The Mid-Somerset Festival: A winner’s advice

The ambience of The Mid-Somerset Festival combined with the joy of hearing other writer’s entries is a hugely pleasurable experience. It was the first time I have competed at a Literary Event.  But to win my first award for a poem I had meticulously picked apart and reconstructed was unexpected.

Adjudicating was Dr Carrie Etter, critic and a poet with enormous talent.  Her book Imagined Sons is shortlisted candidate for The Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry.

Ms Etter is also the Senior Creative Writing Lecturer at Bathspa University.

Until this weekend I was convinced Poetry is not my forte. I admit to this because I am a former student  of Carrie’s. No matter how hard I tried during my second year I could not deliver work that was aesthetically refined as the contemporary Poets our era.

So I stopped writing poetry and began deconstructing Poems published in the tabloids and by bona-fide publishing houses.

It is said that Poetry is a bird that takes flight when imagery is used and emotion is evoked in the reader. Seamus Heaney’s The Strand is an exceptional example of how an ultra-short poem echoes the speaker’s tone and how the image of a dotted line made by a walking stick stimulates empathy in the reader.

Similarly, Carrie Etter’s intensely self-reflexive poems employ powerful imagery and lack any sense of self-pity, which removes them from the cathartic outpourings of Adult Angst. Their effect on the reader is such that they do indeed become the feathers of the very birds aspiring poets try to grasp when writing their own poems.

Understanding who you are writing for, your primary audience, is a vital tool in turning a mediocre draft into a poem worthy of award. In my case it was the much respected Ms Etter. To be able to do this I took time to read from poets she admires—I did not know at the time of crafting my poem that Heaney is one of them.

When I had completed all aspects of my research it was clear that clarity of syntax and the ability to show a poem is composed of neat stanzas was another effective strand in producing a poem which would not make her gag.

I say this because that a high percentage of my early poems, chock full of ambiguous lines and grammatical errors, have the same effect on me. It is the reason why I have deleted most them from my blog.

If you think I am being overly critical, it is not a bad attitude to adopt when assessing poems you self-published when you were just beginning to flex your writing sinews. Let’s face it very few ugly ducklings become swans not matter how hard we try to fashion them into a reasonable facsimile.

Drafting and redrafting until you are sick of it assists self-improvement. It is just as important as your poem’s initial inception.

Writing a poem using rhyming couplets is fine if the brief calls for it. The problem here is that few contemporary poets, if any, now write like this. I also feel couplets inhibit the natural flow of language, thus producing a slightly synthesised sound. Yet if done skilfully, using similar sounding word, the poem becomes merit worthy.

For example, ‘…birds in flight at a line’s end could be rhymed with ‘orbiting the moon like satellites’.

Here you have transformed what might have been a mediocre couplet into a simile which in turn portrays an image. A word of warning though. It’s easy to use clichéd similes which do little to enrich a poem. It has the effect of making a poem seem hackneyed. If you employ a simile it needs to be original and credible. 

A well opened poem also needs a resounding ending.  This can be achieved by writing several versions of the last stanza and select the one that evokes the most emotion. Or perhaps use an end stopped line.

My poem underwent a similar rigorous process until I saw the fledgling feathers fall away. Is it a swan now? Well hardly.

Despite Ms Etter’s encouraging feedback that it ‘is a well evoked poem’ containing ‘delightfully precise imagery’, the ‘her’—the unidentifiable female presence, in last two stanzas caused confusion.

When I wrote last two stanzas, the use of her seemed to resonate like a duff note off the page.  I felt sure my adjudicator, an experienced critic who advocates absolute clarity from her students, would comment about the use of ambiguity. I was right and it probably cost me marks.

As I have already stated, understanding who you are writing for, your primary audience, is a vital tool in turning a mediocre poem worthy of award. Pity I didn’t curb my enthusiastic belief in the other two pieces I submitted, my bag might have been rattling with silver when I left Bath that evening.

In the meantime, just to win is a surreal experience.

Mid Somerset Cup

Imagined Sons is available from Seren Books or Amazon

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