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Poetry competitions now open – to enter, or not?

I’ve noticed there are a number of poetry competitions about to close – January seems to be a competition battleground.

I’ve talked about the issue of poetry competitions before – and there are some fascinating comments here from both experienced compers and others who absolutely hate the whole poetry competition scene.

So who (if anyone) wins the battle of the comps? Would you, can you enter them all? Or pick and choose? Or not at all?

I can go months without entering a competition – usually because I haven’t got anything to offer. But when I think about it, there are other factors involved. As always, I’m interested to know if you agree or disagree…

First question – do I have anything?

I know it’s often debated as to whether there’s such a thing as a ‘competition’ poem. Based on my entirely subjective experience of competitions, I tend to think there is. A competition poem has to stand alone. So anything conceived as part of a sequence, or needing the context of other poems, in my mind anyway, is not a contender. A poem may be extremely competent, highly skillful, charming, original, appealing to a magazine editor for whatever reason, but that doesn’t mean it will ever win a competition. Winning poems are usually neither very short nor very long, unless that’s part of the criteria (for example the Magma Editor’s Prize – sorry, that one just closed). The question to ask is, why would this poem stand out? For example, do the title and the first line earn their chops? If there’s a theme, do I have a sufficiently original angle? Basically – do I have any ‘competition’ poems in hand, and if not, is there any realistic prospect of my writing one before the deadline? If not, the process ends here. If yes, or maybe

What’s the status of this particular competition?

I admit I look at this before I look at prize money. There are some ‘blue riband’ competitions that take precedence over others simply because of the good they can do a poet’s reputation. These ‘reputation points’ can count for a lot in the future when you’re trying to reach an audience, sell your first pamphlet or get readings. You might think you have more chance of being struck by lightning than winning the National, but even to make the longlist of the National is noteworthy. It’s the same reason that people add ‘Commended in the Bridport’ to their CVs but may leave out the fact they came first in a much smaller or local competition.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve no issue with smaller competitions (see my comments below), and the prize money doesn’t have to be stellar to make it worthwhile entering, but if the deadline is the same time as, say, the Troubadour, I know which one I’d rather send my best competition poem.

Is it for a cause I want to support?

If it’s a competition run by a magazine I particularly want to support, a cause I feel strongly about or a project promoted by a friend, AND if there are other circumstances that convince me I have a good chance (such as who’s judging it) then I might give it a punt, regardless of what I say in the next section.

On the other hand, if I’ve seen that an organisation is great at publicity and whipping up entries, but slow to publicise the results and poor at promoting the winners, that turns me off. It’s very sad if competition organisers don’t appear to be proud of their winners, and make at least as much noise after the competition as they did before. If all you get is a cheque in the post, or maybe an invitation to the prize reading (with travel at your expense – presenting an awkward dilemma if they don’t tell you beforehand whether you’ve even won anything) then it can leave a bad taste in your mouth.

What’s the prize money and the entry fee?

This is where I start to sound a bit mercenary. I can’t justify a huge budget for competitions. ‘Only invest what you are prepared to lose’, as they say. Although yes I know ‘serious’ compers enter a lot of competitions on the grounds of the more you enter, the higher your chances of winning something – I can’t comment on that as anything to do with mathematical probability is not my forte.  But if it costs £5 to enter a competition and the first prize is £150, I’m afraid for me that’s just not attractive. (And yes, I have seen this.)

I absolutely agree with paying judges a fair fee for their considerable time, expertise and everything else involved. And competitions are often a major source of funding for small magazines and organisations. They take a lot of work to put on, I don’t doubt it. But in order to attract both a good volume of entries and enough of a decent quality, there needs to be a fair correlation between the entry fee and the prize money. It doesn’t have to be £10,000 either – there are many ways to add value to the actual prize money, and you see this more and more – special prizes for local writers, additional prizes in kind for winners, such as publication in an anthology, magazine subscriptions, books, mentoring, even champagne (more of this, please!) All of which help promote the organisers and/or are obtainable from sponsors rather than having to be paid for out of entry fees.

So – how much am I prepared to pay for what’s on offer to winners?

Who’s the judge?

I do think that doing some background on the judge, especially if you don’t know their work at all, is basic due diligence. I’m not saying it pays to write something in the style of that judge, or about a topic you know they write about. In fact, that’s probably a rubbish idea. I can also say from experience that the same judge can give you first prize in one competition and nothing in another, so it’s also pointless telling yourself ooh! she really liked my last comp entry! That means I’ve got a good chance! (Ditto if they have been your tutor/liked a poem a wrote on an Arvon/ said hello to you at the T S Eliots).

Aren’t judges always saying they like to be surprised? Or to read something they could/would never have written themselves? Nevertheless I have more than once decided not to enter a comp on the grounds that I really didn’t think anything I could write would excite that particular judge. Sometimes you just know.

What are the odds?

Oh dear. The laws of probability again. Many competitions make it known how many entries they get – especially if it’s more than last year. You may think it’s not worth entering if yours is only one of 8,000 poems in contention, when in a smaller competition you may only be up against 300 or fewer. However, some competitions feature prizes for not just 1st, 2nd and 3rd, but also Highly Commended and Commended. They may even publish a Shortlist and a Longlist, both of which (if the organisers are good at publicity) can win you ‘reputation’ points. And it can be encouraging too – hey, you got somewhere! So the chances of getting somewhere might be better in a larger competition, rather than nowhere in a smaller one.

Another factor to consider is the quality of the entries. The bigger the prize money, the cheaper the entry fee and the better and more widespread the publicity, the greater the proportion of poems that have zero chance of winning, thus pushing your lovingly-written ditty further up the pile. I’m not sure this has been scientifically proven, but I have a strong feeling about it.

Enter now! Perhaps!

Of course, luck always plays a part. That’s part of the thrill, isn’t it? And maybe (unlike me) you have plenty of poems to go round. But I still think a certain amount of selection, before handing over the good stuff, isn’t such a bad idea.

If you’re feeling like the gods are shining on you, then here are three suggestions for where to put your money this week:

The Interpreter’s House Poetry Competition, closes January 31st. Judge Zaffar Kunial, prizes: £500, £150, £100, plus publication in the magazine. Entry fee £4 or 3 for £10

Prole Laureate Competition, closes January 31st. Judge Kate Garrett, prizes £200 and 2 x £50, plus publication in the magazine and on the website. Entry fee £3 for the first entry, £2 after that.

The Plough Poetry Prize, closes January 31st. Judge Michael Symmons Roberts, prizes £1000, £500, £250 in each of 2 categories (open – up to 40 lines, short poem – up to 10 lines). Entry fee £5

There are more! See the Poetry Library’s listing.

Addendum – I’ve just seen this excellent post from Angela T Carr, on the very same topic, written a few days ago – it must be something in the air! Angela regularly posts competition calls on her blog, and her insights are well worth having.

Published inBlogCompetitions


    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Thanks Ann, good luck with your comp entries!

  1. a lovely, helpful, wise and timely post, this. I like the point about the judge. I’ve said before that I enter comps where I’m actually excited by the idea that this or that poet will read my entry, regardless. Your advice about the first and last lines is spot on. Catch the eye and then surprise. I’ll share a couple of anecdotes. I won one comp where the judge was someone who’d treated one of my poems in a workshop with absolute derision. I suppose I wanted to say she’d not put me off for life. And I won one judged by Simon Armitage who introduced the poem at the prize giving by saying that anyone with a grain of sense would understand that submitting a poem about a Scots island for a comp based on a Scots island was both naive and unwise. Which, he said, just goes to show. Essentially you pick poems that excite you even though you’ve read them many times; poems you believe in. Poems you feel chuffed to have written. Then you send them off with their spotty bundles to seek their fortunes. xxxxx

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Ah John, a great response as always, thank you for those stories! And you’re quite right I think that if a subject excites you, and if what you’ve written is something you feel pretty chuffed about, that’s a very good reason to enter it. Good luck with all your spotty bundles – but be sure not to enter anything I’ve gone for myself, thanks very much!

  2. Robin, thanks for sharing your considerations when entering poems for competitions. You’ve got me thinking about the ‘biggies’ I usually fight shy of entering. I like the level playing field of competitions more and more. If a poem of mine makes the shortlist in a competition, I’m chuffed for it, regardless. I do look at entry fee versus prize value. And if the judge happens to be one of my favourite poets, I’m more inclined to enter.

    • Robin Houghton Robin Houghton

      Hi Jayne, thanks for sharing your thoughts… I’m not sure if I’m more or less likely to enter if the judge is one of my favourite poets, I think sometimes that puts me off, in case my poem gets nowhere and that might make me sad – although that’s ridiculous really. Similarly if the judge is a friend or someone who knows my work, I tend not to enter, although I’m sure that’s just as irrational!

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Robin Houghton 2021