Poetry competition tips

With The New Writer‘s November 30th deadline looming I thought I’d post an interview with Bill Greenwell who judged our previous competition – he’s a wise sage.

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.

Bill Greenwell’s first collection Spoof (2005) was published by Entire 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 2000 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!

First published in The New Writer Summer 2012

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