What was the first writing competition you entered?
It was actually the Eric Gregory award, to pre-empt your next question. It was all kind of new to me, that I could write – I had come from an Art School background and was 29. You need to be under 30, and I just slipped in the door at the last minute. I don’t tend to enter many competitions – though I did enter the Mslexia the year before last and was commended. Perhaps this should encourage me to enter more…
Can you tell me a little bit about the Eric Gregory Award?
Well, it was all a very long time ago…I don’t think I took full advantage of winning it because I promptly disappeared into a field with chickens for eleven years. I think it probably drew me to Neil Astley’s attention at Bloodaxe, though – and it’s a very nice thing to have in your biog, especially when you look at the roll call of other winners.
If a poet is new to sending work to competitions, how should they begin?
They should begin with the crafting of poems before they send them off into the world on their own. I tend to think there is a kind of poem that stands more chance of winning in many competitions – poems which are overtly about big subjects, yet are deftly handled. Though a neatly drawn poem about a bird’s flight might win you the National. As Fleur Adcock says in The Prize-winning Poem:
What is required is simply the masterpiece we’d all write if we could.
There is only one prescription for it: it’s got to be good.
Do you think the fee for entering puts people off sending in their work?
It can do if it is too high, but the prize needs to come from somewhere. Most small literature-based organizations have no money, and the people who run them do it out of love.
What one piece of advice would you give a poet who is about to enter a competition?
First make your poem the best it can be. When poems don’t work is it usually for the same kind of reasons – examples being: too much telling, not enough showing; inconsistency of metaphors; use of abstract nouns when an image might do; use of archaic ‘poetic’ words. It is probably good advice not to second-guess what the judge might like, and don’t try to imitate the judge’s voice. Yes, I know that’s more than one piece of advice…
Anything else you want to add…
Competitions are an excellent way of unearthing new talent, but I seriously believe that writing is an individual journey, and not a race.
Helen Ivory’s third collection The Breakfast Machine has recently been published.