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What makes for a competition-winning poem?

 

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 

 

This Post Has 8 Comments
  1. I don’t quite see why you are so obsessed with poetry competitions. If you write poems just because you want to compete with other poets, then you are not really a poet.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with MR, I write because it is necessary for me and my only aim is to write better. Whilst it would be great thing to win or place in a competition I have never written a poem because I think it will do well.

    Although this could just be sour grapes as I have been entering for years and have only had one long-listed poem and one published poem. Joking aside, I have read poems which won or did well otherwise in competitions and many of them seem poorly constructed, trite, borderline meaningless and, frankly, boring. The National Poetry Competition a couple of years ago comes to mind, many of the winners poems were, in my honest opinion, object lessons in how not to write a poem.

  3. Both the above ring true, to write to order is an artificial condition that reveals itself in the product, it’s not a poem it’s a recipe. I write because I have to pursue the phrase that has popped into my head, to relieve social pressure and because it is just so much fun.

  4. To my own past experience – I now rarely enter competitions – I would send out only those poems which both tutors and other poets had most positively responded to.
    It was a system that brought a reasonable measure of success and inevitably a measure of failure. The only advice I would directly offer to indecisive poets is
    to never let rejection dissuade you from writing, writing, writing…its the only way forward.

  5. To my own past experience – I now rarely enter competitions – I would send out only those poems which both tutors and other poets had most positively responded to.
    It was a system that brought a reasonable measure of success and inevitably a measure of failure. The only advice I would directly offer to indecisive poets is
    to never let rejection dissuade you from writing, writing, writing…its the only way forward

  6. Poetry, like democracy, is now concerned far too much with competition rather than being representative. This is no surprise as we live in one of the most ring-wing capitalist societies in Europe. Whether we like it not, the more extreme capitalism becomes the more the ethos of capitalism (competition) permeates all levels of society and culture and this is what’s happened with poetry.

    There is far too much self-promotion by the successful poets too, who always seem to be clawing for audiences and praise. Of course, this is all couched in niceness and the rhetoric of inclusivity but in reality there are a few winners who feel good about themselves and their work because they feel that they are better poets than the vast majority of us. Surely, this is the type of mentally we poets should be against.

    The irony is that most of the poetry that wins competitions or is published in the ‘top’ magazines is neither truly good or bad but somewhere in-between and will be forgotten about in less than a generation. So there’s really no need for this over competitive culture that turns most of us into losers. All the overblown praise and aggrandisement is just the hot air of the present.

    It would be much better if poetry wasn’t sold like a vacuum cleaner and if most of the time poets and critics took a more moderate, circumspect approach and let time judge whether a poet or poem is truly good. This would allow for a less hierarchical poetry culture and one that is more inclusive and representative, and one that is more likely, in my opinion, to produce good poetry.

  7. “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”

    That alone speaks volumes about the fraud of all of this. How could the judge not be familiar with his own writing? Absurd. Just as absurd as the same people being ‘picked’ again and again to win. This competition is fixed to some degree, why are the rules so vague? Why no stipulation for ‘blind-reading?’ The whole criminal process disgusts me, never mind the effect it has on struggling writers.

  8. You’ve misunderstood, Susan. The article says that Dom Bury was not familiar with Philip Gross’s work, not that Philip was somehow unaware of his own work!

    I can assure you that our competition is in no way ‘fixed’ and to say so is outrageous (also libellous). I don’t know what you mean by the rules being vague. They seem clear to me. And all entries are read blind. The judge never knows who has written any of the poems until after the judging process is complete.

    Why are the same people picked again and again to win competitions? Well you could argue either that a) some people are clever at writing ‘competition poems’, or b) some people are just better poets than others and that’s why they win things and others don’t. So you have either the first cynical view or the second more (over-?)generous one, but you can’t say the judge picks out names, as s/he never sees the names until judging has taken place.

    There are criticisms that can be leveled at competitions, but your criticisms are entirely unfair and without any basis in fact.

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