I’ve been administering the online entries for the Poets&Players competition for five years this year. The first year I did it, Paul Muldoon was our judge and I well remember having to spend almost £100 posting a ream and a half of poems to his apartment in New York where he was teaching at a University at the time. In these five years I’ve met some wonderful poets who have acted as our judges: Pascale Petit, Jackie Kay, Kei Miller, Michael Symmons Roberts. And I’ve met some wonderful poets who put their work out there to scrutiny and were rewarded with a win. I feel in a very privileged position in this role, and it is a wonderful thing to be able to introduce our judges, and our winners, to our P&P audience at the celebration event in the South Gallery of the Whitworth Art Gallery in the early summer when, out in the park, the trees are growing leaves and young children are chasing amorous pigeons.
Some poets feel that poetry shouldn’t be a competitive sport; others feel that a poetry competition is a route to that rare commodity for poets, a small income. I’m not going to judge one way or another. It’s a personal choice, no-one will force you to enter your poems into the competitive market of the poetry prize; equally no-one will judge you for wanting to do that—except the competition judge, obviously. I’ve entered competitions myself; I’ve even won a couple. But in five years of administering P&P’s ‘fabulously organised competition’—as Paul Muldoon described it—I’ve learned something of entering poetry competitions. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned. I make no apology for teaching granny to suck lemons: if you know these things already, put your computer away and do the ironing. Remember, these are things I’ve learned on the administration job. So here are some observations I offer about upping your chances in competition with other poets:
1: Read contemporary poetry
Read contemporary poetry. Read more contemporary poetry. Then read even more contemporary poetry. Subscribe to quality poetry journals, buy collections and pamphlets of poetry. Better still, join a library and borrow these books for free; or browse charity shops and buy them for pennies. Also read ‘traditional’ poetry, get to know a variety of forms; but don’t try to emulate Keats or Wordsworth. Adding thee and thou to your poems, and using archaic forms and inversions to force end rhymes won’t necessarily make them noticeable in a good way; unless you’re using them ironically, as Wendy Cope does in parodying the traditional sonnet, for instance (find Cope’s ‘Strugnell’s Sonnets’: Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis [London: Faber and Faber, 1986] and read them—you won’t regret it). If you use a traditional form, make it new; make it now, surprise the judges. Better yet, invent a new form of your own. Use accessible language, metaphor, imagery; use the natural rhythms and music of everyday speech to build your poems; make words extend themselves with internal rhyme and surprising juxtapositions. Find new ways to say it and avoid cliché like the plague—see what I did there? Stand on the shoulders of giants to see further what’s possible in this wonderful world of poetry.
2: Join a community of poets
Attend writing groups and workshops. Get to know other poets and writers. Build poetry friendships. Offer your poetry to the scrutiny of other poets in a safe space: get feedback on your work and listen to that feedback. Really listen; act on it only if it feels right for your poem. If face-to-face feedback is daunting for you, join online poetry groups; but in my experience, the community of poets is a considerate and supportive community and a wonderful thing. Poets love poetry: why wouldn’t they want to help you make your poems be the best poems they can be?
3: Trust your poems
Surprise the judges; but do this with your use of language. If your poem is worth the reading, you won’t need upper case letters or large fonts. Don’t make the judge feel s/he is being shouted at from the page. Don’t use fonts that are difficult to read because you feel they ‘look nice’; they probably won’t add to the poem and some fonts are quite tricky to read. Consider the judge, whose job is to read around a thousand poems before making their decision. Make it easier for her/him by choosing a plain font like Times New Roman or Calibri, size 12, black ink. Most competitions ask for single spacing: check your computer settings to make sure your poems are single-spaced. Illustrations? A big fat no-no! Don’t give your poems flowery borders or coloured fonts; don’t add a photo of the Trevi Fountain to your poem about Rome. Trust your poem to build that picture for itself.
4: Read the guidance and the competition rules
Rules vary from competition to competition. Make sure you’re observing the rules for the competition you’re entering now. Read the rules; read them again. Prepare your entry according to the rules then read them again to check. Before you press send on your email, make sure you’ve attached your poems and a completed application form if this is what’s required by the rules (it isn’t always). Don’t include an author biography—unless the rules require it, in which case include an author biography. Check; double check. Then check again. The people who administer the competition genuinely want you to win. Make it easy for them by following the rules. 40 lines maximum means that; not 41 or 42; not 60 or 100. A line of poetry is a line of writing on the page; it isn’t necessarily a sentence, although it might be. If it takes up the entire line of the page, that is your line. If your sentence takes up three lines on the page, that is three lines. I make this point only because I’ve had entries in the past that are three pages long, because the poet hoped I might not notice that his/her ‘lines of poetry’ actually extended across three lines on the page. I noticed. If your poem exceeds, by a line or two, the 40-line limit, reconsider your line breaks to make it fit the rules. Poems longer than the specified maximum will be disqualified. A simple email from the administrator can rectify the unattached application form (although the administrator is not duty bound to offer you this lifeline) but alterations to your actual poems won’t be allowed, so make sure your poem doesn’t need altering by getting it right, by fitting it to the rules, the first time.
5: Get to know your judge
I refer you to point 1 above. Read the poet who is judging the competition to get a feel for their own work. Check out other competitions they may have judged and read the winning entries they chose to see what grabbed them. Of course, there may be no discernible themes to any of this; judges, like all poets, love variety; we love surprise; we love poetry made new and exciting. But at least you’ll be reading contemporary poetry; and that’s the main thing.
I’m really enjoying administering the online entries to our competition again this year. I don’t have time to read all the entries; but just sometimes a word or phrase catches my eye, surprises me, makes me want to read on. That’s what the judge wants of your poem. Surprise her/him; make the judge notice your poem among the thousand or so poems s/he’ll be reading. Make your poems fill their lungs with air, make them rise to the top like bubbles in champagne; make them a gnat that irritates but refuses to be ignored.
Send me your online entries; send Viv your postal entries: details—and a link to the rules—are on our website https://poetsandplayers.co But please, do enter. Give us lots of work to do; give our judge, Sinead Morrisey, a difficult job to do, make her earn her fee.
Lastly good luck—but who was it who said ‘the harder I work, the luckier I become’?
I’m going to leave you this week with the poem that I entered into the Wells Competition two or three years ago. It’s reproduced in my shared DragonSpawn pamphlet Some Mothers Do… (Beautiful Dragons Press, 2018). The judge for the Wells competition was Andrew Motion. The poem fulfils a lot of what I’ve written about in this blog: I wrote it as a response to a Kim Moore Poetry School online workshop. The prompt was from a poem by David Constantine: ‘Bad Dream’ in Elder (Bloodaxe, 2014). The italicised line in my poem is actually a line from Constantine’s poem. I appreciate the community of poets who offered feedback on the initial drafts of this poem. I understand the angst of entering competitions. I know the importance of having your work read by a poet of national/international renown. I have experienced the unbridled joy of winning: this poem won first prize.
San Martino di Griante
Imagine seeing that chapel from the Lake, clinging to the edge
of the mountain like a goat, how precarious it looks but it’s held
its nerve for centuries, since the Virgin ordained that this would be
the site of Her chapel; how the ancients were confident in the soul-kiss
of faith to take on that job; how all those centuries ago builders sang
as they hauled stones up that track on the backs of mules, laid them
one by one to build the chapel, how they made the mule-track into
a Via Crucis lined with shrines to the life of Christ; how one August day
I’ll decide to walk that track, visit San Martino of the Dizzying Heights;
how I’ll climb the steep path through olive grove and deer sanctuary,
past chapels, sun-bleached icons, the drying hay of wreaths until I reach
the last hundred yards; how the chapel will beckon me across a ledge
as narrow as a woman, a sheer fall right, a sheer wall left; how I’ll sit
trying to nail my courage, in the end turning my cowardice back
down the Via Crucis, where each of its shrines is an admonition;
how I’ll hear the derision of builders echoing down the centuries;
how your voice will be in their laughter; how I’ll come back tomorrow
determined to do it; how I’ll buy a peach as big as Venus as a reward
for touching the stones of San Martino of the Derisive Sneer; how I’ll sit
for aeons at the start of that ledge, talking myself into taking those steps,
how the chapel will tell me I can do it, how I’ll want to believe it; how
that peach will call out to me but I won’t break my promise not to taste
until I reach San Martino of the Forbidden Fruit; how relieved I’ll be
when two strangers will climb that mule-track, see me there dejected,
how they won’t mock but they’ll help me cross the ledge, take my hand,
stand one in front, one behind, walk me one step at a time till I reach
San Martino of the Blessed Achievement; how elated I’ll feel as I touch
its walls, admire its frescos, gaze at the lake below; how I’ll pick out
the trattoria in Bellagio where last night I dined at a table for one;
how Bellagio will shimmer in the midday heat; how at last I’ll answer
that peach, its juice sweeter than the fruit of Paradise; how one day
you’ll just be a sentence in my story, a peach stone I’ll throw away.