A Gamble Worth Taking: Entering Poetry Competitions
‘If you don’t buy a ticket, you don’t win the lottery’, so the saying goes. And the same can be said of entering poetry competitions. To get anywhere in the poetry world, such as looking to win the Manchester Poetry Prize, we must take a gamble. This is especially the case when there is an entry fee, and given the amount of applicants the chance of winning the top prize is slim. Though even if there’s no guarantee of a return on our investment (£17.50 for the aforementioned Prize), we are gaining valuable experience in and through our participation. Unlike the lottery, as well, such competitions are not simply about chance. Like any game worth playing, it is partly a test of skill.
In the case of a poetry prize, we’re able to exert some influence over the quality of our poems and where we send them. To fancy our chances we must already have, we can assume, some confidence in the merits of our own work. This may be supported by past publications or other plaudits. So, even though the odds are against anyone thinking of submitting their poems (for the Manchester Poetry Prize we are asked to submit our ‘best portfolio of three to five poems’), ego will surely play a role. Most entrants will think their poems at least stand a chance of winning. Or if this trust in ourselves and our writing doesn’t apply, and we still take a punt, we might end up surprised.
Along with the quality of our poems, it is also important to consider the panel of judges. This year, Gillian Clarke, Imtiaz Dharker, Carol Ann Duffy and Adam O’Riordan (pictured) will be presiding over the poems which arrive to them. We should make ourselves aware of the work of these contemporary poets, prior to deciding whether or not to submit and, if so, which poems to send. After all, there is nothing objective in assessing the poems. Poets will, inevitably, value some features in the writing they read more than others; perhaps they will even appreciate (unconsciously or not) poems which remind them of their own work or issues they are interested in:
More generally, certain qualities of winning entries recur: original voices, experiments with form, innovative use of language, striking use of imagery – the list goes on. One might have to, in effect, second-guess what judges are looking for in this respect. As is also true with submissions to poetry magazines, we are largely in the dark when it comes to the standard of the competition. But some insight can be derived from last year’s winners, Romalyn Ante’s writing is described thus: ‘rich and scrupulously attentive poems – this poet gave us language that seethed and teetered on the brink; this is powerful and exciting poetry.’ Likewise, Laura Webb’s submission included ‘eclectic poems that stunned us with their strangeness. Each line and image feels drawn from the depths to sound out the world in new ways, each poem different, yet marked with the poet’s astounding originality’.