Friday 4 January 2013

Poetry competitions

Are poetry competitions worth the effort?

They can be. There's more than just luck involved - the same names turn up time after time in short-lists. Winning a big competition is good for your reputation (no favouritism involved) and can make non-poets take you seriously. Also there's money to be made - although there may be many entries, the majority are no-hopers giving their money away. Looking at it purely numerically, you've a better chance of winning a reasonable prize than being accepted by a reasonable magazine, and unlike magazine submissions there's a clear cut-off date after which you can send your poem elsewhere. Some competitions offer book publication as the prize - one of the few ways for new poets to get published nowadays.

Of course, luck is a factor -

  • "When we were judging [The Booker] we tried three different voting systems and each time a different winner emerged", Rowan Pelling, the Observer, March 9, 2008
  • When Stand ran a poetry competition in 1995 with 2 judges, the judges didn't agree with or respect each others opinion, so there were 2 lists of prizewinners.

Is there such a genre as "the competition poem"?

Some people say so.

  • In Assent 65/2 D.A.Prince has a review of Robert Seatter's "Writing King Kong" in which she says "He's left behind much of the excitable display of virtuosity characterising his first collection, with its reassuring basketful of competition winners, and built on the strengths of his second book to produce a relatively quieter collection, more secure and confident. It's as though he no longer needs the morale-boosting success in competitions; he has reached his mature style, and has the assurance to trust his own instincts as to what works best in fitting these poems together".
  • "A 'competition poem' is different. It has to stand on its own feet. It can have no relation to the poet’s other work because the judges don’t know who the poet is. The poet has to believe that this poem is worth thousands of pounds, and because of that the poem has to be not only well-crafted and original, it also has to be startling" (Kurt Heinzelman and Ian McMillan, 2009 Cardiff International Poetry Competition)

Judges are looking for excuses to reject poems so avoid obvious errors and obvious subject matter. Also have a strong start/end, don't be obscure and don't take too many risks - a great line won't in itself win a competition though a bad line will lose one. Poems with obvious technical skill seem to do quite well though they don't often win.

Matthew Sweeney in a judge's report wrote "We felt that the main prizewinners should touch on ... the big issues of death and love", but I don't think all competitions are judged like that. It's best to avoid hackneyed subjects. It might also be a good idea to avoid dealing with recent big events - too many other poets might have chosen the same topic.

Winning competitions can be like applying for a job. The first stage is more to do with avoiding errors in order to get in the short-list. The second stage is where depth is revealed. The poetry style's affected accordingly.

Who judges?

Sometimes a judge won't be famous for writing poetry - A.L.Kennedy has been a poetry judge, for example. Usually however, established mainstream poets judge. They're often full time writers or tutors, not necessarily knowledgeable about many types of poetry. But they've a keen eye for bad examples of the types of poetry they understand - bad poems might be rejected in 10 seconds. When there's more than one judge, don't expect a surprise winner.

If the entry form says "Final Judge: ..." (or even if it doesn't!) the named judge will only see a short-list of poems selected by people who are usually nameless.

Is it worth reading up on the judge(s)?

If you're going to send in something that's a little unusual it's worth knowing what sort of poetry the judges don't like (they may not appreciate L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry, for example, however good it is). Don't assume however that they only like the sort of stuff they write.

When Wendy Cope judged the 2013 Bridport competition she wrote "Although I’m known for using traditional forms, I am not prejudiced against poems that don’t rhyme or scan, as long as they are good. If you do use a traditional form, you’ll need to get the metre right. Judging previous competitions, I’ve found that the most important quality is authenticity of voice – that is to say I’m put off if the poet seems to be using a special voice for poetry, rather than just being her/himself.". At least entrants would know where they stood after reading that.

Who wins?

Knowns and unknowns.

  • Sam Gardiner had a poem rejected 5 times by magazines before it won the National Poetry Competition
  • Jo Shapcott has won the National Poetry Competition twice!

In the US there's a problem with judges selecting the work of [ex]students (even in anonymous competitions). Some competitions over there now stipulate that related students can't win. I wonder how much this has happened in the UK?

Who gets the profits?

Sometimes a writers group, a charity, or a magazine. Sometimes there are no profits - the competition is sponsored or funded by an endowment. But do think about where the money goes.

Which competitions should I enter?

See the lists produced by the National Poetry Library - Beware of covert exploitation - a £1 entry fee deserves a £100 first prize, a £3 entry fee deserves at least a £500 first prize. And if the judges aren't named, don't bother entering. Here are some of the bigger UK competitions -

  • June - The Bridport Prize (£5000 1st prize)
  • October - the Poetry Business competition (£1000 of prizes + publication for a booklet), the Poetry Society competition (£5000 1st prize, about 6000 entries)
  • December - The Cardiff Poetry Competition (£5000 of prizes)

See also

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