Yesterday, I posted my entry for the Poetry Business competition. You need to submit 20-24 pages worth of poems. The four winners get a chapbook collection of their poems published and a cash prize. It’s a well-established competition with a formidable reputation for finding high quality work. Chances of winning – as ever at this level – are slim.
One intriguing aspect is the choice of a title for the collection and of a pen-name. The title is clearly important as a collection of chapbook length requires an underlying unity. Its theme might be loose and wide-ranging, but there’s got to be something holding the collection together and the title should at least allude to that.
The choice of pen-name is another matter. Real names mustn’t appear anywhere on the manuscripts, and you might imagine that this rule is simply concerned with anonymity of submission and transparency of judging, but I don’t think so. The judges are bound to recognise poems in many manuscripts because they will have read them in magazines, competitions and anthologies. I know it will be easy for at least one of them to identify my entry and there’s nothing I can do about that – other than leave out some of my stronger poems, which would be self-defeating. So I don’t believe the pen-name requirement is primarily concerned with anonymity and, in any case, I think these judges will select their favourite entries irrespective of who has written them.
I was discussing the matter with Eleanor Livingstone on Sunday, and Matt Merritt also considered the issue on his blog a couple of weeks ago. Could it be that the choice of pen-name is part of the ‘test’? Choosing a name like ‘Jim Smith’ might suggest a failure of both nerve and imagination. ‘T. S. Stevens’ could suggest pretension and megalomania. ‘Sa Mi-Gyoung’ might suggest deception unless it becomes clear that you really are a Korean woman.
So what to choose? Clearly I can’t make public either my title or pen-name here. All I can say is that I chose them with the kind of deliberation I’d bring to writing the final line of a poem. Of course, it may turn out that the pen-names are entirely irrelevant.