Posted by: noelwilliams | June 18, 2013

The pleasure of competitions

Recently both Antiphon editors won prizes in poetry competitions. That’s just as well, really, because it suggests to us that we’re doing something right in our own work as well as our judgements of others.

But it’s made me wonder about the nature of poetry competitions. (This is Noel typing). I enter them quite frequently, though rather fewer than usual this year. And I’ve done moderately well – lots of shortlistings and commendations and, just often enough to boost my flagging sense of  poetic adequacy, the occasional prize. Of course, the money that sometimes comes is welcome, but is this the only reason I go in for competitive poetry? After all, there are as many crossword competitions and quizzes out there as poetry competitions – why not go in for them, too, if it’s only about the money? (Actually, one reason is that I’d not do well at all in crossword comps, though success in quizzes would probably depend how many questions concerned the 100 Days of Napoleon or Scandinavian prog rock).

No, I think poetry competitions bring me the same sort of pleasure as publication or being asked to give a reading. In fact, those competitions which don’t also result in publication or a reading opportunity seem rather a let down to me. I tend not to go in for them. But the key pleasure, I think, is knowing that others, one judge at least and probably a handful of them, people amongst your peers who have experience and skill as poets, think your work is actually pretty good. In workshops we hear all the time “I really like your poem. It’s great. But….” Whereas if you’re up there in the competition rankings, no-one is saying “but…”

And then, as I’ve discovered over the last 24 hours, there’s another pleasure, too. I tell everyone I’m basically shy. I tell as many people as possible, as often as possible. They don’t believe me. That’s because I also decided that, if I was to succeed as a poet, I had to indulge in some self-promotion, too. Can you be shy and arrogant at the same time? Perhaps shyness can be a form of arrogance? Anyway, it seems to me that it’s not too self-aggrandising to let people know you’ve succeeded somewhere. So I posted my success on Facebook and elsewhere – and, wonderfully, dozens of people have come back to me with enthusiasm and encouragement. It’s a great feeling, to find your friends and peers – and especially those whose own poetry you feel is so much better than your own – applauding your success. Almost as good as the prize itself.

Even so, I think competitions are a sideline for poets. It’s the poems that matter. And then, after that, it’s publication. I think having a few competition successes can help with publication – it might make a press more likely to look at your collection, for example. But I doubt that a CV filled with competition winnings counts for much if the poetry you submit to that editor is mediocre. Here at Antiphon we have, on occasion, been surprised by the mismatch between the quality of work poet X has submitted and his or her trail of previous successes. There’s nothing in a competition success which guarantees the next poem, or any of the next twenty poems, will be any good.

Nor does winning competitions mean that you are producing the sort of work that many magazines will be interested in. All it really means is that you can write the sort of poems that stand out effectively amongst other good poems in a pile on the judge’s desk. So features such as “quirky”, “different”, “striking” and “accessible” may count for more than “originality” or “complexity”, depending on the nature of the competition and its judge.

Of course, all poets are in competition with each other to some extent for publication in any case. Which is where Antiphon comes in. If you write brilliant work, we’ll take it – no matter how brilliant the work of the other people submitting to us for the same issue. So, send it in. If it’s brilliant, it’ll win. And the prize? Your name in print in Antiphon #8. What could be better?



  1. Congratulations Noel.
    I’ve written a few thoughts about this subject on my blog (shameless self promotion!)

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