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I was fascinated to read the Magazines v. Competitions leaflet in the latest Acumen, and wonder if I might offer a few thoughts on the subject? I’ve had quite a long association with competitions, in terms of founding and then for several years running one, entering many, succeeding in a few, sinking without trace in a lot more, adjudicating, and co-writing a book on the subject.
There’s nothing new about poetry competitions. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed competition was a way of ensuring the best writers and performers achieved recognition and status. The Welsh Eisteddfod system started in the mid-to- late 1100s. Today’s competitions receive anywhere between a dozen and several thousand entries. I’ve never been able to understand why some people talk about the ‘competition poem’ in disparaging terms. The question I am most frequently asked whenever the subject comes up is ‘What do adjudicators want.’ There’s a one-word answer to that: excellence. The winning poem will thrill with its content, and be flawless in its delivery. A competition winner is the best poem the writer can produce, original in its content and treatment, honed to perfection; so to suggest that a ‘competition poem’ is in any way inferior seems ridiculous.
Some writers find the frequently-required 40 line limit inhibiting. There are many competitions that welcome longer poems; but in these adjudicators often discover poems that would have been far better if they had been crafted within a tighter length. A poet exploring the nature of the universe in a thousand line epic is not being forced to enter it into a competition, and may be better advised to submit a more tautly written, specific piece that conveys its message within the line limit, and keep the epic for another occasion.
When excellence abounds, the adjudicator needs a reason to select one poem over another. When two poems are equal in appeal and both are stunning, the final decision regarding the place could be made over a single word that seems out of context, or even a misplaced apostrophe. And that’s why the shortlist is so important. It isn’t a gallery of shame, full of the pieces that didn’t make the grade, but a parade of excellence that for some slight reason, on this day and with this adjudicator, could not quite topple another poem from the top spot. The shortlist is certainly not a celebration of mediocrity, but an encourager for superb poetry.
There is a suggestion that people entering competitions are only after the money, wanting to make some real cash for their poems. When a poet has truly committed to writing, and spent hours crafting a set of work, perhaps attended workshops or courses to hone the skills, sought out the perfect outlet for the poem and sent it off in a mingling of hope and anxiety, the very last concern is the quantity of cash that might be generated. It’s a lovely bonus, but the real joy is the achievement, the knowledge that someone who knows about these things has selected this poem above all the others to gain the highest honour. Cash is trash – kudos is forever.
The internet is crammed with good poetry, but it is all too easy to place anything you write in the public domain. This will include a lot of dross, and while discerning readers can tell the difference, there will always be some people who can’t, and who assume that everything that appears online is automatically wonderful and equal. So although it’s good to have an e-presence, the issue of lack of discernment means it does not carry as much prestige as a competition win or magazine publication.
Poetry magazines have always been – and continue to be – the lifeblood of poetry, the humming hub of the art. As with a competition win, an acceptance signifies that a third party believes the quality of your writing is brilliant. It’s always useful to be able to list in your collection – whether commercially or self-published – the names of prestigious magazines where the poems included have already appeared. If you can write this and add competition credits, you are signposting to the reader that the quality of your work is assured, and has been endorsed by a range of experienced editors and adjudicators.
More importantly, acceptance by both publication and competition outlets cements your reputation as a poet in your own mind. The levels of justifiable pride and confidence engendered can deliver the boost we all need from time to time.