“When in doubt, cut it out” – A National Poetry Competition interview with Neil Astley

Neil Astley

Following on from our Q&As with Karen McCarthy Woolf, our next National Poetry Competition Q&A comes from Neil Astley, poet and editor of Bloodaxe Books.

What advice would you give to entrants looking at a blank page?
You shouldn’t be looking at a blank page if you’ve haven’t already got a line in your head or some sense of an image that you think the poem may grow from. If not, don’t sit there staring at that blank page. But if you have a feeling that the poem is just tapping on your shoulder, not quite ready to have you flesh it out, but almost there, go for a walk, or take a bath or shower, let your mind drift and see what settles there without being willed. Then put pen to paper.

What advice would you give to those making their finishing touches?
Your chances of publication or winning will be greatly enhanced if you come back to it with a fresh eye later. Poetry competition judges are always saddened when they really like a poem but are disappointed that it has what we call ‘the wrong note’: an image or line which stands out either because it’s a glaring flaw or because it belongs in another poem. Unlike magazine editors, we can’t go back to the poet and ask if they could reconsider that particular line. When you’re judging for a competition, it’s all or nothing. So an otherwise excellent poem which has been submitted prematurely and could have won first prize had it not included that ‘wrong note’ will end up in the commendeds list because the judges will be thinking: we can’t give a top prize to that poem, much as we’d like to, because everyone will think we’ve not seen what’s wrong with it.

Also, read the poem aloud as you write it and when you think it’s finished. Reading a poem aloud can often help expose that wrong note. As you read it out you may suddenly think: that bit’s not quite right, what should I do? When in doubt, cut it out. Reading the poem aloud is also the best way to get the rhythm right. Poems which exist only as written text will rarely come alive for another reader.

What are you reading at the moment?
I’ve just finished reading hundreds of poems for my new anthology, Staying Human, published on National Poetry Day, and I’m now reading and re-reading classic poems which Brendan Kennelly and I selected for another anthology twenty years ago which got put on ice then and which I’m rescuing to celebrate his 85th birthday next year. I’m looking forward to reading a pile of new collections which have been accumulating while I’ve been having to stay in work-reading mode. Not that work-reading mode isn’t pleasurable in itself: I’ve been especially excited to re-engage with the work of poets like Patrick Kavanagh and Charlotte Mew, to mention just two poets who’ve been leaping off the page, only for me to have to tie them down in commentary.

What can you tell us about the first poem you ever had published?
I shouldn’t have published it.

Don’t forget that the National Poetry Competition is open to anyone aged 18 or over, and the deadline is 31 October each year. When your poems are ready, you can enter the competition here. Good luck!