Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Rhian Gallagher on the National Poetry Competition

Surroundings is pleased to be hosting an article from New Zealand poet, Rhian Gallagher, in support of the National Poetry Competition, which you can still enter here before the end of the month.

Rhian Gallagher lived in London for eighteen years and returned to NZ in 2005. Her first collection Salt Water Creek (Enitharmon Press, 2003) was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for First Collection. Gallagher received the Janet Frame Literary Trust Award in 2008. Her second collection, Shift, was published by Auckland University Press, NZ, in 2011 and by Enitharmon Press, UK, in 2012. Shift won the 2012 New Zealand Post Book Award for Poetry.

Her fine poem, Embrace (scroll down), took third prize in the National Poetry Competition in 2001, and her article reflects both on writing poems for competitions ('Big Day Out') and the effect this can have on a writer's life ('Where It Took Me'). It's part of a National Poetry Competition blog tour, the full details of which can be found here.

Big Day Out

• Be serious about the writing and light-hearted about entering the competition. The freedom of being anonymous can be very energizing — an opportunity to be playful and exploratory; generally it’s more daunting to submit work with your name on it to the editor of magazine you respect.

• Poets are a suspicious lot. You may be a dab hand at hexameters but if the poem has nothing interesting to say then no matter how technically correct it is I suspect it won’t grab a judge’s attention.

• Read competition winners from the last couple of years. Purists will say ignore anything that’s gone before but if you’ve never entered the NPC previously how else will you get a sense of the quality of the work that the competition yields.

• It’s not a body of work that’s being judged but a single poem – it’s a bit like an audition in this regard. You might want to ask is your poem memorable: read it aloud – if you get bored half way through you’re in trouble. A fresh take on a subject, precision in word choice, musicality, a sense of energy being sustained through the whole poem (even the saddest poem needs energy); the x factor I suspect is a degree of originality – not something that can be defined.

• Road test your poems before submitting them: have a friend read them. At the very least this will help avoid sending work with obvious glitches.

Where it took me …

‘Embrace’ gained third prize in the National Poetry Competition in 2001 – I’m not sure where this took me, aside from to some swanky law offices in the city of London where the prize reading was held! Ian Duhig and the late Michael Donahy were on the panel of judges – I hold both poets in high regard and their acknowledgement of the poem did make a difference. I was working towards a first collection — ‘Embrace’ is a love poem and, for better or worse, through the competition I gained confidence to write more love poems.

In a strange kind of way the competition also helped in my negotiations to cut back to a four-day week in my day job. Although my poetry had been published in magazines, the competition gave a different kind of visibility and this registered with my boss in a favourable way. One free day in the week made a huge difference and enabled me to finish my first collection.

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