Much against my better judgement I sent in some work for a couple of competitions. I’m usually a comps duffer, having an ability to avoid even the longest runner-up list in my pursuit for better visibility as a poet. But some of the newer poetry trusts are connected with the heritage of poets I admire a lot, and therefore I felt it was okay. I’m not supporting a remote arts committee whose efforts never touch the provinces, I’m putting a bit of sponsorship directly into projects and events, ones which involve local communities and aren’t just about hiring headline writers.
As a result I feel slightly better about the whole competing-for-a-place thing, but I’m glad to say I didn’t download any advice guides about competitions, or read anyone’s article, their blog, or any books about creative writing beforehand, or beat myself over the head about it. No, we really don’t know what the judges are looking for – in many cases, they choose a winner by personal feelings once the initial ‘can they write’ question is answered. I know, because I’ve been a preliminary judge for three competitions and I’ve see the lack of logic going into the process. The person who hates poems about cats isn’t going to choose a poem about a cat even if it happens to be a brilliant one. The old guy on the panel who thinks women can’t be funny is probably not going to award a woman in a funny poem contest. And so on. I worked on a competition where the main judge was a prominent literary figure, except the panel members lower down the food chain were doing the selecting, and sending him a shortlist to choose from. He got a substantial fee, the rest of us didn’t, even though we’d done the work. Did I feel like putting loads of effort into the selecting process? Guess.
It was also the same year when a literary prankster was passing off others’ poems (slightly ‘deconstructed’) as his own, and while his folly was blazed across the media, he’d sent a work in to our competition which was probably genuine. But we couldn’t take the risk, and although he’d ended up on the shortlist, we had to disqualify him. It happened before, too, when I worked on a short stories project; a different local prankster decided to chance his arm and forwarded a story which was actually written by someone else. I found out because it was broadcast on Radio 4 one afternoon, attributed to its original author. I pulled the pranksters’ effort out of my files and read along, paragraph by paragraph, just within enough time of the printing date to halt our selection and find a replacement.
Occurrences like these make it all the more annoying when I send work out and get nowhere. In the resulting postbag there’s going to be absolute first-timers, people sending the same poem each year, people who can afford to send 30 separate entries, and maybe even a canny prankster who thinks he’s onto a good thing with his brand of homage and re-appropriation. And maybe the judge has a sore head that morning or she fell out with her partner and immediately wants an ‘I Hate Men’ rant to win. You just don’t know. You look at the glossy promotional literature and the list of sponsors, the well-known judge at the head, and it’s all down to how they feel on the day. Therefore, never imagine that you are a bad poet because you don’t win. It’s all accidental.