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Heaney, Me and Hugo Williams


I wasn’t even aware that the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry had established a prize for first collections until I logged on to Facebook and saw from a post by fellow Salt poet and blogger Tony Williams that I’d been shortlisted! What’s more, there are two other Salt books on the list — Anne Berkeley‘s The Men from Praga and Sian Hughes’s The Missing — making it three out of five for my publisher! The other two books are my friend Lorraine Mariner‘s Furniture (Picador) and The Owl and the Pussycat by Tom Matthews (Dedalus). So this continues the trend of the indies dominating the first collection prizes. Congratulations to all my fellow shortlisted poets!

That trend is also continued in the Forward shortlists, announced yesterday, from which Salt is conspicuously absent. Heaney himself is there, having been shortlisted for the best collection prize. Congratulations to all those shortlisted.

However, one can’t help but wonder at what Hugo Williams has to say. Apparently, 147 is “too big a number of books in one year in one country to put out”. I’m tempted to say it’s easy for him to say that, from his position as an established, award-winning author published by one of the mighty handful. It is legitimate to ask whether any book is worth publishing, but the thought is not framed in a particularly helpful fashion there, is it? It certainly comes  across as rather baldly dismissive. And there is no attempt to unpack or defend the aesthetics or reasoning behind the judgement*.

It’s a dangerous kind of statement, because it’s the type that journalists tend to pick up on and recycle. I can see it cropping up again and again and becoming accepted fact by default, which would not be good for poetry in Britain and Ireland.

Strange that Williams dominates the Grauniad article too, given that he’s not the chair of the judges. His comment doesn’t appear in the BBC article linked to above. In fact, the chair, Ruth Padel, makes rather the opposite point:

“It is an astonishing year for poetry, with an unusually wide range as well as high standard – from international luminaries, much-loved British voices and exciting newcomers.”

Yes, I think I’ll finish on that note.

*We get a hint of his aesthetics in his comment about Walcott. I remember hearing Williams when I was a student: he was disparaging of Hopkins, which didn’t endear him to me!

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 22/07/2010 09:25

    I wonder how many novels were published last year, and whether that was ‘too many’? Surely the good old market economy decides how many is too many. In any case, far more than 147 poetry books were published – not all are submitted to Forward for judging. Perhaps what Hugo means is that 147 was too many for him to read.

    • Andrew Philip permalink
      22/07/2010 09:47

      Yes, Jo, I can’t help but wonder whether that’s really what he means, even if he doesn’t admit it.

  2. 23/07/2010 12:05

    Congratulations on being short listed by the Seamus Heaney Centre for your first collection. Achievement enough, even if you don’t win!
    Keep writing those marvellous poems whatever
    All best,


    • Andrew Philip permalink
      23/07/2010 12:07

      Thank you, Stephanie. I will do!

  3. 23/07/2010 14:00

    Huge congratulations, Andy! Brilliant, best of luck… and good for Salt poets, eh? Ridiculous remark by Hugo Williams, I’ve been ranting about it on my blog. Idiotic, frankly. And the Guardian didn’t even comment on it. Humph.

    • Andrew Philip permalink
      05/08/2010 13:45

      Thanks, Tania. Yes, great for Salt!

  4. 29/07/2010 20:51

    Well done, Andy!

    I’ve knocked off an indirect poetic response to Hugo Williams, which I think I may post on Facebook.

    • Andrew Philip permalink
      05/08/2010 13:45

      Thanks, Rob. I’d love to see that poem …

  5. 09/08/2010 10:36

    So thrilled to read of your shortlisting for the SHP – in fact all the books shortlisted are worthy – but I have a soft spot for yours.

    I cannot fathom why HW would make such ill-considered remarks about poetry books, unless it is to garner more coverage..? Is he that clever?

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