Judge’s Report 2020

I enjoyed judging the competition - thanks to everyone who shared their work. I know from personal experience that it isn’t easy to commit poems to print, then send them out into the wild blue yonder and put them under the nose of someone you’ve never met. Poems are often very personal (always personal, in fact, if they’re any good - I mean the diction and syntax should be unique to the author and a poem should feel like a completely new event in language, even if it’s about a very familiar subject) and as writers we can sometimes feel as though it’s our feelings that are being evaluated rather than our writing.

To begin with, it’s hard to know what to look for in a packet of poems by complete strangers, or what to expect. It’s not like reading a book, where the product and process have somehow been validated in advance by the act of publishing. Competitions are, literally, a mixed bag, and the first one out of that bag tends to set the standard, with poems that follow either falling below the line or determining a new benchmark. Like a high-jump competition, with a pared-down group qualifying for the next round? I won’t pursue the analogy, but eventually a handful usually come to the top, stronger and stranger than the other poems, because they don’t just describe or explore life, they describe or explore language at the same time. Generally speaking I look for poems that take risks, poems that couldn’t have been written by anyone else other than the author, poems that could only have been written NOW (even if they take traditions and poetic conventions into account, or about historical events), poems that are self-conscious and self-aware through each moment of their enactment, poems that are alert to the effect they have on readers, poems that show evidence of reading (you can’t be a writer unless you’re a reader and you definitely can’t be writer of contemporary poetry unless you’re a reader of contemporary poetry), poems that set up a visual relationship with the space they exist in (the page I mean), and poems that in are control - even if they’re describing out-of-control experiences. And poems that move me, and attempt to deal in sentiment without straying into sentimentality. I mention these things simply as a way of apologising if I didn’t choose your poem - it just came up against the wrong person on the wrong day. And as a way of justifying my selection and explaining why I chose your poem if you’re a winner - CONGRATULATIONS.

Simon Armitage