Big Day Out – is your poem ready?

Originally published in Poetry News in 2012

Pondering your National Poetry Competition entry? Judges and entrants discuss what’s to be gained from your poem’s final wash ‘n’ brush up.

The kids are back at school and the nights are drawing in – it’s that time of year again. That’s right: the “season of mist and mellow fruitfulness”, when poems from up and down the country, and around the world, make their way to the Poetry Society for the UK’s most important poem competition. The holiday season is over and it’s time to get the pick of your poems ready for their big day out.

For 34 years, the National Poetry Competition has been making a difference: both to well-known poets and to the new names the competition has brought to the fore, whether as winners, as ‘commendeds’ or ‘placed’. Every year the judges, and the staff in the office, feel a palpable excitement; last year saw over 11,000 poems submitted and the winners and commendations reflected the thrill of new discoveries. 

New discoveries included 2011’s third prizewinner, Zaffar Kunial for ‘Hill Speak’, who had never sent a poem anywhere before (though he had been writing for years). In 2010, Paul Adrian’s first-prize-winning poem ‘Robin in Flight’ was also his first published poem.

How do you help your poem put its best foot forward in such company? Even after he won, Paul Adrian said, “the calibre of the past winners is truly intimidating”. But your poem is not up against past winners: it’s up against the other poems sent in for this competition, and they are all judged anonymously. Paul added, “The NPC is wonderful in its democracy:  open to all, professionals and amateurs alike, and judged anonymously, it focuses solely on the strength of the poetry.”

Ian Duhig has sat on both sides of the fence, as both a competition winner and (in 2001) a competition judge (with Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Michele Roberts, and Michael Donaghy). Here’s what he says about that process:

“All the good poems somehow created space around them as you read through the pile. I think it was Eliot who said that poets aren’t really in competition because they are doing such different things, and there are so many varieties of poetry around to be enjoyed at present that his remark is even more true now. However, within their styles some have more intensity than others: they command their space and ‘stand well’, so you want to keep looking at them. When I found a poem I liked I read it aloud several times as well as rereading it mentally many more times. I suspect most judges do this, so entrants may well want to bear this in mind and do the same with their poems before sending them off.”

So read your poem aloud – to yourself, to someone else. Show it to a friend. Give it a week, check it again, look out for spelling  and punctuation errors (everyone is susceptible). Once you’ve scrubbed it up nicely, you have until 31 October to give it a kiss, tuck in its scarf, and send it off for its big day out

Readying for the off

Here are five top tips from poetry tutors for a poetry spit ‘n’ polish 

Tamar Yoseloff

Keep formatting to a minimum. Complicated line arrangements, centring the poem on the page, italics and so on may work in some poems. But most of the time they just distract.”

Andrew Philip

“Read your poem aloud, it’s about sound. Listen carefully to the rhythm, even in free verse, and make sure it works. Pay attention to what the vowels and consonants are doing.”

Katy Evans-Bush

“Make sure your poem has a central theme running through it like a core. Do the images and the tone of voice support the mood and what’s happening?”

Kathryn Maris

When editing, take no prisoners: eliminate words and lines that are not performing a discernible function. But remember, too, that there can be beauty in imperfection. Some poems shine when vigorously polished whereas others become dull.” 

George Szirtes

Enter firmly, step off lightly: love the language and feel the narrative shift.”

Enter the National Poetry Competition!

This article was first published in Poetry News, the Poetry Society members’ newspaper, in autumn 2012. © The Poetry Society & the author.