How To Win A Poetry Contest

I blogged several months ago about judging a poetry contest. Now I am doing it again, and thought I’d re-post, synthesize, and expand my notes. I’m busy reading literally thousands of poems submitted to a national contest (which shall remain anonymous for now). It makes me both sad and happy about poetry. Happy because so many people care. Sad because most of this writing isn’t poetry. I have to pick the top 102. It is easy to reject a submitted “poem” that has absolutely no technique, that is essentially a blurt on the page. In fact, there really aren’t many that actually function as poems either on the level of craft (from title to metaphor) or content (the poem means something about anything, not just an expression of depression or despair.)

If I was to give a little advice to the writers of these poems, I’d suggest:

1. Read a few contemporary poems a week or a book or two a month.

2. Join a poetry class, a group, or at least work with a friend.

3. Read your poem aloud before you consider it finished.

Essentially, poetry isn’t about isolation, and the poem is not an introverted thing.

On the level of technique, you can also follow this checklist:

1. A functional (interesting) title
2. Strong words at the start of each line.
3. Sound resonances and echoes at the end of each line
4. A strong image–an unexpected one
5. Subtle emotion–something the reader can experience without being hit over the head.
6. Comparisons–particularly between inner and outer worlds.

To Avoid:

1. Cliches
2. Easy adjective/noun pairs–like green grass
3. One word titles that say very little, like “Death” or “Autumn”
4. Lots of skinny lines with one word each
5. Stating the obvious

And don’t just submit to contests. The odds are even better if you also consistently submit your work to little and literary magazines.