This year I was delighted when Pascale Petit agreed to judge The New Writer Poetry Competition. She has five collections, and her sixth, Fauverie is due out from Seren in 2014. Her eye for detail (she was editor of Poetry London for 11 years), expertise (she is a co-founding tutor of The Poetry School), and string of awards (including being shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize three times!) make her the perfect competition judge. Entering competitions can be costly, so it is important to get it right. Here are some suggestions from Pascale.
AM: What was the first competition you entered?
PP: This is so long ago that I can’t remember! But I do remember entering the South West Poetry Competition in 1993. I entered it because the judges were Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle. There was the shock of the phone ringing to tell me I’d won and would get a cheque for £500, which was a lot of money then. I asked which poem they’d chosen because I’d entered several, and when they said ‘Eisriesenwelt’ (set in the Ice Giants’ Cave in Austria) I said to myself, “they’ve made a mistake”. I’d also entered a poem called ‘The Frozen Waterfall’ and thought that was better. It was instructive to reread my winning entry through the judges’ eyes after it had been severely criticised by a magazine editor. I must have stuck it in the batch just in case that editor was wrong. Five years later both poems appeared in my first collection Heart of a Deer.
AM: If a new poet wants to enter the competition market what advice would you give?
PP: Follow the rules carefully. Submit your best poems. Edit them until they are their best, proofread them with a ruler, to catch all typos, so as not to appear careless. But before you enter any competitions, read contemporary poetry widely and deeply. See what your peers are doing, what’s possible, how they use language, construct a poem. Read contemporary and classical poetry in translation as well – see what other cultures are doing with poems. Think about what you have to offer that is yours. Then check that each of your lines is, as Robert Frost said, “a fresh look and a fresh listen” at your subject. Keep a record of what you send where, a logbook helps.
AM: Do you think entering competitions is a good way of becoming recognised?
PP: It can be, though luck is most of it. It’s harder to win competitions than get published in magazines, because of the sheer volume of entries, but the advantage is that you enter anonymously, so your reputation or lack of one is irrelevant.
AM: What competitions have you judged and what did you get out of them?
PP: I’ve judged a few, including the InterBoard Poetry Community (IBPC), the Guardian workshop, the Café Writers, and this year I’m judging the Poetry London competition. When I was poetry editor at Poetry London I used to be one of the sifters for the thousands of entries to find the top 500 for the judge. Judging gives me an insight into what makes a poem stand out, though it would be hard to define what that is, and each winning poem often extends my idea of what that might be. The final shortlist of ten or twenty are the ones I live the longest with, trying to decide which gets what and why.
AM: Should an entrant swot up on the judge’s work before entering their competition?
PP: I don’t think an entrant should enter poems that they think are closest to the judge’s tastes. I do notice a lot of people seem to do that! I see many poems that are ekphrastic or ‘confessional’, just because I’ve been labelled as those things. My tastes are broad and I’m not really looking for poems like mine. I want to be surprised.
AM: Is it best to begin by entering small local competitions or hop straight into the biggies?
PP: Probably, as there’s more chance of getting a prize, fewer entrants, fewer published poets entering. But why not try the biggies as well?