Thursday, October 25, 2007

How to Win the National Poetry Competition

Well, entries have to be in for the UK National Poetry Competition by 31 October and poets throughout the country will be making those last-minute, oh-so-important alterations to propel their poems into the limelight.

I thought I’d pass on a few tips. I did get a poem commended a couple of years ago, and after much thought, I think I know how to get into the top three this year. But I am generous and don’t want to keep the information to myself. Choose from among the guidelines below. Following more than one suggestion is recommended.

1. Paste photographs of your children to your entry. If you don’t have children, use someone else’s.

2. Make sure someone dies horribly in your poem, especially a spouse, lover or child, even if they are still very much alive in real life. Play the sympathy card to the max.

3. If you feel that last suggestion lacks integrity, arrange to have someone kill you in a particularly brutal way. Your entry should be called, “My Last Gift to the World.”

4. Submit all your entries on pink paper, the more luminous the better.

5. Never type your entry. The more eccentric the handwriting, the better your chances will be of winning. Red pen or yellow felt-tip are the favoured options. Judges like that personal touch.

6. Crayon drawings around the margins of each page are a good idea, particularly pixies and kittens. They may distract the judges from that lack of subject-verb agreement in line 34.

7. Scour magazine archives in libraries for early poems from the judges that never appeared in their collections. The judges will probably have forgotten all about them. Enter them as your own work. An uncanny echo sounding in the judges’ heads will predispose them in your favour.

8. Write poems which explore the relationship you had with a dead grandparent. It’s all about making your poems stand out from the pack and no one else will think of that one.

9. Don’t be limited by the maximum 40-line rule. If your entry has 6,476 lines, join as many lines together as possible. Long poems are difficult to write and are bound to impress the judges.

10. Remember to attach copious notes that explain points the judges may have trouble grasping. After all, they can’t see inside your mind and you want them to be sure of the size of your intellect.

11. Use words such as eldritch, ontic, topos, and chthonic, as often as possible.

12. Be careful to avoid any resemblance to poetry in your poems. This is really important. Most poetry isn’t really poetry at all. Copy a section from a rail timetable or a guide to Windows Vista and chop it into lines. The shorter the lines, the more gravitas your entry is likely to have.

13. Judges enjoy novelty packages. Fold your poem into a paper aeroplane and seal it in a padlocked metal box. A key is optional as the judges will also enjoy trying to get into the box without one.

14. Spray your manuscript with a powerful unisex scent. Entries are anonymous, but if a judge thinks you want to sleep with him/her, it’s bound to make a difference.

15. Submit a sestina using all three judges’ names as end-words. For example, this year (judges - Michael Schmidt, Penelope Shuttle, E.A. Markham), you could begin:

“You must be taking the proverbial Michael!”
Maria exclaimed, “You think I could be Schmidt-
-en by the likes of you?” Earl glanced at Penelope,
who must have lied to him. If only a space Shuttle
could lift him to a distant galaxy. The initials E.A.
had been carved into a oak tree near Markham

village, and as Maria had once lived in Markham,
Penelope had put two and two together. “Michael
is better looking than you and belongs to the E.A.
posse,” Maria said, “but you don’t know Schmidt!”
It was now important that Earl caught the last Shuttle
bus home, even if he had to share it with Penelope..., and so on...

16. Submit a ‘concept poem.’ For example, write a different word on each sheet of a toilet roll. Invite the judges to piece them back together in the correct order.

17. Use text language as often as you can. Choosing such a poem as a winner will give the judges street credibility, even if you turn out to be resident in a nursing home.

18. If all else fails, start referring to yourself “as one of the UK’s most important poets of all time” in your blog and in every poetry board you can find on the Internet, and everyone will eventually come to believe that you, at one time, did win the competition or at least should have done.

Some of these techniques will not work with this year’s judges who, unfortunately, appear to be people of great integrity. So think of it as a practice run for future occasions. And who knows, you might get lucky!


Anne said...

"It’s all about making your poems stand out from the pack and no one else will think of that one."

Excellent advice! Other neglected subjects include Autumn, the Seaside, and domestic Chores. Good themes are Ageing and Regret, Wonder at the Natural World, and Saving the Environment - thus proving Auden wrong: poetry can make things happen! Block capitals also help to get the judges' attention. And don't forget, real poems are always centred.

Thanks for reminding me of the deadline - just off to write a villanelle about my cat!

RHE said...

Rob, these are very helpful. I had an email from the great-nephew of the former Justice Minister of Leominster-on-the-Limpopo, who promised me 250,000 pounds in gold bullion if I submitted an entry over his name beginning,

There was a young woman of Dorset

and concluding,

That flexible woman from Dorset.

Your suggestions seem much more likely to bear fruit.

Rob said...

Thanks Anne. How did I miss the block capitals and centring! Good lucj with the villanelle - might I suggest a double villanelle?

Richard, a limerick is bound to win one of those years, and if the bullion is yours just for submitting, then don't hesitate.

RcL said...

Rob, I have never judged the National, but I did sift it a few years ago – yes I read all 9000+ poems; here are a few observations on your comments:

4 Coloured paper? Oh yes, it happens – see also coloured fonts, wacky fonts and, especially, the dreaded centred text

5 There were certainly a number of handwritten poems the year I sifted

6 A surprising amount of attached pictures (to 'explain the poem' often) or paper with drawings, glued pictures or twee illustrations

8 Ah, the dead relative poem. Every sixth poem, it seemed. Mind you, one of these has won both the Arvon and the Forward best poem in the past three years

11 Well, the winner that year did use elf-shot and warlock!

12 I can't possibly reveal the worst poem entered, but imagine a poem called 'Your Mum is a Cow' which comprises just one line, which is also 'Your Mum is a cow' – well, that is very close to one real entry

15 Looks like you were enjoying writing that sestina Rob! I have a vision of you, still at your desk now, trying to knock off the envoi, with your wife and daughter taking turns to come and mop your brow! Mind you, back when I sifted, there were several poems which were written about / for / to the head judge, a certain well-known cultural commentator from down under

18 It worked for me!

Jane Holland said...

18. "If all else fails, start referring to yourself “as one of the UK’s most important poets of all time” in your blog and in every poetry board you can find on the Internet, and everyone will eventually come to believe that you, at one time, did win the competition or at least should have done."

I've been trying this for some time now. It may have worked for Roddy (quizzical look!) but I'm not sure of its success rate for me. Perhaps I should stop posting photos of myself on Raw Light. Well, photos that post-date my teens, at any rate. That might help.


Alan Buckley said...

Rob - you've started off the only sestina I've felt compelled to read in ages. Please finish it... I almost felt moved to write one myself - but only almost.

Rob said...

Roddy, Jane, Alan - thanks for commenting. You all made me laugh. It's amazing what people get up to even when they have to pay to enter. I might have a shot at finishing the sestina, but only late at night after a can of continental lager. That way, the envoi might prove possible.

Rob said...

By the way, I did post my entry today. I better not say which of my guidelines I followed.