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Primers: an interview with this year’s judge, Kathryn Maris

As the deadline for our Primers scheme edges ever closer (1st September – apply now!) we spoke to this year’s judge Kathryn Maris about what she’s going to be looking for in a submission, the predictability of poetry prizes, and savaging one’s own work. The perfect way to get the inside track on this unique mentoring and publishing opportunity.

Hi Kathryn – how was your holiday? What books did you take?

Kathryn: My holiday was great, thanks, and I did a lot of reading.

Because I was working on some Freud poems, I read most of The Collected Works of Sigmund Freud on e-reader. I also read a little of Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle for another poem-in-progress, but abandoned both the poem and the voyage. For fun I read The Best British Short Stories 2014. I love the short story form but have never managed to pull off a story, myself, that is longer than a few hundred words. I’m in awe of a poet like Kathryn Simmonds who has crossed the ‘prose fiction barrier’. I read her novel Love And Fallout, about the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, too.

And finally, in preparation for the online Alice Oswald reading course I’m leading in the autumn, I reread Oswald’s first collection, The Thing in the Gap-Stone Stile.

Why do you feel that Primers is an important project? What made you want to take part?

Kathryn: Although there are more opportunities for new writers than ever, a lot of those opportunities seem targeted at under-30s even when youth isn’t explicitly stated in the guidelines.  I appreciate that Primers is open to anyone who has not yet published a first collection, regardless of age, and that the submissions are judged anonymously. And while I regret that the endeavour is limited to UK residents, the ‘mentorship’ element would be too difficult for an overseas winner who couldn’t meet with Jane and me in person; and it would be difficult, too, for an overseas poet to participate in readings and events once Primers is published.

What are you most looking forward to as an editor and mentor of the poets involved in Primers?

Kathryn: Everyone likes to feel they’ve discovered something, and of course I look forward to that initial joy of discovery when compiling the shortlist with Jane (who I am really excited about working with). But spotting talent is the easy part. What requires more consideration, at least in my experience as a teacher, is helping to develop a talent—but that’s the more rewarding part for me.

Is there anything specific that you’d hope the Primers publication will contribute to emerging British poetry? Is there something you think is missing from contemporary poetry in the UK, or that there should be more of?

Kathryn: I think contemporary British poetry has become very rich and diverse, which I don’t think I’d have said in 1999 when I first moved here. What can be predictable, however, are outcomes of some prizes and plaudits: there doesn’t seem to be a lot of variability on many of the shortlists or—more importantly—on the judging side of things. Occasionally I’ll notice the same poet judging six, seven or more competitions over a period of a couple of years, reflecting, I think, a lack of imagination on the part of some prize administrators, which, in turn, can result in homogeneous lists. While I think it’s important for established poets to ‘give back’ by being a judge or selector, I also think that if you’re asked to judge again and again, and if you say yes to everything, it starts to look less like public service and more like narcissism. You are shaping the landscape through the imposition of your own tastes.  I think Nine Arches and the Poetry School, in selecting me as a judge, have taken a risk, because I don’t have a track record as an editor or judge in this country. But such risk-taking can be a way to diversify the landscape.

What were your own experiences as an emerging poet? Did you have a standout moment that helped to progress your career?

Kathryn: I was lucky that encouraging things happened early on, providing a cushion against the disappointments and failures that occurred alongside those successes. I won the undergraduate poetry prize at Columbia University; and at Boston University, where I did my MA, I received an Academy of American Poets College and University prize. I published work in good magazines. I had great teachers, and I listened to them. I was never complacent; I always tried to get better. The biggest boost to my confidence was being awarded fellowships by the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where 10 visual artists and 10 writers are selected to work side by side for 7 months on Cape Cod with no responsibilities except to make art. It’s somewhat analogous to a Wordsworth Trust residency.  I had that fellowship in 1996 and again in 2003—and it was a huge gift, both times.

Did you experience many stumbling blocks when you were starting out?

Kathryn: Well, yes, mostly to do with timing and a transatlantic move. Having made progress as an emerging poet in the US, it was humbling to relocate to the UK and find I had to prove myself all over again in a parallel universe of poets I had never heard of, whose aesthetic values felt different to those of my American contemporaries and mentors.  Also, while motherhood doesn’t have to be interruptive to a woman’s writing career, it’s less interruptive for new mothers who have already published a book, or who have a book contract underway, which I did not. Finally, I did a lot of indecisive to-ing and fro-ing between the US and the UK with my children when they were little, but ultimately landed here in the UK. So publishing my first book in the US made for a remote and confusing debut.

Have you been involved in projects similar to Primers in the past, as a mentor/mentee?

Kathryn: I’ve been a judge a few times for the Fine Arts Work Center fellowship. The guidelines are similar to those for Primers, so I’ve been through an almost identical process of longlisting, shortlisting, and selecting. I’ve also been a ‘reader’ for magazines in the US such as Ploughshares and The Paris Review, and I’ve screened for competitions. As for mentoring, I have informally mentored students and former students from time to time.

What are you working on at the moment?

Kathryn: I’m working on a third collection. The poems are a little abrasive, a little uncomfortable. Some of them have Freud in them; some are pseudoscientific fictions; some are prose poems. I’m also in talks with a pamphlet publisher, and hope to bring out a pamphlet sometime soon.

What is your own editing process like? Has it taken you a while to understand your own style or habits of working?

Kathryn: My style and habits of working are pretty helter-skelter. When I have an idea, I write, even if it means that other things in my life go out the window for a time. But I also have long stretches of not writing.  As for editing: if there’s any slackness, I try to get rid of it. I’m cruel to my poems. If they bore me for even a second, I try to speed them up.  I’ve been helped a lot by writing groups. The one I currently meet up with is really smart and lively.

Do you have any advice for poets submitting to Primers?

Kathryn: Because I like almost any kind of poem if it’s done well—musical, discordant, lyrical, non-lyrical, rural, urban, long-lined, short lined, formal, messy, spare, excessive, loud, quiet, anecdotal, non-narrative, non-mainstream, list-y—there is no need to second-guess my tastes because I don’t think you could. And though versatility isn’t essential, it is something I admire: I don’t think there’s a downside to being able to work in different modes, forms or registers. My main piece of advice, though, is the advice that everyone gives because it’s true and applies to every stage of a career: read widely.

I should also point out that there is, inevitably, a degree of arbitrariness when choosing a few poets out of a large pile. If you are not selected, don’t be too disappointed. It’s a nice opportunity, but there will be others, including future opportunities to send work to be considered for further volumes of Primers.

Guide your poems into print with Primers, a new publishing and mentoring scheme for debut poets. Full submission details and further information can be found on our Primers page.

Kathryn Maris is a poet from New York who has lived in London since 1999, and the author of God Loves You (Seren, 2013) and The Book of Jobs (Four Way Books, 2006). She has won a Pushcart Prize, an Academy of American Poets award, and fellowships from Yaddo, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Hawthornden Castle. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Review, PloughsharesPoetry London, SlatePoetryThe Spectator and The Financial Times, as well as in many anthologies, including Best British Poetry 2012, Dark Matter: Poems of Space and the Oxford Poets Anthology.  She teaches online and face-to-face classes for the Poetry School and our 6th Digital Poet in Residence, in tandem with Jason Schneiderman (DPIR #5).

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Image: Jasper Johns, White Flag (1955)

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