NIGEL HUMPHREYS POET

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THE POETRY LOTTERY

Posted by Nigel Humphreys on March 22, 2011 at 1:46 PM

 

The final date for entries to a prestigious National Poetry Competition is poaching on my time. It’s nagging me because I can’t decide whether or no to have a go. I haven’t entered a poetry competition for some considerable time, though I have had some modest success in the past. I suspect I should start testing my luck again but is there enough point ? Do I have anything which may catch the judges’ eyes ? How can I judge, not being a judge? Is it worth a punt? £6 a poem. Hmmm. One could spend quite a little fortune in a year entering all possible competitions but do any of them truly repay the effort of entering: polishing your little darling to a sparkling fleur de coin, printing it out remembering to remove your identity, filling in the entry form, writing a small cheque, hunting high and low for that unfranked stamp you had carefully steamed of a birthday card to your wife, and walking it to the postbox to save ingots of petrol ?

 

The prize money is handsome in this case but not a little outdone by the prestige of winning a big competition. And let’s face it no matter how good one’s poem is, it’s the judges’ opinions which count; opinions which are inevitably loaded with personal predilections vis-à-vis style and content. Everyone has their own ideas of what constitutes a good poem. If one is clever enough, or can be bothered, there is a case for sending the right horse to the right course. I know a dog breeder who went out of his way at a Championship Show to discover what colour the judge preferred so that he could buy a suit in that shade to wear as he paraded his little pooch in the ring. I kid you not. He decked himself in an outrageous green and won. I had this from the dog’s mouth. Of course to apply this strategy to poetry competitions one would have to acquaint oneself with the judges’ work and send something in the same shade and cut.

 

And talking of parading animals at shows there are similarities with poetry competitions. When we are all glued to our monitors or TVs next year as they run the Olympic 100 yards in Stratford, London no one in a world wide audience of millions will be in any doubt of the winner. There can be no argument about who stretches his neck beyond the tape first. (Strange that no one gives a flying start about how much the prize money is – is there prize money ?) The first sprinter to pass the winning line wins. End of. On the other hand, Chris my wife breeds fancy rabbits and takes them to shows to compete against other breeders’ rabbits. The judges are always breeders themselves. Ahem. Over a year they judge each other’s rabbits. Ahem, ahem. On any one show day the judge will decide which is the best rabbit in its class, and ultimately which is the best rabbit in the show. There are standards to which breeds should confirm but these are open to rather loose interpretation. So it is always a matter of the judge’s personal opinion at any one time. No one can see the cogs and escapement of their minds and they don’t have to justify their decisions. If a judge fails to acknowledge a former winner’s quality by placing it low, he or she can always say that it wasn’t showing itself to its best advantage that day. Ahem. Others may not agree and quietly carp behind the judge’s back but they have to accept the format no matter how inadequate.

 

You can see where I’m going with this. There is little transparency or accountability, and to a certain extent this applies to poetry competitions. There is nothing directly comparable to breed standards in the poetry world – not these days anyway - but bad or mediocre poetry usually betrays itself by being boring, unimaginative, unoriginal and derivative. That still leaves many, many, many really good poems to grade in each competition; but what will split them, what quality will push one to the top of the heap? I’m afraid the answer is often luck. As in the fancy world it will be the judges’ opinion and that could change from day to day. If you’re lucky yours may just dovetail with the consensus of current thinking. I was once placed in a competition in which the judge was unwise enough to ring to tell me. Big mistake because he went on to say that on any other day any one of the top five could have won it. His second mistake was to say that he’d put a poem above mine because it dealt with the loss of the poet’s son to which he admitted being not a little sympathetic. It wasn’t this judge’s finest hour but it was revealing.

 

Poetry judges may be called up on to write a brief justification of course but rarely does that help to clarify why one particular poem beats all others. The fact of the matter is that the winner will always be unjustifiable. Put another way poetry competitions are lotteries and that’s how they should be approached. Send your darlings in by all means but then forget them. Put them right out of your mind. I never ask to be sent the result. If I’m placed I’ll know it, if not do I care who is? All too often one never hears of them again. In the case of the competition I’m entertaining entering now I happened to look at the winners for the last ten years. I recognized two names only and I’m pretty well up on poets who have achieved some sort of recognition in recent years.

 

Yet, it is worth winning a poem lottery. There is little outlay and, as long as the competition has prestige, it’s a good shop window for the winner. Many of today’s recognised poets began by winning a big poetry competition. Publishers are immediately interested in you. They want to know if you have enough in your nascent canon for a collection. That august arts magazine which for years turned down everything you sent it, suddenly wants to print your work. On the other hand, there’s little virtue in wasting your time entering the Scunthrope Civic Trust Annual Open Poetry Competition to be judged by his worship the Mayor, Brigadier D’Arcy-Featherstone (I’ve made this one up but you get the point).

 

So will I bother to enter or have I just talked myself out of it? And this is a guy who has never bought a lottery ticket and on that basis, probably having otherwise speculated £1 a week since it began, I’m close on £1,000 better off. On the other hand, each £1 would have bought be the chance to win big. How many weeks did I not win a million pounds ?

 

So OK, I’ll have a couple of punts. Why not? If I don’t, there’s no way I’ll win and if I win . . . I’ll let you know, or someone will.

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