Is there such a thing as the competition poem? Something that is guaranteed to grab the eye of the judge and win the prize? And, if there is, how do you write it? The Frip talks to Ian Duhig, Helena Nelson and Christopher James to find out
How is a competition poem different from any other poem? Well, for a start, it has to stand on its own two feet. The judges don’t know who the poet is, so it comes without the blessings or burdens of baggage. It’s not in a collection with other poems that might shed light on its meaning or reach. But it is surrounded by all the other competition entries. It needs to be both stand-out, and able to reward further reading. It’s a bit like applying for a job. The first stage is about avoiding errors in order to get in the short-list. The second stage is where depth is revealed.
And the theme? People are divided. Matthew Sweeney, in a judge’s reportNew Welsh Review 40 wrote “We felt that the main prizewinners should touch on … the big issues of death and love”, but The Writers Bureau says: “Make the theme of your poem original. Poetry judges will not take kindly to you using the same old tired themes.”Ten Top Tips for Writing the Perfect Competition Poem
Ian Duhig has won the National Poetry Competition twice, in 1987 and in 2000. He was a judge for the National in 2001, judged the Ledbury in 2012, was chair of judges for the Forward Prize in 2014 and was on the judging panel for the 2021 Costa Book Awards. He says “As a judge, my experience is that most people send in what they think are competition poems and the one’s that aren’t tend to stand out to good advantage.”
Presumably this means he thinks that people should drop any ideas of trying to write a winner and just send in their best poems? “Yes, I do think people should send in their best poems because good poems change the rules of the game as a matter of course. Nine years ago I judged the Cafe Writers’ Competition and gave a prize to Vahni Anthony Ezekiel Capildeo for a poem that, had I understood it at the time, would probably have won, but I could see even then something extraordinary was going on, something very far from competition poems. Similarly with Linda Black in the Ledbury in a fascinating shortlist. I was outvoted in the National Poetry Competition but if I’d had my way a young writer from New Zealand would have done rather better. Once you get down to the shortlist, any number of poets could win and luck is much more significant a factor.”
So what does a competition poem look like, when he comes across it? “I would say that competition poems ostentatiously show an acquaintance with the current poetry scene and writers of the day, attempt to show that its writer has digested these influences and is trying something new, take a few calculated risks and so on. When you judge a competition with thousands of poems, the ones that make you go “WTF!” you are very grateful to come across.”
As a judge, my experience is that most people send in what they think are competition poems and the one’s that aren’t tend to stand out to good advantage
Does Duhig ever sit down and plan to write a competition winner and, if so, how does he actually go about it? He says, “I should be honest and say that the poems I thought might do well when they were sent in didn’t, so if you can take my failure to know as a lesson, it would be don’t assume you’re the best judge of your own work and maybe throw in a wild card.”
Do the poems that win competitions tend to address certain subjects — the Big Themes, love and death etc? Duhig says, “I think the big themes are still there, but very often through leaving their traces in smaller things. However, I really like poems that make me think again about the world around me or what I thought I knew: this is the immediate enrichment I think poetry offers, though I’m sure other arts practitioners would disagree, but I have a language-led aesthetic response to things.”
On whether poems in form (sonnets, villanelles etc) still win poetry competitions these days, he says, “Although I like and use these forms, my real, honest advice for a competition is not to use them. This might sound hypocritical as a judge who gladly gave Hannah Lowe the Costa for a book of sonnets, but that was a book. But I’m frequently wrong about such things and my comments here might now be the fruits of a completely irrelevant experience.”
Helena Nelson, poet, publisher, and founder of HappenStance Press and Sphinx Review, has analysed what factors competition winning poems had in common. She says, “I did a complicated survey, largely for my own satisfaction, for about a hundred poems, making columns for key factors like verb tense, first / second / third person, narrative element, historic element, topical element etc, and certain things came up periodically as somewhat more likely than not.
“But the most obvious (if disappointing to me) outcome was that there was no way to predict what made a poem most likely to win a competition. The variables in terms of judges are too wide. It might be possible to predict what sort of poem was most likely to win a competition judged, for example, by Daljit Nagra or Roger Robinson or Maura Dooley, but immediately you put an individual with one or more judges, the outcome is completely different.”
Judges won’t pick a poem that might, theoretically, make them look like a pillock
Nelson says, “Some things seem to be true:
- A competition judged by a single judge is more likely to pick out an unpredictable poem, perhaps even a poem that masses of people won’t like.
- A competition judged by a group of judges is more likely to pick out a fairly mainstream poem, something the judges can agree on. So their individual first preference may very well be different for each judge, and the winning poem may represent a compromise and even be a bit disappointing for most readers expecting some kind of Great Work.
- Judges won’t pick a poem that might, theoretically, make them look like a pillock. So what they think people will think about them for their choice, depending on the judge, may be a significant factor.
- Shortlists often reflect the first preference of each of the judges (but the first prize was the compromise).
- A humorous poem won’t win a literary competition.
- An alternative or left-field poem won’t win a literary competition (judges can’t be sure they’ve understood it)
- A quality of memorableness is significant, and a narrative hook often helps: poem that suggests a story.
“I don’t think you can sit down to write a competition poem. Though I think there are lots of good poems that certainly wouldn’t win competitions. It’s easier to say why they wouldn’t than why they would.”
Christopher James won the National Poetry Competition in 2008, the Bridport Prize in 2002, the Ledbury Poetry Festival Competition Prize in 2003 and 2006, the Oxford Brookes International Poetry Competition in 2016 and the Suffolk Poetry Society Crabbe Poetry Competition in 2019, among others, and is regularly placed or commended. Does he think there such a thing as a competition poem?
He says, “I’m going to stick my neck out here, and say yes. It’s a poem that shines brighter than most — not merely because it’s well put together, sounds good or says something important. It will normally do something different; achieve something in a more spectacular way, or operate in a slightly different fashion to things you’ve done before. Somehow it will add up to more than the sum of its parts. It will surprise you as the writer and almost immediately feel like it’s got a life of its own. It will start talking back to you from the page. A winning poem will feel completely fresh, spontaneous and yet look as if it’s always been there. It will have a confidence and assured sense of itself that all its own, and follow its own logic.
“I think you need to give the reader (or judge) something they’ve never seen or even imagined before, or take them to a place they’ve never been. It’s got to take them on an unexpected journey, both emotionally and imaginatively. Often, this comes from putting two unexpected ideas together. For example, I won the National Poetry Competition with a poem called ‘Farewell to the Earth’. It was about a quiet, decent gardener being buried in the manner of a pharaoh, with ‘a potato in each hand’, his trowel, dancing shoes and a shower of rosettes.
“There have been plenty of poems about gardeners, and quite a few about pharaohs too. But I bet there aren’t many that marry the two together. It takes the reader to a totally unexpected place. You’re mining a seam of images and associations that no one has touched before, and it’s a simple way to side step the hackneyed and the common place. Monty Python was doing this in the world of comedy 50 years ago. I’m just repeating the trick in the world of poetry.
Famous people also seem to crop up in my competition winning poems from James Joyce to Dorothy Wordsworth to John Lennon. Perhaps judges and readers like this because it gives them an anchor point. It’s a form of shorthand — you don’t need to establish characters from scratch
“I did something similar with a poem called ‘Sherlock of Aleppo’, which was longlisted for the National Poetry Competition. This time it was about two boys in Syria who’ve stumbled on a book of Sherlock Holmes stories. They decide to role play the characters of Holmes and Watson in response to a natural instinct for play, as well as to cope with the traumas of war. I could have just written a poem about two boys in a war torn country, but I think it would have felt worthy or — worse — like second hand reportage. By adding this unexpected frame, it becomes much more playful and ultimately more poignant.
“There are certain things that seem to work in poetry competitions. History and nature are both fertile grounds. Unusual pieces of history can educate people as well entertain then. Meanwhile, a lot of people feel instinctively that poetry should be linked to the natural world, even tangentially. Famous people also seem to crop up in my competition winning poems from James Joyce to Dorothy Wordsworth to John Lennon. Perhaps judges and readers like this because it gives them an anchor point. It’s a form of shorthand — you don’t need to establish characters from scratch.”
Does he think that poems in form (sonnets, villanelles etc) can still win poetry competitions these days? He says, “Certain judges are more impressed by form that others. But I hardly ever win with a poem that follows a strict form. To be a master of a particular form you have to have thousands of hours of experience writing in it. Like many poets, I’ve dabbled with lots of forms, including villanelles and palindromic (mirror) poems but I’m a master of none. Therefore if I enter a villanelle, it’s the work of a gifted amateur. I stand a much better chance with a well-crafted piece of free verse that gets the basics right — great use of assonance, silbilance, metaphor, simile, the senses and so on. I do write a lot of sonnets, but generally these are not my competition winning poems. I have lots of highly commended sonnets.”
Judges feel they need good value, pound for pound. But a poem that fills the whole page is too long. It can start to look prosy, even if it isn’t
Are sonnets just not long enough? “I think a lot of judges pick poems that fill three quarters of the page. As ludicrous as that sounds, I think there’s some strange sense to it. If there’s a big prize at stake — the £5,000 for the Bridport or £5,000 for the National — it takes some nerve handing over all that loot for a 14 line sonnet. It does happen, but not often. Judges feel they need good value, pound for pound. But a poem that fills the whole page is too long. It can start to look prosy, even if it isn’t. I may be talking poppycock here, but I can only speak from experience, which is to say: ‘go long, but not too long.’
“Some things are just common sense when it comes to competitions. Always enter at least two poems. It’s always the poem you thought less of that does better of the two. Never enter in a hurry (unless it’s deadline day, in which case hurry). I sometimes do some reading around the judge to see what they like, but not too much and I never write specifically for a judge. That way disaster lies – you end up writing parodies or pale imitations of a judge’s work which will only annoy them.
“There are names you see time and again on prize winning lists. Sarah Doyle and Mark Fiddes are ubiquitous. That’s not merely because they’re excellent poets, but because they operate in an imaginatively free space – going places most others don’t go, bundling language, images, ideas and characters together and taking them on weird and wonderful road trips.
“I can definitely empathise with a judge facing three or four excellent poems, all utterly different from each other. How do you pick a winner from these equally good but different poems? It’s like comparing chalk with cheese, where the chalk and the cheese are both equally well made.”
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