Surprise me with a poem – and you could be a winner

Read some Simon Armitage to prepare for our competition. Photograph: Paul Wolfgang Webster
3 Jan 2013 @ 1.03 pm
| News
Read some Simon Armitage to prepare for our competition. Photograph: Paul Wolfgang Webster
Read some Simon Armitage to prepare for our competition. Photograph: Paul Wolfgang Webster

In association with YorkMix, York Literature Festival has launched its first poetry competition. Our Poet In Residence Carole Bromley is the judge, and she explains what she will be looking for

By the time this goes up on the website we will all have broken our New Year resolutions but, from the innocence of New Year’s Eve, here’s mine. I’m going to write one new poem every week for a whole year. Why not join me? I’ve already created a new folder labelled ‘Poems 2013’ and, if it contains 52 decent poems by December, that’s my next book taken care of.

Out with the old, in with the new. No more Strictly, but weren’t Louis and Flavia great? Talk about saving the best till last. I even voted. (Well, OK, in my excitement I wrote the numbers down wrong and voted for Kimberley so then I had to vote twice more but I’m guessing it made all the difference).

Not sure what will replace it for me but I suspect it may be Dancing On Ice which is always fun, especially in the early stages when they all fall over and then later when one or two of them can actually do all those scary lifts.

But the BIG news is that, in conjunction with the York Literature Festival, we are launching a poetry competition. I have been asked to judge it which is a huge honour so please, please send in your poems. The usual rules apply. Poems must be anonymous (so please email them to [email protected] preferably as a Word attachment with just the poem on it and give your contact details in the body of the email together with the titles).

Only the poems will be forwarded to me. Poems can be on whatever subject you like this time and must be 40 lines or less. There is no entry fee and there are prizes. For full details please click here.


You can start sending poems (maximum of three) as soon as you like but they must reach us by 28th February. Winners and commended poets will be contacted individually and invited to the prize-giving on March 18th. Please note that this time you can’t email your poems directly to me. The competition is open to all UK residents – and there’s a special prize for the best poem hailing from a York postcode. But if you are involved in the festival in any way you can’t enter, I’m afraid.

More later about the festival itself but Miles Salter has some fabulous events up his sleeve. He has worked tirelessly to make sure the festival happens and secured a grant from Arts Council England which is a huge achievement in this age of cuts.

So – what are you going to write about? To kick start your poetry writing for 2013 I have devised a few prompts and exercises and will be writing another blog in early February with more ideas and suggestions.

And – what will I be looking for? Something fresh and alive, I think. Something that tells me you have been reading poetry as well as writing it. Something that moves me (to laughter or tears or both). Something that shows some grasp of technique but the main thing is freshness and originality.

You can send in sonnets and villanelles if you like but anything in traditional form will have to be good to make the shortlist (as will anything in free verse!) And if you haven’t written much poetry in the past, or any at all, or not for a long time, don’t worry. It’s your voice I want to hear. Two years ago someone who had never published a poem since the school magazine won the National Poetry Competition. If he can do it, so can you.

One thing I have always done if I have no ideas for a new poem is to curl up in a chair with a poet who really knows what he/she is doing. Well, not literally of course, there is not always one to hand, but you get my drift.

Sharon Olds
Sharon Olds

Some poets are better than others for getting me in the right frame of mind for writing. Sharon Olds always does it for me so why not try one of her earlier collections (One Secret Thing or The Wellspring). Of course, you can look her up on Google and read some poems online but it’s not the same. You need to immerse yourself.

Another writer I find inspiring is that lovely Irish poet, Dennis O’Driscoll, who died unexpectedly on Christmas Day. There is something so appealing about his apparently effortless poetry, its accessibility and clarity. He also makes you think you can write about absolutely anything. (Track down one of his early collections like Long Story Short or his 2004 New and Selected. You’ll be in for a treat.)

The American poet, Billy Collins, is another favourite. Why not spend that book token on Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes? So much better value than 50 Shades of Whatsit.

Or, for someone closer to home, absolutely anything by Simon Armitage (Kid, Zoom, The Universal Home Doctor, Seeing Stars). Carol Ann Duffy is another poet who makes you feel you can do it. Literally. I went on an Arvon course (heard of those? No? Look them up right now. It will change your life) on which Carol Ann was the tutor and the poems just poured out of me. I would sit up in bed at 5am writing away. Nothing could stop me. Read her. That’s an order. (Try Meantime, Selling Manhattan, The World’s Wife, Rapture)

Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy

I’m going to let you into another secret. Sometimes I just nick an opening line. It can be a surprisingly good way of getting you going. Here are a few first lines you might like to try.

No, I don’t want to drop over for a meal

My sister phones to tell me that she found

Mother said if I wore this hat

I want the scissors to be sharp

All you have to do is listen to the way a man

Something wakes me, at my mother’s house

Which reminds me. He appeared

Lock the door. In the dark journey of our night

I’ll take your hand, the left

I am writing at exactly the moment

The trick is to plump for one, write it down and just keep writing. (I’ve deliberately chosen a few which run on into the next line). Don’t sit and chew your pencil (or click on your trackpad or whatever you use) because then your conscious mind, your ‘inner policeman’ will veto every word you were going to write and you’ll end up writing the same poem as yesterday or last week and it’ll be safe and non-threatening and also no good!

You need (and I’m sorry if this sounds all touchy-feely but it happens to be true) to reach right down into that bran-tub you call a mind and fish out something extraordinary. Something that surprises even you. If it doesn’t surprise you, it’s not going to surprise me. You have to not know it was there. Go on, fish around among the sawdust and pick the lumpy thing that feels weird.

And don’t worry about being sued. You’ve only nicked a line and anyway you can always blame me. I think the great thing about competitions is the anonymity. If the poem’s no good (and believe me you won’t know. Only other people can tell you that) no-one will ever know you wrote it and if it is good (and it might be, it might be) it will have someone else’s stamp of approval before you have to read it out in public and claim it as your own.

And by all means tinker with it once you’ve got it down on paper but take care not to prettify it out of existence.

OK so you don’t fancy starting from someone else’s opening line. Here are a couple more ideas to start you off.

First, think of a gig or a concert you once went to. It might be quite recent or it could be long ago but something that left a deep impression on you, either because of the music or because of who you were with at the time. Now, jot down notes on things you remember seeing at the event – little details; look around you in your mind and list them. Then a couple of things you could hear and maybe what they sounded like. Close your eyes and imagine/remember what the sound reminded you of.

You might want to add a smell (cigarette smoke, maybe or the lights or a perfume) and a taste (a particular chewing gum, perhaps, or that wine you shared, or the toffees someone passed along the row). Try a snatch of conversation. You can always make it up.

Now, put the notes aside and read Billy Collins’ Night Club.

Note how he builds up the atmosphere of the club by using tiny details. Write about your own gig/concert/night club using the notes you made earlier and writing quickly without thinking about it too much.

Billy Collins
Billy Collins

Another exercise: this time think of a time when you heard some important news. It can be of national importance or just of importance to you. It can be good news or bad. Something that changed things either in your life or in the wider world.

It might be a death or a birth or a declaration of war or the day someone proposed to you or broke your heart or the day you achieved something you really wanted. Now put yourself back in that time and again make notes on half a dozen things you can see, a couple of things you can hear, something that was cooking that day or that you could smell, something apparently unimportant which has stuck in your mind, what you were wearing, precisely where you were when you heard this news. What went on immediately afterwards – a particular car passing or a child crossing the street or just a bird in a tree. Anything. It’s your poem.

Now read Dennis O’Driscoll’s poem Someone and note the ordinariness of that person’s day, all the little inconsequential details that become significant in the light of what happens later. Now write your own poem, using the notes you made just now and show us the ordinary day up to the point when the news broke.

The title will be important too. The drama of the news will be conveyed in what you have shown us in the lead up to it, in the fact that all those details are fixed in your mind by the importance of the news that comes to change everything.

Send me your love poems and your sad poems and your ‘here’s a line I nicked’ poems. Good luck. One thing is for sure. I will love reading them. 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.