Steve: The art of losing to win

Steve Armstrong was the 2015 Bruce Dawe Poetry Prize winner, for his entry “A Cracked & Weathered Prayer”.

When writing, the first thing to lose is respect for the inner critic. Sometimes my inner critic rides my shoulder from the moment I begin to write and if I listen to its voice then the writing will belong to the critic and what “it” stands for; the particular combination of social, familial and cultural prescriptions for personhood that I have swallowed. For a piece of writing to reflect my own voice, I must first give the inner critic and all it stands for, the slip. Beginnings are tender, like the first shoot of a tree. A young tree must have the time and space to put down roots, to absorb light and warmth and to branch out into the space around it; to become all of the tree it might become.

Irish poet Seamus Heaney speaks about beginnings of a poem in this way – "the crucial action is pre-verbal, to be able to allow the first alertness or come-hither, sensed in a blurred or incomplete way, to dilate and approach as a thought or a theme or a phrase". Perhaps it’s about trusting what is looming into view.

Winning the 2015 Bruce Dawe Poetry Prize was at the time and remains a profoundly affirming experience. I found it extraordinary to have my poem, A Cracked and Weathered Prayer, chosen from hundreds of others that I imagine were also written with great hope and passion. In my experience (and I suspect for many devoted to writing) it's more common to receive rejections than prizes, rejections from literary journals and publishing houses; more common not to make either the long or short list for poetry competitions. Knock backs are frequent happenings, so it's important to learn how to validate your own writing.

So, when I sit at my desk and I choose to trust whatever arrives on the page or screen, it's the first step in making room for creativity, for my artistic sensibility; for losing the everyday reliance on willed activity. It's about choosing to place my trust in a process that defies rational explanation, which makes the kind of sense a river makes with its muscular movement, coherence and flow.

However, it's an illusion to imagine we write without any reference to external validation. For example, I read a great deal of poetry and prose, and I've no doubt I unconsciously measure (and shape) my writing by whether it makes me feel something like the same way I feel, when reading the writers I love the most.

And there's more to this art of losing. Elizabeth Bishop wrote a poem titled One Art and the first line is – "The art of losing isn't hard to master. Her poem ends - the art of losings' not too hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) disaster."

For me, in part at least, she could be writing about the courage it takes to begin with writing that feels and looks like a disaster and still remain patient with yourself and the piece (and/or your life for that matter). A Cracked and Weathered Prayer was 10 years in the writing; not worked on all those years but not forgotten.

When a poem has assumed something like its final shape, I might take the time to consider its audience (unlike this piece of writing, where I hope to have successfully considered the audience from the outset). But on the other hand, poetry, as C.D. Wright suggests, "moves by indirection and in so doing avoids the crowd". So I might not either.

However; I do ask myself, is the word choice fresh and true to the initial sense of resonance that sparked the poem?

I'll take a look at whether the metaphors work as hoped.

I will certainly ask myself if the music of the poem, when read aloud, sings along with (or suitably against, in a kind of counterpoint) the poem's metaphors and imagery?

And I ask myself, have I taken sufficient risk (listened to and incorporated some of the strange connections my unconscious offered up) to lift the poem outside the ordinary?

It seems important to me that aspiring writers not lose an over-riding desire to write beautifully, to be willing to write and re-write; to learn the craft and acknowledge that writing well depends on serving an apprenticeship of both writing and reading. I've heard it said that a piece of writing that truly moves the reader, must truly touch the writer too; that it must cost them something. After all, winning is not everything.

Find out more about the Bruce Dawe National Poetry Prize and how to enter, or find out more about Steve Armstrong, 2015 Prize winner.

Seamus Heaney, From Craft and Technique in Strong Words (eds) W.N. Herbert & M. Hollis; Bloodaxe Books, 2000.
Elizabeth Bishop, One Art from Staying Alive: real poems for unreal times (ed) N. Astley; Bloodaxe Books, 2002.
C. D. Wright, From Concerning Why Poetry Offers a Better Deal Than the World's Biggest Retailer, from her The Poet, The Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, A wedding in St Roch, The Big Box Store, The Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All; Copper Canyon Press, 2016.


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