1. Then Again, Who Am I To Judge…?

    Written by Philip Gross at 11:00 am

    Well, in fact, Philip Gross, himself a winner of the National Poetry Competition, the T.S. Eliot Prize and Wales Book of the Year. Here he gives a view from the Magma Poetry Competition 2013 judge’s bench:

    I’m starting this with caution. Even a one-off blog post, the kind of letter-to-anyone the internet facilitates, implies a conversation; there’s a particular kind of listening at the other end. Maybe you’re reading because you know that I’ll be judging in the Magma competition. Maybe you’re thinking of entering, and fishing for clues. Because after all, by the same principle, entering a competition isn’t one-way either; you’re sending your poem into a space prepared by someone’s tastes, the quality of attention they might give.

    I wish I could help you. Or rather, I don’t, because the last thing I want is for you to try to please me, and I’ll probably spot it if you try. In the part of my life where I’m a writing teacher, I hope that what I mainly teach is questions; with them, with luck, other people’s poems or stories might discover what they need to be.

    Still, it’s dishonest to behave as if I’m not here, or to think I should be like the non-directive therapist whose carefully affectless uh-huh grunts deliver a powerful message of withholding who they are. No, the space between us always has a shape.

    … which is a fair clue to one kind of question that nags at me. When Anne Carson titles her Poetry Society lecture Stammering, Stops, Silence, or Jane Hirshfield talks on Hiddenness, Surprise, Uncertainty, or Ruth Padel on Silent Letters of the Alphabet, something in me responds. The spaces in a poem interest me, as much as the words. That and the space around it, of course. I’m not talking necessarily about shapes on the page. More, it’s the sense that any space, especially one involving humans, will have its own dynamics – sometimes so powerful that the space seems to have a personality of its own.

    In a day I spent recently with a lively thoughtful writing group, we found ourselves looking at some of the hints we writers can leave in the space between words. We did punctuation. We did not do pedantry. These jots and tittles are pointers both to the shape of the spaces they are in and the dynamics of the words around them. And don’t we take them personally, these dryasdust dots and dashes? Everyone had a favourite, or one that they felt, sometimes with embarrassment, to be their own. Most of us have mannerisms in this department… but those too are worth spotting – not simply to edit them (out of the poem you’re about to pop into the competition, for a start) but for a more positive reason: a habit or tic is going to be an avoidance of something. Some question worth asking is nearby, if only you could see.

    So, there… By the paradox of  ‘don’t try to please me’ I’ve made it impossible for you to use punctuation… or not to. In other words, ignore me. Write your poem. The space between us is wide open, and ready to resonate to what you write.


  2. On Free Verse 2013: The Poetry Book Fair

    Written by Chrissy Williams at 2:10 pm

    It’s been over a week since 700 poetry lovers — almost twice as many as last year — walked through the door of Conway Hall for the Poetry Book Fair. We had 56 publishers exhibiting their works, along with the Poetry Library, the Poetry School and the Poetry Society — as much contemporary UK poetry as we were able to cram into one room. There were free readings every half an hour, and the entire exhausting and exhilarating day (and night) ran smoothly thanks to our small but wonderful army of volunteers. I am still in recovery.

    Feedback we’ve had so far includes words like “buzz”, “bustling” and “exciting”. I remember looking up from the admin into the hall around lunchtime, and it was perhaps the first time I registered how busy it was. I had a feeling of — not sure quite what? happiness? relief? — perhaps a general gladness that it had all come together, that the room was full of people enthusiastically reading, talking about, buying and supporting contemporary poetry.

  3. Magma Poetry Celebration Reading on 18 February

    Written by Jenny Wong at 3:03 pm

    We are pleased to invite you to join us for a free event on 18 February 2013 (Monday), to be held at the Studio Theatre, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) Studios at 16 Chenies Street,London WC1E 7EX, just a short walk from Goodge Street station.

    Winners of the Magma Competition 2012 will be reading their poems alongside the National Poet of Wales and judge for the Magma Poetry Competition, Gillian Clarke, whose work Ice was shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize 2012. You will also be able to enjoy readings from leading poets including Moniza Alvi, Simon Barraclough, Tom Chivers and Claire Crowther, who have been specially commissioned to write short poems in response to the competition.

  4. Occasional Verse: Christmas Poems

    Written by George Szirtes at 10:31 am

    Sometimes people ask of a particular poem: Did it have to be written? Is this a necessary poem? They are wondering if there was sufficient pressure for the poem to become meaningful in the assumption that validity is based on such pressure.

    But what kind of pressure? Is the assumption that the poet as a person should be undergoing some sort of crisis, a dark night of the soul? And would a poem written under such circumstances always be better than one without such a dark night to source it?

  5. Hummingbirds, ghazals and pistachio nuts

    Written by Mona Arshi at 11:00 am

    In January 2012 I was notified that I had won the Judge’s Prize in the Magma competition 2011 judged by George Szirtes.

    The winning poem was “Hummingbird”. It was the first major competition I had won and, being a relative newcomer to the world of poetry (my work did not appear in magazines until quite recently), the win was understandably a tremendous boost for me.

  6. Poetry and Basketball

    Written by Inua Ellams at 10:00 am

    The latter half of my youth revolved around hoops, orbiting wide rings, listening out for the net’s swish, attempting to make more fluid, more instinctive, ‘mo’ butter’ the complex body geometry of knowing instinctively how far you are from the ring at any time, how much palm-thrust and fingertip is needed to sail the basketball through. At 17, I developed exercise-induced-asthma, thus ended my hoop dreams. It was a painful breakup. I stopped watching my team play, felt betrayed by my body and tried to forget myself; I read books. Years passed before I felt comfortable enough to watch a game, and even longer before I stepped onto a court, knowing I was a shadow of my younger self.

    The return came after a clip I stumbled across on the net: slow motion footage of a 360 dunk. A kid, half ogre, half figure-skater twirled upwards through a thorn-bush of arms, and everything seemed to make sense, I’d found a new way to connect with the game. It was a number of things: to dunk so gracefully meant time spent perfecting craft. To rise against opposing arms was a quest to define oneself against history. To twirl upwards, suggested style and such daring… The slow motion footage was a controlled, precise, timed. In short, I’d found poetry.

  7. Finding a voice: influences of the past and present

    Written by Angela Kirby at 10:00 am

    The richest events occur in us long before the soul perceives them. And, when we begin to open our eyes to the visible, we have long since committed ourselves to the invisible. Gabriele D’Annunzio Poets are often advised to  ‘find a voice.’ This voice can only come,  I think, from the unique past and terroir of the poet.  In his essay, ‘Something to Write Home About’, Seamus Heaney describes growing up in Ireland between the Catholic and the Protestant communities, between a railway and a road, between the sound of a trotting horse and that of a shunting engine, between a variety of accents and dialects. One of the dialect words which lodged in his memory from that past was ‘hoke’.

    ‘The word means to root about and delve into and forage for and dig around, and that is precisely the kind of thing a poem does so well. A poem gets its nose to the ground and follows a trail and hokes its way by instinct to the real centre of what concerns it.’

  8. Can writing short poems make us better poets?

    Written by Laurie Smith at 3:46 pm

    Karen McCarthy Woolf’s point about short poems not winning competitions makes me ask, why not?  Do judges somehow feel short-changed, reckoning that poets don’t put as much work into writing a short poem as a long one?  I don’t think this is true – a short poem where every word counts is just as likely to have uncertainties, weaknesses that need working on as a .longer poem.  But I suspect it’s what most judges feel deep down and it’s a prejudice that will continue.  In this case Magma’s new poetry competition is long overdue, joining the Plough Poetry Prize with a competition which poems up to 10 lines will definitely win.

    I’ve been trying to think what makes a really short poem good and, at first, there seems no answer – great short poems are as varied as longer ones.  When the Magma team decided on the 10 line limit, we thought of some famous short poems – Blake’s The Sick Rose, Wordsworth’s A slumber did my spirit seal, Herrick’s Upon Julia’s Clothes which Eavan Boland had written brilliantly about in Magma 48.  And we could all think of very short poems in recent collections which we’d enjoyed, though they tended to be exceptions among longer poems or arranged in sequences.

  9. A short piece on the short poem

    Written by Karen McCarthy Woolf at 9:03 am

    I am going to start this article with a statistic. No poem under 10 lines has won the National Poetry Competition since (online) records began in 1978! The website shows winning poems only prior to 2000, but between 2001-2010 you can see all the shortlisted poems and only a handful of them were under 14 lines and none under 10 lines. The shortest is Frank Ortega’s eleven line poem Searching for An Affordable Crossbow which was commended in 2009.

    I use the National as an example, as they keep very comprehensive records online, but this trend bears out. Mslexia shows the last seven years with no short poem winners, while the Cardiff International Poetry Competition offers the exception in 2001-2 with Joan Newmann’s commended Carrageen Mousse and the Boy from Nepal which surely must have been a contender for the title alone.

  10. Behind the Scenes at the Competition

    Written by Jacqueline Saphra at 10:42 am

    For years we debated it, balked, retreated, re-visited, shelved and returned to it, until eventually we decided the time had come to launch our first competition. It’s been a long road: Magma is run democratically and each of us on the board has strong opinions and part of the work was the inevitable round the table discussion about what we planned to do and how we planned to do it. We’re never ones to shy away from a debate (it’s half the fun), and much argument was had as we discussed how to go about running the competition and how best we might reflect Magma’s personality and aspirations. Many of us have been on the other side of the fence, entering competitions rather than running them, and we tried to use our own experiences to help us design a competition that we ourselves would want to enter.