Poetry Competitions

August 15

I know poetry competitions are a lottery but one with better odds than Keno. I have won them and judged the same (e.g. The Newcastle prize). I know judges often get it wrong. Take the ultimate literary competition with a one million dollar prize, the Nobel. Tolstoy, Checkhov, Nabokov Joyce, Yeats did not win the prize. Borges had a good twenty years to be considered for a Nobel, and was hot in the running for one for many of those years, but the Nobel Committee refused to award it to him because of his support for right-wing dictators like Pinochet. Sartre turned it down in 64 and the Soviet authorities forced Pasternak to decline the prize in 58.

Judges are poets with their own allegiances and preferences for types of poetry ecopoetry, political poetry, ‘linguistically innovative’ poetry, performance poetry, women’s poetry, queer poetry, ‘survivors’ poetry’, ‘concrete’ poetry, traditional – it’s apples and mangoes.

And a type often wins – poems chosen are often conservative, if there are three judges, they may well be forced to seek common ground, one judge may not want to go out on a limb

Competitive poetry goes back at least as far as Amoebaean singing, a type of singing competition originating in Ancient Greece. one poet sings on a given a topic – a second singer responds with the same structure and this repeats until one side concedes or a third party can determine the winner. The form is said to have been used by Greek shepherds to entertain themselves.

I see nothing wrong with competitions, except there are lot more losers than winners, but it can help raise the profile of this artform. And then there’s the money. According to the Australia Council’s ‘Don’t give up your day job’, in 2000-01 artists earned an average of just over $24,000 from creative and other arts-related work. I doubt it’s risen much and we know poets are probably bottom of the pile. The Newcastle Prize money financed a new computer and a trip around the world.

I use competitions because a) I hope I will win, b) I need a carrot and stick to get me to finish anything. I usually have loads of essays and poems and other projects all on the go at once. Today someone sent me details of a new competition: Entry fees: $8 for every 25 lines submitted. No limit on number of lines or number of poems.

I laughed. I write some long poems and the pricing structure made me think back to the time when artists were artisans and paid by the metre.

Most artists did not make art in the Renaissance unless a patron ordered a work of art made and was willing to pay for it. The notion of an artist being paid for creativity and skill first appeared in the renaissance, before that it appears paintings were priced by size alone.

The amount of money a Renaissance artist received for making a work of art varied widely. depending on reputation, the placement of the paintings (on the altar, the ceiling or the walls), the size, materials used (bronze cost ten times stone, the amount of lapis lazuli or gold), and the number of human figures.

Artists didn’t always receive payment in money; some were paid in wheat, wine or cloth. I would prefer the money.