An Interview with Dave Morgan on submitting to Poetry Competitions and Publications

LfW: Is there any reason why there seem to be so many poetry competitions around at the moment?

DM: Well I don’t think it’s to do with our agricultural heritage. It seems a recent phenomenon. Certainly the Covid 19 epidemic may have given people more time to write and as in the case of the recent ‘After the Storm’ competition organised by Write out Loud as a fundraiser for the NHS, it may have provided a stimulus and an opportunity for reflection. There’s also the growing presence of writers’ and publishers’ groups on facebook.

LfW: What do you think about entry fees for competitions?

DM: They certainly disadvantage those who’re broke and in that sense they discriminate. Of course they allow some competition organisers to offer prizes, awards ceremonies, and publication deals. The entrant has to be aware that the odds of being shortlisted in a major competition or being accepted by a national publication are very long and you are competing with professionals and being judged by professionals.

LfW: Have you had any successes in competitions?

DM: Hardly any in open national competitions. I did win third prize in the Morano Calabro International Poetry and Literature Competition (Italy 2016) but that was on the esoteric theme of Jack Kerouac and Beat Poetry. On the other hand I’ve had more success in magazines and anthologies locally and nationally. I think the secret to acceptance is keeping within the rules and sticking to the theme or focus of the particular publication.

LfW: You’ve been involved in judging or should we say ‘editing’ some anthology collections. How do you pass judgement on somebody’s baby?

DM: It’s very tricky if you’ve an ounce of humanity. However you have a duty to maintain a standard of honesty and originality and to take account of breadth and balance. A few years ago in one of the Live from Worktown anthologies the theme was ‘Childhood’ and we had almost the same account of going to Blackpool in Wakes Week by several contributors. I basically chose one to represent the rest.

LfW: How do you measure ‘originality’?

DM: Let’s face it very little is ‘original’ except to the person who wrote it. Occasionally someone offers a very far out contribution in form or content which really challenges the reader and calls for or demands more attention.  For the most part submissions recognisably belong to the poetry family whether rhyming or not, having a discernable rhythm (or not), using language effectively through metaphor, simile or alliteration (or not).  I suppose the biggest crime is cliché ie using any of these in a predictable, common or thoughtless way.

LfW: What catches your eye in a submission?

DM: To be mundane about it, something which sticks to the rules on length and theme. Many works of genius may have been ditched for not conforming. I do see poetry as a discipline and one where compression is a key skill. In poetry less is more. This isn’t to say it has to be so dense it’s incomprehensible. I’m a sucker for stories and pen pictures. To capture an event or a personality in under thirty or forty lines takes some doing. I also like entries which focus on one small part of a bigger picture. Like the childhood submissions about Blackpool. Why try and capture the whole experience when you could focus on one small but telling aspect?

LfW: What advice do you give to entrants and do you take it yourself?

DM: Cunning question. Of course I ignore my own advice and when the mood takes me bang off my highly crafted and original pieces (in my eyes) to the most unsuitable of competitions and publications. It’s that ineffable optimism overriding any sense of logic or reality. If I was to listen to my own advice it would be this. Try to understand what the reader is looking for. Look at other examples of the work they have published on-line. Read their advice, they give it freely. Keep reading a range of poetry, refreshing your interest in it as a discipline. Write as much or as little as you want but importantly go back over it and rewrite. I have often written something for a competition or submission, finished it with minutes to spare before deadline, and never given myself time to stand back and be my own editor. I understand Jack Kerouac’s motto of ‘first thought, best thought’ but I appreciate the added benefits of second, third and fourth thoughts in the interests of a more polished piece of work.

LfW: Do you sense a surge in interest in poetry at the moment.

DM: Poetry in general, no. Spoken word, yes. The Spoken Word scene has excited a younger generation in the way that punk did. What comes out of that, I believe, is a greater appreciation of language, of writing and of the power of words to influence and excite. It may appear to be about breaking the rules but once hooked, it may lead writers and performers to appreciate other techniques, other traditions and other noble heroes of the poetic tradition.