Friday, September 06, 2013

My Objection to Competitions And Other Thoughts

I'm not a big fan of competitions. Competitions encourage the idea that there are winners. And if there's winners, there's losers. Especially in poetry, the idea that you can win competitions with a certain kind of poem means that the conservative notion of poetry as a kind of compressed narrative which doesn't rock the boat or challenge expectations is preserved. The same is true of slams as far as 'spoken word' is concerned. It's not necessarily the crowd-pleaser that wins, but the judge pleaser.

Then again, competitiveness encourages poets to compete with one another rather than exist as a supportive community. It's a form of capitalism, whichever way you put it: and slams are even more so, poets competing in a kind of bear-pit of 'verbal dexterity'. Not that it doesn't produce good poets; but that it produces lots of losers, who with a helping hand might find their own poetic stream to swim. Like capitalism, it produces conformity not diversity. Poetic revolution it is not.

Which brings us to another thing. A friend of mine came to a poetry workshop with a poem written in the shape of a square. A 'shape poem' as it were. Not unusual in the world of poetry; but I suspect rather unusual in the common or garden poetry meeting. What would happen if someone came to your writing group with a shape poem? Who would be the first to say 'that's not a poem'? There is a whole tradition - dating from as early as the beginning of last century - of concrete poetry, 'sound poetry' and experiments with the look of poetry on the page. How many people are even aware of this history, much less have an opinion on it?

Fortunately, that person met me: because I myself know about this history I can say to someone who brings something like that. "actually, you're not an aberration, you're not completely out on a limb, you're not mad, have a look at this, and there's that, and you might be interested in this..."

Sometimes, it's not about 'good' poetry or 'bad' poetry; and while standards exist for each type of poetry, they are never entirely objective. A good competition poem would make a bad experimental poem etc. That's why I think categories matter; not as a way of dividing one poet from another, but so that those who do things in a different way, are not totally isolated and made to feel 'mad.' Going to poetry events where everybody is telling you how wonderful Carol Anne Duffy is, while you're reading Robert Creeley, can feel terribly isolating.

Poetry is the glory of "things being various"; and ought to be a community not a bearpit. Which might be terribly utopian and naive of me; but I can't help but dream.


Sheila Hamilton said...

I'm broadly with you on this, Steve. Bear-pit, yes. And to submit poems to editors/publishers is also to enter a bear-pit.

George Herbert did at least one shape poem in the seventeenth century.I forget its name, unfortunately, but it is in the shape of wings. Probably there were people saying he was crackers.

Jan Dean said...

Community not bear pit is a noble aspiration for all sorts of stuff. I can go with that.

inchiki said...

I am enjoying reading through your posts. This one and the objection to 'major poet syndrome' ring true to me.

I like to remember that many of my favourite poets were relatively unknown at the time, and certainly didn't win competitions.

In writing just for ourselves it is possible sometimes that we are writing for an audience that is not yet born.