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
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?