I’m struggling with the flu right now but the general BLEUGH has been tempered by some good news on the poetry front.
I’ve had a couple of pieces accepted for a new women-led anthology on bodily autonomy, edited by poet and academic, Kathy D’Arcy, and due to be published by New Binary Press in the Spring. We have a historic referendum coming up in 2018, to repeal the 8th Amendment which compromises women’s healthcare in Ireland, and I’m proud to be among a chorus of voices writing about this important issue.
I’ve also had poems shortlisted and commended in a couple of competitions – the Doolin Writers’ Weekend Poetry Competition and the Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize 2018.
A writer recently asked me, ‘What makes a good competition poem?’ As many of you read this blog for the monthly poetry competitions and submissions list, I thought it might be useful to talk a little bit about submitting work to competitions. I’m no expert but there are certain boxes I like to tick when deciding whether to enter a competition and what poems to send.
Why Submit to Competitions?
For me, it started with not being very confident and wanting to get a sense of whether the poems were any good – did they stand up to scrutiny? I submitted to competitions rather than journals because they are anonymous. I didn’t want to be submitting work over and over to an editor who (in my mind) would roll their eyes and exclaim, ‘Not this eejit again!’. Rejection is a big part of the process of writing and the competition route seemed a gentler introduction to disappointment.
I was very lucky to bag a win early on – a micro-poetry competition – word for word, my best pay-day to date! That early success encouraged me to keep writing and to keep submitting.
I do think it’s a good idea to ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience. It rarely leads to wealth or glory but don’t despair – I have a few ideas about why it might still be worth your while!
This is a tricky one. Some competitions are hugely prestigious and attract thousands of entries from around the world. As a rule of thumb, the higher the prize money, the bigger the draw. It means your work will be read alongside – and have to hold its own against – established and extensively published writers.
These competitions are highly competitive. It doesn’t mean younger writers can’t win, especially if they have been writing seriously for a few years and have established a track record of good work, but if you’ve only written a handful of poems then these competitions are probably not a good bet. The idea of winning a major prize as a novice writer is seductive but, generally, they go to writers who have been working at their craft for years.
If you’ve yet to publish a full-length collection of poetry, look out for competitions that specifically target unpublished writers. Your work will be part of a smaller pool and be read alongside writers with a similar level of experience.
What About Competition Fees?
I also see a lot of debate online about the cost of submitting to competitions (and some journals) and how it can be a bar to lower-income poets putting their work forward.
I don’t believe competitions are money-making scams intended to exploit writers. They have legitimate costs that need to be covered – prize money, judge’s fee, administration, technical costs (eg. Web Hosting, Submittable, Paypal). Many offer discounts for multiple entries or membership. If there is a profit, generally it is being plowed back in to activities and publications that support writers. No-one is buying a yacht and retiring to the Caribbean on the back of a poetry competition!
That said, there are always exceptions. If a competition is hosted by an organisation you’ve never heard of, who doesn’t have a strong or transparent online presence and who charge an exorbitant sum for entry, then proceed with caution. Check out a few comparable competitions to establish the going rate.
I know it can seem hard that everyone pays and only a handful benefit, but I like to take a wider view. Nobody owes you anything as a writer – not publication, not prestige, nothing. When I trained as an architect, I had to absorb the cost of tools, equipment, wardrobe, membership fees – all the things I needed to present myself as a working architect. Same goes for writing. Paying to enter competitions and submit to journals is just the cost of doing business. It also helps support organisations and journals that in turn support writers – you’re contributing to a healthy literary community.
I am a low-income poet. I don’t have full-time income to rely on and this means I have to pick and choose the opportunities I pursue. I’m serious about building a body of work, so I set aside an affordable sum to invest in myself as a writer and I only enter competitions when I have work of a suitable standard.
No writer should enter every single poem they write into a competition or enter every competition out there! In one year, I might write 50-100 poems – only a handful of these will be competition standard.
IF I’M LUCKY.
With limited funds and a limited number of suitable poems, I pick my targets carefully. The odds are always against winning but there are better odds on valuable side-benefits. I look for competitions that are democratic, offering the largest number of rewards to the widest group of people.
Poetry Competition Checklist
- Is the competition run by an established organisation or journal? Making the long/shortlist of a competition held by a reputable literary organisation or journal, eg. The Poetry Society / Magma, builds credibility and increases the chances of your name/work being noticed by other editors, publishers and literary organisations, festival committees etc. It also looks good on a writing CV, if applying for literary jobs, grants or bursaries.
- Is the judge an established writer? Does the competition publish the judge’s comments? It’s an opportunity to have your work read and possibly selected / commented upon by a writer you would never have access to normally. Having a blurb about your work by an established writer can be helpful when approaching publishers and, again, it’s good for the writing CV.
- How many principal prize winners? Does the prize money go to a single winner? Look out for competitions that spread the wealth among several winners and offer acknowledgement to runners-up.
- Is there a published long/shortlist? It’s not feasible to give everyone a prize but it doesn’t cost organisers anything to publish these lists when they are an integral part of the judging process. If a competition attracts 2000 entries, your poem making it to the last 50 puts it in the top 2-3% – that’s no small achievement. Being included on a longlist, or going from the longlist to the shortlist in successive years, gives writers a boost in confidence / credibility and costs the organisers nothing. When writers pay good money to support a competition, I believe organisers should spread the love and offer as much value as possible in return.
- Will the winners / runners-up / shortlist poems be published? If the competition is run by a reputable journal, it may also offer publication/payment to the top entries, eg. Mslexia Women’s Poetry Competition, Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize. Some competitions offer publication in an anthology. Publication in a reputable journal is always good. I’m warier of competition anthologies. Some are highly regarded and widely read within the literary community, eg, The Forward Prize annual anthology. Others feel like another way to exploit writers, using the writers work without payment and then expecting the writer to pay for a copy of the anthology to have a record of their published work. I’d watch out for the latter. If a writer has paid to enter a competition and the organisers want to use their work for publication, the very least they should do is provide the writer with a copy of that publication. I also have a bit of a bugbear about competitions publishing the entire shortlist without paying for use of the work. Most competitions exclude poems that have been prize-winners in other competitions but if a poem is commended or makes it to the shortlist, it might easily do better in another competition with a different judge or be submitted for publication to a journal. The only thing that would prevent it being sent out again is publication.
- Will there be a prize-giving or reading? Many competitions are held by literary festivals to coincide with and help promote their main event, eg. Ledbury Poetry Prize. If prize-winners and runners-up (sometimes even the shortlist) are also invited to read at the festival, it’s an opportunity to meet and thank the judge, and have the work heard by a literary audience.
Sometimes, I’ll forego one or more of these. For example, if it’s a judge whose work I particularly admire and it would mean a lot to me to have my worked chosen by them. As a writer, it’s up to you to decide what’s important to you and hold yourself to that standard.
All of this is conditional on the poems being good enough to hold their own in a competition. I’ve written more than I intended about the competitions themselves, so I’ll save what makes a competition-worthy poem for the next post.
In the meantime, is there anything I’ve missed? What things do you consider when deciding whether or not to enter a competition? Please leave a comment below.
NB. I live in Ireland and these thoughts are based on my experience of the UK/Irish literary scene. I’d also love to hear thoughts about submitting to competitions in other parts of the world.
Photo by Gratisography