What I did on the weekend …

Way back in December last year, as I was first wallowing in the delights of Canadian poetry and checking out the magazines that had published poems I particularly enjoyed, I came across something that sounded interesting: the Contemporary Verse 2 Two-Day Poem Competition. Very simple – you sign up, and at midnight on the first day of the contest you would be emailed a list of ten words which you must then use in a new poem. Everyone gets the same words, and you have to use them all, in the exact form provided (so no changing the tense, that sort of thing). And you had two days in which to do it.

One of the things that sold the competition to me was the way they choose winners – a First, Second and Third place (quite usual), plus an Editor’s Choice (ooh, bonus!) and a People’s Choice (double bonus!) and an Editor’s Dad’s Choice. At which point I fell hopelessly in love and decided that I had to give it a go. The fact that you could also get a heavily discounted subscription to the magazine along with your entry was the chocolate sprinkles on the whipped cream on the icing on the cake.

But that was back in December. I had completely forgotten about the competition, so it came as somethig of a surprise when I receieved the first email about it, counting down the last few days to go until it all kicked off. Crikey. A complicating factor was that we were looking at a fine weekend here, after yet another week of heavy rain. My garden needed me in ways that weren’t really easy to put off. Plus we’re in the middle of trying to replace our old logburner, so I was also sending emails off to tradesmen and suppliers and so on. Not an atmosphere entirely conducive to creativity. writingmugBut hey, my students manage to come up with poems in half an hour, and I was going to have two days. Previous years’ words had been really interesting and evocative – salt, becoming, furuncle, bearded, fortune, hinky, animate, fervent, prune, and emerald in 2016; satellite, ham, soaking, lapsed, stencil, mirrored, before, pyrite, faked, and appliances in 2015; and booster, timbres, cramp, unlocked, putative, wolf, barge, versions, probably and tag in 2014. So interesting mixtures of tense and form, with one tricky word thrown in to stretch you. But lots of possibility. (As was proven repeatedly by the quality of the winning poems.)

Yep. Like to guess the words we got, 5 pm Saturday afternoon, New Zealand time? They were:

  • bunk – ok, noun or verb, quite casual;
  • dank – again, interesting word, lots of possibility although likely to head down a slightly Gothic path;
  • stippled – nice adjective, just have to avoid pairing it with ‘shadow’ and miring myself in cliche;
  • begets – cool bananas, lots to do with this one;
  • unroofed – oooh, yes! this is starting to take shape;
  • foundling – hmm, definitely nudging me towards the Gothic (but lets be honest: it doesn’t take much);
  • bombastic – a bit of a challenge. But I can work with that;
  • daguerreotype – hmm, another tricky one,  but againI think I can work with it;
  • copacetic – what? Where did that come from? I don’t even know what it means. (whimper)
  • absquatulated – you’re making this up! WTF?! Abwhatsulated?!!

It was at this point that I started having a small panic attack.

Four stonklingly long, overly-complicatated words. I mean, I could manage bombastic and daguerreotype, but the other two how-the-hell-do-you-even-use-this-in-a-sentence words … no idea. (For those who are wondering, “copacetic” means ‘in excellent order’, and “absquatulated” means ‘buggered off’. Apparently. Although I may be paraphrasing the latter.)

So began two days of writing hell. And vast quantities of avoidance. On the other hand, I did make a new compost heap. And cleaned the toilet. Both toilets, actually. And got a fresh coat of paint on the cupboard doors.

I tried everything. Freewriting (you don’t want to know how many pages were just ARGH!!!!!! and a random assortment of swear words), defining parts of speech and doing a noun-to-noun verb-to-verb substitution into a handy poem by someone else, researching the etymology of the words, coming up with rhymes (good luck with that), trying to use a form of some sort … I just couldn’t find a way in. Saturday night turned into Sunday morning, which turned into Sunday afternoon, which turned into Sunday night … the whole time my poor brain was doing a hamster-wheel thing, churning the words over and over – Dank! churn churn churn Bombastic! churn churn churn Copacetic! churn churn churn squeak churn Foundling! churn churn … Eventually Monday morning came, and I was facing something even worse than a blank page: a page with lots of scribble, but nothing even remotely resembling a poem.

I tried to comfort myself with the words of Thomas Edison – I have not failed. I’ve just found 10000 ways that won’t work – but that didn’t help much. Ultimately I just had to do the hardest thing of all – sit there, and write. And keep writing. And writing. And writing. Brute force and bloody-mindedness. To the accompaniment of Ludovico Einaudi’s Experience (a really great piece of music: enjoy!):

Eventually it all did – sorta – work. I ended up needing to break into the Easter egg stash for fuel, but I got something done. Something that could, if you screwed your eyes up and squinted the right way, having first adopted an open, friendly and enthusiastic mood, have passed for a poem. So at 2pm I went outside for the first time since feeding the chooks, and pottered for half an hour. Then came back inside to try and edit some sense into the damn poem, and make copacestic and absquatulated less like the mutt’s nuts. By which I mean I hid them amongst other words of similar bombast, and hoped for the best.

All the time I’m doing this, the clock is ticking down. A fact that I suddenly realised with five minutes to the deadline.

They were not pretty minutes. I had to quickly bang it all into MS Word, check the contest rules for how exactly it was meant to be formatted (and I have a horrible feeling that I cocked at least one of the requirements up … argh), open an email, attach the document, add my contact details and title of the entry to the body of the email, and hit “send”.

I heard the swoosh sound of the email being sent as the clock on my computer ticked over to 5 pm. Immediately after which, my “you’ve got mail!” sound played, and a cheery email from the competition organisers appeared, announcing the competition closed for another year.

I have no idea if I managed to squeak in under the deadline by the narrowest of all possible margins, or if I did the face-palm opposite, and miss by the narrowest of possible margins. Either way, I thik we’re talking Planck units.

So there you have it. My crit groups will have the opportunity to see the carnage for themselves. I think there may be a worthwhile poem in there, somewhere.

But I suspect it won’t include the words “copacetic” or “absquatuated”.

Takahē poetry comp closing soon!

crowned Takahe by BullerJust a quick reminder to everyone that the takahē poetry competition closes at the end of this month, so you need to get your poems in soon!

The judge for this year is the delightful Riemke Ensing, who will be awarding a first place ($250!), a second place ($100!) and two runners-up (a year’s subscription to takahē magazine). All poems entered will also be considered for publication in takahē, so you’ll be killing two birds with one well-addressed stone.

Entries need to be accompanied by an entry form (download one by clicking here) and entry fee ($5 per poem) and posted to:

takahē Poetry Competition 2015
PO Box 13-335
New Zealand

The deadline is August 31st.

Well, what are you waiting for?

Fame! Fortune! Book tokens!

crowned Takahe by BullerContinuing in the same theme, (you know, the one where I have my takahē editor’s hat rammed down so firmly over my ears that the brim is level with my earlobes) this is your reminder that the 2014 takahē Poetry Competition is closing soon (eek, in just a week!) and that you need to get your best poem on its way NOW.


Seriously though, there are some extremely good reasons why you should enter. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

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Reason #1: The Prizes
– The winner gets $250 plus a $200 book voucher;
– second gets $100 plus a $100 book voucher;
– and the two runners-up each get a twelve month subscription to takahē magazine.
Reason #2: The Judge
David Howard, who founded takahē 25 years ago, is an extremely well regarded poet. Getting the nod from someone of his calibre is a Seriously Big Tick. (Winning is always nice, but when you get the nod from a top-notch judge, it’s an extremely sweet victory indeed.)

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Reason #3: The Fee
Each entry costs you a measly $5. That’s the same as one cup of decent coffee, or a scratch lotto card. (I have it on good authority that that’s not even a quarter of a pair of Dan Carter boxer shorts.) (I think of these things so that you don’t have to.)
Reason #4: Publication
The winning poem will be published in takahē. So will the second placed poem. Woohoo! Result! But wait, there’s more. Every poem entered in the competition will also be considered for publication. By me. No sifting, no winnowing, no anything of that sort. Your poem, and my full attention.

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Reason #5: Anonymity
Like most competitions, this one is judged blind. You will be on an equal footing with the very best there are. And the competition has been won by some of New Zealand’s best poets over the years, so just think about who you might have the chance to beat!

There you have it. Five pretty darn good reasons to enter the competition. Fortune, fame, a level playing field and a chance to be published, even if you don’t manage to win. What more do you need?


So download the entry form (click here), and send it in with $5 and your best unpublished poem (being up on a blog or a zine counts as publication, sorry) of 50 lines or less, to:

Takahē Poetry Competition
PO Box 13-335
Christchurch 8141
New Zealand

no later than Monday 29th, September 2014.

What are you waiting for?

Living with Poems – the second and third read-throughs

whittle04 aWell, after two more read-throughs of every poem, I managed to whittle things down to a longlist of fifty by bedtime last night. It made for some slightly weird dreams, but hey, I do it so that no-one else has to. (Plus I have weird dreams anyhow.) I began by sorting things into three piles – I Think Yes (actually called that), Maybe, and That Would Be No.

I made myself go through the No pile once more, to see if I was being too harsh. As part of that, I tried to categorise what it was about them that let them down so badly. Rhyme Crimes and Poetry Clichés were the two biggest sub-categories (and saw a lot of crossover). I will read these No poems again, just to make absolutely sure that I’m not missing some hidden subtlety that actually redeems the errors and transforms it into a perfect poem … but I would be surprised to see any of these ones move.

Then I went back through the Maybes. This was by far the biggest pile. This time I took a pencil, and made notes on the poems where there were things that bugged me, or that I wanted to check. Some of them were probably really No poems, but that had some hint of something that I thought needed to be considered again. At this point I didn’t think too much about how many poems I was bumping up to the Yes pile – it was really just a case or reading them again and deciding if they were well written or not. There were a couple that made the leap across, but only two or three. This I found comforting.

So then it was the turn of the Yes pile to feel the Wrath of the Pencil, and be subjected to a more critical scrutiny. This time there were a handful that were demoted to the Maybe pile. (Including one on the ones that I’d just bumped – sigh! it ain’t easy being a competition poem.) Again, my main consideration was whether they were well written or not. Clichés got crosses. Spelling mistakes got crosses. Tangled grammar (and it has to be pretty darn tangled for me to notice) got crosses. Anything with no crosses, and that I was still feeling fond of, stayed in the Yes pile. Those with pencil marks got given another quick flick through – some stayed, and some were demoted. By the end of it all, I had fifty poems that still made me want to reread. The Longlist was born!

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Today I whittled it down to the shortlist of twenty. (The nice, neat numbers are a complete fluke.) I was being super picky this time, looking for the sorts of things I’d pick on if I was being paid to critique the poems. I spent quite a bit of time checking words, phrases, references etc on the internet (how did we ever manage without it?!).I wanted to make sure I wasn’t giving undue weight (in either direction) to something I only half-understood. All fifty poems were covered in notes. One thing that I made a point of doing (and which was quite illuminating) was read each poem out loud. It’s funny – the poem that looks so dense and tricksy on the page can actually turn out to be beautiful on the tongue. (And attracts bonus marks.) Equally, there were a couple that I had quite liked that really floundered in a couple of places. Sometimes it was things like clusters of sound that were very hard to enunciate, sometimes it was more to do with the line futzing the rhythm and becoming quite clunky. Rightly or wrongly, I think a poem should work aloud. Homophones are hard to pull off: true. But with the page in front of you and the poet’s own words on your lips, surely that’s the best possible outting? And if the poem doesn’t work there, then you have to go back and re-examine the text. See if you can come up with a plausible reason for it to be that way. Otherwise … you have to assume it’s an error.

Tonight I’ll transfer my on-poem notes to my journal, bust out the eraser, and return the poems to their unadorned state. I won’t read them over the weekend. Monday morning I’ll come back to them fresh. I’ll take five at random, and pit each of the other shortlisted poems against them. Poem X and Poem Y – which is better written? Which could I argue the case for better? X? Then try Y against poem Z. Y better? Then it replaces Z in the five. How does Z do against W? And so on, until every poem in the shortlist has been compared to each of the poems in my top five. Then I’ll do the same through the longlist discards. Then I’ll go through the other two piles for one last time, see if anything feels like it deserves a shot at the title.

Then – assuming I haven’t started wearing my knickers on my head, or attacked someone with a pencil, or something else that suggests my judgement may be a little less than perfectly reliable – I’ll just have to decide Which is the Poem to Rule Them All …

The Karenina Aspect – reflections on the first read-through

from Tungurahua Erupts  Image Credit & Copyright- Patrick Taschler

The first words of Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, are much quoted:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The thing that has struck me most forcibly about the poems in the 2013 Takahe poetry competition is that this phrase (with an inversion and a few substitutions) could also serve to describe the entries to a poetry competition:

Bad poems are all alike; every good poem is good in its own way.

It’s probably a bit … premature? arrogant? me? to offer any sort of overall verdict based on one read-through, but that particular aspect of it – that so many of the entries fail in the same way/s – is overwhelming. And somewhat depressing. Here are three.

A large number of entries aren’t poems. I’m not talking about prose poems, or even making any assessment of subject matter. These are pieces that are the classic ‘chopped up bits of prose’. There’s no charge in the syntax, no music, no sense of underlying rhythm. Just … words, bunged down on the page. (Partly in preparation for this judging, I’ve been rereading my Stephen Dobyns. Particularly his essays on the history of free verse, and metrical verse vs free verse vs vers libre vs vers libere vs prose. If you haven’t read Best Words, Best Order yet, you really should.)

No awareness of what a linebreak does. Or could do. Or should do. Or really doesn’t do. You can break a line wherever you want, and for whatever reason you want. But there should be a reason. At least some of the time. It genuinely does have an impact on how the poem comes across, and what the lines say. Ok, I’m a bit obsessive about such things. But it’s such a fundamental part of writing poetry!

Most of the poems that use rhyme use it really badly. Moon/spoon/June badly. The line isn’t just bent, it’s fractured, minced, freeze-dried, vacuum-sealed, shipped around the world on an oil-barge, and used as a binding agent in the manufacture of cheap toilet paper. All so the person can bang in the first word they’ve thought of that rhymes with the one at the end of the line before.from Tungurahua Erupts b Image Credit & Copyright- Patrick Taschler Forget the need for each line to still make sense with the lines around it. There are some poems where the whole line fails to make any sense with the rhyme word. I keep hoping that one of these poems will turn out to be an ironic send-up of the bad rhyming poem. Alas, no.

There are lots of other things – heaps of typos and spelling mistakes, way too many poems using a reference to the moon as some kind of Magic Poem Seasoning (“just a dash transforms the ordinary into the poetic!”), and quite a few poems written by people who I would be willing to bet haven’t read and enjoyed any book of poetry published for adults since the 1800s.

Perhaps this all sounds horribly negative and judgmental. But I have visions of all these people sending their entries in, buying a copy of the magazine to read the results, and then sitting there feeling resentful and baffled when they read the poems that won. And here’s the secret – I know how that feels, because I’ve been that person. I have entered competitions with poems that were guilty of all the sins I’ve listed, plus several more that were all my own invention. But I learned. And worked. And now I can usually tell the difference between a poem that I just don’t like, and a poem that isn’t well written. (Yes, I know, there are plenty of you who would dispute that last point. But at least I have enough self-awareness and knowledge of the genre to be able to argue my case, even if it isn’t always a winning one.)

Maybe I’m getting this wrong. Maybe the people who wrote a lot of these bad poems are just happy banging them out and sending them off, and really don’t expect to get anywhere. And don’t mind thinking of entry fees as the price they pay to keep enjoying their hobby. In which case ok, but you could probably do more with your money by subscribing to magazines and buying books. Or going to poetry courses, or readings. But hey, I am actually happy that you enjoy yourself, and that poetry is your recreational choice. More power to your elbow. But, in the interests of not making people who judge competitions feel quite so overwhelmed, maybe only enter the ones that you think are as good as you can possible do? (It is a competition, after all. Eddy the Eagle and Eric the Eel were great one-offs. But if we had a dozen of them in every event, it would soon lose its appeal.)

from Tungurahua Erupts cBut for those who are in the other category – the ones who don’t get why their poems aren’t being picked, or who feel baffled by the whole thing of modern poetry – ok, there are things you can do. In the privacy of your own home, with no special equipment needed. When you get the magazine, read the poems. Your first reaction may well be “this is bullshit, this is rubbish, my poems are better than that!” Ok, have a stomp around the house, swearing at the appliances. Whatever you need to do to process that feeling. When you’ve got it out of your system, come back to the poems. And read them again. See if you can find something in there that might be the reason why this poem got the nod ahead of yours. Read it out loud. Try and forget ownership, and just look at the poem as a piece of verbal machinery. Does it rhyme? How? Is it subtle, obvious, funny, non-existent, what? Do the linebreaks do anything? Tease double meanings out of words, make you more (or less) aware of a certain word or phrase or sound? Are there strikingly appropriate (or weirdly wacky or funny) images? Do phrases stick in your head? Does it make you want to reread? Turn it into a game. See how many things you can find that I might be giving a tick to. Then look at your own poem. How many of those things have you done? Lots of poems had a great title, or a really interesting first line, but then wasted that spark by being boring or poorly written from then on. How did the winning poem do? And yours? How about language? I admit that the modern preference for language to be unobtrusive and non-fancy is a matter of fashion, but it’s a fashion that’s been in vogue since at least 1798, so it’s probably one that’s worth taking on board. If the people in CSI started phrasing things the way they do in Shakespeare’s plays, you’d think they were extracting the urine. Same applies in poetry – if it’s not the way you would naturally say something – albeit a polished, rehearsed, well-thought-out way – then why make your poem talk that way?

All of this is quite a long way of doing what was meant to be a brief comment about my first impressions of common issues with some poems. And of course, there are lots of good poems. But weeding out the bad ones tends to be the first step in judging (for me at least), so that’s what I’ve been thinking of most.

I’d be interested to hear from others who have judged literary competitions. What did you find about the overall standard? Did the failures all tromple down the same paths, or did they fail in a different set of ways?