Friday, 6 November 2009

Literary scams

My late grand-father knew a thing or two about dog racing. I found out from him that a particular way to nobble your own dog was to tape coins - threepenny bits were mentioned - into its pads leading up to the race, giving the mutt sore feet so it could not run fast. Do that a couple or three times and the odds drop, then you can back your dog at long odds. I can only have been four when I heard this, as he died the same year but it put me off gambling for life. It also told me that the punters are there to be taken for a ride. Which brings me to the National Poetry Competition.
For a fiver you can enter this major comp, whose past winners include Ian Duhig (twice), Julia Copus, Sam Gardiner, Carol Ann Duffy, Sinead Morrisey and a host of other great poets. The entries are judged without the judges knowing the names of the entrants, so it is an open competition. And good poems win. Some good poems don't win. Mediocre poems never win, and thousands of fair to middling and downright awful poems could never win.
The scam though is that the leaflets are everywhere, there are notices in the regional dailies and bad poets, fair to middling poets, mediocre poets and people who will be good poets later think that they have a chance of winning and bung off their fivers. That the prize is £5000 tells you that there are a lot of entries. And that most of the entries have no chance of winning. The organisers know that but depend on these entries to build the prize money.
Every month there are other opportunities for people to spend their fivers on other poetry prize competitions. There's more of them all the time as poetry presses and magazines use the profits to stay afloat. Afloat on the strength of bad poetry. On the strength of poets, particularly new poets, who have no idea their work is not good enough to ever win and who will eventually drop off the list of entrants, saddened, poorer and replaced by another raft of people being ripped off in the same way.
If I had grandchildren I'd sit them down at an impressionable age and encourage them never to bet on lame dogs, and never to enter poetry competitions. Better to spend the money on the PDSA and on poetry books.

1 comment:

Alan Baker said...

I agree with most of this post Ross - poetry competitions are money-spinners, and that's the main motivation for most of them. I'd disagree however, with your statement that 'mediocre poems never win'. I'd say they often do. Judges tend to play safe, and rarely, if ever, choose adventurous, experimental poetry. All the poets you list write broadly the same type of poetry, which I'd categorise as 'mainstream'. I think there are commercial reasons for this, as it's in the interest of competition organisers to promote 'accessible' poetry that they think reaches a broader market.