Monday, 15 October 2012

Competition poems

Few poets earn much from their poetry books, so they might as well get money from their poems first. The National Poetry Competition, Bridport prize and Cardiff competition all have 5000 pound first prizes. You might expect the famous poets to make a killing. Jo Shapcott has indeed won the National Poetry Competition twice, but as often as not relative unknowns win. Are famous poets richer than we thought (not bothering to enter competitions), or does the level playing field of anonymity cut them down to size?

There are several reasons why a worthy poem might not win a prize.

  • There's not only more subjectivity in poetry judging, but there are types of poetry that judges may well not understand let alone like
  • Poetry has many one-hit wonders. What distinguishes famous poets from the also-rans might be the quantity of decent poems they produce rather than the quality of their best poems.
  • The qualities required of a poem to get noticed amongst thousands of others may not be those that are highly regarded in other situations.
  • The judging-by-committee nature of competitions discourages innovation.

My guess is that judges (who are often well paid) will want to judge again, so they don't want to stir up controversy (especially from competitors who think they've been hard done by - the competition organisers want people to enter in future years). They'll play safe with the prizewinners, putting the odd non-standard piece amongst the minor prizes to encourage non-mainstreamers to submit again.

Is it worth researching the judge? Though you shouldn't assume that poets only like the sort of poetry they like themselves, if you write like Jorie Graham, Bob Dylan, or in tight verse forms you might like to check whether your style lands on a judge's blind-spot.

Here are some quotes about competitions -

  • According to Rialto (Summer 2012) the 1951 National Poetry Competition attracted over 1500 entries, 1300 of which had no literary merit according to the judges. Only 7 poems were thought to be publishable.
  • I once wrote "Winning competitions can be like applying for a job. The first stage is more to do with avoiding errors in order to get in the short-list. The second stage is where depth is revealed". The need to get through the first stage may compromise the poem, but the requirement of the 2nd stage may also be a problem.
  • In Assent 65/2 D.A.Prince has a review of Robert Seatter's "Writing King Kong" in which she says "He's left behind much of the excitable display of virtuosity characterising his first collection, with its reassuring basketful of competition winners, and built on the strengths of his second book to produce a relatively quieter collection, more secure and confident. It's as though he no longer needs the morale-boosting success in competitions; he has reached his mature style, and has the assurance to trust his own instincts as to what works best in fitting these poems together"
  • "A 'competition poem' is different. It has to stand on its own feet. It can have no relation to the poet’s other work because the judges don’t know who the poet is. The poet has to believe that this poem is worth thousands of pounds, and because of that the poem has to be not only well-crafted and original, it also has to be startling" (Kurt Heinzelman and Ian McMillan, 2009 Cardiff International Poetry Competition)
  • "When we were judging [The Booker] we tried three different voting systems and each time a different winner emerged", Rowan Pelling, the Observer, March 9, 2008
  • When Stand ran a poetry competition in 1995 with 2 judges, the judges didn't agree with or respect each others opinion, so there were 2 lists of prizewinners.
  • "We felt that the main prizewinners should touch on ... the big issues of death and love", Matthew Sweeney, New Welsh Review, No. 40.

and here are some related resources

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