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How to enter poetry competitions 1

I enter too many competitions (probably) as I subscribe to too many magazines. I enter several ‘big’ competitions which I think (misguidedly) might get my poetry noticed or (on better grounds) offer decent prizes and reading opportunities. I enter quite a few smaller competitions where I want to support the organisations involved (because competitions are one of the few ways of raising money to recycle into printing or promoting poetry). I find that in 2014 I entered 18 competitions in all.

The result of all that effort and (let’s face it) money? Most of it vanished without a trace. I had one first, two second, one third prize and a ‘highly commended’. As a hit rate that is 27% of the competitions entered – and in fact a four figure profit – which sounds quite impressive. In terms of the number of poems entered though, the hit rate is 5 out of 95 individual poem entries, although because poems get recycled that represents about 50 poems doing the rounds – a 10% hit rate. All of the poems which won prizes had been through the wash cycle at least once before with no success.

Let’s put this in context. Data on the number of entries in competitions is not that easy to come by – some report entry numbers, but many do not. However the smaller competitions typically have entries of 500-1000 poems, the larger have entries of a few thousand, the largest (the National Poetry Competition) attracts over 10,000 entries. If we assume that the average competition ‘places’ 10 poems then in a small competition the chance of a single poem getting some kind of recognition is 2/100. In large competitions that chance drops to perhaps 1/200, in the largest it drops to around 1/1000.

Those odds, though, do not give anything like a true picture of the puzzle. There are many ‘no hoper’ entries – from people who have never read a poetry magazine and who would not dream of submitting for normal publication. Oddly the ratio of ‘no hopers’ is a fairly direct function of the fame of the competition. Big, well promoted, competitions attract entries from Auntie Flo and Uncle Tom. Small competitions, promoted in the specialist poetry world by poetry organisations, largely receive entries from those familiar with that world.

So we can cut the no-hopers – which may be over half the postbag – even perhaps three quarters of it for larger competitions. However there are dark forces at work – yes the OTHER Very Good Poets. VGPs with national reputations still enter competitions. When I first realised VGPs still entered competitions I was genuinely shocked. Wasn’t it demeaning for professors of creative writing to be entering the same contests as their students…and not even winning! There is, of course,  a small group of VFPs (think basically Eliot prize winners and their ilk) who don’t/can’t any longer enter competitions, but it is a small group. Your poem must do battle at the top of the stack with (probably) 50-1000 other good poems, poems of publication quality (that will quite likely be in some book from Bloodaxe or Seren next year….which at least takes them out of the next competition!).

What can we draw from this discussion? First, it is incredibly unlikely that one poem, entered in one competition, will strike gold. Numbers are important. Most competitions offer an incentive to entering more than one poem – do take advantage of that – try to bring your average cost of entry down to manageable proportions. Second don’t enter competitions expecting to win, don’t be disappointed when you are not on the podium and don’t lose faith in a poem just because the judges passed over it this time (although always look at it hard before you enter it again!). Third, though, do enter competitions – the odds of seeing a poem recognised are not very different from the odds of a poem being accepted by a top magazine – the chances of getting paid/celebrated are considerably better than for magazine publication – and you will sometimes have the warm (fatuous, but undeniably warm) glow of finishing ahead of VGPs you admire and have long wanted to emulate.