In it to win it: a guide to success in poetry competitions
Let’s get something out of the way right from the beginning. The odds of your winning a poetry competition are dramatically increased if you enter. Simultaneously, so are the chances of losing, but not by the same amount. And I guess most of us don’t buy a lottery ticket expecting to win. If you’re like me, you buy yourself a dream.
But let me share with you my reasons for entering poetry competitions, because I hope I’ll persuade you to enter at least one. Which one is it? It’s the Red Shed poetry competition, which is organised by the Currock Press, brainchild of the man behind the Currock Press, the poet, storywriter, co-organiser of the Red Shed poetry readings in Wakefield, and writing tutor, John Clarke. It’s judged by Tom Weir, and the closing date is Saturday 30 March 2019.
In earlier posts on my own blog, I’ve riffed on my own reasons for entering competitions. First comes the dream. What next? I look out for competitions run by small publishers, because when you pay for your entry, you’re in a win-win situation. Your entry fee is going to keep these small concerns alive … I’m thinking of ones like Prole and The Interpreter’s House especially. Or you may be helping to promote a small festival, like the South Downs. The point is, you’re not wasting your money.
Who’s the judge?
Next thing is: who’ll be judging the competition? With the small presses, I don’t mind, but when it comes to medium and high-profile affairs then what’s important to me is whether I like that poet’s work. Why? Because part of the dream is not anything to do with money (though sometimes there’s a lot of that involved) but the thought that my work is going to be read by someone I admire and from whom I’ve learned. If the judge’s work is not the sort of thing that floats my boat, then I don’t enter, because I guess it’s more likely than not to be mutual. For example, if Pascale Petit were to judge a competition I’d enter like a shot, but not if it was someone who went in for avant-garde shapes on the page. It’s just how I am. I certainly think twice about competitions where the work is filtered by a selection committee before it reaches the star judge. The Bridport comes to mind, but they’re likely to be the ones with big prize money. Take your choice.
Is there anything else? I’m personally attracted to competitions which offer publication of your work as a prize. Some will guarantee that runners-up will appear in their magazine (as in The Rialto/ RSPB), and there are those like the Sentinel, Paper Swans or Indigo Dreams where the prize is publication of a perfect-bound chapbook or pamphlet of your work.
Finally, some poets I know will tell me they would rather submit to magazines. My answer is always that it’s not an either/or choice. I do both. But I know I’m always less disappointed by not winning a competition than getting ‘sorry, but no thank-you’ emails from magazine editors. I get a lot of those. I suppose it’s because I don’t expect to win a competition, but I’m absolutely convinced that Magma, The Rialto and the rest would be mad not to jump at the chance of publishing my poems.
Anyway, let’s suppose I’ve persuaded you. What advice can I give?
I’ve thought hard and long about this, ever since John Clarke asked me to judge the Red Shed competition three years ago. I’ve been a very lucky boy. I’ve had a lot of success in competitions. I’ve had poems chosen by Andrew Motion (twice), Liz Lochhead, Blake Morrison, Billy Collins, and Simon Armitage (twice). I have not caught the eye of Carrie Etter, Carol Ann Duffy, Alison Brackenbury, George Szirtes or Roger McGough (though with the latter, he probably never got to see it … it’s a huge comp, the Bridport). It’s hard to see that they have much in common apart from being immensely talented, and being poets I love to read.
What about the poems? I can’t see any pattern there, either. I sort of thought that most of them had been narratives of one sort or another, but when I check, I find it’s not exactly true. It’s a variety of elegaic, historical/political, mythic, anecdotal, and biographical. Possibly it’s a list that’s light on the lyrical. There are poems about Ted and Sylvia, Milton’s daughter, selkies, suffragettes, cockle-pickers, cutting hair, a 10th century princess, Everest, and the plumage trade. They’re not all in the same voice. One is in the voice of a witch, another of a crucifixion expert. They’re all shapes and sizes. What it comes down to, I suppose, is that there was something in each that caught the eye, or the ear and ‘stuck’. Carole Bromley, who judged the YorkMix competition for four years had to read up to 1,800 entries one year, tells me (I paraphrase) it just jumps out, it’s an instinctive thing … but you know it when you see it.
And that leads me to the one piece of advice that I’m totally convinced about. You don’t try to second-guess the judge. Because she, or he, simply doesn’t know. I could tell you who my favourite poets are, but I doubt it would help. Vernon Scannell, Charles Causley, Tony Harrison, John Donne, Milton, Pope, Bob Dylan, Christy Ducker, Kim Moore, Roger McGough. Blank verse, free verse, quatrains, sonnets, rhyming couplets, multiple rhymes. It’s not a question of this or that form. But judges all know when something jumps off the page. So what sort of things are we talking about?
None of this will be unexpected, I think, or new. I can only tell you what makes me pause as I look through a collection, what makes me want to buy it, or when I look through competition entries.
They don’t win competitions but they can snag the attention. Ones that explain exactly what the poem is about don’t do that. But this one does:
Sometimes you think of Bowness
It holds your attention even more because it’s also the first line. And it begins a list of the things that you remember. And each line of the first stanza begins with "and". It’s a poem that grabs you visually and puzzles you just enough to give it your attention. She can do that, Kim Moore (for ’tis she). She does great titles. If we could speak like wolves. When I was a thing with feathers. Another Red Shed judge, Julie Mellor, does, too. Speaking through our bones. Yes. Check out her pamphlet of the same name. So … think about titles.
First lines (which may also be the title)
It may not have been where the poem started its first or later drafts. Basically you know what the poem’s ‘about’, so you’re playing to get an uncommitted reader’s attention. At the same time you don’t want to give the game away. A good first line will certainly make me pay attention. Like
The first hymn is Abba: I believe in angels.
Double-take. What’s going on? Must find out. Or this one:
They lashed him to old timbers / that would barely float.
Him? who is he? A game with a pronoun to create a little hesitation, a suspense. Or this:
Isn’t it enough that I’ve yanked out my heart?
A question will catch the ear, especially if we don’t know who’s asking it or why. I’m not offering recipes or nostrums. Just saying: look at the title. Listen to the first line. Ask yourself: why should anyone bother?
Of late I’ve found myself going again and again to Clive James’ beautiful Poetry Notebook and his insistence on the memorable, the hard-to-forget. Here’s the thing that strikes me as the heart of the memorable poem, the one that sticks, the one that may just win the prize. "Everything," says James
"depended on, and still depends on, the quality of the moment … whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in."
That moment has to be brought alive, and to be bright in language. It will often be an image, but it could be a startling turn of phrase, or a beautifully placed rhyme. Trying to explain it is like trying to explain a tree or a table. It’s easier to point at some, and say: there’s a table, and so is that. And that. Here, then, are ‘moments’ in poems that persuaded me to buy collections. There might be a lot. It’s enjoyable tracking them down.
How about Robin Robertson’s 'At Roane Head'
He went along the line / relaxing them / one after another / with a small knife
It’s the shock of that last line that nails you. Well, it does me.
Or this, in a different way, from Clare Shaw’s 'Ewe in several parts', about the imagined (?) loss of a baby, taken by sheep, unprotesting, because
She must have liked it
the way she likes dogs
her hands to its mouth and stamping
like she does when she’s pleased
I kept the line breaks here because they’re part of the way the moment is made to work. Think about it.
Sometimes the moment can declare itself as an image- metaphor or simile, as this does in Wendy Pratt’s 'Nan Hardwicke turns into a hare':
An odd feeling this, / to hold another’s soul in the mouth like an egg
That stops me in my tracks. What would carry an egg in its mouth? And how full would that be. Awkward and fragile. It’s packed, isn’t it?
The important thing is that they will lodge themselves in my mind. They stick at a first hearing. There’s one like this that I heard when Kim Moore was reading at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds. I can’t remember it precisely or exactly, but I can’t forget it. She’s writing about an old boyfriend, how twice a week they would lie together, and apart, on or in a bed, not touching, asexual, "like unlit candles." And I know I can never forget it. Just in case you get the idea that ‘moments’ are necessarily emotionally fraught or traumatic, the apparently funny and inconsequential will do it, too. Like this opening moment of Mike de Placido’s 'Diktat song' (great title, too)
Some people are bad for the soul. Avoid them.
I quote granddad: Never wrestle with chimneysweeps.
You can’t legislate for it in your own poetry, but when it works, it WILL be recognised.
Technique, form and structure
Clive James talks about "the spectacular expression that outruns its substance". It’s not about formal structures or freeform, or rule-breaking or experiment. It’s a question of whether the words and their arrangement are doing their job, that they have to be as they are, rather than being flaunted to make an impression. I have no preference for one kind of poem or another. Sonnets, sestina, terzarimas, rhymed quatrains, couplets, tercets, villanelles. Just so long as they’re not like that to be decorative. Sonnets really do need to be about a particular kind of ‘argument’, don’t they? Sestinas deal happily with the obsessional … otherwise, what are those repetitions for? And so on.
This is a personal thing. But I like to know that a poem’s finished. And it’s not always the case. It doesn’t have to be a rhyming couplet. And I think that a ‘competition poem’ is different from a journal submission; it has a shorter window of opportunity. I think judges are intrigued to be brought up short by endings that surprise, that turn the poem on its head, that make you reconsider what you’ve just read. In the way that the end of that four-line stanza of Robin Robertson’s does …"with a small knife". The way it subverts what you expect ‘relaxing’ to mean, the way it throws a frightening light on the cold calculations of the man who, you realise, has just casually slaughtered his sons. There’s an art to an ending that encompasses and goes beyond the neat sign-offs of the rhyming couplet, or the rhetorical tying-off of a well-crafted sonnet.
And one more personal thing. About three years ago I spent some time selecting poems for an anthology. As with competitions, all the entries were anonymous, but it taught me something I’d not explicitly acknowledged to myself. I can’t be doing with pretentiousness or sentimentality or ego, or writing that’s out to impress. This is not the same as being esoteric, or having a wide range of reference, or writing poetry that expects the reader to do a bit of work to follow an allusion or reference. It’s just that if it looks hard, you’re not trying hard enough.
I know there are hundreds of people out there who are better writers than I am, and better than I shall ever be. I hope they all enter the Red Shed poetry competition.
The books I’ve referred to were:
A few competitions that are currently open with March deadlines (there are a number of others):
PS I just came a really useful blog post which is well worth checking out. Angela Carr's blog is mainly about submissions, but has tips about competition entries, too.