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The poetry competition game

Compers NewsPerhaps that could be a poem title? Should I send it to the Poetry London comp, or is more of a Poetry on the Lake  sort of title? Could I get some kind of double meaning out of ‘game’ in order to make it a nature poem and would it appeal to Simon Armitage when judging the Rialto comp?

‘Games’ were fun things we did as kids, weren’t they? if you discount ‘games’ – that Wednesday afternoon ritual at secondary school that usually involved mud, cold and not being picked for the team. But now we have gaming. Gamesmanship. Game over. Not fun any more. Or is it?

If we decide to enter poetry competitions we could approach it as a game (ie a bit of fun). We give a go, and if we win it’s great – sometimes a cash prize, sometimes a prize giving event or publication. Or in the case of a big competition, career-enhancing. We don’t mind paying to enter because it’s a lot of work for judges and organisers. And besides, the entry fees are a way of giving something back to poetry – the promoters of competitions are usually publishers after all, or champions of poetry in some way.

Is there an alternative? In the wider world of ‘comping’, there are people who make a good living from competitions and win more iPads, Audis and holidays than they can cope with. Apparently the secret is to approach it systematically. Less beach cricket, more The Hunger Games. A serious comper will tell you it’s a waste of time NOT to approach it this way.

So is that also true of poetry competitions? I’ve read various posts about this – what makes for a competition-winning poem, what ‘due diligence’ should be done before entering a competition, whether you’ve got more chance in a smaller competition than a big one (not as obvious as it sounds!) Judges are often happy to give their side of it, either being helpful before the fact (Emma Lee has written a good article outlining exactly what she looks for when judging a competition) or in judge’s reports (which often tell is like it is – essential reading!) Personally, I find the shortlists and longlists (for those competitions that make them public) tell you a lot. I’m often amazed at some ‘big name’ poets entering competitions. And the sheer number of entries from some poets – either money’s no object or their strategy is spend big to win big…

I also read recently (can’t remember on whose blog – help me out, someone) that competition-winning poems don’t necessarily have a place in a pamphlet (and vice versa). I quite enjoy sometimes writing to a theme, but is writing ‘competition poems’ anathema to a poet working on a pamphlet or a collection? And yet that’s a bit of a broad judgement too –  look at Ian Duhig’s marvellous The Lammas Hireling, winning the National and then the title poem of a fine collection.

I came across this interesting piece by Jendi Reiter which, although it’s primarily to do with submitting to US journals and competitions, I still found useful. I rather like her reminder that if you enter competitions, “you’re going to get a lot more rejection than validation, and internalizing others’ opinions of your worth will lead to writers’ block or fearful, unoriginal writing.” I think this is one reason I’m so ambivalent about it. I’m not sure I can keep up a healthy attitude to writing poetry at the same time as entering comps. And yet part of me enjoys the game, and every now and then I can’t resist it.

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  1. I haven’t entered many competitions which would also explain my lack of success. 😉

    However, I sometimes feel that there is too much focus in the poetry world – or the writing world – on what might “work” in terms of winning competitions, or even just publication.

    It is my feeling that writers should focus on doing the best and most honest work they can do, and then gradually move toward trying to place poems in journals, or entering competitions. I mean, this is probably what many people do anyway. But it does seem sometimes like the focus can be on placing in competitions, or being published in journals, rather than on the work itself – if you know what I mean.

    • Hi Clarissa, thank you for your comment, and yes, that’s a very sensible way of putting it. Just writing better stuff is certainly what I try to aim for, although neediness and paranoia occasionally get in the way. I promised myself at the start of the year that I would prioritise writing above all else, having let the submissions process (and even the workshopping process) get me down somewhat in 2014. But to be fair, new-ish poets, especially without a CW degree or connections, but who aspire to having a collection published one day are told that the only way to make this happen is to establish a ‘track record’ in mags and comps. Even as we mature as writers, I think for many people this still niggles in the back of the mind.

  2. I love competitions, and I’m an ex-comper – the type who entered loads, systematically, and took it seriously. Oddly, it was very much like freelancing – turn up for ‘work’ every day and put the hours in and you’ll do ok – but it will be a job.
    I enter mostly free writing comps these days (I won’t link to the Comps and Calls website as I think I already put the url in another comment on your blog somewhere), as they don’t cost anything and have fewer entries, not being big and posh.
    I’m in the middle of judging a poetry competition at the moment. The children’s category was free to enter, could be entered by email, was open internationally, and publicised in various places – and it got five entries…the adult category, which required a purchase, got loads more. Why?
    I’ve won 13 writing comps – mostly free and not posh ones, though the Bulwer-Lytton stands out. My favourite win, however, was for a spoof prizewinning poem I wrote. Originally it was called ‘Otters playing at dusk while a loved one is ill’. It didn’t win the first two comps I entered it in; then a friend pointed out that it needed an exotic setting. I moved it to South Africa, renamed it ‘Groot Otters’ and it won the Writer’s Forum comp the following month.
    Yes, I’m a bit cynical – but I also know that writing to themes and trying odd comps has stretched me in ways that wouldn’t otherwise happen, as well as providing me with material rewards. And it’s huge fun.

    • Wow Cathy, thanks for a great comment! And as for the spoof poem and moving it to a SA setting – that’s soooo bad of you! I should be VERY disapproving but I can’t help but laugh. Good point about writing to themes etc being stretching in itself. At the local Lewes Poetry night at the Lewes Arms there’s a limerick comp in the interval when everyone has 15 mins to write a limerick (or two) on a topical subject. The ruder and more outrageous the better. I’ve won it a couple of times but not recently – I think there are people who take it even more seriously than me! Thanks again – food for thought here.

  3. The poetry I return to most over the years creates its own world, and has its own rules. Take W.B. Yeats. On his honeymoon he got his wife to do automatic writing in a trance, outpourings that then went on to form the basis of his book A Vision, a hodgepodge of astrology, philosophy and mysticism. All this eccentricity nevertheless formed the basis of his Nobel Prize winning work. My point is that although many of his poems can stand alone, seen in the context of all his other work you can enter an entire, magical world with them. Moreover, one that only W. B. Y. could have written.

    What I don’t like about competitions is that they encourages samey, standalone pieces that yield their meaning very quickly. A flip through last year’s pamphlet of winning National Poetry Competition entries shows you there’s not much to write home about there — although the poems are all perfectly fine. I do agree entirely with you about entering actually supports poetry advocates and, weasel that I am, I have three poems in competitions as we speak. And of course, should I win one, I will doubtless enlarge on the perceptive nature of the judges and how quality will out and so on. Only time will tell. 🙂

    • Ha ha ha! How honest of you, Peter! I have a few bits and pieces out to comps too, and in the (ahem!) unlikely event of NOT being placed one can always deny having entered 🙂 Good point about competition winning poems tending to be of the ‘yield their meaning very quickly’ variety. I guess that’s what Jendi Reiter was getting at with her reference to ‘fearful, unoriginal writing.’ But one could take the stand that competitions also serve a purpose to get individual poems out to a wider audience (well, the big comps anyway) and that relatively accessible poetry may just attract new readers. Maybe. Or not. Thanks again. And I liked learning about WB Yeats and his eccentric ways.

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Robin Houghton 2021