I was one of those lucky people who enjoyed school, and whose English teachers (and I will name them, by way of a belated thank you – Dr Upadhayay and Mr Jennings) believed I had some writing ability and encouraged it. But I couldn’t see what they saw and thought it was utterly ridiculous to have any kind of creative writing ambition. Looking back on this in my forties I was ashamed of how I’d refused their encouragement, and (perhaps by way of atonement) decided I would try to find out if I did have any talent for poetry.
So I set myself a deadline – get a poem published in a ‘serious’ poetry journal before my fiftieth birthday, or … or what? Stop writing? Stop submitting? Keep writing ‘for pleasure’ and always wonder if any of it was any good? Get to my old age and feel bitter for not having really tested myself? I don’t know – but I made the deadline (just!) so I never had to find out. If it had all gone pear-shaped I like to think I would have just set a new deadline, and not ‘settled’, but who knows?
I guess I’m not one of those people who has to write, like having to scratch an itch. The world would still turn for me even if I never wrote another poem. But I get great satisfaction from doing something well. In fact, anything I do I want and expect to do well. I know I’m setting myself up for disappointment. I know it’s not fashionable, wanting to excel, especially at something creative. “It’s all subjective! We shouldn’t set store on the judgements of other people!” OK, but there are standards on which many people agree, and I don’t see the point in pretending there are not. If there are standards, I want to at least reach them. Then there’s the school of thought that says you should only write for yourself, and if you admit to wanting the affirmation that being published or winning a prize can bring, then you are a bit sad and probably not especially talented. I understand that viewpoint, but it is in itself judgemental.
Getting a single, unremarkable poem published in respected poetry magazine was important to me. I needed that one thing because it provided the motivation to get me going, to start me off – which is of course the bit that requires the most effort (I’m thinking rocket launches here).
Then a funny thing happened. After the honeymoon period of getting some poems into magazines, winning a few things and thinking I was going to conquer the poetry world, I’m now more realistic, and I’m strangely OK with that. I have goals, but they’re reasonably modest and they feel attainable. Writing poetry is part of my life, but I’m no longer on a one-track mission. I’m enjoying all the other aspects of ‘taking poetry seriously’ – being inspired by people I meet and work with through poetry, other people’s writing and all the great poetry I’ve yet to discover. I still have goals and I set myself deadlines, but they’re not all-or-nothing. Or to return to the rocket analogy, I haven’t reached the moon and maybe never will but I’m comfortably in orbit.
Importantly I also feel I’m delivering on the promise my teachers saw. I wish I could tell them how I still remember and appreciate the push they gave me, and although I couldn’t act on it then because I was too timid and immature, I’m doing something about it now.