People often ask me what I get out of entering poetry competitions. Is it the prize money, the kudos, or just the excitement of winning? What does success in a competition mean to me?
It's not the money. I think I'm lucky in that I don't need poetry to provide me with an income — by profession I'm a policy analyst and non-fiction writer, twin tracks that keep a roof over my head and books on the bookshelves. A cheque is nice, but I value it more as a mark of recognition than as a source of income.
Being a non-fiction writer I respond well to a deadline, and I like the challenge of having to perfect a poem by a particular date. I'm always on the last minute, but there's nothing wrong with that!
I also enjoy writing to a theme. Sometimes I'll write a poem specifically for a competition, sometimes an already written poem matches the competition theme. I've just won the Mother's Milk Books Poetry Prize for a poem on the theme of 'family love'. I wrote the winning poem a while back, when I was working on drafts about my female ancestry. Only two poems survived the editing process. 'Lineage', which is published in my debut collection Equinox, is about my mother's family, who for back as far as at least the 1600s, have lived in or near Glastonbury.
'Janet', named after my daughter, is about my place in the continuity of the female line. A weighty theme, but 'Janet' is a slight, elegant poem that I believed in — if you don't believe in your own poems, no-one else will. I wanted to see the poem published, and later this year it will appear in the Mother's Milk competition anthology.
So, that's something else I get out of entering competitions — it offers the possibility of publication, and especially for poems that might not fit in with what journal editors are looking for. It can often be a quicker route too. In January this year I sent out a bunch of poems, some to competitions and some to journals. By the end of March I knew that I had won, or been placed in four competitions, and hadn't made the grade in two others. I still haven't heard back from the editors. Yes, I know putting a journal together is different from judging a competition, but sometimes I just want to get a poem out there!
But what I value most about having a poem making the final cut in a competition is the knowledge that the adjudicators (the plural is important here) rate my work. While I like to attend the prize giving, not for the glory, but to meet the judges and to talk to other poets, sometimes it's just not possible. Nonetheless, the adjudicator's report gives me a response from a knowledgeable reader and tells me whether I've achieved what I set out do. Sometimes I find I've achieved more than I set out to do. To me, that's the mark of having written a good poem; it means the poem has taken over, it has sung itself into being.
And as for the judges themselves, the poets who have rated my work include Michael Longley, Robin Robertson, Ian MacMillan, Martin Figura, Jacob Polley, Penelope Shuttle, Suzanne Batty, and Helen Tookey. These are all established poets whose work I admire and I'm both delighted and flattered that they rate my work highly enough to put it on a shortlist. Their opinion, both individually and collectively, gives me a measure of my own worth.
With enough competition wins, a virtuous circle comes in to being. Editors are more likely to take a chance on the work of a poet who has already obtained recognition from other poets, and competition organisers like their winners to obtain recognition elsewhere. 'Shahtoosh', also in Equinox, was a winner in a competition run by Mslexia, who will be tweeting about the launch of the collection.
And if I don't win, what then? Well, re-edit, resubmit. 'Benign Ovarian Teratoma', commended in this year's Hippocrates Award, was first submitted to the same competition two years' ago. Like 'Janet', it was a poem I believed in, so I re-worked it and re-entered it. If you don't give up on a poem, it won't give up on you.