On a cold January night, we were joined by Dominic Bury, Linda Black, Paul Stephenson and Geraldine Clarkson for a Magma event at The Torriano Meeting House to hear prize winning poems performed and to ask the poets about their approach to competitions and how they decide which poems to enter: whether they think it’s down to luck, persistence, talent, or a combination of all three. Indeed, is there such a thing as a competition-winning poem?
“It might be trite to say, but a prize-winning poem must in some way be unique and have an emotional kick,” said Paul Stephenson. “I use poetry competitions as ‘focusing events’ – a chance to take a fresh look, chip away, spend some concentrated time on entries.”
“A valid voice can reflect the truth of a poem and make it stand out,” Dominic Bury added, arguing that a competition poem should risk failure on every line, and he stressed the importance of sound and breath: “A poem is often a single breath, modulated.” He said a winning poem “has a line that runs through it making it defined and cohesive.”
Linda Black queried whether there was even such a thing as a competition or a non-competition poem. She threw in another perspective by explainin how for some poets, the reasons for entering a competition can even be mercantile. “I know one or two other poets who make a point of entering competitions to make a living and they don’t often submit to magazines.”
Geraldine Clarkson has experienced incredible success and has become a prolific competition winner in recent years. She said she’s heard judges remark that they like different poems on different days. Due to personal circumstances she has found it more manageable to send poems to competitions. “At the risk of sounding like a chicken”, she said, “it’s luck, luck, luck!”
Does who’s judging have a part to play? No doubt the thought of having a poet you admire and respect read your work and potentially commend it is one of the reasons for entering a competition. But should you only send work to competitions judged by judges you feel share an aesthetic similar to your own? Or does this slight the fair-mindedness of a good judge? Clarkson quoted Jo Shapcott on why she doesn’t want to read a pastiche of her own work. Why would she? Why would anybody? And while Dom Bury’s winning entry to the Magma Poetry Competition, Snow Country, shared similarities with the work of judge Philip Gross, it was entirely coincidental as he wasn’t familiar with his work at the time of entering.
The discussion opened out into role of competitions in a poet’s practice. There is much to be gained from entering one – be it supporting a poetry organisation or the reward and recognition of winning a competition. But there can be downsides. Instead of focusing on a collection, for instance, Clarkson has been writing fitfully and said her competition poems can “fight” one another when seen together as a group. It was agreed that having all your best poems out for consideration in competitions isn’t always desirable, especially if a poet is emerging and only has a few poems ready for publication. Many would rather save for magazines than have their work published by a competition if they’re ‘only’ short or long listed.
In closing remarks, after an enjoyable evening of performance and discussion, the poets left us with their top tips. Linda Black encouraged newer poets to enter smaller competitions and thought they were a good way of honing craft. Paul Stephenson encouraged poets to make sure every line was doing something and that while he still looked for the gut feeling, realised none of his ‘gut feeling’ poems had ever won a competition. While Dominic Bury refreshed Ezra Pound’s famous dictum and said, “Don’t be boring. Make it interesting.” So after you’ve taken a risk, written a poem in one breath, felt it instinctively, honed it to perfection, surprised us and decided on a poetry competition to enter… I’ll leave you with one final thought from Geraldine Clarkson, “It’s always the poem you don’t expect that ends up winning.”
The Magma Poetry Competition 2015/16 is open until January 18th and has an Editor’s Prize for poems up to 10 lines long and a Judge’s Prize for longer poems judged by Daljit Nagra. You can enter your poem here.
Wes Brown is the Administrator of Magma Poetry. His latest novel, When Lights Are Bright, will be published by Dead Ink in 2016