Originally published in Poetry News in 2013
Are you readying your entry for this year’s National Poetry Competition? Here, some of the 2012 winners describe how it feels to have made the top ten, and offer tips and encouragement to this year’s challengers.
With thoughts from John Freeman, Patricia McCarthy, Edward Barker, Pascale Petit, Robert Stein, Jane Draycott, Stuart Pickford, Keith Chandler, David Swann and Sally Goldsmith.
For any poet, it’s good to hear that distinguished judges like something of yours, that it has won you some some cash, and will be published in print and online. It was fun keeping all this secret for six weeks, and even more fun attending the awards ceremony, and meeting poets and others. It’s good to hear a much-admired poet explain why the judges liked your poem and then to read it out yourself to a crowded room. And it was good to be part of a reading organised by the Poetry Society at the Ledbury Festival in July with Cheltenham Festival still to come, in October. Oh, and the winning poems are online for all to see and hear, read by the poets, having been filmed on the morning of the awards. I’ve copied and pasted the link a few times in emails. Even people you don’t know personally see it and sometimes get in touch.
Did I feel differently about my poem once it won? I sent five poems but as soon as I knew this particular one had found favour, naturally it shot up in my estimation. What’s more, I thought I could see what it might have that my others had not, and I have confirmed this by comparing it with some of the other winning poems. Simply, that there are two or three things going on at once. But does this mean that all competition winners always have two or more things going on simultaneously? Probably not. Does this theory of mine make it any easier for me to spot my prize-winners? So far, definitely not. But I am working on it.
Of course, competition judges are paragons of wisdom and not finding favour with them can be a disheartening experience. To cope with it, you should allow yourself to pretend that they are obtuse and slaves to mistaken ideas of what poetry is, though I’d stop short of saying this and of sticking pins into wax models. Don’t write poems for the sake of praise or money. Write them because you must and can’t imagine not writing them. If praise or money come, they are a bonus.
The Poetry Society treats you like a king or queen when you win the NPC. They help to put you and your poetry on the map. As the Editor of Agenda, I have very little time for my own work and no holidays really, spending most of my time promoting others. I am very bad at doing my own PR for my own poetry – in fact, I hate it – but to survive as a poet these days, poets need such skills and the opportunities the NPC creates.
I get something extra from the impetus of competition deadlines. The last few hours of slow-motion frenzy just before the envelope is licked seem to de-burr the mind, to provide a clearer view of the poem: plumbing going nowhere, the sagging lintels and tottering chimneys that suddenly show through the mist. How’d I miss them?
Where does that fog come from anyway? If I had the sense to take advice, I’d read and memorise more, and try to follow techniques and approaches, rather than surface diction or style. Above all, I’d enjoy reading more. There’s nothing quite like reading a poem together with a really good reader.
I’d tell myself to enjoy the process of composing and editing more, too, allowing more room in the mind for the poem to unfold. We should never lose the opportunity to really get stuck into our favourite poems, to learn how they tick and become their best advocates and connoisseurs. That’s surely the best way to form an aesthetic and modus operandi of one’s own.
Having ‘Harpy Eagle Father’ chosen from so many entries was very encouraging. It’s one of the first I wrote for my collection-in-progress, Fauverie, and it gave me a boost to think that the judges noticed it. I didn’t consider it a ‘competition poem’ – I tend to write in long sequences where poems perhaps benefit from the context of others in the collection. So it was good to know that it managed to stand on its own. And I did think differently about it after it was commended – perhaps I was able to see this poem more objectively, through the judges’ eyes.
For me, the best thing about being shortlisted for the NPC was not the cheque (though welcome) nor the awards evening (though ritzy) but the feeling that poets I respect have, without any possibility of bias, enjoyed one of my poems sufficiently to say so publicly. Since the poem, ‘Hommage de M. Erik Satie à Soi-Même’, is, to boot, one I would describe as a risky departure for me, I appreciated this the more.
Poetry workshops are marvellously useful, but a weakness is that workshop members grow familiar with your work and sometimes read the latest effort as if through earlier poems you have brought. The fresh eyes of the NPC judges give an unclouded and unmediated view of a poem, and that is worth a great deal.
I never have any real hopes for poems I send to competitions, especially this competition-of-all-competitions. I try to just kiss them goodbye and walk away from the postbox or computer. This is partly because I’ve usually only just finished them and have absolutely no idea whether or not what I’ve posted is a complete embarrassment. This may be to do with the way you zone in on the world of a poem while you’re writing it. If, like me, you’re revising right up to the last minute, you don’t really come blinking out into the light until the poem’s in the box, with thousands of others, on the judges’ living-room floors.
‘Italy to Lord’ was very much an after-thought that I added just before sending in. I’d written it for another competition where it completely failed to surface, and then done more work on it. And it got lucky – luck has a lot to do with it. But the lesson of not leaving the composition till the last minute is one I can’t imagine I’ll ever learn…
I have to say a huge thank you to the judges: to discover that your poem has survived so many sifts and conversations to arrive, still walking, at the finish line, in the eyes of three poets whose work you admire, means a tremendous amount. And a real highlight for me was reading with Patricia McCarthy and Pascale Petit at the Keats Festival in May, a great evening. Thank you PoSoc.
One good thing about any competition is that the poem is judged on its merits and not by the name of the poet. Your poem gets a fair chance to shine. With my poem, I tried to anticipate what I thought others might send and went for something that was a bit different and, perhaps, took a few risks. Have faith in your work: my poem was turned down by Poetry Review before doing well in the competition.
While winning a prize has made no difference to my outer life – nobody came rushing up in the street to congratulate me – it has certainly boosted my inner would-be ‘poet’. Advice? I guess to have a chance any poem must somehow stand out from the crowd, probably in terms of the novelty of its subject matter. “Do different”, as they say in Norfolk.
I’ve quite a complicated relationship with competitions. I mean, I love music and football, but music’s better because it isn’t about winning. On the other hand, competitions create deadlines and creative focus. Also, the money can come in handy. I had a purple patch when I paid the rent for a couple of years on winnings from fiction and poetry contests, which was handy because I was totally skint. But, of course, those riches dried up as soon as I bought a tin to put the winnings in. It’s called the Voodoo Tin now and I sometimes throw rocks at it.
One thing I like about competitions is their democratic nature. If you’re not posh, the publishing world can be really forbidding. But background and schooling and accent don’t matter when you’re judged anonymously. Thanks to successes in the NPC, the Bridport Prize and others, I’ve built up a profile of sorts, which has led to teaching work and readings. A track record of competition successes can also, eventually, attract the interest of publishers. But there are no short cuts I’ve found. Also, you spend far too much of your time filling envelopes and writing cheques. And, most of the time, you don’t win, so you have to develop a stoical side. But a string of successes can boost confidence, and, for fragile poets, that can be very valuable, providing you don’t end up taking yourself too seriously.
There are a few old clichés worth remembering when entering comps. Judges look at first lines and last lines. And they’re tired. So they want to be made to FEEL, as this wakes them up – which is what good literature is for, anyway. So don’t mess up the ending, as that’s where a lot of the feeling lives, ideally – and the best endings make you go back through the poem in search of a deeper layer, or just to find out how the magic was done. If there is such a thing as a competition poem, it has some of these things, I think – and also a self-standing quality. It doesn’t need anything else in the envelope.
When the call came from Judith, Poetry Society Director, to say I’d been commended – which she explained meant my poem was in the top ten out of 13,000 entries – I was of course gobsmacked.
I knew my poem, ‘Thaw’, was among my best but I never saw it as a ‘competition poem’. If anything, I thought its quietness, stillness, would count against me as many winning competition poems seem to be much more ‘in-yer-face’ than mine. But I knew that the tension in it, its sound world, its focus, the way the poem moved quietly on, was a real achievement. And of course my poetry group helped to make it better.
Being commended was a tremendous validation of the direction I was taking with my writing. And afterwards the poem was out there on the internet and in Poetry Review. As well as my poetry peers, many people who don’t normally read poetry said they really liked and were moved by the poem, so I knew it was accessible, which is important to me.
This year has been significant for me anyway because I was about to publish my first collection, Are We There Yet?, with Smith/Doorstop. So the commendation was a real boost to how I felt not only about the poem but about my whole poetry adventure.
This article was first published in Poetry News, the Poetry Society members’ newspaper, in autumn 2013. © The Poetry Society & the author.