POET RUSSELL JONES IS BECOMING A BIT OF A DAB HAND at getting a good result out of a poetry competition. Here he shares his tips with us.
Poetry competitions are strange beasts: half soul-sapping, half ego-boosting, half not good with fractions. While some writers find the concept of competitions to be ‘against the purposes of art’ (and I tend to agree but my moral faculty is a bit inconsistent) they can offer impressive wads of cash to penniless poets, as well as gaining them some recognition amongst The Powers That Be in the publishing world. I started entering poetry competitions three years ago and have either won or been runner up in 12, making approximately £1500 profit from prize money. This article is a guide, of sorts, to entering and (hopefully) winning poetry competitions.
Finding suitable competitions
Competitions are often advertised in libraries and in writing magazines. A quick internet search will also bring up a face-mashing number of results. In particular the Southbank Centre poetry library has an extensive list of reputable competitions with links and details for each. It is therefore best to be selective, choosing those that have themes that would suit you (if there is a theme). Another sneaky little trick is to check who the judge is and to see whether the kind of poetry you write is the kind of poetry they like to read (often there will be a comment from the judge on what they’re looking for).
Cost and winnings
Entering most competitions costs money so you have to be prepared to fork it out, Moneybags. Most cost four or five pounds per poem, with a discount offer for submitting several poems to the same contest. The payouts for winning vary from thousands of pounds (Bridport Prize, Manchester Poetry Prize, Eric Gregory Award) to a basket of cheese and condiments (yes, that really was the prize for one I entered . . . and lost). Obviously, the competitions that pay out more cash will have more entries and will probably be more difficult to win, so there’s a careful balance between chance, payout and cost. Some competitions offer online entries and payment, others will require postal entries, so keep your chequebook handy.
Picking the ‘right poem’
This is a tough one. Tough as nuts. I’ve already mentioned spying on the judge and checking the theme but there are general tips to follow. Firstly, try reading the work of past winners (often on the websites of the competition) to gain an understanding of the sorts of things that have won. Generally speaking, short poems do not win; I think they’re looking for value for money per word or some similar nonsense. Secondly – and this may seem obvious – but pick your best poems and make sure they adhere to the rules. Some competitions don’t allow ‘bad’ language or ‘adult themes’. It also seems a waste of time or money to send in poems that haven’t been revised to a point where you are completely happy with them. Very experimental poetry doesn’t seem to do too well in my experience, particularly if it requires difficult formatting or special fonts. Try choosing pieces that stand out as well-written and unique, but not too alienating.
Follow the rules
They all have rules, mainly about not including your name on the poem. If you break a rule, your poem won’t count and you might still be charged. Get it right. Be meticulous. Keep a record of the poems you’ve sent out and the dates they’re being judged. Many competitions don’t like receiving previously published poems and they especially dislike it if you submit the same poem to several competitions at the same time . . . if they find out.
Don’t reach for the bread knife too soon
Competitions get thousands of entries. It might be that you’ve written the finest poem of the 21st century but that the sub-human letter hound who first saw it put it in the ‘no’ pile because it wasn’t their cup of Bovril. Keep trying; see it as a positive thing if you even get a mention in the results. The likelihood is that the poem is good enough to win a competition out there if someone else rated it highly enough to be in the final stages.
Only enter your worst poems to the competitions I enter. I need the money, I yearn for the fame. Thanks muchly.
— Russ Jones