National Poetry Competition winner

The National Poetry Competition celebrated an international winner this year in Melanie Drane, a poet from North Carolina. Here she talks to Lisa Roberts about her life overseas and her long-standing interest in the competition.

(As printed in the Spring 2006 issue of Poetry News)

There was a wonderful air of expectancy as competition organisers Helen Laing and I matched the winning poem to the entry form which held that vital piece of information – the name of the winning poet. There it was: Melanie Drane. For judges Bernardine Evaristo, Alison Brackenbury and Mark Ford the excitement increased further as they realised this was a new name to them. The next question was, where was she from? The answer was Durham – but not Durham in the North of England – this was Durham, North Carolina, USA.

Melanie Drane had become the first writer from outside the UK to win the National Poetry Competition in 28 years. Given the number of entries the National Poetry Competition receives from outside of the UK (around a fifth of the total), it's surprising that there hasn't been an international winner before.

Was this surprising to Melanie? "Not really", she says, " there is this peculiar parochialism within English language poetry. I do book reviews for an American trade journal that's read mostly by librarians and people in a position to purchase books in some quantity and I'm always staggered by how I'm sent to review only poetry books by US writers and very, very occasionally a Canadian. I lived in Vancouver for six months and was told by writers there that they had very little cross germination with American poets. I think it has something to do with the fact that poetry can be quite cloistered at times."

Melanie's winning poem 'The Year the Rice-Crop Failed' is anything but parochial. For nearly ten years, she lived in Tokyo, working as a freelance journalist for The Japan Times and the Daily Yomiuri as well as setting up a business there selling imported wines. Her winning poem evokes a strong sense of Japan as it explores the fragile early stages of marriage set against the backdrop of an earthquake and a typhoon.

Such a strong immediate environment obviously impacted on Melanie's work. "I think inevitably I feel an urgent need to respond to what's going on around me", she says. "The natural world in Tokyo is very strange – there isn't a whole lot that survives that urban density, there isn't a lot of green in the city. What survives is really gargantuan, sort of furry crows and cockroaches that grow to great lengths! Nature is very subverted and suppressed. When something happens like a wild typhoon or an earthquake there is this feeling that the subversion and repression of nature is reasserted in this very violent way to assert a presence. Typhoon rains come with such force, it's hopeless to even carry an umbrella." Hence the "abandoned umbrellas" in the poem that "littered the streets like dead birds".

And what about that magical image of "orange carp flopping through the streets around the station, under the feet of people going home." Had this really happened? "Yes, there was this very strange thing where these giant, beautiful orange carp were actually flushed out of their confines by a typhoon and an earthquake."

It is wonderfully fitting that the first international winner of the competition has such an international background. As well as working in Tokyo, Melanie studied at the London School of Economics, worked in the German Bundestag as an assistant to the Director at the Friederich Ebert Foundation in Bonn, and was a freelance translator in Bonn and Vienna.

As a student Melanie studied translation at Princeton University, working in particular on Rilke, Trakl and Celan, and believes very much in reading beyond her "own backyard". Reading 'The Year the Rice-Crop Failed' there is a feeling that through her extensive travels, Melanie has also learnt how to write beyond her own backyard. "This is a point that is fascinating, perplexing and difficult for a writer", Melanie says. "I think for me living in Japan there arises an issue of cultural appropriation. For example, traditionally there might be a particular image that carries a lot of symbolic weight. If I use it in a poem, am I obliged to accord it the same meaning or can I render it in my own terms? So for me there was an area of ill ease where I didn't know how adventurous I could be. Yet on the other hand I do believe that part of what poetry does is see familiar things as if one had never seen them before. So sort of with a stranger's eye: to look at the world with that capacity to be startled and aroused even by the familiar. Certainly the great gift of being overseas for a prolonged period of time in a culture that is so different from one's own is that something that is very ordinary becomes awesome."

Now Melanie is back in America does she still find her time in Japan is influencing her poetry? "Since I've been back I'm not writing 'Japan' poems at the moment, although occasionally I do find myself transported," she says.

Melanie's travels meant that she spent a lot of time living and working in places where her "native language", the language in which she lived and dreamed, was not at home. This meant that "poetry remained a hidden part of my existence". Melanie refers frequently to writing in secret and while on an internship at the Bundestag in Berlin she was persuaded to shift her studies from literature to politics. It seems there was a period of time, early on in Melanie's writing, where she felt she could not justify pursuing poetry or literature as a career. "The writing of poetry somehow didn't seem validated enough to me", she says. "I think this has a lot to do with the fact that I came of age in the 1980s when my peers were all marching off to investment bank training programmes. There was nothing that suggested that I could be so audacious as to think I could make it as a poet. Even now, if I'm out of an academic environment or my wonderful kind of village of poet friends – at a party, say – and somebody asks what kind of writer are you? I say, well, I've been a wine writer, and then in a lowered voice I'll say, I'm a poet, too".

In 1997 something did happen that made Melanie feel she could be "audacious" enough. She won a commendation in the National Poetry Competition. This was the first competition she had ever entered. "Winning the commendation in 1997 is what opened the floodgates for me in terms of finally daring to start sending poems out", she says. "This was a pivotal moment for me in that up till then I'd been sitting in Tokyo writing for the desk drawer! At the time I had been doing some work for Virgin Airlines, testing the English skills of flight attendant applicants, and they gave me a free ticket to fly to London. I was so excited about the prospect of being in a room full of other poets that I flew to London for my £50 cheque and a ball point pen." (The pen was provided as part of Montblanc's sponsorship of the National Poetry Competition in 1997).

Since then Melanie has collected thirteen other poetry awards, including this National Poetry Competition 2005 first prize. Often referred to as Britain's most prestigious poetry competition, I wondered if the 'National' had that kind of recognition in America. "What's so exciting about the National Poetry Competition is that it's such an act of global mobilisation", says Melanie. "I remember hearing in 1997 the number of entries that had been sent in and thinking that it really engages the public's imagination – not just with established poets but among aspiring poets. There's going to be tremendous excitement among poets I've worked with and who have been mentors about my winning the competition. My hope is that my winning might encourage more writers here in America to enter the competition and also for British writers as well to think about entering competitions here in America."

Is there an equivalent competition in America? "In the US we have a long tradition of private funding for the arts and so we have a great proliferation of contests, mostly on a smaller scale. If you pick up the magazine Poets and Writers, for example, there are long, long listings of competitions and awards."

Melanie is now back in America after seventeen years overseas, and seeking a publisher for her first book. Does this mean that she has now found a poetic voice she feels at home with? "I do feel at home with my own work now. To be perfectly honest, it's reaching the age of forty and saying to yourself, 'this is not a dress rehearsal'. You just can't stay closeted anymore. You can't suppress the voice. Regardless of whether or not your poem is taken when you send it off or whether your manuscript sits on your desk for several years it's more painful not to write and that's the point I've reached. If I have only three people who will read my work I would still have to write – it would be too excruciating not to."

Like all good travellers Melanie has acquired literary souvenirs along her way which she would like to share with other poets who are on their own journeys. These include The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the ancient Court of Japan, translated by Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani (Vintage, 1990), Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, translated by Sam Hamill (BOA Editions Limited, 2000) and The Poem Behind the Poem: Translating Asian Poetry (Copper Canyon Press, 2004). Current writers on the American contemporary poetry scene Melanie recommends looking out for are Dzvinia Orlowsky – a US poet of Ukranian descent – whose most recent collection is Except for One Obscene Brushstroke (Carnegie Mellon University Press), and Jeffrey Harrison, whose book The Name of Things: New and Selected poems (Waywiser Press) is due out in the UK soon.

After so many years of writing in secret, Melanie's poetry is now the cause for public celebration.