sheenaghpugh: (Vogon poetry appreciation chair)
I've been thinking for a while about an email I got last year. I'd judged a poetry competition, the winners of which, with my comments on them, are online here. Soon afterwards, I got an email enquiry from a gentleman who was clearly well-read and highly educated, a retired medical specialist fluent in two languages (English was not his first language, but I don't think that actually made any odds in the context). He was fond of traditional, especially rhymed, poetry but said he had difficulty in understanding contemporary poems, and my comments hadn't helped him. He was hoping I could give him "short conclusions about the context of each poem and the message they wish to send to the public".

This, as I explained, I couldn't do, firstly because having judged them all anonymously I had no idea who had written them, or under what circumstances; nor did the context affect the quality of the poem. As for the message, again that wasn't for me to say, or rather it was for every different reader to decide what they said to him. I tried instead to outline the criteria I had used in judging: which poems seemed to me to be the best constructed, and to use language and the other tools of poetry - rhythm, imagery etc - most effectively to achieve an effect on the reader. But I suspect he'll have found this unhelpful too.

What worries me is that here is an intellectual, erudite person who thinks he needs guidance (from someone no more intelligent than himself and probably rather less highly educated) on how to read contemporary poems, and doesn't trust his own judgment to come to a conclusion even on what they're trying to do, let alone how well they succeed. The poems in question are by no means abstruse either, as you'll see if you read them on the linked site; we're not talking J H Prynne here and we never would be, because I wouldn't have chosen anything I couldn't understand. It looks more like the sort of automatic switch-off my mind performs when faced with mathematical or financial matters, which I simply assume I won't understand. That again would be understandable in a man of science whose mind had no holding place for the imaginative intelligence of poetry, but that's not the case; it is purely contemporary poetry that does this to him. And if that's the reaction of a person who would seem in many ways to be poetry's natural audience, it's hardly surprising most collections sell in dozens.

At a guess, I would wonder if it has to do with there being no obvious rules. I suppose when reading a sonnet, even if you are nervous as a critic, you can count to 14 and figure out if something has gone amiss with the rhyme scheme. In the same way, with a representative painting you can tell if the perspective's wonky or the horse's walk doesn't convince, whereas with a Jackson Pollock you have no such clear means of telling if it's any good or not and will be hesitant to express an opinion. Since that's exactly the position I am in with art, I can understand it in that context, but in poetry, rules or no rules, it still seems to me clear enough when imagery is fresh and surprising as opposed to stale and over-familiar, or when rhythms flow rather than halt, or language takes off and flies instead of plodding across the page. It just isn't as specialised as art; few of us can paint a convincing horse but we all hear and use language all the time. That doesn't mean we can all employ it as poets do, but I'd have thought it did mean we could all form a fairly confident opinion on what they were trying to do and how well they succeeded. Am I being, here, the poetic equivalent of my old maths master, standing baffled at the blackboard saying "But it's so easy! Why can't you all see it?"
sheenaghpugh: (Posterity)
The Terry Pratchett Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now Prize

So much to like about this -

1. it's for previously unpublished novelists
2. it offers serious money for what some would call sniffily genre fiction
3. you can enter by email (yes, a novel!)
4. the prize includes a publishing contract

What I can't see anywhere is an entry fee, which may mean they'll get inundated. Still, that's their prob....
sheenaghpugh: (Heslop from Porridge)
- well, that happens all the time but not usually in a big literary competition. Philip was my colleague but Mike was my student so I'll have to back him; anyway his novel Pocket Notebook is such a cracker...

Getting your first novel published and on to prize longlists before you've so much as graduated from the masters degree in question is pretty good going, both for Mike and the degree. This is a list I idly compiled of publications and achievements by University of Glamorgan Masters in Writing students since the start of this year. And it's only April!

Glamorgan Masters in Writing 2010

Edward Boyne: poetry collection, title to be announced, Doire Press
Katy Giebenhain: Pretending to be Italian (poetry chapbook), Rocksaw Press
Maureen Jivani: My Shinji Noon (poetry pamphlet), Mulfran
Carolyn Lewis: The Novel – A Perfect Recipe, Silverwood Books
Malcolm Lewis: The Hard Man (poetry pamphlet), Mulfran
Maria McCann: The Wilding (novel), Faber - Longlisted for the Orange Prize
Dan Rhodes: Little Hands Clapping (novel), Canongate - Winner of the E M Forster award
Mike Thomas: Pocket Notebook (novel), Heinemann - Longlisted for Wales Book of the Year

Other achievements

Jenny Lewis has 10 poems in Joining Music with Reason, an anthology to commemorate the outgoing Oxford Professor of Poetry's five-year tenure, ed. Christopher Ricks, out in May.

Joanna Preston's collection The Summer King, pub. 2009, has been shortlisted for the Mary Gilmore Prize for best first book.

Sue Rose was a prizewinner in the Wigtown Poetry Competition

Rosie Shepperd was shortlisted in the Iota International Poetry Competition
sheenaghpugh: (Default)
There are umpteen poetry competitions and I don't usually bother flagging them up, cos those who go in for them tend to know about them.

But this is a new one on me, and one that actually aims to do some good. Educating Kenyan Orphans is a charity whose objectives are:

# To advance the education of the children who have been orphaned mostly by AIDS and those who live in poverty in Kenya, by raising funding to buy educational materials [...]
# In order to relieve the poverty of the orphans and other impoverished children in Kenya, the charity will purchase land and build a school to give a free education to those in need in Kenya.
# To aid the education of children who would be barred from school due to curable ailments in Kenya. Funding would be diverted from the main aims of the charity to alleviate the suffering of individual children to pay for medical care.

All of which, you'll allow, seems a Jolly Good Plan. They have found sponsorship to provide the prize money, including a first prize of £1000 (it doesn't say so on the website but it does on the flyer they sent out) so that all entry fees will go to educating orphans. The entry fee of £5 is about average for comps, only in most cases you don't have the pleasure of knowing that win or lose, it wasn't wasted.... The judge is John Hegley, who'll also give a reading in support of the charity at the award ceremony, part of the Frome festival (scroll down to July in the dates list).
sheenaghpugh: (Brain)
My latest collection Long-Haul Travellers has been shortlisted for the Roland Mathias Prize and yes, I'm quite pleased (at the very least you get a day out at the BBC's expense in Brecon, which is a nice town).

But the reason for the post is that it triggered a memory of Roland. He was a very eminent Welsh poet, prose writer and critic and towards the end of his life, I judged a poetry competition with him and Aeronwy Thomas, daughter of Dylan. We were quite a bit younger than him, and he had once been a headmaster and couldn't help still sounding like one, so the experience was educational but slightly intimidating for all his great courtesy; it felt like swapping opinions with some sage of the mountains. And he could do something I have never seen before or since. I've judged a lot of comps and people always ask "are they really anonymous - don't you recognise the writer's style even with the name missing?" And the answer is no, in most cases - I can't and nor can most judges I know. But this comp was specifically for Welsh writers in English (they called themselves Anglo-Welsh then but that's frowned on now) and Roland did, in fact, go through about 20 anonymous MSS and name each writer, from his own encyclopaedic knowledge of that writing scene ("this is X, he uses a campanalogical term here and his father was a bell-ringer, and this is Y, you can tell by her line breaks"). Never come across anyone else with that skill.
sheenaghpugh: (Do somethin' else!)
Let's get one thing clear for a start. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with deciding not to award a competition prize because in the judge's view nothing was of a high enough standard. (It happens all the time in eisteddfodau.)

I was, however, a bit surprised when the Willesden Herald Short Story prize announced that among 800 entries they hadn't been able to find anything that the final judge (Zadie Smith) fancied, because though I don't write stories myself I know a lot of people who do; I know some of the entrants to that comp well enough that I've read their stories, and frankly they are good enough. They may not be "great" as Smith complains in her own blog post, but if judges are looking for Chekhov every time they are setting themselves up for disappointment. If it comes to that, Smith ain't Chekhov either, by a very long chalk. I can believe, possibly, that they didn't have enough quality stories to put in the now-cancelled comp anthology; I find it hard to believe there was nothing good enough to be a winner.

However, having read the way the sift judges went about creating their shortlist, I find it very easy to believe the list eventually sent to Smith was anodyne and that the best stuff had been sifted out before it even got that far. I have been worried for a long time about the practice, in both poetry and story comps, of "sifting" so that only a small proportion of entries actually goes to the named judge. It is at least more honest if the sift judges are also named; many times they aren't. We are assured, for instance, that the Bridport comp sift is done by "qualified people", but who are they, and how qualified? Members of reading groups? Teachers? Neither will necessarily appreciate anything a bit innovative or left-field. I still cringe when I recall a reader's report to a publisher by a teacher, on some short stories: "These are not what I call proper stories with a good punch or twist at the end". Of course I went argh! because the first thing we beg our students to do at uni is NOT write stories with a twist at the end. God, you'd think Joyce and the concept of the epiphany had never happened!

I don't know if this particular set of sifters were new to the task but they seem to have been awfully surprised that it entailed work. The moaning is terrific: "The first entries started arriving in October and by the start of November, all three short-listing judges started having to give up between 12 and 20 hours every week of their time to reading. Eventually, the volunteer that opened the envelopes and did the initial data entry was swamped and at one point, while keeping the entrants’ names secret to all the judges, SM had to help out with tedious data entry by staring at a spreadsheet through the night."

Aww! My heart bleeds! What did they think it was going to involve? I've been a judge for an awful lot of comps, and I can assure them, it's ALWAYS like that. You don't like it, don't do it. The three sifters were Steve Moran (SM), Anne Mullane and Bilal Ghafoor. Ghafoor has been shortlisted in a few comps but has published no books that I can see. The other two I can't find by googling - I'm assuming Moran isn't the ex-Southampton striker - which argues they don't have much background in published writing. It isn't encouraging that their blog post includes "less than" for "fewer than" and "lead" for "led".

I know story comps have more of a problem than poem ones in finding big name judges who are actually prepared to read the lot - though even poem comps are sifting now. Wimps - when I judged the Cardiff International I read about 4000. And I suspect sift judges are probably not paid. But I think it's time to change that - take some of the prize money out of the pot if necessary, but find WRITERS to do the sift. And preferably just one writer. These 3 started by looking for stories they all liked, which is a sure way to come up with an anodyne list. One writer's judgement may be idiosyncratic but it'll actually produce better results than a committee.

(Putting money where mouth is, btw, I now only judge comps where there is no sift and I get to see everything)
sheenaghpugh: (Sydney Smith)
This is one of these long and complicated stories-with-links-in that I sometimes give up on – I'll try to make it as short as possible, but it still needs a cut for length. more )


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