Saturday, 8 January 2011

Poetry competitions

I regularly enter poems in competitions. That is why I don't post new poems on my blog: most poetry competitions have a rule against work that has been previously published, including publication online. So, to avoid spoiling any poem's competition chances, I blog only poems that have been already published in some form.

For an idea of the range of poetry competitions that one can enter, see Carole Baldock's regular bulletin Kudos. You will notice that many of the Kudos listings are calling for poems with particular specifications -- a theme or subject, perhaps ("Journeys", "But what am I?", "Found", "A sense of place"), or a form (sonnet, villanelle, pantoum) -- which means, often, that they call for new work written to order.

I've not won many prizes. But in the mid-1990s I began to see a pattern emerging. Poems I wrote for thematic or formal competitions didn't get anywhere in the competitions that called them into being -- but they did seem to have the edge on my other poems when it came to finding later publication elsewhere.

In November 2004, I put that perception to a statistical test. I counted all the poems in my card index (yes, a card index -- some parts of my life remain unwired) and found an astonishingly clear confirmation of what I had sensed. The percentage of published poems that were written for competitions was higher than the percentage of competition poems in the index as a whole. And the percentage of competition poems that achieved publication was higher than the percentage of published poems in the index as a whole.

Since then, my output has been very largely competition-driven, with an average of a dozen new poems a year. But the optimism of 2004 has been impossible to sustain. In the 2004 count, the proportion of competition poems that had achieved publication was 50%. I could not pretend that the dozen new poems a year were yielding half a dozen publications a year.

A more recent count, with the addition of the post-2004 poems making the thing larger and so, presumably, more statistically reliable, gives no encouragement to pretence. Both of the ratios that were so gratifying in 2004 are now reversed. Indeed, despite the concentration on competition poems, the publication rate has not risen.

03 November 2004 08 January 2011
Poems 141 218
Published 45 67
Written for competitions 24 95
Both written for competitions and published 12 25
Proportion of published poems that were written for competitions 27% 37%
Proportion of competition poems in index as a whole 17% 44%
Proportion of competition poems that achieved publication 50% 26%
Proportion of published poems in index as a whole 32% 31%

It's a sobering set of figures, comparable to those one gets when following a weight-reduction programme. Or those I got from the experiment of blurtmetry after a while. I may blog about that some day.

I expect I'll carry on entering poetry competitions. Their themes get me thinking, and reading, in new directions. Clare has sometimes observed that the competitions I enjoy best are those that I can approach as a kind of mini research project. But the biggest rationale for this practice, the evidence that it leads to more publishable poems, has gone.

Anyone else out there had a similar experience?

Oh, and another consolation has been to organise poetry competitions at work. I've done that twice now, and they've called up better poems than anything I could have written myself. It's great to know that I've been involved in that process in some way.


  1. I've found that the prod of writing for a competition makes me produce some work and then from that poem I get on a train of thought that I would not have otherwise stopped at my station, so to speak. The poems triggered by this process are often a lot better than the poem or poems I put in for the competition as they have had far more chance to bed down in the psyche and longer for the cold blue eye of the editior to wrok on it over a period of months. That is not to say that the poems that take th elongest are the best but I do think leaving a poem and coming back to it much later affords you some insights that are not avaialbe to you when under a time pressure. Sometimes the time pressure does energise you and push you to write something that is quite publishable but form written at speed is a tall order. Elizabeth Bishop tokk over twenty years to finish the final draft of The Moose to her satisfaction..this may be taking time to an absurd level but I sometimes think the rush to find validation through publication or competition winning may not serve the poem well but then again acknowledgement that others find your work interesting helps the self esteem.

  2. Thanks. I've had experiences like that occasionally, yes, but not very often. With me, the poems that are slowest to arrive at a form I'm happy with are often those that started spontaneously, w. no stimulus from competitions or such.