Day Two: Judging Torbay

Melancholy, but inevitable day….

I have been doing my first read-through to discover the imaginary line which divides the Torbay poems which might make the eventual shortlist from the poems which will not. I am being generous at this stage, of course, determined not to overlook a poem which deserves more admiration than I gave it at first glance. As a result, of the four hundred poems I have read so far, almost half are in the possible shortlist pile.

These poems are safe, for the moment, so my attention has been on the ones which are about to be left behind. I read them a second time, as promised, and begin to feel that they have something in common with each other which the ongoing poems do not share.

This has nothing to do with their range of subject matter, relationship to formal technique, linguistic register, or length.  In all these respects, they seem to inhabit exactly the same poetic space as the poems in the other pile.

It has to do with loneliness and it surprised me to find that word asking to be the one that expressed my thought.

Competition and magazine poems are sent into the world to reach an audience, even if it is in the first instance only an audience of one.  They are artefacts made of words.  Although words have other important dimensions, and can be used to create wonderful visual and aural shapes, they are primarily carriers of meaning.  It is important that a poem’s audience understands what the poem wants to say. A poem which wants to say something, but cannot make itself understood seems to me an intrinsically lonely creature, mumbling barren syllables into bewildered space.

Many of the poems in the set aside pile haven’t quite managed to communicate what they want to say.  They aren’t obscure because they are erudite, nor because their subject is unfamiliar, nor because they are conducting daring experiments with words which are seldom used. They are obscure because the poet seems  not to  have asked the bedrock question, as he or she revised and edited, ‘am I writing in such a way that my impulse to share this will be understood?

I have been wondering why…. and wondering whether we have somehow accidentally created a culture where it isn’t considered quite kindly or appropriate to require a poem to say something which its audience will be able understand.  Many of the poems in the left hand pile on my desk seem to have been composed without regard to their future audience.   Yet I also feel that almost all the poems which fail in this particular way have been written by serious  poets who have something important longing to be heard. Are there too many models of lauded poetic impenetrability leading some of them astray ?  In other parts of their lives, are they composing beautifully lucid prose?  Perhaps they think it is easier to write a poem – any poem – than it is?

“To create a little flower is the labour of ages.”
William Blake, English (1757-1827)








Day One: Judging Torbay

Nine hundred poems on my desk. 

What if one of them blindsides me?  What if I let a work of breathtaking excellence pass me by?  What if I am THE TORBAY FESTIVAL COMPETITION JUDGE WHO FAILED TO SPOT THE FUTURE WINNER OF THE FORWARD PRIZE?  At the start of the first day’s judging, that terror certainly concentrates the mind.

Patricia Oxley handed over eight hundred  poems to me yesterday outside Bath rail station in a Marks and Spencer recyclable dark green plastic bag. They join the so far scrupulously unread hundred poems in the brown manila envelope which I collected in July at John Miles delightful pamphlet launch in Brixham when I was down in Devon for Oversteps Day at Dartington.

Nine hundred brand new windows on the world.  I love not knowing who the writers are.  It should be impossible to bring any preconceptions to the reading. All the clues will really have to come from the black marks on the white page.

Last night, I treated myself to just one poem, drawn at random from the Brixham manila envelope.  I don’t know why these lines were so immediately haunting, and may never know who sent them in.  But a big ‘thank you’ to whoever began this wonderful journey for me in such an enchanting way.

A place where tap water is refreshingly cool / in the early days of good weather….

The first thing I will do this morning is to shuffle the whole pack to prevent poems by the same person appearing adjacent in the pile. If you develop a suspicion that poems come from the same hand, you can allow improper ideas and judgments to creep in and I want to block that from the start.

The second thing I will do is to bluetack the following  axioms to my study wall.  The Bath Poetry Cafe devised them several years ago as common ground for the twelve first stage judges we used in our own competitions and they served us well.  The only change I am going to make is to the first.  ‘Like’ seems a rather narrowing word so I will amend it to I like/admire/respond to this poem and I think other people will like/admire/respond to it too. 

  • I like this poem and I think other people will like it too.
  • I am convinced by the observation and emotion in this poem.
  • This poet is sensitive to language and uses it well.
  • The treatment of the subject engages me.
  • The poem holds my interest throughout.
  • This poem is well crafted.

The Cafe Poets’ instructions went on to say : Poems which meet those requirements will then be revisited to select the ones which most impressively “say something which is not trivial, not obvious, don’t use outworn images or diction, and which work at many levels simultaneously.”  (Patricia Oxley)

 I think rather a high percentage of my nine hundred poems are going to clear all these hurdles.  The adventure ( as always, in life as in literature) will be discovering what happens next.

Sue Boyle & Safe Passage

Amazed, humbled and so privileged to have such a reading from a person of such courage and such warmth. If ‘Safe Passage’ were only to have one reader, I would wish it to have been Rebecca.

Rebecca Gethin

Sue Boyle is the new Featured Writer. Her latest book, Safe Passage, published by Oversteps Books is heart-achingly beautiful, from the shadowy, sparse lines of the cover (a wood engraving by Aldo Patocchi) to all the poems in the collection. She examines both safe and unsafe passages in this book that is filled with compassion and exquisite phrasing.  These poems seem to suggest we are all enacting ancient myths and also that we are all as important as gods and goddesses. Language is both lyrical and devastatingly precise. So many poems reach into the very quick of me. Here’s the opening of ‘the portraits at montacute’ –

From the long gallery they look down on us
two friends who had believed each other lost

or the ending of ‘at the hospital’-

We are deep voyagers to them
already on our way
to a distant world.
A nurse brings…

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Competition Notes

There are now ten separately themed Pages under the menu heading Judging in Torbay 2016, all designed to help you choose which of your poems to submit, and what it might be useful to think about when getting a poem ready for the post.There is also a Thumbnails page, at the top of the list, with links to help you navigate to pages which might interest you.

I will post more Notes between now and the day when the poems reach my desk. I intend them to be helpful and will definitely judge according to the principles and criteria they contain.

There is still time to write the poems which will win.