Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Titles and Pen Names

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.


James Midgley said...

I was considering the same thing a few days ago. I guess it's simply a way of covering themselves? The bulk of entries must come from people 'outside the poetry world' if that makes sense, and so anonymity is an encouraging factor, even if they don't realise it's illusory.

Good luck with the competition! I can't see why you wouldn't stand a good chance.


Frances said...

Its difficult to believe that the choice of a pen-name could militate for or against an entry depending on whether the Judges thought it was a good one or not. But you know more about the poetry scene than I do Rob and you may well be right. James' point is fairly scary too. In my naivete, I enter competitions thinking that anonymity is my ally. It never occurred to me that it's such a small world that everyone recognises everyone else's work anyway!

Rob said...

Well, competition is very stiff. If you've read any of the previous Poetry Business chapbooks, you'll know what I mean. Really high quality stuff. But success will depend on what the judges are looking for.

I didn't mean that the judges would recognise everyone else's work, Frances, but they are bound to recognise some of it. It's unavoidable. They only need to recognise a single poem in a manuscript for anonymity to be blown apart. But I don't think anonymity is either a friend or an enemy in a contest like this. The judges will choose the manuscripts they think are the best.

I think the pen names could have a psychological effect, at the very least.

Anonymous said...

My favourite (real) name at the moment belongs to an aboriginal artist: Jock Mosquito.


Anonymous said...

It's just a single judge though, isn't it... with the S/D eds as quality sifters? No slight on any particular judge, but most judges of this are well-known poets and most well-known poets of my acquaintance don't read many poetry mags, not even the big ones.

David Chalmers (the name I chose when I entered some years ago!)

Anonymous said...

That last comment could have been directed at this dilemma - I sent a batch of poems off to a mag and they emailed back saying they'd like to use one. So I reworked the others, gave one a slightly different title and sent it off elsewhere. But the mag have now published TWO of the poems from the batch I sent them, including the one I've now sent elsewhere. On the one hand formally withdrawing the reworked poem feels like making too much of a fuss ("elsewhere" probably won't want it anyway), on the other hand their fairly-well-known-poet-selector might spot the earlier version in the magazine and get annoyed. So it's reassuring to think fairly-well-known-poets don't generally read magazines ... I think ... Obviously, if they did select that poem, I'd have to tell them the story then.

Rob said...

I can't beat Jock Mosquito.

I didn't realise the S/D eds were only sifters. But, in my case, it's the other judge who will recognise at least one poem in my MS. Not much I can do about it though. I could have left it out, but it works well as a poem and in its position in the MS, so it seemed daft to disadvantage my entry by deleting it. Certainly, if I won the competition, I'd want it in the pamphlet.

To the last anon comment, that's a strange one, but it happened once to me that an editor accepted poems from a batch and then published a couple of poems from the same batch which they had rejected. I don't know how or why that happens. Fortunately, they hadn't been sent out elsewhere in the interim.

Anonymous said...

Here's Jock:


Anonymous said...

Let's try that again, since the function doesn't actually work, and the full URL is hidden:

Anonymous said...

Bollocks to it.

Anyone know how to post a URL link which either works or is at least un-truncated by the column width?


Rob said...

Not sure why the link doesn't work. But I got to it at your second attempt. If you click on the time-sign at the bottom of my post (rather than on comments) you can read the whole link. I pasted it into my comments box and it worked.

Not sure I like Jock's art all that much, but he has a great name. No doubt about that.