Judge’s blog: Jackie Kay

Jackie Kay, the Scots Makar (National Poet for Scotland), is one of the judges of the 2019 Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Jackie offers some useful tips on writing. 

Jackie Kay smiles
Jackie Kay. Photo credit Matthew Kay.

Firstly, it’s an honour to be judging the amazing Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award. Secondly, when it comes to the judging, I’m looking for poems that stop me in my tracks and make me think, poems that are memorable, that I’ll carry around with me for the day. An arresting first line, an unusual image, a distinct and interesting voice, a different tone.

I’m looking for poems that make me care about the poem itself. I love coming across poems that make me look at something in a completely new way, and I love poems that work as well when I read them out loud as they do on the page. 

Competitions are useful in that they often motivate you to finish a poem, but I think the fact that you are entering the poem for a competition should always come second to the poem itself. In other words, the poem needs a life of its own, not just a life hinged to possibly winning a competition. Winning a competition is a way of a poem getting attention and being noticed, but it will only be noticed and get attention if its intentions are pure.

I can remember entering my first competition. It was an adult competition in Scotland and I was only 16. I was chosen as one of the runners-up and had to go to The Third Eye and read my poem to the audience which was a bit nerve-wracking. The poem was about a woman who hides her identity and it being picked out gave me quite a boost, and made me think that my poems could possibly be for other people as well as me. A while later I won a prize in The Cardiff Poetry Competition – and that was a poem about secrecy too, in this case about a miner who was in love with a barber. I think they were expecting me to be a man. 

I really admire the fact that if you are a top 15 winner of Foyle you get to go on an Arvon residential course, and meet other poets. For me, meeting other poets for the first time was fantastic, like finding a whole new branch of a family, all different, all with something compelling and interesting to say. I remember the fizz and the excitement of hearing other people read their poems out loud for the first time.  

The Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award 2019 is now closed. Next year’s competition will launch in spring 2020. All entrants will be contacted in mid-September with the results, and the winners will be publicly announced on 2 October 2019. Good luck to everyone who entered and a big well done! To stay up-to-date with everything that The Poetry Society offers young writers, sign up to the Young Poets Network mailing list, and visit Young Poets Network for year-round poetry competitions, events and advice.