Why Entering Poetry Competitions Is A Bad Idea (But Do It Anyway)

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Words by Justine Chamberlain

It was probably a good 10 years ago when I first entered the National Poetry Competition, run by the Poetry Society. It was the first day I found out it existed and, because I hadn’t written any poetry in while, I didn’t have any ready to enter. So I wrote two poems in the space of an hour and entered them. Any poet worth their salt will now be reeling with horror at the idea of writing a couple of poems off the cuff and expecting to be shortlisted for the National Poetry Competition. In fact, my poems were probably as clichéd as that last sentence. Fortunately I’ve matured in my poetry – but not enough to win any competitions. Yet.

Manchester Poetry Prize finalists:
Victor Tapner, Abigail Parry,
 Pascale Petit, Wayne Price and Carolyn King.

As the deadline for this year’s National Poetry Competition looms, I’ve been pondering the differences in how I’m approaching this year’s competition, since switching to writing purely poetry.

Previously, when I found out about a poetry competition, I’d research it briefly to make sure it was legitimate. How I can tell the difference between a legitimate and illegitimate competition’s website, I don’t know. But I quickly realised that even though the competition entry fees were quite low, they soon built up if you entered a few. I initially thought I was entering them to gain a foothold in the poetry world, and therefore the outlay was worth it. But paying to enter a small competition where one person might win is no better than having a poem published in a magazine, and magazines will sometimes pay you for your published work. Why pay money, when you can receive it instead? So I cut out the competition entries to all but the best four, and rather than look at the competition pages of a magazine, look at the submission pages. For the price of a second class stamp, you can gain a worthwhile publishing credit. For a list of submissions you can pick up Mslexia, or there are other writers’ magazines with submission listings. For competitions and publishers to avoid, see Winning Writers.

So why enter competitions at all? The fact is, you might win. This month’s Manchester Fiction Prize saw Wigan’s Adam Wilmington make off with £10,000 after writing his first short story and, although writing competitions are often criticized for the same people winning prizes, there is certainly no doubting the quality of the winners: the National Poetry Competition has been won by Carol-Ann Duffy and Jo Shapcott. Pascale Petit, who was commended in last years prize, won this years Manchester Poetry Prize. Simply be selective and look at the past winners and current judges. If you recognize some of the names then you are reasonably safe in assuming the competition has some weight. Also, read the author’s biographies in your books and pick out the competitions you are eligible to enter.
The only problem then is deciding what to submit! The answer: only your best poems under 40 lines.

The National Poetry Competition deadline is midnight on 31 October 2013.

Justine Chamberlain loves the sound of her own typing. Follow her on Twitter @JustinesWriting or read her blog.

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aAh! Magazine is Manchester Metropolitan University's arts and culture magazine.

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