This is my origin story: when I was a teenager I wrote terrible poetry. Like really bad. Worse than yours, I bet. A lot of it about how every little thing reminds me that we’re all going to die one day. I wrote collections and collections of these poems, thinking one day I would have my moment. I named one collection, ironically, The Eternal Optimist.
In 1996, I found an advert for the International Poetry Competition. I was 16 years old and ready for my poetry to be unleashed on the world. Not only was it a competition with a cash prize, but it was poetry, which I wrote, and international. This was my ticket to becoming world renowned. I submitted a poem called Trail of Thought. If you ever wrote bad poetry as a teenager, you’ll have written something like it. In the poem, I went for a walk and noticed small poignant things in nature, and each one reminded me that we were all going to die one day.
I filled out the form, printed off the poem and sent it off, fingers crossed. I waited to hear back, I carried on writing, I probably finished another collection. Then I got a letter from the International Society of Poets. I opened the envelope carefully, just in case a prize-winning cheque fell out. I hadn’t won. But, they liked my poem enough to include it in their anthology, Awaken to a Dream. I closed my eyes, I wanted to scream with happiness. I was going to be a published poet.
All I had to do in order to be published was accept the terms and pay £45 (plus £5 p&p) for an anthology. If I didn’t buy a copy of the anthology, my poem wouldn’t be included. I had to convince my mum, who thought my writing a frivolous pastime, to part with £50. She even asked the question: “Why do you have to pay to be in this book?” Nevertheless, she wrote a cheque for £50 and I returned it with my letter of agreement.
I was 16 and about to be a published poet. This was what it had all been about. This is what it had all been leading to. The months waiting for the anthology were excruciating. I hit some sort of writer’s block. I couldn’t write anything. It was almost as if, now I was published, it mattered more what I committed to page and I didn’t want to write anything down unless it was good enough to go into an anthology like Awaken to a Dream.
The book arrived through the post. Here it was. The first thing I had ever been published in. A book called Awaken to a Dream, featuring a blistering take on the mundanity of mortality by yours truly. I opened the package to find a book. Containing my work. The first thing that struck me about the book was that it was bigger than A4. And it was thick. And on each page was a poem, next to another poem, next to another. The type was small and the paper thin enough to trace with. With three or four poems per page and more than 700 pages, I had a sinking realisation. This was a scam.
If each poem had cost the author £45, they were sitting on a fortune. I was humiliated. Everyone who had submitted something to the International Poetry Competition had fallen for the same hustle as me. I couldn’t bring myself to show my mum. And she never asked to see it. Perhaps she thought if the price of me learning a lesson was £50 we didn’t really have, then so be it.
But that stayed with me, that moment of realisation. Because I resolved to keep writing and ensure that my precious words always found a home worthy of them. Or at least that’s how, more than 20 years later, I justify falling for a scam. Because your first time being published should be special, and if I don’t convince myself that there was a reason for my first poem being in a vanity book, then what good was it in the first place? And, strangely, someone is selling this book on Amazon at the moment. I wonder how many other writers who went on to do more stuff are in there.