Poetry competitions and small presses: it's a win-win situation

roulette wheel

I’ve found myself missing the blog. Not the week by week pressure, but just occasionally writing a post because something has grabbed my attention, or surprised or excited me. I’ve still not got round to redesigning the site…though it will be done, eventually. Just for now I’m happy enough to rework old posts that seem relevant again.

What set me off this afternoon was the relief at coming to the end of a major project. We’ve had a painting studio built…..it’s taken about fifteen years to finally do it, and we are extremely happy. And I’m especially happy today because all the furniture and equipment have been moved out of the house and into the studio. It’s been backbreaking. And just now, apart from the odd snow flurry, I’m luxuriating in the feeling that I can put my feet up for a bit, before the garden starts to get insistent .

So what set me off on this particular post? Well, there’s another flurry…of poetry competitions. The Plough deadline just passed and so has that for the Hippocrates. But the Yorkmix comp is open, and coming up there are the Enfield, Artlyst, Newcastle, Ware Poets, Wakefield City of Santuary, The Frogmore Press (which is wonderful because the prize is in guineas), and the Indigo Dreams Geoff Stevens Prize for two winning collections is open till February 29.

And there are two competitions I’m fond of. There’s the Yaffle Competition in its second year. The closing date is March 30; the link is http://www.yafflepress.co.uk/competition-1 ; and The Red Shed (closing date March 31) which is celebrating its 12th year. The link is https://www.currockpress.com/about-us.html . This takes you to the page that explains how the competition supports the readings. Of which, more later.

So let me persuade you to enter at least one of them, and preferably more.

Let’s get something out of the way right from the beginning. The odds of your winning a poetry competition are dramatically increased if you enter. Simultaneously, so are the chances of losing, but not by the same amount. And I guess most of us don’t buy a Lottery ticket expecting to win. If you’re like me, you buy yourself a dream.

In earlier posts on the cobweb, I’ve riffed on my own reasons for entering competitions. First comes the dream. What next? I look out for competitions run by small publishers, because when you pay for your entry, you’re in a win-win situation. Your entry fee is going to keep these small concerns alive…I’m thinking of ones like Prole and The interpreter’s house And, of course, Yaffle, and The Red Shed . Or you may be helping to promote a small festival, like Havant. The point is, you’re not wasting your money.

Next thing is: who’ll be judging the competition. With the small presses, I don’t mind, but when it comes to medium and high-profile affairs then what’s important to me is whether I like that poet’s work. Why? Because part of the dream is not anything to do with money (and there’s often not a lot of that involved) but the thought that my work is going to be read by someone I admire and from whom I’ve learned. If the judge’s work is not the sort of thing that floats my boat, then I don’t enter, because I guess it’s more likely than not to be mutual. For example, if Pascale Petit were to judge a competition I’d enter like a shot, but not if it was someone who went in for avant-garde shapes on the page. It’s just how I am. I certainly think twice about competitions where the work is filtered by a selection committee before it reaches the star judge….The Bridport comes to mind….but they’re likely to be the ones with big prize money. Take your choice.

Is there anything else? I’m personally attracted to competitions which offer publication of your work as a prize. Some will guarantee that runners-up will appear in their magazine (as in The Rialto/ RSPB), but I’m thinking particularly of Indigo Dreams, where the prize is publication of a full collection.

Finally, some poets I know will tell me they would rather submit to magazines. My answer is always that it’s not an either/or choice. I do both. But I know I’m always less disappointed by not winning a competition than getting ‘sorry, but no thank-you’ emails from magazine editors. I get a lot of those. I suppose it’s because I don’t expect to win a competition, but I’m absolutely convinced that Magma, The Rialto and the rest would be mad not to jump at the chance of publishing my poems.

Anyway, let’s suppose I’ve persuaded you. What advice can I give?

I’ve thought hard and long about this, ever since John Clarke asked me to judge The Red Shed. a few years ago. I’ve had success in competitions. I’ve had poems chosen by Andrew Motion (twice), Liz Lochhead, Blake Morrison, Billy Collins, and Simon Armitage (twice). I have not caught the eye of Carrie Etter, Alison Brackenbury, George Szirtes or Roger McGough (though with the latter, he probably never got to see it…it’s a huge comp, The Bridport). It’s hard to see that they have much in common apart from being immensely talented, and being poets I love to read.

What about the poems? I can’t see any pattern there, either. I sort of thought that most of them had been narratives of one sort or another, but when I check, I find it’s not exactly true. It’s a variety of elegaic, historical/political, mythic, anecdotal, and biographical. Possibly it’s a list that’s light on the lyrical. There are poems about Ted and Sylvia, Milton’s daughter,selkies, suffragettes, cocklepickers, cutting hair, a 10thC princess, Everest, and the plumage trade. They’re not all in the same voice. One is in the voice of a witch, another of a crucifixion expert. They’re all shapes and sizes. What it comes down to, I suppose, is that there was something in each that caught the eye, or the ear and ‘stuck’. Carole Bromley, who judged the YorkMix Competition for four years, had to read 1800 entries in her last year, and tells me (and I paraphrase) it just jumps out, it’s an instinctive thing…but you know it when you see it

And that leads me to the one piece of advice that I’m totally convinced about. You don’t try to second-guess the judge. Because she, or he, simply doesn’t know. I could tell you who my favourite poets are, but I doubt it would help. Vernon Scannell, Charles Causley, Tony Harrison, John Donne, Milton, Pope, Bob Dylan, Christy Ducker, Kim Moore, Roger McGough. Blank verse, free verse, quatrains, sonnets, rhyming couplets, multiple rhymes. It’s not a question of this or that form. But judges all know when something jumps off the page. So what sort of things are we talking about?

None of this will be unexpected, I think, or new. I can only tell you what makes me pause as I look through a collection, what makes me want to buy it.

Titles.

They don’t win competitions but they can snag the attention. Ones that explain exactly what the poem is about don’t do that. But this one does:

Sometimes you think of Bowness

It holds your attention even more because it’s also the first line. And it begins a list of the things that you remember. And each line of the first stanza begins with ‘and’. It’s just a poem that grabs you visually and puzzles you just enough to give it your attention. She can do that, Kim Moore (for ’tis she). She does great titles. If we could speak like wolves.  When I was a thing with feathers. A previous Red Shed judge, Julie Mellor, does, too. Speaking through our bones. Yes. Check out her pamphlet of the same name. So..think about titles.

First lines (which may also be the title). 

It may not have been where the poem started in its first or later drafts. Basically you know what the poem’s ‘about’, so you’re playing to get an uncommitted reader’s attention. At the same time you don’t want to give the game away. A good first line will certainly make me pay attention. Like The first hymn is Abba: I believe in angels.  

Double-take.

What’s going on? Must find out.

Or this one:  They lashed him to old timbers / that would barely float. Him? who is he? A game with a pronoun to create a little hesitation, a suspense.

Or this from Pascale Petit: Since I was six my right foot /has been bandaged in a boat

Or this: Isn’t it enough that I’ve yanked out my heart? A question will catch the ear, especially if we don’t know who’s asking it or why. I’m not offering recipes or nostrums. Just saying: look at the title. Listen to the first line. Ask yourself: why should anyone bother?

The moment.

Of late I’ve found myself going again and again to Clive James’ beautiful Poetry Notebook and his insistence on the memorable, the hard-to-forget. Here’s the thing that strikes me as the heart of the memorable poem, the one that sticks, the one that may just win the prize. ‘Everything’ says James

depended on, and still depends on, the quality of the moment……whatever kind of poem it is, it’s the moment that gets you in.

That moment has to be brought alive  and bright in language. It will often be an image, but it could be a startling turn of phrase, or a beautifully placed rhyme. Trying to explain it is like trying to explain a tree or a table. It’s easier to point at some, and say: there’s a table, and so is that. And that. Here, then, are ‘moments’ in poems that persuaded me to buy collections. There might be a lot. It’s enjoyable tracking them down.

How about Robin Robertson’s At Roane Head

He went along the line / relaxing them /one after another / with a small knife

It’s the shock of that last line that nails you. Well, it does me.

Or this, in a different way, from Clare Shaw’s Ewe in several parts..about the imagined(?) loss of a baby, taken by sheep, unprotesting, because

She must have liked it 

the way she likes dogs 

her hands to its mouth and stamping 

like she does when she’s pleased

I kept the line breaks here because they’re part of the way the moment is made to work. Think about it.

Sometimes the moment can declare itself as an image- metaphor or simile- as this  does in Wendy Pratt’s Nan Hardwicke turns into a hare.

An odd feeling this, / to hold another’s soul in the mouth like an egg

That stops me in my tracks. What would carry an egg in its mouth? And how full would that be. Awkward and fragile. It’s packed, isn’t it.

The important thing is that they will lodge themselves in my mind. They stick at a first hearing. There’s one like this that I heard when Kim Moore was reading at the Chemic Tavern a couple of years ago. I can’t remember it precisely or exactly, but I can’t forget it. She’s writing about an old boyfriend, how twice a week they would lie together, and apart, on or in a bed, not touching, asexual, like unlit candles. And I know I can never forget it.

Just in case you get the idea that ‘moments’ are necessarily emotionally fraught or traumatic, the apparently funny and inconsequential will do it, too. Like this opening moment of Mike de Placido’s Diktat song (great title, too)

Some people are bad for the soul. Avoid them.

I quote granddad: Never wrestle with chimneysweeps.

You can’t legislate for it in your own poetry, but when it works, it WILL be recognised.

Technique, form and structure.

Clive James talks about ‘the spectacular expression that outruns its substance’. It’s not about formal structures or freeform or rule breaking or experiment. It’s a question of whether the words and their arrangement are doing their job, that they have to be as they are, rather than being flaunted to make an impression. I have no preference for one kind of poem or another. Sonnets, sestina, terza rimas, rhymed quatrains, couplets, tercets, villanelles. Just so long as they’re not like that to be decorative. Sonnets really do need to be about a particular kind of ‘argument’ don’t they? Sestinas deal happily with the obsessional..otherwise, what are those repetitions for. And so on.

Endings

This is a personal thing. But I like to know that a poem’s finished. And it’s not always the case. It doesn’t have to be a rhyming couplet. And I like to be brought up short by endings that surprise, that turn the poem on its head, that make you reconsider what you’ve just read. In the way that the end of that four line satanza of Robin Robertson’s does…’with a small knife’. The way it subverts what you expect ‘relaxing’ to mean, the way it throws a frightening light on the cold calculations of the man who, you realise, has just casually slaughtered his sons. There’s an art to an ending that encompasses and goes beyond the neat sign-offs of the rhyming couplet, or the rhetorical tying-off of a well-crafted sonnet.

And one more personal thing. A year or so ago I spent some time selecting poems for an anthology. Like competitions, all the entries were anonymous, but it taught me something I’d not explicitly acknowledged to myself. I can’t be doing with pretentiousness or sentimentality or ego, or writing that’s out to impress. This is not the same as being esoteric, or having a wide range of reference, or writing poetry that expects the reader to do a bit of work to follow an allusion or reference. It’s just that if it looks hard, you’re not trying hard enough.

So there you go. Buy that ticket.

Robin Robertson: The wrecking light [Picador Poetry 2010] £8.99

Clare Shaw :Head On  [Bloodaxe 2012] £8.95

Wendy Pratt : Nan Hardwicke turns into a hare [Prolebooks 2011] £4.50

Mike de Placido : A sixty watt Las Vegas  [Valley press 2013] £7.99

Kim Moore : The art of falling [Seren 2015] £9.99

Pascale Petit: What the water gave me [Seren 2010] £8.99

Deja vu: Clare Shaw's "Flood"

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I hoped never to see last night’s news about the flooding of the Calder Valley, to see Mytholmroyd inundated again, to read posts on social media describing the despair of folk with shops and restaurants in Hebden Bridge, trying to deal with the flooding of their cellars, and the destruction of their stock and storage.

I’m not clear what I feel most at the moment; pity or anger, though I’m feeling both. Anger at a government that declined millions of aid from the EU to alleviate flooding, and also at their complicity in the degradation of the surrounding moors in the interests of grouse shooters. Pity for the people, of course.

Pity and anger you’ll find in abundance in Clare Shaw’s Flood that is her hymn to the people of her town and her valley, devastated by the floods of Christmas 2015. And here we are again. Which is why I’m reposting this tribute to Clare’s book and the people of the Calder Valley

In popular belief, we are 90% water; this is untrue…in fact, we’re about 65% water. We cannot live without it; we cannot breathe or live in it. The sea is where we came from, and we cannot quite leave it behind. The idea of flood is in our collective unconscious, a great cataclysmic flood that every culture recognises in its myths. Genesis, Gilgamesh, the Greek’s Deucalion. Flood as divine punishment, a great scourging and cleansing that spares only the pure in heart. The Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime reverses the idea in the story of Tiddalik the Frog who drinks up all the waters of the earth so that nothing can grow, and can only be got to release them by being made to laugh.

No wonder that the idea of flood permeates the language, breeds metaphor.Flood as release and healing. We can be flooded with relief and with love; counter-intuitively, with heat and passion. Flood as invasion: a constant trope in the whipping up of fear of immigration. Newspapers may be inundated with complaints, that come ‘pouring in’, and charities with offers of help, always with the sense of being overwhelmed, which may be welcome or unwelcome. Language is ambivalent about flood. We can see it as absolution or cleansing (as D H Lawrence was prone to see it); we tend to discount or forget the aftermath of flood…the detritus, the filth, the stink of drowned things under the sun. In one way or another you’ll find all these in Flood which is constantly aware of it contradictions and paradoxes…. the forces that destroy and save us…flood runs through the book in different forms – bereavement and trauma, the Savile scandal, life in an asylum..ultimately, a story of one life as it is unravelled and rebuilt.

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Clare says in an interview:  ‘I revel in the texture and echo of words; I love their dance. There’s something about the physicality of the spoken word that delights me. For me it feels like the meeting place of human and landscape; a sort of landscape of mouth and air and page. I enjoy the physicality of my own language; and I’m drawn to poems that foreground the dance and swoop of conversation, as well as the music of form and rhythm; alongside meaning and content.

Think of that as you listen to the poems. Don’t look at them, say them. They’re so often incantatory; listen for the rhymes and slant rhymes, the assonance, the urgent rhythm that may or may not grow out of repetition. And also keep in mind one more thing. If you follow Twitter or Facebook you’ll be aware that that Clare’s writing explodes into your message feeds via NaPoWriMo, and if you check carefully you’ll find that a lot of the poems in the collection came in that flood, or gush, or geyser of 30 days of writing. You have to assume that all these themes and ideas and phrases and verses have been hanging around, have been toyed with, inchoate, and then suddenly respond to pressure, which give it form.

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I’ll settle for sharing three poems from the collection, for trying to give you the quality and flavour three main threads or strands in Flood. 

The first thread is the core story of the Calder Valley floods of 2015 which ruined Clare’s adopted home of Hebden Bridge ; it has a role in reconciling her struggles with identity, it gave her a place to stand, and to be; she celebrates it in Who knows what it’s like 

I grew up outnumbered, one hundred to one /I found my own people. My kin. 

(just in passing, I love the way she ends on a couplet with its near rhyme, the assonance of one / kin ). She gives thanks for that kinship in Measures of goodness, for:

Those swilling for others.

Those who form armies of buckets and brushes;

those bailing water from fast-filling cellars.

Those making cuppas for neighbours and strangers: 

those who would see no one cold.

Just listen to the the rhythm and dance she talked about in the interview, the dance that’s made by swilling /bailing/fast-filling/making and cuppas / armies / buckets / brushes / neighbours / strangers.  It’s a rhythm that comes from speech, so it seems effortless for all its artfulness.

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The second thread is that of the dark current of child- and sexual abuse which she frames in the context of folk tales, of orphans and forests and wolfy predators, in poems like Grim, Who said and Telling tales. But notice how their darkness is set against the light and tenderness of poems about her mother and father and grandmother. It’s a beautifully organised / curated collection, Flood.

The third thread, that of survival whether in psychiatric wards or in difficult relationships, uses  flood and harsh weather as a metaphor for separation in poems which explore the difficulties of love, and the breakdown of a relationship…. particularly in this poem where flood brings no cleansing or absolution, and where the width of a bed is impassable as a river in spate.

Weather warning 

The weather’s all wrong 

and nothing can right it. Wherever I am,

there’s a sound in the background 

like threat. The wind knows 

all of my secrets. 

It hates that it cannot speak. 

All night, it rages. The garden is battered,

the small path is lost to mud. 

Slates have slipped. There’s damp in the bricks

and the floors are dirty.

No matter how high the heating, 

I cannot get warm.

When I sleep, I dream in yellow; 

sun pouring down me 

like rain. Then I’m naked

and everything I touch is hot. 

Sky glares; flowers are open. 

Bushes are loaded with fruit. I’m a shit.

Morning. You’re on the bed’s far side.

The room smells of something hidden.

The river is angry with rain. 

Roads are blocked and the lines are down.

I stretch out my arm 

but can’t reach you. I cannot reach you at all.  

In this breakdown of communication, all roads are blocked and the lines are down. There are no emergency services. Dreams of sun and warmth are yellow, and warmth is a feverish heat. Waking is awful. It’s a stunner of a poem. They stick in the mind, those moments that draw you in. The wind knows all your secrets.

Two more poems. The biblical flood is unavoidable, isn’t it? In this version though, the survival is that of the wife and mother, and the survival is that of her self. Mrs Noah can say at the end : this is my voice. And it’s been hard-won. (I should say in passing that I like the device of using the stages of developing flood as described in a kind of Beaufort scale of inundation as titles for poems; I like the way that this one conflates and elides her personal story with the story of the valley, and its flood with those of myth).

Low lying regions inundated. Large objects begin to float

My man was not blameless but he knew his own mind.
He loved his sons, his God, his goats.
We were solid as wood, as steady as bread.
It was not perfect: it was what I had.
I brought up boys in a time of war.
I loved them. I had no choice.

And this is my voice:

you would not believe the violence;
how the ground was covered in minutes;
how quickly our valley was Nile.

When the river came with a sound like battle
and when all the waters were one

then we knew how angry we’d made him
and it was too late to run.

When I tell you I feared for my life

for my children – you cannot imagine.
When I say, I saw people drown,
they looked in my face and I could not help them –
ours was the only boat on that ocean;

a boat the size of a zoo, a mansion;
a sea the size of the world.

I lived to see what I loved destroyed
and all my world was unmade.

Forty days. The boredom and stink
and the darkness. No wonder

the birds pulled out their feathers
and the bear banged his head on the wall.
And when the rain stopped,

then the silence.

The mountains a dream in the waters beneath us.
I think, that day, there was sun.

When floods recede,
they don’t leave a world made shiny

and bright. For years, I’ll be cleaning up shit.
No bird nor branch can make this right.
No trick of the light. No I’ll-never-do-it

again. No god or man.

I loved him. I had no choice.
And this is my voice:
it takes more than a dove
and I will not forgive.

That note of defiance, truculence, even, sounds like a trumpet. It’s the voice of a survivor. Which brings us to the last poem I asked for. This featured in a previous post when Clare was the guest, but WordPress corrupted all the line breaks, and I wanted it in all its pristine glory.

I came back

to the sound of birds in the morning,
to heavy rain falling. Back to the holding of hands.
I came back from the storm
to shelter. Though they said
there was no way back
I came back in a taxi, by darkness
and no-one could see my face.

I came back from the brink,

from Broadoak. There was screaming

inside my ears. I came back running,

back from not speaking.
I made the same noise for years.

I came back by grafting, back

with my arms open wide and laughing.

I was brought back by daisies.
I was brought back by doctors.
Saved by a surplus of air
because somebody needed to breathe it;
I came back to the feeling of mud, I forgot
I forgot how to cross the road.

I was not brought back by love.
I was brought back by stone
and by falling. I was brought back
by hitting the floor. I was wrapped in a blanket,
brought back by hurting,
by the sight of my own insides
and I did not like it and I could not stop it
but back is the way I came.

I was brought back by words
though I didn’t believe them,
I came back to a yard in the sun.
I was brought back by pain that I could not escape.
When they stitched me, I could not run

I was sweating. I will never forget them.

I came back to my mother’s eyes

and the sound of the telly left on.

I came back the long way round
and I did not mind about distance.
I was brought back by violence, my own.
I came back for vodka, I came back for fire,
for your animal breath in my ear.
For the colour of leaves in the darkness.
I came back for your eyes in the darkness;

to houses that did not care.
For tracing the flames with my fingers,
how you parted my knees with your hands
and when the fires had all lost their voices
I came back from the page’s blank stare.
I was brought back to words: moon,
falling. I was right I was right all along.

I came back.
I lived through thunder.
And I did not come back for the sun.

There you are.. When you buy the book, please read I came back and then Woz here just to savour the defiance it takes to survive, the resilience. And then go on to savour the dance and the images, the moments..

yes I saw the river rising / but I did not see this coming

the river is a story / that can’t be believed

nobody intended this story / but I have written it on my arms

clare 8

And then finish with this one

Rescue effort

Look.

It has stopped.

You lifted your sea on blocks.

You saved some stock.

You did whatever you could.

You worked hard.Your daughter was never afraid.

Now look.

The sun has come back,

hedges are heavy with light.

Fields shine

and though sheep are still waiting

for rescue,

they will be saved.

As will you.

Light a candle and say a prayer for the people of the upper Calder Valley.

Check out earlier posts featuring Clare Shaw via these links. Oh, and buy all her books

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2017/06/11/what-survives-and-a-gem-revisited-clare-shaw/

https://johnfogginpoetry.com/2015/05/24/not-believing-in-silence-a-polished-gem-4-clare-shaw/

Straight ahead: [Bloodaxe 2006] £7.95

Head on           : [Bloodaxe 2012] £8.95

Flood                : [Bloodaxe 2018] £9.95