News: 8 October 2018

Will Kemp Announced as New Poetry Judge of 2019’s Keats-Shelley Prizes
A Q&A with the former Keats-Shelley Poetry Prize winner turned Poetry Judge

We are pleased to announce Will Kemp as the new Poetry Judge for 2019's Keats-Shelley Prizes. He succeeds Matthew Sweeney, who died earlier this year.

Will has a long history with the Prize. He was a runner-up in 2013 and a winner three years later in 2016. He will work with Jo Shapcott and this year's Chair of Judges, Professor Michael Rosen. For more information on all the Judges, click here.

With the 2019 Prizes just launched, we took advantage of the relative calm in the judging cycle to ask Will a few questions about his life, writing and history with the Keats-Shelley Prize.

A KSMA Q&A with Will Kemp

KSMA: How does it feel to become a KS Poetry Judge?

WK: Great! Though strange and surprising too… And it hasn’t sunk in yet really because I’ve been busy recently preparing to teach a Creative Writing course at the University of York. But it’s a huge honour, and I feel thrilled just to be considered, and delighted to help of course.  

KSMA: You have won the Prize and were a runner-up: what part has the Prize played in your own poetry career?

WK: An enormous part. I didn’t wake up to find myself famous after winning the Prize in 2016, but it did lead to speaking on the Today programme (7 million listeners) on Radio 4 and squandering my prize-money on a trip to the KS House in Rome to launch my third collection, The Painters Who Studied Clouds, which then sold out within nine months. No less importantly, being runner-up in 2013 confirmed that my conversational, American style and voice worked, and connected with readers. But more important than either of these was the commendation in 2006, when I was getting rejection after rejection from poetry magazines, and doubting myself greatly; this gave me a tremendous lift, and saw me through to winning both the Envoi International and Cinnamon Poetry Prize in 2010, leading onto my first collection, Nocturnes, in 2011. The Prize has therefore helped me achieve my life’s dream to become a writer. So thank you, KSMA – and here’s hoping my role as a judge might help save some other aspirant writer struggling against the tide.     

KSMA: Where did you grow up? And where do you live now? Are there poetic connections to both places?

WK: I grew up in East Anglia and the East Midlands, and now live in Yorkshire. The main poetic connections to these places for me were: John Clare, Constable, Byron, DH Lawrence, the Brontes, Auden, Larkin and Hughes. And above all, nature, landscape and sky: living in Lincolnshire you soon learn to look at and appreciate the sky, which may be why my first three collections – Nocturnes, Lowland and The Painters Who Studied Clouds – revolved around the themes of nightscapes, landscapes and clouds respectively.      

KSMA: When did you begin writing poetry? What part did poetry play in your life at the time?

WK: I’ve dipped in and out of writing poetry since childhood, but rediscovered it big-time aged twenty-five when a relationship ended. I had just started living in the alien environment of London at the time, and felt my life was over, but came across the poem Sometimes by Sheenagh Pugh on the tube (as part of the Poems on the Underground series). The poem offered hope, and sparked me into reading more and more poetry, as a way of both articulating the loss I felt and seeing others had been there too. Ultimately poetry provided a way out of the darkness.     

KSMA: Are you a full-time poet? If not, what is your line of work and why?

WK: There’s no money in poetry, so few if any poets can give up the day-job.  I am no exception: I work as a planner, specialising in environmental impact assessment, contaminated land remediation and the restoration of old buildings. I also teach Creative Writing at the University of York. I find this line of work challenging and meaningful, and like it very much, especially business writing – structuring a comprehensive argument in as few words as possible in order to win over a reader I may never meet…Sound familiar?        

KSMA: Do you have a particular writing method? Do you write fast or painstakingly? Does this differ from poem to poem?

WK: Yes, I tend to mull over ideas for an extraordinarily long period of time, taking notes and generally procrastinating, before finally figuring out what structure and opening might work. When I feel confident enough to put pen to paper properly, I read poems with the tone I’m trying to effect, to get me into the right writing zone, and write fairly quickly, almost as a stream of consciousness, but perhaps more in the hope that the poem will have a flow of energy and electricity of its own that will compel the reader to read on. It doesn’t always work, though!   

KSMA: Who are your influences (with apologies for the obvious question...)?  

WK: Clare, Byron, Keats, Lawrence, Auden, Larkin, Hughes, Plath, Duffy and the Amercians, especially Billy Collins. That said, there are many one-off poems that have often influenced me more than the whole works of any one poet. In particular: In another life by Carole Bromley; Arctic Fox by John Burnside; Divorce by Kate Bingham; Blessing by Imtiaz Dharker; Long Distance by Tony Harrison; Murphy’s Law by Alan Jenkins. I could go on… 

KSMA: Do these influences include the Romantics? Especially Keats and Shelley? If so, what links your work to theirs?

WK: Yes, and yes. The Romantics have had a major influence on me, especially in my teens (though in truth I was more interested The Life of Byron than his poems), and indeed my first collection Nocturnes comprises poems about night scenes, night pieces and night thoughts – and thereby owes as much to Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale as to Chopin’s Ninth Nocturne. With regard to a link between my work and theirs, I am not worthy of residing in the same sentence as them, but if there is one then it must be the striving to create a thing of beauty and/or to observe and convey nature. Nowhere is this more true than in Keats’ To Autumn, one of the finest poems ever written, since it so absolutely nails the subject being addressed, and evokes atmosphere in such a definitive way.      

KSMA: What will you look for as a Judge? Are these two disciplines (creative and criticism) linked for you?

I believe all good writing should have a beginning, middle and an end. Put another way perhaps, it should engage the reader, sustain interest and (above all) resonate. As such, I hope to see catchy titles and first lines, and feel changed in some way by reading it – so much so that the poem stays with me long after the last full-stop. As for creativity and criticism, each informs the other, though if it came down to single combat between the two, I’d be rooting for the creator to beat the critic.  The road to poetry heaven is littered with Literature students stifled by their knowledge of the rules but unable to convey their own experience and imagination in a way that moves others. To write properly and freely requires the writer to look to the sun and let the shadows fall behind.

KSMA: Do you enjoy reading your poetry aloud - as all Prize winners have to do?

WK: Yes, provided I’ve prepared well, the audience is moderately well-behaved and nobody gongs me off! Ultimately poetry should enrich and/or entertain, and work aurally as well as on the page, so poets need to be able to perform their work, so as to help the audience understand and enjoy it.  Performing needn’t mean shouting or learning poems off by heart, but should include engaging preambles and good delivery (i.e. suitable pace, pauses, volume, expression and eye-to-eye contact). You can’t beat seeing an audience smiling, laughing and nodding at all the right places.  

KSMA: Thanks Will. Anything else you’d like to add?

WK: Yes, I’d like to think my selection as a judge stemmed from the untypical largesse (remember I live in Yorkshire) of donating the proceeds from my book launch at the KS House to the KSMA – but am assured this never entered the equation…


And another thing: the proudest achievement in my writing life was to find a copy of my first book Nocturnes on a bookshelf in Waterstones – next to Keats!    

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