What Price Poetry?
Following an article on Write Out Loud from our Contributing Editor Patrick Wright discussing the merits of poetry competitions (A Gamble Worth Taking), a recent debate on social media sparked some concerns about the escalating entry fees that some competitions are charging. Everybody needs to be paid, we understand that, but are there better ways to organise the finances of the entry process? In virtually every other walk of life there are dispensations made towards those who cannot afford full price, and not only is the poetry world notoriously full of struggling artists, the debate surrounding diversity across class and privilege is an extremely current one of which everyone, including our national institutions, should be aware.
Isabel Palmer (pictured) is a busy and successful poet from Powys. She has several published works, has worked with the BBC, won awards including the Army Poetry Competition 2018: Writing Armistice, is the Editor of Flarestack Poets and features extensively in magazines and the press. When I spoke to her she volunteered her thoughts on the competition entry fee pro’s and con’s:
“I won’t be entering the Manchester Poetry Prize Competition. I’ve only entered three poetry competitions in my life, resulting in one shortlisting and one win. The latter was free to enter and judged anonymously, which is about as fair and inclusive as a poetry competition can be and is probably the only kind of competition I would consider entering in the future.
However, if you want big prizes and famous judges, someone has to pay for it, unless you expect all the people administering and judging the competition to work for nothing or to go through the tortuous experience of making a bid for funding, which carries its own risks, terms and conditions. I don’t know what will happen to any profits from the competition but I would imagine that they would help ensure its future.
So what do you get for your money? In this case, you get three, four or five chances of winning with your entry fee and, if you win, the amount of prize-money is a fortune to most poets. You get a chance to have your work read by senior members of the poetry establishment who have the experience, contacts and reputation to do your poetry life no end of good – if you’re successful. If you’re not, there is significant merit in the process of preparing poems for competition, in terms of sculpting each poem I to the best version of itself and pleasure in contemplating what you would do with your winnings.
On the other hand, to someone for whom the entry fee means real hardship, it simply isn’t possible to take the risk and that is where one of the problems with this competition becomes apparent. As the example of the Bare Fiction competition mentioned on Write Out Loud shows, it’s possible to offer free or reduced-fee entry to those who need it. That should be the template for all poetry competitions, given that it is so difficult to make any money from writing poetry.
I have other concerns with this competition: namely, the panel of judges. They are all wonderfully talented and successful but how will such giants of the poetry world decide upon a winner? Abba Eban claims, A consensus means that everyone agrees to say collectively what no one believes individually. With such a rich prize, and all it brings with it at stake, I wonder what methodology these judges will use to arrive at a winner. Perhaps, that should be explained in the rules?”
It's a thorny one isn't it? With insightful views like Isabel's it can be hard to know what to do. What do you think? But perhaps the real choices lie with the competition organisers, not the entrants. Let us hope they take note.