Originally published in Poetry News in 2016
How do poets win competitions? Rachel Piercey asked some regular entrants and winners to share advice and tips
So much seems to depend on serendipity: which poems are available at the time of a particular competition’s deadline, who the judge is, how the judge feels about a particular poem on a particular day, maybe even in the context of the other poems submitted to the same competition…
I used to only enter competitions where I felt an affinity with the judge’s own work, but I was struck by Jo Shapcott saying, at Magma’s 2015 competition prize-giving, that poets often make the mistake of trying to please a judge by sending in something very similar to the judge’s own style, whereas judges enjoy encountering poems they wouldn’t necessarily write themselves. I’ve heard other judges say that poets shouldn’t try to second-guess what judges will prefer.
At the time of the Ambit competition deadline, I was reluctant to enter, thinking that my poems wouldn’t appeal to the judge, Dan O’Brien, who writes amazingly visceral and gritty war and action poems. However, as Ambit had been very supportive of my work previously, I decided to support the journal by submitting an entry, and I ended up winning first prize and two commendations – which kind of bore out what Jo had been saying…
It can be a useful focus to have deadlines to work towards, and, in general, it is in poets’ interests to enter competitions, if only to support the journals and organisations running the competitions, which are all working to promote poetry and raise poetry’s profile nationally and internationally. And, in fact, looked at like that, everybody wins…
Geraldine Clarkson won the 2015 Ambit Poetry Competition, the 2015 Poetry London Competition, the 2015 Magma Editors’ Prize and the 2015 Ver Prize. A selection of her poetry is published in Primers: Volume One (Nine Arches).
You should read, act on – perhaps do the opposite of – the following in the full knowledge that I have never won a poetry competition. I’ve been a runner-up a few times, and longlisted once or twice too. But winner’s podium? Nah. You have been warned. On that basis:
- Don’t send a first draft. You won’t win. Seriously, don’t do it. It’s like sending an un-swaddled puppy to the Arctic and expecting it to kill a polar bear. It just won’t happen
- Proof-read your poems. Five hundred times if necessary. Whether a judge likes your poem is out of your hands. Whether a judge discards your poem because of mis-spellings or grammatical infelicities is very much in yours.
- Set a budget for entering: whether that’s per month, or a ceiling that you’ll pay per entry. This is in order a) that you don’t throw your money away; b) you don’t feel that money is draining away from your account with nothing to show for it. Be strict with yourself.
- Don’t leave entering to the last minute. I do, and every month, my recycling is full of redundant entry forms, useless as I’ve missed the closing date. Mark it on a calendar, stick it in your phone, scribble it on the fridge door – however you remember, get organised.
- Don’t shy away from competitions that require you to write to a theme. Having a brief to write to can lead you to produce something unexpected. This is generally a good thing.
- Don’t bank on making a poetry ‘career’ through competitions. Reading, subscribing to and then submitting to magazines is still the surest and steadiest way to get noticed. Entering competitions complements and is not a substitute for that.
- Poetry competitions are in part a game, so treat them as such. Some poets have a happy knack of producing perfectly turned poems that appeal to every stripe of judge and jury. I am not that poet, so know not to take this sort of rejection seriously at all. Do likewise.
- Always enter the National Poetry Competition. (And I’m not just saying that because this is in Poetry News.) It’s the UK poetry equivalent of buying a lottery ticket. You never know what might happen.
- Don’t spend your winnings all at once.
Rishi Dastidar was a runner-up in the 2014 Troubadour Poetry Prize, and longlisted in the 2015 National Poetry Competition. In 2013 he was selected for the Complete Works II programme.
I think a ‘prize-winning’ poem has to have all the same attributes as any poem if it is going to work well – a killer first line, killer ending and the bits in the middle have to be pretty good too! It is important to create a dialogue between the poet and judge – to express a feeling, an emotion or to enlighten – in order to connect. I don’t write poems with a view to entering them specifically in competitions – they can be written for something else completely, i.e. ekphrastic and then just sent in, with fingers crossed, at a later date.
I’m not unduly influenced by a judge (although obviously if I like their work, I hope they like mine too!) but if they’ve written a ‘what I look for in a poem’ blog, I will certainly read it for guidance, both in relation to their competition and others. I am quite prolific, both as a writer and competition entrant, so I think this helps in terms of multiplying the odds of success. It is such great fun to see your name come up – a bit like winning the lottery (obviously less financially rewarding, but we are talking poetry!).
Certain competitions like the National Poetry Competition are favourites as there would be such a buzz to being shortlisted or even winning. I’ve had three poems longlisted in three years of entering the NPC, so that’s a pretty good feeling too. I also like new competitions that are fresh and unheard of – again, playing the odds. It’s such a great way to support small presses – like the inaugural Fair Acre Press pamphlet competition, which I was delighted to win recently. I feel it’s like a donation to the poetry cause to support these; a win-win situation even when you don’t.
I use a diary to keep track of deadlines, poems entered and competition entry fees to check none of these get out of hand. A computer spreadsheet would work equally well but I love to feel a pen in my hand…
I seriously recommend having a go – there’s no great art to it, it’s all down to the personal taste of judges. There’s no better feeling than the ‘ping’ of a winning email or ‘plop’ of that congratulations letter on your doormat! Self-belief is incredibly important (I’ve been writing poetry for four years so I’m a relative novice) and never, ever think it’s not worth entering, or you don’t stand a chance. It’s almost as satisfying a pastime as writing itself (but not quite…). Friends I’ve encouraged to enter their work (or submit to magazines) have been delighted by their results. Competitions do take time and effort but they are rewarding if not for you personally, then for the poetry community as a whole.
Jill Munro was shortlisted for the 2015 Charles Causley International Poetry Prize, longlisted for the 2015 NPC and won the 2015/16 Fairacre Pamphlet Competition with The Quilted Multiverse. Her first collection was Man from La Paz (Green Bottle Press).
When I first started sending out poems to competitions about five years ago, I made a wish list of about ten competitions I’d like to enter, and jotted down the deadlines and judges on my calendar. Closer to a deadline I’d consider my ‘potentials’ against the cost of entering. Sometimes I decide to wait for the next one along if the cost was too high, or if it was judged by a poet whose work I was not familiar with or had a very different aesthetic to mine. But when choosing my poems, I’d pick the ones I’m most confident about, and always add at least one poem that I think is least likely to make the cut. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised a number of times! In some competitions, the judge will explicitly say what they are looking for, so it’s worthwhile checking out the competition website. Yes, I am loyal to some competitions – the NPC, Magma, Poetry London and Bridport are ones I’ve entered several times.
Amali Rodrigo won the Magma judge’s prize, was second in the Poetry London Competition and highly commended in the Bridport, Ballymaloe International and Wasafiri prizes. Lotus Gatherers is published by Bloodaxe in 2016.
I’m afraid I have no idea what constitutes a prize-winning poem and follow no pattern in entering my poems into competitions! My main aims are to support the competitions themselves, to let my poems have the possibility of a life of their own and to give me something to think about when I can’t sleep. I tell myself it’s a bit like buying a lottery ticket, there’s no chance of them winning if I don’t enter them! The scientific bit in my approach is to avoid sending poems to judges who may know me or my work well, and to keep track of poems I send out via a spreadsheet. I have the names of journals and competitions etc along the top and the poem titles down the side and I put the date I’ve entered or submitted in the appropriate box. I then colour them yellow for submitted, green for accepted and red for returned so I can see at a glance whether there’s any danger of my submissions overlapping. The predominant colour on the spreadsheet is obviously red!
Claire Dyer won the 2015 Charles Causley Prize and the 2014/2015 Torriano Poetry Competition. Her second poetry collection, Interference Effects (Two Rivers Press), publishes 2016; Quercus publish her novels.
I didn’t start writing until I was in my late forties, having been a ceramic sculptor for many years. I’d certainly not had any training in poetry and I hadn’t heard of any modern poets, not even Ted Hughes or Heaney (and what a wonderful voyage of discovery that became!). I won my first competition, The Lancaster Lit Festival, after a year of writing and only entered because I’d been encouraged to do so. Once bitten, never again shy! I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t won or been placed. It was certainly an incentive to find out more about the competition world.
There weren’t so many competitions around then as now and I’d advise anyone to explore a bit before committing your poem and cash. What incentive is there to be placed in a competition by a team of unknown adjudicators or a well meaning organisation with little knowledge of poetry or how to judge it?
Something I have come to appreciate is that if you want your poems to reach as wide an audience as possible, then entering competitions is a good route. When you work through the number of people who enter the better competitions, it’s far more than most subscribers to all but the top poetry magazines. Therefore, your chance of publication and readership through a succesful competition is that much higher too. Of course, you have to be a winner but isn’t that a good incentive to write even better poems?
I had a stroke a little while back and it has robbed me of much of my short-term memory and vocabulary. But, even though I couldn’t speak for a time, I never stopped writing and thereby accumulating a store of new poems that I frequently revisit and rework. I am not a prolific writer and I prefer to work on each poem over a sustained period. Some people can produce poems very speedily but I sometimes wonder how long each has been further crafted before their abandonment? I am saying this with my adjudicator’s hat on.
Keeping records of which poems I’ve sent where, and whether they were successful or not, is something I try to be fastidious about. I have a black book with a record of each entry, the competition’s closing and results dates, and who the adjudicator is. It would be foolish to send the same poem to the same adjudicator in another competition another time. At the back of my book I record any competition successes which would automatically disqualify those same poems being entered elsewhere. Anyone can slip up, of course. Once I did but when I realised this, I immediately contacted the competition organisers and asked, with apologies, for my poem to be withdrawn. Having been a competition organiser myself, I know what extra work a withdrawal can entail.
I can’t afford to enter lots of poems and I’m choosy about the competitions I go in for. But entering is a matter of ‘horses for courses’ so there’s no point giving you a list of my favourites. I don’t always enter the same competitions because who the adjudicator is, is a determining factor for me. I remember a friend, the poet Pete Morgan, himself chiefly a landscape poet, telling me how astounded he was that he’d received so many entries about landscapes and then, in a dropped voice, remarking that “they’d have to be bloody good, wouldn’t they!” I do think that’s always worth bearing in mind.
Pat Borthwick has won the Keats-Shelley Prize, the Basil Bunting Award, the Templar Pamphlet Award and received two Hawthornden International Writers Awards. Her new book is The Road I Take (Pharos Press). NB: The title of Pat Borthwick’s latest book was erroneously printed as The Road Not Taken in the Summer 2016 edition of Poetry News.
I believe awards work in two ways. For the upcoming writer, they give motivation, recognition and – most usefully – a deadline. There a sense in which, at this stage, all entries are born equal.
Then, if it’s a big festival prize and you win something, you have the chance to participate, meet and learn from other writers – that’s always fun.
My only suggestion is to be mindful of the judge’s own work. For example, there’s one competition coming up which will be chaired by someone I respect as a writer of endless depth. I’m pretty sure this poet will be looking beyond pieces affirming that flowers are indeed beautiful, animals are indeed noble and that death does indeed suck.
Mark Fiddes won first prize in the 2015 Ireland’s Dromineer Literature Festival Competition and was runner-up in the 2015 Bridport Prize and 2015 Wells Festival Prize. His first pamphlet is The Chelsea Flower Show Massacre (Templar).
Some of my own reasons for entering comps have been a little off-the-wall. I sent a poem in for Newtown’s Oriel Davies Gallery competition 2007 because the first prize was shop vouchers and I craved one of Penguin book bags on sale in the shop, specifically the Virginia Woolf one, ‘A room of one’s own’. And I got it.
I had a go at the English Fellows’ Association Prize because I had written a poem based on one of the glass birds made by the Finnish Artist Oiva Toikka, and I wanted passionately to buy the bird in question. I won third prize and now the bird is mine! And it’s beautiful. I gave a copy of my poem to the shop where I saw the bird, they sent a copy to Oiva Toikka and he kindly sent me a copy of his book. A truly wonderful bonus.
And when Keele University arranged its inaugural poetry prize I went all out to win it with a poem about the long-eared bat, and did.
In 2015 I won the very generous Michael Marks Award only because my publisher, Helena Nelson of Happenstance Press, took a chance on The First Telling and entered it – I had no idea she had done so until the shortlist came out. So I won’t claim credit for that under the above criteria!
My advice to others about entering competitions would be as follows:
- Don’t if you’re not sure your poem is strong enough.
- Don’t if the poems are to be sifted. One judge who reads all is preferable.
- Don’t if you really can’t afford it!
- Do if you have a strong poem that answers the theme, if one is set. I had the happy experience of winning the Havant 2009 when the theme was ‘Water’ and I had a poem about Malaysian monsoons.
- Do if you have a competition you like to support. I’ve tried to support Café Writers, and Sentinel comps and the Slipstream when I can.
- Don’t hesitate if you know you have a powerful poem – but pick your competition carefully. Those with high prizes attract thousands of entries – is your poem going to stand out? And some have international status – you’re competing with the entire world!
Finally if you do take the plunge I wish you all the good luck in the world.
Gill McEvoy won the 2015 Michael Marks Award for best pamphlet. She has three pamphlets with HappenStance and two collections with Cinnamon Press.
I don’t enter competitions as regularly as I probably out to! I tend to enter because I’m aware of the judges or the organisers, or because their criteria looks like a good fit for me – for instance, I enter Café Writers because they do great things in Norwich and recruit awesome judges, and entered the ZSL poetry competition because I love animals. I enter pretty much on whims, although a judge who I admire will always catch my attention – I would enter a competition judged by a writer with a different style to mine, but not one whose work I don’t enjoy reading, although they may be fantastic writers whose work just isn’t my cup of tea.
Colette Sensier won the Foyle and Tower young poets’ prizes. She was a runner-up in the 2012 Melita Hume poetry prize and was the adult category winner for the ZSL Poetry Competition in 2015. Her debut collection is Skinless (Eyewear).
I keep a record on my computer of all poems submitted for competitions and journals; since I started in 2009, I’ve entered thirty poetry comps and won or been placed in thirteen; as nine of these were in the last year, this suggests both an improvement in the poems themselves but also a better strategy in entering. These are my tips to maximize your chances:
Only enter your very best poems. If they don’t meet your own gold standards, they won’t meet the judges’. Do not enter comps for the sake of it or just to meet the deadline; gambling with your mis-shapes won’t work. A few well-written and carefully aimed will do better than multiple wild shots.
I’ve tried writing specially for competition entries but in my experience it doesn’t work. It can be a good exercise – e.g. I wrote two ten-line poems on the theme of ‘Light’ for the 2014 Bradford on Avon Poems on a beer-mat competition, and one was shortlisted, but it never felt authentic. Likewise ‘Song of Eurydice’, a poem I aimed specifically at judge Jo Bell for the Stanza Poetry Society competition on ‘Darkness’ in 2015. My best poems don’t come to heel like this. I feel they need to come from inner urgency and truth, crafted over time and only when ready, selected for the competition which most suits them.
Select comps where you know, respect and like the work of the judges. Not that you are trying to clone their writing, but you need to be on the same map. Often it’s the choice of judge who will determine whether I enter or not. I select from my ‘bank’ of poems any I think they might like. I only entered Wells last year because Peter Oswald was judging and I submitted ‘Spoons’, a poem very different from my usual style and subject range, using anaphora. I thought the repetitive sound structure and subversive meaning might strike a chord with Peter, and it did.
I work away on my poems until I feel they’re finished, then either enter them for the competitions I intuit they are best suited to, or send them to journals. It’s a mixture of careful planning and chance timing.
If you send a very good poem to a lower profile comp you might stand a better chance than sending it to those with thousands of entries such as the Bridport or National Poetry Competition. This has brought more success for me.
Don’t do multiple submissions of the same poem. Keep a record of what goes where and when. I had to withdraw a poem from one competition last year when it was placed elsewhere; it’s embarrassing and unfair to the organisers.
If you need help organizing your submissions – an essential task, poet John Richardson has designed a marvellous piece of software, www.secretarybird.info, which will keep track of all entries, deadlines, works in progress etc.
Rosie Jackson was joint first in the 2015 Bath Poetry Café Competition and second in the Battered Moons Poetry Competition. Her first collection, The Light Box (Cultured Llama), was published in 2016.
I write to move others: a poem has made a difference if it has told a story for the first time and lit up another pair of eyes. So I’ve always believed that poems should be put out there to be read, to have their powers to move tested. Poetry competitions offer some of the best opportunities for fresh poems to leave the circles of friends and readers that we hold close, and reach those whose work we admire – and maybe then, if all goes well, to reach others too.
I rarely do any ‘homework’ when entering competitions. If I’ve written a good poem, then who the judge is shouldn’t matter. I also don’t think there can ever be a ‘right’ competition – there are only good poems and bad poems! Some other rules for myself: I’ve never entered the same competition twice, or written a poem specifically for a competition. In other words, I only submit when I already have unpublished pieces that I’m happy to send into the ‘real world’.
Most importantly, I treat competitions as a way to grow my own practice. I’ve consciously moved from single and short-poem competitions towards those which call for suites of poems, long poems, or pamphlet submissions. In this way, I’ve tried to develop a fairly coherent body of work that could, perhaps, turn into material for a reading or a book. So many of the poets I respect somehow manage to find new ground to cover in every piece, and yet always hit the right notes with a skilled archer’s stamina and consistency. That takes hard work, and competitions allow me to see if my attempts to better my craft are working.
Theophilus Kwek won the Martin Starkie Prize in 2014, the Jane Martin Prize in 2015 and the New Poets Prize in 2016. He was President of the Oxford University Poetry Society, and his most recent collection is Giving Ground (Ethos Books).
I don’t ever write a poem in order to be ‘prize-winning’, but from my regular output I try to select those poems which I think might stand a chance. Roughly, those are poems of mid-length with a bit of initial tinsel to attract a judge, some meat available for subsequent reading and of mainstream form and taste. I also write poetry some would call ‘innovative’ or such and some designed to go down well as performance pieces: I would not normally enter those in competitions.
I enter fairly systematically. There are a few big competitions it seems always worth taking a chance in – the National of course – and there are smaller competitions which are associated with organisations I like and support. Generally I try to have a couple of irons in the fire at any one time and I will normally enter a number of poems per competition to economise on stamps/entry fees/the effort of filling in forms. Organisation is via the same spreadsheet that I use to keep track of magazine submissions – I treat competitions very much as I treat magazines.
Ian McEwen won first prize in the 2015/2016 Torriano Poetry Competition and the Ware Poetry Competition in 2014. He was placed second in the Strokestown Competition in 2014. He also won prizes in two pamphlet competitions: Templar in 2010 and Venture in 2014. His first collection was Intermittent Beings (Cinnamon Press).
I have two means of tracking poems that have been entered for competitions or submitted for publication. The first is a small notebook (started in pre-computer days) that lists: poem title, where submitted, date sent and date I’ve heard if I’ve been unsuccessful, won a prize or been offered publication. I can see at a glance groups of poems that are currently outstanding and what has been successful/unsuccessful. Each page has space for twenty-one poems and I aim to have something published or prizewinning/commended on each page, so that’s a strike rate of one in twenty-one.
I also have a Poetry Tracker on my laptop, which lists poem titles in a-z order, where submitted, the judge, notes (e.g. where published or when available for re-submission), date of composition. Entries on this Tracker are colour coded – grey for drafts, black for completed unpublished poems, red for published poems. I also maintain a hard-copy file of forthcoming competition details where I highlight essential information such as ‘make cheque payable to…’, spacing, copies required, line limit and so on.
I set aside a day every few months when I will lay out the competition details and print off all available poems, taking out any for magazine submission. Then I distribute the competition poems, taking into account subject, prize money, entry fee, adjudicator, cost and so on. It is a balancing act. No single factor is decisive. Occasionally I send poems that might appeal to a particular judge, but this is risky – there is no point in sending poor imitations of their own work when what they are looking for is freshness.
I don’t bother with SAEs for competitions. (If you are successful, people are only too pleased to email or phone, and these moments make it all worthwhile.) I update the Notebook and Tracker (especially noting when poems will be available for re-submission elsewhere).
Once submitted, I wait, as Thomas Hardy would say, in “unhope”. It is good to have irons in the fire, but competitions are a lottery. One cannot influence the outcome, and rejection is not necessarily a comment upon one’s work. The number and strength of submissions, the taste and mood of the adjudicator, and such like, are beyond knowing.
If a poem wins a prize, I go to the presentation ceremony if the prize covers expenses. It is always good to meet and talk with other poets and to share ideas. Having attended a presentation event, one gets a feeling for the competition, and some become ‘favourites’.
In my experience, there is no such thing as ‘a competition poem’ – I’ve won with a poem of twenty-six words and another of solid A4 text; with images and with none. It seems important that the poem can stand alone, as distinct from being part of a sequence or collection. The thing is to have confidence in your poem as a poem. Somebody must win.
Peter Wallis is three times winner of the Thetford Open Poetry Competition and Submissions Editor for the charity Poems in the Waiting Room. He won publication of a pamphlet in the 2015 Bare Fiction Debut Poetry Collection Competition.