Mark Pajak on winning a Northern Writers’ Award for Poetry

When asked that old question, ‘Why study Creative Writing?’ I used to shoot back, ‘Because I want to be a waiter’. It’s a spin on a Billy Connolly joke that guarantees a cheap laugh.

Yet, like many arts graduates I know, I was a waiter after my Creative Writing BA. A temporary fix that lasted years, as I struggled to compile a first collection I felt confident with. Eventually, seeking guidance and aiming to finally complete my book, I took out a loan (the only one I could get) and began a Creative Writing MA.

By the time I submitted for a Northern Writers’ Award, I was in my final year and broke. Most of my cohort could only afford the time an MA requires having saved for decades. The rest struggled (one friend even had to sell his flat) and, with loan repayments looming, it seemed inevitable I would drop out and return to restaurant work. Receiving a NWA has gifted me these months to finish my course and, more importantly, time beyond that to hone and reflect on the resulting manuscript.

NWAs support work in progress and (with rising tuition fees, dwindling bursaries, slashed arts funding in general) are growing in importance for the many writers, like me, hoping to strengthen and complete work with a Creative Writing course. But that importance goes beyond money.

Unfortunately, part of the reason I used that Billy Connolly joke was to pre-empt and disarm criticism – as Creative Writing as a subject is still looked down on. For instance, an established writer recently told me ‘these courses just produce the same poet saying the same thing’.

However, many Creative Writing graduates such as Amy McCauley, Kim Moore, Andrew McMillian and Jacob Polley, disprove such comments. All are unique and excellent poets and every one, not just supported but also championed with a NWA. For no one can dispute that the award is highly regarded. It is a vote of confidence then and one that, whenever I am asked that old question, I’ll remember and simply answer ‘Because I’m a writer’.

Mark won a Northern Writers Award for Poetry in 2016. His first pamphlet, Spitting Distance, is one of the 2016 Laureate’s Choice Pamphlets, chosen by Carol Ann Duffy, and is available to order via the Poetry Business website.

Submissions are open for the Northern Writers’ Awards until 2 February 2017. Winning poets will receive awards of between £500 and £5,000 to support them to develop work in progress and to complete promising collections. These awards are open to applications from both emerging and established poets. See for more information.