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Wild Cards

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Yes, thousands of poems do pour in as entries to the National Poetry Competition. When I helped to judge them, someone at the Poetry Society had a wonderful knack of packing stacks of A4 into neat white boxes. It was a talent I did not share. The poems gradually migrated into labelled folders and large bags. I had daytime nightmares of fire, or kleptomaniac literary burglars.

But all these poems are read, with care. I read all of mine at least twice, on different occasions. They were fought over too, with good humour but passion, when I met my fellow judges to winnow our shortlists for the winners.

One of the most impressive features of the National Poetry Competition is the regular appearance of prizewinners with little or no track record of publication. I don't think that any of our first three had published a collection. A later winner had never had a poem published before. If you like to think of your poems as horses (as I do), this is anyone's race.

It is a race with increasingly fruitful prizes. Yes, there is the money! But there are also readings: at a packed awards ceremony in London, and at festivals. This summer, I heard the Ledbury Poetry Festival reading from all three prizewinners. Though their past experience of performance varied, all three read compellingly, to an attentive audience. It is a privilege to have such attention. It does bring home to a writer that there is an audience, beyond the scattered drafts in your own room.

The advice I would give would-be entrants is gleaned from conversations with poets who have been successful in a variety of competitions. They report, with admirable humility, that they can never predict what a judge will like. Their greatest success has come from the poem they stuffed into the envelope at the last moment.

So enter one more poem than you meant to. Pick the odd one, the one you've never been sure of. The wild card is often the winner.

Your entries, wild cards and all, will help to support the Poetry Society, which I particularly value for its longstanding work with young writers and readers. If this year's judges share my writer's vices, your entry will also contribute to a spike in the sales of ethically produced coffee, and (alas) that dark and lovely Fairtrade chocolate - always a winner!

This post is one of a series of poets' reflections commissioned by the Poetry Society in support of the National Poetry competition. The deadline for this year's competition is Wednesday, Oct 31.

Links to all the posts can be found on the Poetry Society website.