Third Time Lucky

Poetry Ireland News November/December 2011

This year’s winner shares her experiences of entering the Patrick Kavanagh Award, three years in a row.

I am no expert on winning. The last time I won anything, it was a duvet cover and that was a long time ago, in Malaysia. But that’s another story. I have been working at my writing for about six years now, beginning with workshops lead by Yvonne Cullen at the Irish Writers’ Centre, followed by an MA in Creative Writing at UCD. I am also a member of the WEB writing group. A few years ago, my work began to be published in magazines and anthologies and I started entering competitions. I’ve always kept in mind the advice of a wise editor – ‘hew, don’t spew’. As a writer, I want to challenge myself to improve. Competitions help; at the very least, they provide a deadline. If you do well, it’s encouraging and I’ve been shortlisted and commended a number of times. Two years ago, I entered the Patrick Kavanagh Award for the first time and came nowhere. Last year, I tried again and was second. This September, I was fortunate to win. So, third time lucky, what have I learned?

There are three elements involved in competitions; one is, presumably, the quality of the writing. Another is luck – the judge’s response on the day, who else is competing, the mood of the time. I can’t add much about these elements; the first is a matter of talent, skill and hard graft and the second is outside our control. But there is a third element. It may seem obvious but think about presentation. Read the rules and reflect on what the competition requires. The Patrick Kavanagh Award is for an unpublished collection of twenty poems. I initially focused on the word ‘twenty’ rather than the word ‘collection’. I chose what I thought represented the best of my most recent, unpublished work – no title, no sequence, no attempt at thematic coherence. 

Second time round, I began to think more holistically about my entry. The advice of two writer friends was invaluable. One suggested I visualise my collection as a book, with cover, title, physical shape. It might sound a bit new-age but it makes a lot of sense – if I couldn’t see these poems as a proper collection, how could the judge? The second advised me to take a more rigorous editorial approach when choosing and arranging the poems.  Here, I benefited from a module I had taken as part of my UCD Masters, where I had to design and create a thematic anthology. I realised that I now had to become an editor of my own work. 

Editing is a physical task. I printed off around forty poems, spread them out on the floor and stood over them. In making the selection, another look at the competition rules was helpful. Poems that have already been published in literary magazines are permitted; these were likely to represent my better work, why not use some of them? As I chose each poem, I went back to the laptop and did any final editing. (This is also important; the judge this year pointed out that entries should show at least an awareness of grammar, punctuation and form).  A shape began to emerge but something was missing. I realised I was being too careful. I wanted the collection to have at least one new poem, something fresh. Once I had this, it helped everything else fall into place. The poem was called ‘Kissing the Ceiling’; it provided the title for the collection and became the final poem on which the rest could now converge. Receiving second prize a few months later at the Patrick Kavanagh Festival was a wonderful experience.

I wasn’t going to enter again this year; how could things get any better? But I had promised my kids that I was going to win something one day and they had been very patient. This time, I knew I needed something extra. Preparing for competitions is a bit like archaeology – look at the results of previous years and see what can be learned. Reflecting on former winners and the judge’s speech last year, I felt that what was missing from my earlier entry was a narrative, a strong enough spine, connecting the individual poems. I had been researching Elizabeth Bishop’s 1937 visit to Ireland, writing poems that imagined and recreated her journey. I had in mind (and still do) a Creative Writing PhD, but why not a collection? Once again, I printed out a group of poems and began whittling and arranging them, writing some new work that pulled the rest together. I took time choosing a title, finally settling on ‘The Bone House’. (The title poem appears in the current, New York edition, of The Stinging Fly – the first magazine to take a chance on me in winter 2007, when I was Featured Poet). 

The good news came in September. Thanks to the dedicated committee who keep this important Award going in such challenging times, I travelled the road to Inniskeen once again with my family and was honoured to accept first prize. So, what have I learned? Well, if you decide to enter the PKA, yes, you will need luck and you will need quality work but do invest in the preparation. And, if at first you don’t succeed, keep trying. Why? It’s hard to beat that feeling when the phone rings, on an otherwise inconsequential day and a voice you will always remember says: ‘Well done – you’ve won.’

Helena Nolan has a guest blog at The Stinging Fly, and has new poems appearing this month in the Poetry On The Lake Anthology and in Abridged: Dust & Desire.

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