*Judging in Torbay 2016

I have the wonderful privilege of judging the Open Poetry Competition for the Torbay Poetry Festival 2016. The closing date is 24th August.  Sometime soon, poems will start to arrive in Bath, having first been processed in Torbay so that I will know nothing about their authors or places of origin.

Sue portrait twoOn the afternoon of Saturday 29th October, I will have to stand up before the large audience of poets and poetry lovers in the Livermead Hotel and justify the decisions I have made. Around us on the walls will be beautifully presented A3 posters of the shortlisted poems.  Most of the audience will have read most of the display poems very carefully and have well-informed opinions who the three top prizewinners should be.

There are a lot of posts on Sue Boyle Poetry from the time, last year, when I was doing the admin and oversight for the 12 experienced poets from the Bath Poetry Cafe who chose the shortlist for the Cafe Short Poem Competition. ( The final four winners were selected by brilliant Picador poet Rachel Boast.) The ‘diary’ of how our shortlist emerged from the total entry is packed with useful general pointers and good advice for anyone entering a poetry competition.  The critiques which some of the shortlisted poets allowed me to post about their work might also help any Torbay competitor feel they can go a long way towards reading this particular judge’s mind. I will improve access to all those posts over the next few days.

I thought it would be useful, from the start, to share my thoughts about what I am looking for in the poems which are (blissfully!) about to come my way.

These thumbnails provide clues to the tiny reflections down below…..

THUMBNAILS

Among the many big hitters on my desk, however, too many of today’s poems  are like ducklings on a motorway. They are not going to survive.

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Poems have a huge number of ways to render compelling accounts of the moment while simultaneously speaking to us at the much deeper level where language has a tendency to fail.

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The reader mustn’t feel either that thirty one ways to look at a blackbird would have been quite enough.  Or that the blackbird is wretched  without another seventeen.

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You just have to go deeper into the well of truth inside yourself to find out what it is you want to say.

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Reading too many poems, at speed, too judgmentally, you have to be very careful not to miss the living voice.  But you also have to be careful not to miss the quiet subtleties of the deliberately crafted music which will carry a poem brilliantly in live performance, but which may have been designed to whisper rather than to flaunt itself too loudly from the page.

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The Torbay Competition does not have a sift.

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“There is, of course, no formula: what works, works.” LAWRENCE SAIL

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This one just stayed with me.  I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Really good poems – particularly good short poems – haunt you.  You know that the first reading is the beginning of something, not the end.

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I hope that no poem will slip through my net on grounds of subject, or because it seems to me to be of a certain kind, rather than because it fails to make something special out of the kind of poem that it is.

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 A WELL IMAGINED ROOM

Recently, a friend asked me to comment on his collection.

Knowing that feedback was expected meant that the reading had a lot in common with the first of my many planned expeditions into the  competition pile. I was looking for the gems, the treasures, the perfectly achieved.  The deep notes too – those moments of unexpectedness which would make me want to read more of this particular writer’s work.   Out of thirty-two of my friend’s impressively accomplished poems, I chose two.

Here are the things I liked, more or less in the order they came home to me.

Both poems inhabited the white space of their pages very pleasantly.  My eye was relaxed by the immediate sense that here was a poet who had been absorbed in the craft of writing and for whom the tradition of form was something to uphold and celebrate.

At its most effective, form is an opportunity, not a straitjacket. Both my friend’s poems offered well-shaped quatrains and couplets as the provisional  architecture for what they had to say.  But both conveyed that the energy of the thought was all the time pushing against these constraints, and was more than would be contained for very long in these apparently simple bounds.

Both poems offered quietly meticulous observation of the physical. Things seen were realised in words which taken individually  were for the most part entirely  familiar – carefully selected, unpretentious, with that sense of ‘rightness’ which is close to but never quite the same as  self-evident  – but which in their sensitive combinations and sequence created fresh and surprising spaces for a reader to receive what the writer had to say.

A poem can be a new room for the imagination to inhabit, just as some paintings  give us permission to step for a period of contemplation into another world.

There are no restrictions on what we might find in these gifted rooms. In my friend’s case, the two poems I chose were rather different in their offerings. One looked closely at a plant which was familiar to me. The other took me into a sound engineer’s studio which was unfamiliar territory. Reading the first, I felt that I was being given something  I already knew, but had never seen quite so fully and vividly before.  Reading the second, I felt enthralled to be taken into so unexpected an experience. Both poems fed my imagination, but in different ways.

But what made these poems stand apart was something that  lifted  them beyond their formal excellence, and beyond the skill with which each converted the world of the senses into words.

Both also conveyed, alongside the immediacy and tension of their specific moments, the poignancy of  irrecoverable human time. The poems enacted what it is to be immersed in the  world but unable to escape the awareness of its provisionality and transience. I cannot pinpoint how they did this without narrowing the usefulness of what I am trying to say.  Poems have a huge number of ways to render compelling accounts of the moment while simultaneously speaking to us at the much deeper level where language has a tendency to fail.

These two poems in my friend’s collection achieved that.  I look forward to many others taking me on that journey when I sit down on 28th August with the submissions pile.  If you have poems which fit this description, you still have plenty of time to send them in .

THERE IS NO FORMULA…

It is not for a judge to sit down to read with preconceptions and preferences. Every submitted poem has to be given an equal chance to make its case and to prove itself on its own terms, whatever the poem and the poet has decided those terms should be. Lawrence Sail was the judge for the Fire River Poets Competition in 2014 and I shall be using a sentence from his judge’s report as my touchstone and starting point.

“There is, of course, no formula: what works, works.” LAWRENCE SAIL

Week by week, as the poems come in, I will be trying to let the shortlisted poems make their way ” brilliantly, concentratedly” into my head, coming about their own business as Ted Hughes’ thought-fox makes its way into his silent room.These pages will provide a diary of my thoughts as the shortlist declares itself. Not of course my thoughts about the individual submissions, but a record of ideas I gather by studying other judges’ reports, or by reading how some of our best writers define poetic excellence.

On 29th October, I don’t just want to hand the prize-money to the three poets whose poems I liked best. I want to have chosen the winners in such a way that the most of the audience, and most of the other competitors can feel that justice has been done.

WINNING WITH 50 LINES

A poem is an art form dense with energy.

At least,  it ought to be.  The Torbay organisers  allow poems up to 50 lines, which for a competition is quite long .  The opportunities offered by this generous length are huge.  The problem is how to maintain such a poem’s essential  tension and focus across so many lines.

I have already committed myself  in these pages to the principle that the winning Torbay poems can be written on any subject, adopt any approach and express themselves in any style.  I also did a page on William Blake’s The Sick Rose whose 8 lines could clearly walk away with a First prize.  A winning poem can be any length within the remit of the rules.  But is long more difficult to bring to prize-winning readiness?  I suspect it might be. 

It goes without saying that any winning poem will rivet the reader’s attention from first to last.  After a certain point, more of the same, however well written, will not be enough.  So as well as finding a compelling subject, the author of a long piece has to do something deeper, wider and more entrancing than he or she would need to do in a poem of 12 or 20 lines. As soon as a poem takes proper hold of us, of course, we stop minding how long or short it is.  But if you are considering your submissions, or currently writing to submit, here are a few suggestions, warnings and ideas.

One way to capture attention is through the device of storytelling –  to make us ask the unfailingly effective question what happens next ?  and then to hold us spellbound while we find out. A good story well told is one of the most satisfying of verbal forms – perhaps THE most satisfying, across cultures, genres, time.  50 lines of writing is enough to tell almost any story well.  There are fascinating discussions to be had about HOW to storytell effectively in limited space, but this page has no space to embark on that. Frivolously, dear competitors, a judge is also human.  It would be no bad thing to delight and relax him or her with the diversion of a good story now and then.

Another way to hold attention is to choose a subject so intrinsically intriguing to the writer that the reader becomes convinced  that no amount of lines would ever be enough.  Intriguing does not mean exotic.  The simplest subject observed with the passion and patience of a John Clare or a Francis Ponge can leave you feeling that 50 lines (or their prose poem equivalent) scarcely opens the door to what can be said. ( I immediately realise that before the closing date we ought to to consider some of the problems of entering a prose poem to a poetry competition so hopefully watch this space!) Whether the subject is already familiar to the reader or not, it is essential that he or she feels drawn into a previously  not fully known and fascinating place.  A mollusc and snails are  familiar but who ever observed a mollusc or a snail like Francis Ponge?

A third way is to use the competition’s generosity of length to create a new world, a new space for the imagination where  the reader can surrender to new magic as he or she would to the set in a darkened theatre. Nothing has to ‘happen’ for the enchantment to be complete. And by ‘enchantment’, of course, I don’t mean the enchantment of fairytale, but the enchantment of being wholly convinced for the duration of the poem by the reality of a world that isn’t there. Allen Ginsberg’s poem about going round a supermarket with Walt Whitman which my workshop poets met on a recent Writing Day is a poem of this enchanting kind.  So is Derek Mahon’s poem A Disused Shed in County Wexford which Michael Longley once called one of the best Irish poems ever. ( Though it  would have to drop a verse to enter for Torbay. ) So is Kubla Khan,  judging by its capacity to endure. So is Eliot’s Journey of the Magi which could come in with seven lines to spare.

I decided that four suggestions for achieving competition success with a longer poem would be quite enough.  The fourth is to use the Forty Ways to Look at a Blackbird template – turning the prism of your chosen subject this way and that so that each small and perfectly formed view also adds to the richness and complex vision of the whole.  Five ten-line pieces. Ten five-line pieces. Twenty five couplets. Sixteen tercets….and so on.  This choice seems to me to  require that however many units you use to create your multi-faceted poem, in a competition as opposed to in a collection, that number must absolutely seem to be enough. A competition poem needs to satisfy as a finished artefact.  It leads nowhere. The reader mustn’t feel either that thirty one ways to look at a blackbird would have been quite enough.  Or that the blackbird is wretched  without another seventeen.

To temper that, of course, hungering for a poem to continue beyond its given end is one sign of the writer’s success and skill, so that last thought needs to be hedged about with the opposing argument  that a poem which offers twenty five takes on something and leaves you wanting more and more and more has worked its magic and done its proper work….. 

On the next page, I will visit the current edition of the  Forward Poems of the Decade and consider five longish poems which might have ended up on a 50 line limit competition shortlist ( I wish …I wish …) and commit myself, as forthcoming Torbay Judge,  to saying why.

CANDLEFLAMES IN TIBET

A Poem that Stays with You

I have heard several poetry competition judges say of a winning poem, “This one just stayed with me.  I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”  Really good poems – particularly good short poems – haunt you.  You know that the first reading is the beginning of something, not the end.

Obviously, in a poetry competition, a small number of poems have to fight themselves from the pile. One way they can do this is to leave the judge with a sense that NOT TO HAVE THE CHANCE TO READ THEM AGAIN would be a grief.  They have to capacity to convey that, however careful the first reading, something important and intriguing and valuable will be missed if, after that first reading, they are set aside. In the wings of the imagination, at the borders of the heart, the glimpse of something more. The more often the judge reserves a poem for another reading, the closer it is coming to the top of the competition pile.

Here is a poem which it would pain me not read again ….it is  by WILLIAM STAFFORD (American 1914-1993) and I think it came to me from one of the Pass on a Poem emails which delight my week.  

 

AN AFTERNOON IN THE STACKS

Closing the book, I find I have left my head

inside. It is dark in here, but the chapters open

their beautiful spaces and give a rustling sound,

words adjusting themselves to their meaning.

Long passages open at successive pages. An echo,

continuous from the title onward, hums

behind me. From in here the world looms,

a jungle redeemed by these linked sentences

carved out when an author traveled and a reader

kept the way open. When this book ends

I will pull it inside-out like a sock

and throw it back in the library. But the rumor

of it will haunt all that follows in my life.

A candleflame in Tibet leans when I move 

YES, YOU CAN WRITE ABOUT THE BEES

In an earlier Torbay Competition page, I wondered whether there were some subjects which competitors might be wise to regard as NO GO AREAS. Writing about the judging of the 2015 Bath Poetry Cafe Short Poem competition, where I had chaired a panel of twelve Cafe Judges, I remembered that  cruelly, it was also hard for even a very good  bereavement poem to compete against the many others in the pile. The judges’ expectations seemed to be higher for poems where the subjects were too familiar to surprise.

So does that mean you should not submit your poems about bereavement?  Or about bees, in the years when they seemed to be subject of the moment partly because we were all engaged with the relatively new idea of their endangerment, and partly because of their stunning recent appearances in Sean Borodale’s Bee Journal ( 2012) and Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees ( 2011).

On the contrary.  You should both write and submit them. You should write them because poets are part of a community of writers and writers are part of the wider community of the world.  Writers have a task to voice the thoughts and concerns of their generation and of the culture to which they belong and contribute.  We have lots of other tasks, but speaking out for the bees and for what the loss of the bees would represent is surely one of them.  Just as it is part of a writer’s task to articulate the shared experience of grief. 

The DOWNSIDE, in a competition, as I said on the page titled NO GO AREAS, is that it is harder for poems on a very familiar subject to fight their way to the top.  But it can be done.

You just have to go deeper into the well of truth inside yourself to find what it is you have to say. 

The UPSIDE of submitting poems on a subject which is currently already in the imaginations of your readers  is that you write into an open door.  Which of course is why good  bereavement poems move many people so much and seem to ‘work’ so well.  We have been there.  The poet has positioned himself/herself  immediately as our confidant and  friend.

After Wild Swans at Coole, it might have seemed that an Irish poet should avoid giving us more poems about wild swans.  The breathtaking  POSTSCRIPT  by Seamus Heaney proves that it can be done.  I read it recently at the Poetry Liaisons meeting in Midsomer Norton, to end my guest reading on Belonging and Identity by putting  all my own poems totally and forever in the shade.  Read it aloud to yourself. The subject is entirely familiar. It blows the heart wide open. In the dream where it arrives in the Torbay submissions box, I would certainly put it on the These Poems Might Make the Shortlist Pile…..

a postscript on

Postscript

It also makes an excellent case for the short submission. How could this immaculate 16 line poem have been improved by using a single extra syllable, let alone the full allocation of 50 lines?

NO GO AREAS?

Then there were ‘angst poems’. I am not a fan of these. I write them myself from time to time. They’re for personal therapy and they help keep me sane, but they are not competition winners, never mind publishable.                                                     

Pat Winslow is a marvellous poet – rich in spirit, varied, interesting, humane. I have been engaged today with this remark in her judge’s report for BACK ROOM POETS. I’m not sure what an angst poem would look like, in the abstract, though I am sure the definition is going to fit some of the pieces which turn up in the Torbay submissions pile.

But would being an angst poem – or any other kind of poem – actually disqualify a piece ?

Isn’t it the treatment of – the approach to – the ‘take’ on the poem’s subject which determines its success?  I remember a poet in the Bath Poetry Cafe asking Rialto editor Michael Mackmin what kinds of poems he was looking for. His answer, very sensibly, was to list some of the subjects where he felt he had already seen enough.  Like swimming pools, he said. Rialto had just accepted ‘A LEISURE CENTRE IS ALSO A TEMPLE OF LEARNING’ which is now, as readers of this blog know,  on the A Level syllabus.

SO ARE THERE ANY NO GO AREAS?

I would like to believe that there is no subject, no kind of poem which I would not put on my forthcoming Torbay shortlist, if I could. But collating the Twelve Cafe Judges’ opinions of the poems in our 2015 Short Poem Competition, I did learn how much harder it was to write a compelling competition poem on some subjects than on others. Sitting in judgment on poems is not the best way to keep on enjoying  what they have to give. Subjects can stale on a twelfth or twentieth reading which still seemed interesting on the third or fourth. We did conclude that the two or three poems which pivoted on the the size of their subjects’ private parts had set themselves an exceptionally daunting task. But, cruelly, it was also hard for even a very good  bereavement poem to compete against the many others in the pile. The judges’ expectations seemed to be higher for poems where the subjects were too familiar to surprise.

I hope these thoughts are useful to poets planning their submissions to Torbay. All this remembered, I still hope that no poem will slip through my net on grounds of subject, or because it seems to me to be of a certain kind, rather than because it fails to make something special out of the kind of poem that it is.

HEARING THE MUSIC OF A TINY MASTERPIECE

Eight years ago, Germaine Greer wrote a delightfully grumpy  and probably deliberately provocative piece in The Guardian about Bob Dylan’s verse. She was exasperated by being asked to believe that the lyrics in a Dylan song were the same thing as poetry. That fascinating argument has nothing to do with the Torbay Festival Competition. But in the course of developing her thought, she gave a wonderful analysis of the way an undisputed masterpiece of poetry – William Blake’s The Sick Rose – carries its own music within its words

The singer-songwriter transforms his words in the way he writes the music and the way he sings his song; Blake’s achievement is to encapsulate the entire process in silence…The poem is as simple as may be, being composed of three sentences, the first and third simple and the middle one with a subordinate clause. The words are all common: we know what each means but not what is meant by them together. The theme of love and death that permeates our entire literary tradition lies coiled upon itself in this tiny poem, capable at any moment of setting off a chain reaction in the mind.

Every word of Germaine Greer’s article is worth reading.  The reason I quote it here is that I am aware how easily, in poetry judging, the music of the poems can be underestimated or overlooked. Poetry is not only but also an aural art form and its words ought not to lie like dead mutton on the page. A poem is the voice of another person speaking to you, singing to you, confiding in you, explaining to you, entertaining you…..all or any of these.  You should be able to hear a good poem’s ‘voice’ and be captured/captivated by its driving energy. You need to be able to hear the living voice when you absorb yourself in the printed page.

Reading too many poems, at speed, too judgmentally, you have to be very careful not to miss the living voice.  But you also have to be careful not to miss the quiet subtleties of the deliberately crafted music which will carry a poem brilliantly in live performance, but which may have been designed to whisper rather than to flaunt itself too loudly from the page.

I will try to ‘hear’ the voice of every poem which is submitted to Torbay. When any poem comes in sight of the longlist which will precede the shortlist, I will be reading it aloud, probably more than once.  For the first three weeks on September, therefore, I will be the abstracted person walking round my home city with a thousand anonymous voices in my head.

TO SIFT OR N0T TO SIFT?

An excellently published poet received my recent mailshot recommending everyone send their competition submissions to Torbay.  She responded that she believed that the Torbay Competition might be one that has a sift.  She and her poet friends, she writes, never enter competitions with a sift.

I don’t want to criticise the practice of having sifts.  Some competitions attract so many poems that presumably  no judge would be willing or able in the allocated time to read them all. But the trust between competitors and judges in poetry competitions is quite largely based on the competitor believing they know who the judge is, where to find them on the poetic ‘map’, and perhaps also on already being familiar with what they write.  (Though knowing a judge’s own writing shouldn’t lead a competitor to believe that this is the kind of poem to submit. A good judge is much more likely to be asking to be challenged and surprised than looking for a personal mirror in the submissions pile.)

It is also important that the judge is going to feel publicly answerable for their judgments of the poems as poems and therefore inhibited from indulging any moral, political, religious or philosophical agenda of their own as they read their way through the pile.

The Torbay Competition does not have a sift. 

Its organisers are totally committed to the idea that competitors are entitled to know that the named judge  is the actual person who will judge their work. This year, I am hugely fortunate: that one person is me.  I will follow the principles I am exploring and developing in this blog.  And no poem will ‘go down’ before I have tried my best, through several readings,  on several different days, to discover what it is offering and to give it every bit of credit that is due.