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Manchester Writing Competition: Interview with 2014 Winners

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By Jacqueline Grima

Established by Dame Carol Ann Duffy and the Manchester Writing School in 2008, the Manchester Writing Competition has since become one of the UK’s most prominent literary awards, having presented over £95,000 in prize money to emerging writers from across the world. Initially alternating between prose and poetry, the competition now offers a substantial annual prize to both, the winners of both strands, the Manchester Fiction Prize and the Manchester Poetry Prize, announced at an elaborate ceremony in partnership with Manchester Literature Festival in October.

Humanity Hallows caught up with some of last year’s winners to ask them about their experience of the competition. In 2014 Edinburgh writer Martin MacInnes won the Manchester Fiction prize with his story Our Disorder.

Humanity Hallows: Martin, how did it feel when you were announced as the winner?

Martin: Elated, astonished, and incredibly grateful.  The only reaction I’d prepared was literally a joke – I really didn’t think it would happen – and anything else I said would’ve been incoherent. I’d worked very hard on the writing for a long time, and made considerable sacrifices, but I knew how lucky I was.

HH: As winner, you were awarded a fantastic £10,000 in prize money, which must have enabled you to focus more on your writing. In what other ways has winning benefitted your writing career?

Martin: Firstly, it really did help me focus. I cut down to two days a week at work and rewrote a novel in four months. I am effectively paying myself a wage to write. That I have a finished novel is directly down to winning the award. I also got some press, and a residency I might not have got otherwise. It definitely helped my confidence and gave me encouragement I was on the right track.

HH: What are you working on at the moment?

Martin: I’m about a third of the way into a second novel. It’s written as an anthology, and it’s about surveillance, incarceration, and the search for information.

Last year’s Poetry Prize was shared by two winners, the judges unable to decide between the work of Mona Arshi, whose collection included ‘Bulbul’ and ‘Large and Imprecise Baby’, and Michael Derrick Hudson, from Indiana, USA, whose poems included ‘Last Meal’ and ‘The Archaeologist.’ We caught up with both winners.

HH: Mona, how has life changed since you were announced as co-winner?

Mona: The prize meant so much at a time when I was just readying myself to publish my debut collection Small Hands. It was a huge confidence boost. Small Hands went on to be shortlisted for the Forward Prize 2015 and the Manchester Poems are of course included in the collection.

HH: Poetry can often be thought of as inaccessible to the ‘everyday’ reader.  Do you think competitions like the Manchester Poetry Prize help raise the public profile of poetry?

Mona: Absolutely. The fact that the poetry is judged alongside the prose writing competition and given equal weight (and equal prize-money) is hugely important. The Prize therefore does get a different kind of attention.

HH: Is there a formula for a ‘prize-winning’ poem?

Mona: No, I don’t think there is. You have to submit the best work you have. The Manchester Poetry Prize is different from other poetry prizes. You are required to submit a portfolio of work (last year I submitted five poems), so the judges can look at the range of your work, I think poets should see it an as a real opportunity to show what they can do.

HH: Michael, when you entered the 2014 Manchester Poetry Prize, did it occur to you that you might win?

Michael: I never thought I’d win, but I always enter poetry contests with some degree of hope. Since I had never entered an overseas contest before, I figured my chances of winning the Manchester Poetry Prize were even more remote than usual. But the Manchester Prize guidelines are the kind I like: a blind reading and more than one judge. Under these conditions, I had as good a chance as anyone, right? That’s what I told myself, anyway. And I’m glad I did.

HH: Has your approach to writing changed at all since you won?

Michael: Co-winning the prize gave my confidence a tremendous boost. As I mentioned in my remarks at the award ceremony (as delivered by Adam Horovitz – unfortunately I couldn’t be there), having my work singled out for such a prestigious prize was a real affirmation. It made me feel as if writing the kind of poetry I have been trying to write may not be altogether futile. Gaining confidence may not have overtly changed my approach to writing, but it has helped me to persist. It has helped me ward off those big ‘why bother?’ questions that tend to arise at 3 a.m.

HH: Do you have any advice for anybody who may be considering entering this year’s Manchester Writing Competition?

Martin: Write the kind of poems you genuinely like to read. Read the work of past winners and those shortlisted and don’t be afraid to submit if you are an obscure writer.  I am quite unknown but this did not matter, obviously.

The judges for this year’s competition are Nicholas Royle, Stuart Kelly and Leone Ross, who will be looking at the prose entries and Adam O’Riordan, Olivia Cole and Kei Miller who will be reading the poetry.

The deadline for the 2015 Manchester Writing Competition is Friday 25th September. For more details about the fantastic £10,000 prize money and for conditions of entry, see the competition website.

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