It's amazing how nervous The T S Eliot Prize Readings can make you, even if you don't have to go anywhere near the daunting stage of the vast Royal Festival Hall. As I drove down to the office to meet my colleagues and transship a ton of books and our rather dinky programmes to the Southbank, I couldn't help feeling anxious. The Eliot only comes once a year (just as well!) and a lot is riding on it this year, not least our regular funding application, by a horrible accident of timing due in tomorrow.
No time to think about that though, as we sweep into the unloading bay of the RFH, my car dwarfed by a space more used to harbouring orchestra pantechnicons. Then it's rush, rush, rush, as I greet the poets and run them through their sound checks with the expert RFH sound technicians. They're more nervous than me, and who can blame them, but we're ready at last.
Then it's Anne Stevenson, the chair of the judges, a small figure on the big stage, reading T S Eliot's ‘To Walter de la Mare'. Then Ian McMillan takes over as MC and after that we're in safe hands, with Ian smoothing things along, being by turns funny and profound, and always creating the perfect environment for the poets to do their best. Which is just what they do. What an evening! A rich cornucopia of poetry from ten incredibly different voices, shot through with musicality, humanity and precision, as Ian so memorably points out.
From Simon Armitage's humour to John Haynes' thoughtful verses, from Brian Turner's powerful but shocking poems of war to Pascale Petit's cry from the heart of Frida Kahlo, and then Robin Robertson's mesmerising reading. Suddenly it's the interval and a quick dash to see the two Davids, Hilary and three volunteers facing the rampaging hordes on the bookstall. Sam Willetts goes out for a cigarette and we can't start without him, so I end up dashing down to the stage door to try to find him.Robin Robertson reads from The Wrecking Light. Photo copyright Jason Williamson
Fiona Sampson's wonderfully clear reading opens up the second half, and then it's our board member Daljit Nagra reading for Derek Walcott, newcomer Sam Willetts giving what must be the reading of his life, Annie Freud with her cool, fresh voice and finally Seamus Heaney, the Laureate himself, topping off the evening with a wonderful performance. A brilliant evening of poetry to a vast audience of nearly two thousand people, double what we had last year. Who says there isn't a big audience for poetry?
Then more bookstall madness and a fantastic signing session lasting a good hour, with me standing at Seamus's elbow to make sure there are no dedications and just one book per person, so that, miraculously, he can manage to sign a book for everyone queuing up for him.
Then it's the end of the evening and everything that's left over has to go back to the PBS. We're exhausted and that's just the end of the first day.
Monday, in the office
In the morning, feverish last-minute adjustments to the press release and then it's off to the judging lunch, a harmonious occasion as Anne Stevenson, Bernardine Evaristo and Michael Symmons Roberts agree on the winner and there's time left to enjoy our lunch and talk about poetry. It's Derek Walcott, so there's a quick rustle of work on the press release before it goes out to the press under embargo at 3pm. How do we get the media coverage we've set up with a poet who's in St Lucia? Now we have to plan for the award ceremony knowing that we won't have a winner.
At 5pm it's into our party frocks and cool suits and off to the Wallace Collection, the elegant venue for the award ceremony. Hordes of guests pour into the Courtyard, it's a big get-together for the poetry world, and we're still keeping mum about the winner. Our Chair, George Szirtes, gives his usual graceful speech, this time it's a swansong as he's about to step down, and he has some nice things to say about the Poetry Book Society.
Then Anne Stevenson talks about the shortlist and the judging process, ending up with announcing that Derek is the winner: ‘"He is a very great poet - one of the finest poets writing in English." Derek's editor at Faber, Paul Keegan, comes up to receive the winner's cheque for £15,000 from Valerie Eliot. After that it's time to stop worrying and I let myself have a drink and chat to our guests. Chair of Judges Anne Stevenson with
Valerie Eliot. Photo copyright Adrian Pope
Another Eliot Prize successfully steered through. And this year we have a much bigger audience, more Shadowing Scheme entries, more media coverage and more buzz in every way. So at last it's time to totter off home in my totally unsuitable shoes and collapse with exhaustion and relief.