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An interview with Patricia McCarthy


We spoke to Patricia McCarthy, one of the judges for our Poetry Prize 2017, who gave a bit of advice on entering this year’s competition.

As well as editing the poetry journal Agenda, you’ve also had many of your own collections published, including two titles due to be released this year alone (Rockabye from Worple Press and Shot Silks from Waterloo Press). Do you struggle to divide your time between writing and editing?

Patricia McCarthy:  It is really quite a big struggle between doing my own writing and all the work involved on Agenda. The trouble is Agenda takes up the same kind of psychic energy – concentrating on all those poems, and essays – and often my own work has had to be put on hold. This happened when I was teaching too. I have quite a lot of work that has never seen the light of day as I have done nothing with it. It is only because now I am becoming so ancient that I am trying to put in order poems done a while back, and also making sure I do fit in my own new poetry, though I can’t do this to order. If  I get on a roll with a sequence, I defiantly and stubbornly let myself do it, even  if this means waking up before dawn and burning the midnight oil.

As I have recently finished a new sequence, I feel washed out, as if I will never write anything else – I think this is often the way, so Agenda is to the fore full time. It takes a lot of energy, especially as there are only two of us running the whole journal.

It’s so great to have you as a judge after winning The Poetry Society’s National Poetry Competition 2013. How do you think winning that prize helped you grow as a poet?

It  was a real honour, and also a crazy gamble, to win the National Poetry Competition (I needed to pay a huge vet bill and never imagined my number would come up as I have never even won a raffle).

To be quite honest, and I hope it doesn’t sound awful to say so, I don’t really thing that that prize helped me grow as a poet. I have been writing poetry for so long that I would be a bit weird if I didn’t by now have a voice of my own, though of course one can always evolve in new directions.

Publicity-wise, I think I could have used winning the prize more constructively and got myself reading in more Festivals etc. But I am a bit of a country cabbage and, while I do like giving readings, I don’t really enjoy getting out and about too much. It’s awful when you live in the country to struggle to get the last train back, and then have to drive etc. It puts me off, though I really did appreciate the Poetry Society organising a reading for me in Keats House in Hampstead, and even more specially, at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, where I was put up in a really plush hotel. And now they have asked me to read some of my horse poems in a lovely gallery near Guildford, to accompany the curator on a few guided tours. Some real horses are being brought along which will be amazing.

Winning the prize probably does help, though, (or should) with getting your work published.

It also gets you going gambling again! For example I have entered it twice in the last two years and have been shortlisted each time, so – nearly, but not quite! I don’t enter any other competitions.

Do you have any advice for poets entering this year’s competition?

It is often said that you can write a poem specially for a competition and I do think the poem has to stand on its own (not be part of a sequence). I think it is all very random, really, and a lot depends on the subjective choice of the particular judges, once they have selected the last, say, 100 poems they choose to highlight. I suppose it is a good idea to look up the poems written by the judges as, if you like their work, there might be a bit more of a possibility that they will like yours. The same applies to sending work into poetry journals.

I also think it is important for poets entering this year’s competition to read a lot of current poetry, and to subscribe to such inspiring journals as Agenda, which specialise in poetry. I had to say this!

Could you tell us three things you’re reading/watching/listening to/thinking about and what you think of whatever that may be?

At the moment I am reading John Burnside’s new collection, Still Life with Feeding Snake (Cape poetry), Michael Longley’s new collection, Angel House (Cape poetry), Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake (Cape Poetry), Jorie Graham’s Fast (Carcanet) , Sinead Morrissey’s new collection, On Balance (Carcanet) and  Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby. I am reviewing them under a title ‘Pedestals’ for the imminent issue of Agenda. Longley, Burnside, Morrissey and Berry I particularly admire, but am not so sure, personally, about Oswald and Graham.

And finally, what is your all-time favourite poem? Or if that’s too tricky, whose work do you admire the most?

I honestly don’t have one favourite poem, but Yeats and Rilke I always go back to.

Interview by Abi Lofthouse

Our annual Poetry Prize runs 1st May – 30th June. More information here.

Short Story Competition 2016 | An interview with Erica Wagner

Portrait of writer and critic Erica Wagner

With just over a month until our Short Story Competition 2016 closes, we spoke to one of the judges, Erica Wagner, and found out that Emily Dickinson inspires her creative process. She also told us what three elements she believes are key to a good short story. 


What are you currently reading? If it’s not fiction, what fiction have you recently read and enjoyed? And what specifically did you like about it?

I’ve just read Yaa Gyasi’s wonderful novel, Homegoing (coming in the UK from Penguin in January) and I’m trying not to get to the end of Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, her take on The Tempest, which is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Homegoing is remarkable for a first novel — a book that takes us from 18th-century Ghana to present day America, bringing to life the dreadful history of the slave trade and its legacy in the United States. Atwood’s Hag-Seed is serious, moving… and funny, for she always manages (sometimes miraculously) to combine the three. It’s a perfect homage to the Bard and yet always its own story: quite a trick!

What is your favourite short story, and why is it your favourite?

I can’t believe you’re asking me this question. My favourite short story? How could I possibly choose? On the one hand there is Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, on the other Rose Tremain’s “The Housekeeper” (to mention just one relatively recent story I adored).

Which writer’s work can you always rely on to inspire your creative process?

Emily Dickinson.

If you were stuck on a desert island and you could only take three books, which three would you take?

The collected poems of Emily Dickinson (see above). A Story As Sharp As a Knife, by Robert Bringhurst. The best atlas available between hard covers: a good map is an infinite story.

In your opinion, what are the key elements of a good short story?

Vision, precision, and a sense of unlimited completion.

What advice can you give entrants to the Short Story Competition 2016?

See everything you want your readers to see. If you are there, we will be, too. Edit your story, and then edit it again. And again.


Erica Wagner is an author and editor. For 17 years literary editor of The Times, and twice a judge of the Man Booker prize, she is now Lecturer in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, a contributing writer for the New Statesman and consulting literary editor for Harper’s Bazaar. She is the author of Gravity: Stories; Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters and Seizure, a novel. Pas de Deux/A Concert of Stories, co-written with storyteller Abbi Patrix and musician and composer Linda Edsjö, tours around the world. First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner, has just been published by Unbound, and her biography of Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Short Story Competition 2016 | An interview with Max Porter


With just over a month until our Short Story Competition 2016 closes, we spoke to judge Max Porter and found out about which writer never fails to inspire him, which three books he’d take if he were stranded on a desert island, and what advice he’d give to this year’s competition entrants.


What are you currently reading? If it’s not fiction, what fiction have you recently read and enjoyed?

I’m reading Lian Hearn’s Japanese adventure series Shikanoko, Eileen Myles’ I Must Be Living Twice, and some Peter Stamm short stories.

And what specifically did you like about it?

I like the very controlled and worthwhile magic realism in Lian Hearn’s books, and the sex, and the painterly way she has with violence. They’re hugely entertaining and I need that because I ‘literary fiction’ all day every day.

What is your favourite short story, and why is it your favourite?

That’s a horrible question and I refuse to answer it. Oh OK. On Monday it was The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. On Tuesday it was The Swimmer by John Cheever. On Wednesday it is The Country Funeral by John McGahern. Thursday The Early Deaths of.. by Jesse Ball. And so on.

I’d choose The Lottery for a space capsule I suppose. Because it is devastating, exquisitely well designed, witty, political, mythic. It tells vast truths quickly and with poise. It is perfect.

Which writer’s work can you always rely on to inspire your creative process?

Angela Carter.

If you were stuck on a desert island and you could only take three books, which three would you take?

Refuse to answer. Ok, Odyssey, Shakespeare and a massive cheat Poetry anthology.

What advice can you give entrants to the Short Story Competition 2016?

You should let the story do what it needs to do and not corral it harmfully into another shape. Stories are lethal tools, let it be. Consider how many we’ll have to read and show us quickly why we need to pay attention to yours. Do not waste one single word. Finish well, all the greats do.


Max PorterMax Porter is an editorial director of Granta and Portobello Books. His authors include Han Kang, Eleanor Catton, Ben Marcus, Sarah Moss and Caroline Lucas. His debut novel Grief is the Thing With Feathers was published in 2015. It won the International Dylan Thomas Prize and will be translated into 23 languages. He lives in South London with his family.

Short Story Competition: A word from the Judges

Ursula Le Guin / Raymond Carver © Gary McNair
With just a few weeks left till the end of our annual Short Story Competition we spoke to the Judges to find out exactly what the short story means to them. First we spoke to writer and publisher Kevan Manwaring about writers, short stories and what to read to be inspired. 
What do you look for in a short story? 
An arresting premise. A life in freefall. A moment in time, dramatising life on Earth, in all its quotidian particularity. 
Which short story writers do you admire? 
Carver, Carter, MR James, Ray Bradbury, Le Guin, Neil Gaiman.
What possibilities does the form of short fiction present to a writer that the novel doesn’t offer? 
A heightened attentiveness in the reader – everything takes on a talismanic quality. Each word punches above its weight, can tip the balance, can stop time. Its the closest prose gets to magic. 
How would you describe yourself as a reader? 
A lazy grazer. A midnight snacker. A word-humphrey and narrative addict.
If you had to recommend one short story for contributors to read what would it be? 
Graham Joyce’s An Ordinary Soldier of the Queen (2009)
 Kevan Manwaring is a writer, teacher and storyteller. He runs the Stroud Writers’ Workshop, relaunched the Bath Writers’ Workshop, & is the founder of Awen Publications. He is currently working on a Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester. He also lectures in creative writing for the Open University and the University of Portsmouth.

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