“Tie yourself up in mental knots and write your way back to freedom.”
The Poetry Society presents Ask the Judges. A Q&A session with a National Poetry Competition judge or three discussing the process of judging one of the world’s largest poetry competitions, answering your burning poetry questions, and divulging their tipples of choice. Scroll down to read answers from judges in 2015 and 2014.
The 2016 Judges Moniza Alvi, Gerry Cambridge and Jack Underwood answer your questions…
Christine asks: What is it that makes your heart soar a little when you read a new poem?
Moniza Alvi: To feel that I’m exploring a terrain, another planet even, that I haven’t visited before.
Gerry Cambridge: It can be a mix of things. Sheer technical virtuosity; freshness of looking; power of utterance; humour; devil-may-care energy and straightforwardness; the sense of a writer talking, as simply (though not simplistically) and plainly as possible of things which matter to them; exhilarating invention; extraordinary fictionalising. And as Yeats said somewhere, the more grievous the subject matter, the greater the linguistic energy needed to stop the whole thing being stalled by heaviness.
Jack Underwood: It’s hard to answer this, because every poem is up to its own business, but to generalise, I like it when a poem brings complexity within reach, when you don’t know what it is you’re dealing with exactly, but it’s there, it’s tangible. Sometimes it might be a new idea, sometimes a very old idea, but framed in a such a way that it doesn’t feel dampened, simplified, or tired-out by the same old approach, tropes and language.
Nicola asks: Do you think formal form is dead with regard to competitions? It is almost unheard of for a formally structured poem such as a ballad to win a modern competition? What is your attitude to structure and form in competitive poems?
Moniza Alvi: I see no reason why a formally structured poem shouldn’t win, provided it’s sufficiently fresh.
Gerry Cambridge: My answer is no. But a problem with a lot of the formal poetry I see is that it’s still stuck in the 19th century, or earlier—not just stylistically, but in content, too. (It has an olde worlde aroma: I don’t mean that it deals with subject matters that have been constants in poetry since the beginning.) If writing formally, there has to be some reason for the form of the poem. Form itself is a metaphor. Used well, of course, it can be exhilarating. I can’t see why an exemplary poem in form couldn’t win a competition. Traditional forms such as a ballad used in contemporary ways could interestingly riff off their predecessors in ways that add extra resonance.
Jack Underwood: I’ve got nothing against ballads! Or at least I’ve nothing against ballads for being ballads. I think that form isn’t something on its own, but rather form does something, whether that’s the regularised repetition of sounds, or the way a prose line gives you more words to read uninterrupted. I’m more interested in what the doing of form does. But I’m happy to receive a ballad in the post. Knock me out.
Jill asks: Would there ever be a situation where you didn’t read beyond the first line of an entry and dismiss it immediately?
Moniza Alvi: I don’t think so! And after all, even less accomplished poems are often of interest.
Gerry Cambridge: No. But often you can take in at a glance a stanza or two, or a dozen lines or so, which are enough to show the writer doesn’t know what they’re doing. But this is a delicate matter. Poems can be tricksters. One has to always allow an element of doubt that a poem might be more clever than you are and, accordingly, proceed with caution.
Jack Underwood: I don’t think so. But there might be poems where however much of a switcheroo takes place, the first line turns out to be irredeemable. I’m not sure you can expect a reader to enjoy hanging around to find out whether you really do hold noxious views, either. The ice is usually quite thin, right?
Anthony asks: Almost all the verse that I write scans and much of it rhymes. Since most, if not all modern ‘poems’ that I have seen neither scan nor rhyme, would I be right in thinking that there is absolutely no point in my bothering to submit an entry for this year’s National Poetry Competition?
Moniza Alvi: The main thing is quality. A poem that rhymes and scans can surely be one of quality.
Gerry Cambridge: Your use of scare quotes for ‘poems’ could be taken as implying that you don’t think poetry is poetry if it neither scans or rhymes. That said, a good deal of contemporary poetry still rhymes and scans. Look at Douglas Dunn, look at Tony Harrison. The issue is not rhyming and scanning. It is avoiding writing rhyming verse in a way reminiscent of a 100 or 150 years ago, full of inversions and an older diction. The issue is not allowing the form to dictate your subject matter. In a relatively rhyme-poor language such as English, among other things the issue can be one of avoiding rhyming on abstract words, which can lead to a formal poem itself floating off into abstraction. Generally speaking, poetry dislikes abstraction, though as with much else where poetry is concerned, there are no hard and fast rules about this.
Jack Underwood: There are certainly no extra “poem points” for merely managing to keep your lawn and hedgerows neat. There is a supermassive black hole at the centre of every galaxy in the universe, and there is also ballroom dancing, and there are also emperor penguins, and nowadays, the Whip and the Nae Nae. It’s likely that a range of approaches is required to suitably address this complex situation with something approaching nuance and thoroughness, so while I can’t promise I’ll like your lovely scanning rhyming poems, I would say that your dismissive attitude to ‘poems’ that don’t do what yours do is a little limited.
Barbara asks: Do you believe that those entering competitions are influenced too much by their ideas of the expectations of the judges and write to the detriment of their poetry?
Moniza Alvi: This sounds rather as if someone might write specifically for a competition. This could be a real impediment.
Gerry Cambridge: I have almost never entered a competition myself, so I don’t know. I think genuine poems are like birds: a goldfinch will never be a falcon, nor would aspire to be. Let your poems be as goldfinchy or siskinish or falconish as they wish to be. Forget about expectations of judges unless, as in the nature of a poetic commission, you find it interesting to write towards whatever you may think the tastes of a particular judge are. I really dislike the term ‘judge’ incidentally, where it relates to poetry. A judge is only a reader, like any other.
Jack Underwood: I think that those entering competitions are perhaps influenced too much by their ideas about the expectations of poetry, to the detriment of their poetry, and maybe judges have been in the past complicit in this by rewarding similar kinds of work too often. But I think everyone has to feel their way towards the risks they want to take. It can be hard working out how you might want to extend the field rather than refer back to it, and it probably involves a little discomfort, and maybe a poetry competition isn’t the best place to explore that discomfort. I also don’t think poetry competitions should, on their own, be the benchmark for quality. They are a chance to reward good work, but there is plenty more going on elsewhere beyond those poems which find their way into envelopes, that fall within the word count, that make it onto the short list.
— The Emma Press (@TheEmmaPress) October 7, 2016
Moniza Alvi: Certainly.
Gerry Cambridge: I don’t see why not. As all entries are read ‘blind’, it’s a level playing field.
Jack Underwood: Certainly. A bad poet could even win the National Poetry Competition if they happen to have one good poem that three judges all agree on.
Anonymous asks: How important is it for the judges to find a new voice?
Moniza Alvi: More important that it should be a distinctive poem.
Gerry Cambridge: Important to whom, I wonder? It is always very pleasing, as I know from my work as a magazine editor, to find a poet who has published very little but who, in your opinion, has something distinctive and original and worth looking out for in their poems. In the bigger scheme of things it’s probably not ‘important’ at all, but it is inspiriting.
Jack Underwood: It’s all anonymous, so we’ve no way of knowing what kind of voice we find beyond that of the poem itself.
— The Emma Press (@TheEmmaPress) October 7, 2016
Moniza Alvi: No. And we will see!
Gerry Cambridge: I haven’t, but I can believe it. An egg is a quite astonishing object biologically and metaphorically. As for winning the National Poetry Competition with a poem about one, everything depends on the poem.
Jack Underwood: I’ve written a few egg poems myself over the years, so I’m open to the idea.
@PoetrySociety What sort of topics do you tend to look for?
— Khalypso (@calypso_speaks) October 9, 2016
Moniza Alvi: I don’t look for topics at all.
Gerry Cambridge: I have no preconceptions at all: I don’t look for topics, but for powerful or genuine or energetic or inventive or iconoclastically witty voices writing with sufficient technical brio to manifest those voices to best advantage. Ezra Pound: ‘I believe in technique as a test of a [person’s] sincerity.’
Jack Underwood: Poems about eggs. Other topics too, though. I like many kinds of topics, generally, and shall be looking for poems about some of those as well.
Anonymous asks: What can a quiet poem do to get noticed? Do only noisy poems get served at the NPC bar?
Moniza Alvi: Noisy poems can be off-putting.
Gerry Cambridge: A story: once, many years ago, I met the poet Ken Smith in Edinburgh at a reading in company. I lived in a caravan at the time. I was a total outsider. A bunch of people were being introduced to him in a gathered informal circle. When it came to me, someone said, ‘And you are?’ Embarrassed, I said quickly, ‘oh, I’m nobody’, ducked out of the company, and rejoined a few friends out in the corridor. Five minutes or so later, Ken Smith came out into the corridor and said, ‘So who are you really, Mr Nobody?’
Jack Underwood: I’d like to think that a quiet poem might stand out for being quiet as much as a noisy poem will stand out for being noisy, provided its quietness does something interesting. Sometimes even an awkward silence can be interesting for its awkwardness. I’m not sure volume corresponds to poignancy or power anyway.
Anonymous asks: How are you limbering up your reading muscles before taking on the reading of all the competition entries?
Gerry Cambridge: My reading muscles are already well and truly of Arnold Schwarzeneggerean dimensions. Twenty-one years of editing my poetry magazine, The Dark Horse, has seen to that.
Jack Underwood: I’m cultivating an impregnable shield of denial.
Anonymous asks: What’s been your favourite poetry collection you’ve read in the last 3 months?
Moniza Alvi: Most recently I’ve been impressed by Ruth Wiggins pamphlet collection Myrtle. It’s really energetic and daring and blends the ancient and modern world.
Gerry Cambridge: Two: A Night of Islands: Selected Poems by the Kintyre poet Angus Martin, a book I also asked to typeset and design for Shoestring Press; Kim Addonizio’s Wild Nights: New and Selected Poems.
Jack Underwood: Other Peoples’ Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night, by Morgan Parker.
Anonymous asks: Does teaching poetry help with reading poetry?
Moniza Alvi: Maybe it helps the keeping of an open mind.
Gerry Cambridge: Possibly. I guess anything that involves an increased awareness of how someone responds to a particular poem can be useful. I don’t think, though, that such teaching will necessarily extend a teacher’s own taste.
Jack Underwood: Teaching certainly involves reading a lot of poetry, and it also involves a lot of thinking about how poems might work, what they are for, how they differ etc., so I’d say, yes it does. Though other jobs might help more, I don’t know. Maybe it helps to get out more, and come back and just read for pleasure, while working as something outdoorsy like a logger or cow-person?
Anonymous asks: Do you imagine that reading lots of poetry for a competition like this will help with teaching poetry?
Moniza Alvi: I imagine it will. It’s such a fine opportunity, to be able to read this sample of what’s being written currently and to see what rises to the top.
Gerry Cambridge: As I don’t really teach poetry at this point, the question hadn’t occurred to me. But I imagine, and it’s one of the reasons that I agreed to be a judge, that reading all the poems submitted for such a significant English-language poetry competition would give you an interesting overview of the subject matters of contemporary poetry—at least among poets liable to enter competitions. That could be quite valuable to a teacher of the art.
Jack Underwood: I think it will give me a more tangible sense of what mainstream poetry imagines itself to be in 2016, and that might be useful, whether as an idea to work towards or push against with my students. When you’re working with people at the beginning of their writing careers you need to be asking them what’s next? at least as much as telling them how it has been, or how it seems to be.
Anonymous asks: What’s your favourite writing about poetry? E.g., an essay, ‘How-to’ book etc.
Moniza Alvi: There are so many, I can’t choose just one. Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet might be a good place to begin.
Gerry Cambridge: ‘The Poet & the City’ by W H Auden in The Dyer’s Hand; Poetry and the Age by Randall Jarrell; The Keepers of the Flame by Ian Hamilton.
Jack Underwood: I love Madness, Rack and Honey by Mary Ruefle, and I think the essays on www.praccrit.com are good, and there’s been lots of great contemporary criticism in the LA Review of Books recently too, including Sandeep Parmar’s excellent ‘Not a British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK’ which is pretty vital reading. Wallace Stevens’ Adagia is still pretty wonderful after all these years, and Mark Waldron wrote a lovely essay in the last Poetry London. I love Jennifer L Knox’s series of interviews with funny women poets for the Best American Poetry blog, entitled ‘Send in the Crying on the Inside Kind of Clowns’, and there is a great interview of the late James Tate by Charles Simic in The Paris Review I read this morning. I’m writing a lot about poetry at the moment myself, and actually I think the most productive thinking about poetry can come reading analogically “about” poetry, by reading essays on science, philosophy, the arts more widely. Thinking laterally lends itself well to an art-form that has comparison and metaphor at its centre anyway.
2015 #askthejudge, Sarah Howe and David Wheatley
24 September 2015
You were shortlisted for the Forward best 1st collection. What would you say competitions do for the profiles of poets?
It was winning the Foyle aged 17 that set me on this path, so competitions can change utterly how you see your work. As for ‘profile’, that part can make me uncomfortable, but the Forward shortlists this year fill me with hope.
What poetry have you been reading recently, and how might that affect your judging (if at all)?
I just moved to the US so am immersing myself in all things American. New discoveries: Natalie Eilbert, Brandon Som – As for influence, that will be down to everything I’ve ever read, including the boxes of NPC poems soon to arrive…
How blind can a competition be? If you sense gender, race etc. when reading how does this effect your judging?
Agree 100%: I take Sherman Alexie’s reply after the recent Yi Fen Chou debacle as a cautionary note here – In fact, I just resolved to stop using the metaphor ‘blind’ judging after reading this article …a little parable about our most unconscious of biases – and something I’d never even thought about before – Of course, poets are masked & slippery creatures you wouldn’t necessarily expect to glimpse through their poems.
How many ideas per line is a good thing in a poem?
Oh wow! How many can you fit in? No, sometimes I like austere poems sometimes bustling ones: the poet has to decide. But there’s a really interesting question lurking here about what exactly *is* an idea in a poem: an image? A word? My art teacher at school used to say “the finest picture ever, might be of granny knitting” In other words, subject matter is only a small part of the game.
Overtly formal poems don’t seem to do well in the competition; unfashionable? Or those submitted just not good enough to win?
Hard to speak for past rounds: I write in traditional forms myself on occasion, so appreciate the challenges involved. But of course form doesn’t have to be ‘traditional’: what a guiding light is Terrance Hayes, inventor, on this front!
Do you think there are certain ‘types’ of poems that are less likely to win competitions?
Possibly, but I’m going to be making a point of constantly checking my blind spots (says the non-driver!) This is a serious question, of course, that goes beyond can a rhyming/funny/prose etc poem win… I want to think *anon* judging is a chance to try to filter out some of the biases that can creep in normally.
Where do you stand on ‘raw’ and ‘cooked’ poetry? Should a competition poem always be absolutely the finished article?
I have a weakness for both at different times. Sometimes you want a tossed salad, sometimes (err…) a grilled aubergine. I like both the high wrought and the apparently thrown together, the polished and the unfinishable. As the poet Maureen McLane said to me recently, those are just the opposite ends of a very rich spectrum.
What tips can you give to young poets looking to develop their own writing and find their own voice?
Write the thing that only you can write. But you’ll have to read a lot to work out what that is: that’s how I try!
What’s the best way to usher a reluctant bird into the poem?
Set up a hide, and spend a lot of time crouched in it in the drizzle… that, or maybe birdseed.
What do you hope will be the thing you personally learn as a result of judging the NPC?
Great question! Apart from getting a snapshot of what’s going on right now like no other…hmm, maybe looking over my own shoulder to become more conscious of what it is that grabs me, makes me linger.
You’ll be pressed for time reading the poems – do good poems strike you straightaway?
Don’t mind a slow boil opening, same way I quite like diminuendo endings – doesn’t always have to be a thunderclap – That said, you can tell quite quickly, though I try to read all to the end, just in case there’s some amazing twist!
What will your refreshment of choice be when going through many, many NPC entries?
A cup of tea (teabag brought in my suitcase from England) like the one on my desk right now – will do nicely!
What kind of tea do you like?
Just nice builders to be honest, though I do on occasion go wild with a bit of Earl Grey.
Phew, that was fun! Thanks to all for these fantastic questions. I look forward to reading your poems: get them in now!
David Wheatley @nemoloris
27 August 2015
Could a short poem win the Poetry Society National Poetry Competition?
In theory a one-line poem could win. Try us and see.
Related to the previous question: could a prose poem win? (They seem rarely to make shortlists.)
Hm, how many lines in a prose poem? Maybe prose poems are in fact one-line poems.
Don’t see why not, in other words.
Do you have a bingo sheet for forbidden words? (shard, spume, Craig Raine – that kind of thing?)
Good opportunity here for a knowing poem containing *nothing but* ‘forbidden’ words.
What would it take for a formal rhymed poem to win a poetry competition? Do you see any good ones?
Many great poems are formal but few poems formal for the sake of being formal are great poems?
Having said which, what are great poems if not forms, whatever that form may be.
…or maybe prose poems are not poems?
The true prose poems (Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé) come in pretty close to the top of Mount Olympus, I think!
Do you ever guess who’s written a poem before you know?
I often struggle to recognise old poems by *me* so it might take something very obvious.
Which poets are you reading at the moment? Do you think that will influence your judging?
Have been enjoying recent books by Frances Leviston, RF Langley and Justin Quinn.
And by Nyla Matuk, Karen Solie, Les Murray, and Peter Manson.
What will be your refreshment of choice while going through the many, many NPC entries?
Read a terrible poem and I’ll be reaching for the absinthe.
Read something as good as Baudelaire and I’ll be reaching for the absinthe.
How important is the poem’s title?
You do get jokers who make the title the poem’s first line. Jokers like John Ashbery.
Wallace Stevens’ poem titles alone are better than most people’s poems.
Whereas Frank O’Hara seemed to call every second thing he wrote ‘Poem’.
If you had to be grafted to another poet for the rest of your life, which poet would it be and why?
Not too fussed as long as I get to harvest his organs on his demise (cf. absinthe tweets earlier).
Is there such a thing as a ‘prize’ poem?
Having watched a dog show recently, I was v. taken with the strutting, bow-ties & crazed eye-rolling.
Lessons for us all, I thought.
Do you like it when a poem makes you laugh?
Yes, but ever so slightly guiltily if poem is about someone dying of horrible disease.
How are you going to combat unsuspected internalised sexism (cf. organ harvesting tweet earlier)?
Walter Benjamin said a gift should surprise to the point of shock.
I hope same would apply in the encounter between great poem and any unconscious wrongnesses of mine.
Is urban poetry overlooked and is traditional verse favoured more than contemporary poetry?
Anyone looking for urban prose poems might do worse than this contemporary classic.
Does contemporary poetry lack discipline? Is there a favouring of free flowing verse over tightly knit conventional forms?
No lack of discipline that I can see in Quinn, Paterson, Stallings and other contemporary form-wielders.
Could something in patois or slang stand a chance of winning?
I positively yearn for poems in Norn, Garioch Doric, Pitmatic, or any other raucle tongue you’re having yourself.
Do you keep a secret file of heroically terrible poems to chuckle over on dark winter nights?
I’ll give that serious consideration when the comedy value of my own first drafts wears off.
How many lines do you give a poem before it’s unredeemable?
Like sofas poems often sag a bit in the middle then unexpectedly pick up at the end.
…and yet quality of bit in the middle is more important in sofas, than in poems maybe?
Randall Jarrell said a novel is a piece of writing of some length with something wrong with it. Embrace the flaw!
Will oblique Irish references improve our chances of winning?
We are legion, remember (well, three). Choose your nation-state reference-points wisely and well!
Is it possible to give prospective entrants any general tips for entering?
First thing to say (apart from read the rules!) is ‘go on your nerve’, as Frank O’Hara said.
Beyond that: tie yourself up in mental knots and write your way back to freedom. #worksforme
Edward Thomas said no subject, no matter how big, is guaranteed to make a poem, but any subject, no matter how small, *can* do.
Plus: Ezra Pound said technique is the true test of sincerity. Mysterious but true.
Glyn Maxwell, 2014 #askthejudge
What’s the most common mistake in entries? Not having read enough or read aloud to yourself enough.
What is the most moving poem you have read? W.H. Auden’s ‘The Proof’, “’when rites and melodies begin…’”.
Have you ever fallen out of love with a poem, and thought whatever did I see in that? Too many times to mention.
I’d like to know if he is a scribbler with loads of bits and pieces written down – that’s what I do, then try to put it together! No, not really, I don’t scribble too much, I kind of trust in what I can’t forget, grow a new poem organically.
Many people have a routine to facilite the writing process, does this extend to judging and if so what’s yours? The only rule is to do long long sessions, so I can have roughly the same open mind for all the poems. And not in the pub!
So many poems to read – does it feel like being at the frontline of poetry as it’s being written at the moment? Yes I guess it’s a snapshot of now. But there’ll be timeless forms and themes, and there’ll be today’s news.
Forced to choose: Breathtaking unforgettable poem with a flawed line, or impressively flawless poem which lacks the same spark? Good question. The first. I’d rather love with a flaw than admire without a spark.
Is there anything that puts you off a poem immediately? Obscurity without music.
What does the future of poetry look like? Cue the priest and the doctor, in their long coats, running over the fields.
It must be incredibly hard to choose between your final top choices, how do you thin down your favourites? Every time I’ve judged something I’ve seen a strong consensus. At the finish line it’s taste, I guess.
What are your thoughts on the balance of form and content; is form still relevant? Form is essential. Poetry emanates from a formed creature. Your voice is formed, your content is formed.
On what basis do you decide who the winning poet is in competitions? Well there are three of us, so we’ll all have to like it. For me it has to be true and fresh and memorable.
How many judges are there and do you read every poem entered? I’m one of 3 judges and we do, amazingly, read every poem entered…
What makes a poet? Answer in one word Time. Time grows a reader, a writer, a poet; a Poet. Heart is pretty close too. Heart + Time. There. And those are the two things beating throughout, heart and clock. The rest is ‘what shall I wear today’.
What makes an exceptional poem/poet? DNA, luck, reading a lot, independence of mind, solitude, silence, curiosity patience, pride, humility
How do you know when you find the winning poem? If it’s that close I’ll find I’m staring at it.
What makes you most nervous about judging the NPC? My spine isn’t keen on lifting the boxes.
Is there such a thing as a ‘competition’ poem? Maybe one that tries too hard to fit in…
Is there a type of poem you’re looking for? No. More like a feeling of being in good company.
Which published poets are you reading at the moment? Deceased ones mostly, for research!