thinking it would take an hour or so. By the time I relented and clicked send, the cleaners had long left the building, and the lights had automatically gone out. I’d been checking (and re-checking) my poems in the dark.
‘Hill Speak’ started out in 2011, within a few months of the NPC closing date. For most of that time, the poem-in-progress was called ‘Getting There’. It stayed true to its original name. Right up until three hours before the midnight deadline – when I changed the final stanza – I’d never had the feeling it was finished. And even then …
Anyway, it went off at 9.30 pm, along with other poems I thought stood a better chance.
Sending those poems would have been a significant step for me even if I’d never received that surreal phone call – at that same desk, at work, three months later (“Hello, Zaffar? … Did you write a poem called ‘Hill Speak’? … Well, I’m pleased to say …”).
Entering the competition was going to be a first, tentative move towards sending poems out in 2012. That was the plan. For the last few years I had decided I was writing towards a collection, despite not submitting anything to magazines. I’d had some really encouraging feedback from poets I respected enormously, but I was still very slow to think a poem might be ready or finished.
I’m not even sure I knew what I might have meant by this peak state of ‘finished’ or ‘ready’.
By the time I climbed the steps onto the (rather high) platform to receive the award in a very posh room in Mayfair – my first-ever public reading – I was realising ‘Hill Speak’ was now that elusive thing: a finished poem. It almost happened as I spoke the last lines. Reciting, “I can’t put into words…”, I found myself pausing to extend the moment, looking up at the elaborately painted ceiling, before continuing, “… where I’ve arrived”.
I felt the poem speak for itself in those last two words. It was there. Wherever there was.
Ten minutes later, when Carol Ann Duffy came over and said very unexpected, generous things, I ended up bursting into tears, hiding my head on her shoulder. I was blubbing again moments later when Jackie Kay gave me a hug.
I didn’t expect any of this … least of all, when I pressed send that night at the end of October.
Other poems are starting to seem more finished now, too. I’ve had generous and unexpected responses to them at readings I’ve given at Ledbury – and at Cheltenham a couple of weeks ago – and as a guest reader recently at an Arvon course with Ian Duhig and Julia Copus.
… I still haven’t submitted any poems anywhere since the prize. But I will.
Send your entry from Leeds.
About the National Poetry Competition
Established in 1978, the Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition is one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious poetry contests. Winners include both established and emerging poets, and for many the prize has proved an important career milestone. Win, and add your name to a roll-call that includes the current UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Tony Harrison, Ruth Padel, Philip Gross and Jo Shapcott.
Read poems by previous winners of the National Poetry Competition here.
The National Poetry Competition is organised by the Poetry Society, one of Britain’s most dynamic arts organisations, representing poetry both nationally and internationally. Find out more about the Poetry Society here.
The National Poetry Competition closes on the 31st of October. There’s still time to enter.