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

4 thoughts on “Poetry competitions and small presses: it's a win-win situation

  1. Absolutely spot on in every respect, John. Except that the Red Shed Competition is now in its twelfth year. The tenth year notion arises from a Facebook memory post from two years ago, but what’s two years between friends? And anyway, you are such a good friend/supporter of the Red Shed Readings and the competition to complain would be nigglesome in the extreme. So, niggle over and more power to your poetry writing/blogging elbow.

    Like

  2. Thanks again John for your musings. I particularly liked the part about poetry titles as it’s something I’m studying on a short course just at the moment and focusing on in my own poetry. Great stuff 🙂

    Like

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