Tuesday, 29 October 2013

"I will be waiting quietly for your poems to speak to me": Alison Brackenbury's thoughts on judging Poetry Space Competition 2014

I will come to your poems with an open mind. I would like to put the last three words in capitals! But capitals shout, and I will in fact be waiting quietly for your poems to speak to me.

Do not think that you must seek out poems on particular subjects! I grew up in the English countryside, and I often write about it. Yet some of my favourite poems are set in great cities, or in countries I have never visited.  I enjoy poems about animals. But I also relish poems about the stories and speech of humans, the strangest of animals. 

Many of us write poems about the great, sometimes terrible moments of our lives, the loves which have possessed us, the deaths we have endured.  It is humbling to read such poems.  They can remain deeply moving even when they emerge from a competition’s piled papers. But poems can come from the smallest happenings (a walk down a street, a bee bumbling into a window). Such poems can revive, amuse, enrich. Send them, too!

Please do not think, either, that your entries should be in a particular poetic form. I am very interested in traditional forms. My poems often rhyme. But some of the poems I return to again and again are in free verse.  What matters to me, simply, is that a poem should work on its own terms. It must have its own imaginative energy. I have seen competition poems which are technically flawless, yet as devoid of life as a polished, empty shell.

Do not reject possible entries simply because they are short. It is often said that short poems are not favoured by competition judges. I fear this may sometimes be true. But a very short poem was amongst the major prizewinners when I was on the judging panel for the National Poetry Competition!  So short poems, too, are welcome.

I would give two pieces of advice to all poets entering poetry competitions. These are not simply my opinion, but are based on the considered views of other judges, and competition winners.

First: if you want to write well, read widely.  All the competition judges I have spoken to say that they have read too many poems which fail because their writer has clearly read very little poetry.  Read the great poetry of the past. Read poems from other countries and cultures. (This is much easier now we have the Internet. Have you discovered the excellent US poems which can be found each day on Poetry Daily, www.poems.com? I try never to miss it. )  Read work by living British poets, too. You may not like all of it. You may wish to write quite differently.  But if you try to shut yourself off entirely from the present, you risk simply becoming a pale imitation of the past.

It is also – I would like to use capitals again! – the duty of British poets today to buy as much work by living poets as they can afford. Even buying one book or pamphlet a year helps.  Poetry publishers, large and small, have begun to suffer badly from the recession.  Every publisher I have met recently has told me the same story, and it is a chilling one.  Poetry sales overall are down by 20%: ‘worse than the darkest days of the 1980s’, said one. If publishers disappear, who will publish your poems? Buy books, please!

Secondly: enter one more poem than you intended. Put in the wild card, the odd one which you think no one will like. I have spoken to many poets who have won major competitions. They all admit that they cannot predict judges’ taste.  The winning poem is the one which they thought had no chance, the one which they thrust into the envelope at the last minute.  Send that extra poem! It will help the deserving small press which runs this competition. It will help your chances too.

I look forward to reading your poems – with an open mind.

Alison Brackenbury, October 2013

Alison's website is at www.alisonbrackenbury.co.uk

Poetry Space Competition 2014 will open for entries on November 1st - further details at http://www.poetryspace.co.uk/poetry-space-competition/