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Interview with Bill Greenwell: Poetry Competitions

I don’t know how many poetry competitions are around these days, but it does seem that more and more are coming onto the scene. The National, The Forward Prize, Bridport, Kent and Sussex Open, Ledbury and Cardiff International are the biggies – but there’s also the Troubadour, Agenda, The Plough, Norwich Writers’ Circle … I could list dozens and dozens. Some competitions are for single poems, others are for pamphlets (from presses like Flarestack), or anthologies, (like Aesthetica) or full collections like those from Cinnamon Press and Templar Press.

For a comprehensive list look online at The Poetry Library and The Poetry Kit, or subscribe to Carole Baldock’s Kudos – aquarterly magazine providing information “from all your old favourites to the newest competitions and the latest newest”. Subscribing to Kudos means you can get on with the writing and let Carole do the leg work.

Cash prizes vary considerably: receiving an Eric Gregory Award nets you £24,000; this year’s winner, Kim Moore (previously published in TNW) also received the Geoffrey Dearmer Prize of £400. Other prizes range from £50 book tokens to Mslexia’s £2000 and Bridport’s £5000.

Once you’ve chosen your competition and selected your poem, you’ll need to write out your cheque or click on PayPal to pay your entry fee. It can be pricey, so to increase your chances make sure what you’re sending out is top notch and that you’ve followed the guidelines.

This year’s TNW poetry judge is Bill Greenwell,whose first collection Spoof (2005) was published byEntire Photo Here Press, more recently his collections, Impossible Objects (2006) and Ringers (2012) have been published by Cinnamon Press. He’s no stranger to competitions having been a winner or runner-up in the Troubadour, the Kent & Sussex Open (four times!), the Yeovil Open, The Plough, the Devon Open, the Wigtown Open, and the Virginia Warbey. He has also won over 1000 competitions (yes, really!) for parodies and light verse in magazines including The Spectator and New Statesman. In 2004 he won the £5000 Mail on Sunday poetry prize. Phew! He’s just the man to give the lowdown on competitions. I narrowed my questions down to what I hope are the six most helpful.

AM: What do you look for when judging a competition?

BG: Poems with a structure of some sort; coherence; arresting words, phrases and images; a surety of voice; and some indefinable waffle-dust. Poems I have to read at least three times, because I want to. They also have to be well-edited (it’s a sort of etiquette). And some sense of surprise: a feeling that someone has not only written with an element of glee, even wry or dark humour, but has at some point become totally absorbed by what they’re doing.

AM: Some people talk about “a competition poem” – a good all-rounder. Do you think this exists?

BG: It’s probably sensible to know where you hope it will be published, and what kinds of readers are attracted to the poetry of that magazine. But no, not an all-rounder. Quirky poems, as long as they aren’t only quirky, are good. Winning poems are probably not over-crafted, and not overcrowded. I think it’s easier to define a poem that hasn’t a hope of winning. Length isn’t an issue (as long as they’re within the limit!); but maybe a good competition poem is confident enough not to be exactly 40 lines (or whatever) long.

AM: What tips can you offer a poet new to submitting to competitions?

BG: Be yourself. Surprise yourself. Don’t write in crazy fonts (distracting). And make sure you’ve read a lot of poetry from the last decade or so. Some styles do date. The most obvious advice is to make sure you’ve had some poems published somewhere: at least you then know that you’re publishable. Obey the rules (surprising how often they’re broken). And don’t take rejection personally. Peter Sansom had a clever idea: if you submit three or four, put your best one last. It will look a little better in comparison to previous efforts, since your poems will be numbered in the order you submit them, and probably read in that order.

AM: Is it best to submit to smaller competitions at first where you might stand more chance of being noticed, or is it better to grasp the nettle and go for the top prizes?

BG: Start at the top, and work down. It depends how much you’re prepared to invest, of course. It can be an expensive business.

AM: How important do you think it is to have a winning track record in your CV?

BG: Poems are anonymous, so: no. But if you have no CV at all, think about getting one. Competitions aren’t the best place to start.
AM: Thanks Bill.

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3 thoughts on “Interview with Bill Greenwell: Poetry Competitions”

  1. Very useful info and heartening that winning comps isn’t the only way…though the act of taking-part is definitely not the thing that counts the most in a poetry competition!

  2. Very interesting and useful thoughts in here – I quite like the idea of putting your best poem last.

    I’m interested that Bill recommends submitting to the top mags first and working your way down the list – maybe it depends what sort of person you are. Because I work with a group who have very little confidence in their work (although some of it is very good), I usually try to get them noticed in little local publications just so that they can see their work in print and it seems to help them gain in confidence.

    It’s good to get this advice so thank you Bill and Abegail.

  3. Lots of good and useful suggestions from two fine poets. Thank you very much.

    I like what Bill said about being surprised and the feeling of intensity – “a feeling that someone has not only written with an element of glee, even wry or dark humour, but has at some point become totally absorbed by what they’re doing.”

    And I was quite tickled by the suggestion to leave the strongest poem to the last.

    I’m not intending to enter many competitions this year because of the expense. But I’ll enter one or two for the adventure 🙂

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