First all of I want to say what a privilege it is to judge this year’s Magma competition. The Magma competition is really special to me. I won the inaugural competition with my poem Hummingbird six years ago, a slightly surreal love poem in couplets which started life as a tight ghazal and ended up in loose open couplets. I still remember editing the poem at the last minute, adding two words to the third couplet, and putting the poem in the envelope. Then later I got a huge shock when I received a phone call telling me I’d won. I was previously a lawyer and making poetry was this furtive activity I was conducting in private. But I often tell people that after Magma I had no choice but to start self-identifying as a poet!
This year I was on the judging panel of the Forward Prize and I have read literally thousands of poems – lyric poems, narrative poems, experimental poems, elegies and prose poems – and as I’m judging this year’s Magma competition I thought I would give you some advice about what I’ve learned and describe what makes certain poems rise to the surface of the pile.
What do I look for in a poem? I wish I knew the answer to this question, as this is what we poets attempt to reach for every time we open ourselves up to writing. What makes a poem good? What makes a poem award-winningly good?
There are some fundamentals in the making of a poem that interest me. The most important thing is the language; this sounds basic, but what I mean is that whatever diction or tone or form you choose to employ, please don’t be boring. Usually if a poem is boring the poet is letting the language down – perhaps it’s the syntax, or it’s the images, perhaps it’s overly wordy, perhaps the poet has forgotten it’s supposed to be a poem and has written something other than a poem…
When I say don’t be boring, some people take this to mean that I don’t want the subject matter to be boring. But often the opposite is true. Poets with an interesting subject matter can sometimes lean too heavily on it. For me the best poems can be about any subject at all, but the poems that wake me up and make me pay close attention are those poems that arouse my ear first and foremost.
Please don’t write a poem ‘for me’ because you think it might be the kind of poem I would like; I read a lot of poems and admire other poets’ poems precisely because they are doing something I haven’t done or would like to do or can’t do. I love prose poems and fractured free verse poems as much as I admire ballads, sonnets and terza rimas.
I want poems that remind me that I am human, that poetry is not an inert dead utterance on a page. I think I’ve said before that I like my poetry served up the same temperature as blood and I think that’s what I mean.
Also, I don’t like all the answers spelt out for me in a poem, I like the idea of evasive, slippery mysterious poems: I want to be surprised by a poem. There’s something about reading a great poem that makes you feel simultaneously at sea (foreign almost) and at home – it has the weight of sudden recognition whilst also arresting you in surprise.
When it gets down to the shortlist, this then becomes heart-wrenching stuff. Why will certain poems float to the top of the list? I think this is the point where as a judge you start thinking (especially with tie-break poems) which poems are insisting on being re-read, which poems do your hand (and your heart) reach for again, which ones will you want to read again and read aloud.
If you are thinking of sending poems to the competition (and I hope you are), make sure your poems are in the best possible shape. This means that you need to consider form and line length as well as diction and that you haven’t over cluttered your lines. One line of poetry can only bear so much, so let your jewels shine. Do read your poems out loud; it’s an important diagnostic tool. Language sounds different when it hits the air and different again when it hits an audience.
We all know writing poems is hard. Nearly everything about crafting a poem is risky, and sending a poem to a competition may seem risky too, but actually if you don’t take that risk and send to the competition you might never find out how good your poem actually is.
One of the most exciting things about judging a competition like Magma is rewarding and recognising a poet’s work, especially a poet who is early on in their poetic career.
Magma Poetry Competitions close on January 15, 2018. Find out how to enter here: https://magmapoetry.com/competition/