Poetry blog: Out with the old – and in with a winning poem?

6 Jan 2015 @ 4.22 pm
| News

Planning to enter the YorkMix poetry competition? Judge Carole Bromley on where to go for inspiration

Take inspiration from a place with literary associations, like Shandy Hall. Photograph © The Laurence Sterne Trust via Wikimedia Commons
YorkMix / York Literature Festival Poetry Competition 2015

Deadline: February 28

You can enter one poem for £5 or up to five poems for £10

First prize: £400, second prize £100, third prize £50

Full details here

How are the resolutions going? I made one last year when I joined Jo Bell’s 52 group, to write a poem a week all year. I ended up writing several hundred. Now I can’t stop.

All you have to do, to make my year, is write one and email it to our poetry competition or (better still and, as it’s the season of sales, a real bargain) submit five for a tenner.

In danger of being buried in the avalanche of poems, I haven’t written my blog for a couple of months but thought I’d check in and say hi and also offer you a few ideas to get you started.

The story so far

Before that, though, a quick update on the entries received so far. I have three folders labelled Shortlist, Possibles and Rejects.

The Possibles one is already bulging and the Shortlist one contains a small number of real crackers. I will add to these obviously and make a final decision after the deadline of February 28th.

I am sure I will also promote some of the ‘possibles’ as I intend to reread those a number of times until I feel I really know them.

It might help if I tell you (without giving too much away) what it was about the shortlisted poems which persuaded me to wing them straight into the company of the select few.

I have just reread them all and jotted down the following rather random list:

strong metaphors,
something that moves me,
a poem where I learn something new,
use of dialect,
a brilliant title,
a sense of place,
the familiar seen in a fresh way,
a killer ending,
a poem which starts in one place and ends up somewhere totally different and, lastly,
a poem which just has that indefinable something which you instantly recognise as the real thing.

I wish I could give you a peep so you could see what I mean but, since that’s out of the question, I will have to give you instead some poems not by entrants which demonstrate at least some of those winning qualities.

Immerse yourself

It goes without saying that you can’t write without reading. It never ceases to amaze me that some people actually do think this is possible. I could show you some from the rejects folder but that would be unfair.

For me, anyway, the best possible start to a writing session (however short that may be) is to immerse yourself in someone else’s poetry. Just revel in something you really like, analyse it if you want, think about what makes it tick, then put it to one side and start writing.

Even if you have a clear idea for a poem (and some people like to start from an idea) the same rules apply. If you find your best poetry starts with a line, a phrase, or an image, that’s fine too.

Either way, having some really good poetry at the back of your mind will enrich what you write.

Roger McGough’s humour

Underlying seriousness… Roger McGough

So. Where to start? I mentioned humour, not because it’s the be all and end all but because it is so often neglected.

I recently went to hear Roger McGough give a reading. The subject matter of his poems was often far from funny but he moved the audience to laughter as well as tears.

Of course, McGough started out as a musician and that helps too. He also often writes in traditional form. Nothing wrong with that either providing you can do it as well as he does.

The point, though, is the underlying seriousness. He ends the poem and we laugh but we also think. Above is his wry take on a good death.

Billy Collins’ clarity

Billy Collins also gets me writing. His poems sound as though they just pour out. Of course, this is a sign of real talent. You make it look easy. It isn’t.

Still, just reading something so fluid, so clear and, again, often so amusing is very good for loosening you up before you take up your own pen.

Here he is writing about writing, often thought of as a big no, no. There are no hard and fast rules. By all means write about writing, so long as you do it well.

Of course, like all good poets, Collins illustrates many of the ingredients of a winning poem as I listed them above. Deceptively simple and clear, his poems often reveal the poet’s intelligence and learning. Take a look at Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes – funny, sexy but also knowledgeable. A poem where you learn something.

Try it. Write about a literary figure in a fresh way. Go to Haworth Parsonage or Shandy Hall or anywhere within reach which has associations with a literary figure, choose an item of clothing, a lock of hair, a well-worn toy and then imagine the original owner and a scene in which they were handling or wearing or stroking this very object and write about it.

Liz Berry’s voice

Try doing it in the voice of your subject whoever he/she may be. Here’s one of mine, written at Haworth.

And, talking of Haworth, I mentioned dialect. If you haven’t ever tried this, do. It is so exciting. It somehow liberates you to write in a voice that is not quite (or not at all) your own.

Listen to Liz Berry writing in a Black Country voice in The Delft Bride and, if you haven’t read Liz Berry you are in for a treat. She recently won the Forward Prize for best first collection for Black Country.

And, whether you choose to write in dialect or not, don’t forget the power of direct speech to make your poem dramatic and immediate. We don’t want a synopsis of what someone said; we want to hear them say it.

Helen Mort’s sense of place

Another of my tips was to move the reader. This poem by Helen Mort, who recently won the Aldeburgh Prize for best first collection with Division Street, does just that but in a surprising, fresh way.

The poem has a terrific sense of place. Look at how just the title resonates through the poem and the mention of specific place names and pubs makes us feel we are there at this parting.

Notice all the concrete nouns – the black umbrella, the white pills, the needle and the way she uses pathetic fallacy (the weather being in sympathy with human emotion) to add an ominous note.

Make your poem as rooted in a real place on a specific day of the week in a particular kind of weather and we will be right there with you for whatever dramatic or sad or joyous occasion you want to write about.

It’s your poem. Go forth and write it!

You have until February 28th to write and send in your poem/s. I’m looking forward to pinging them straight into my shortlist folder. Good luck and a Happy New Year.

Carole Bromley is married with four children and lives in York. Twice a winner in The Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition, she has two pamphlets with Smith/Doorstop (Unscheduled Holt, 2005, and Skylight, 2009) and a collection A Guided Tour of the Ice House. She has won a number of first prizes, including The Bridport and Yorkshire Open, and her poems have appeared in a range of magazines and anthologies. Carole is a graduate of the MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan University and teaches creative writing for York University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning.