Sunday, 29 January 2017

Sifting the Rialto pamphlet competition

I've been reading hundreds of pamphlet submissions to the Rialto’s competition.  Absorbing, fascinating… and intensive.  Three of us sifted the entries to give our judge, Hannah Lowe, a longlist of fifty to read.  The results are on our website.  Here are some thoughts about the experience of sifting and trends among the entries.

* Life writing was popular, some of it addressing, admirably, difficult issues such as childhood abuse or mental illness.  Racial and cultural identity, often with an autobiographical and/or ancestral angle, was a big theme that produced some of the best poetry.  Herons, cats, marshland, floods, trees, the sea… all were here, sometimes (not the cats) in elegiac mode for what’s passing or passed.  Unelegiac urban life was here in all its richness and confusion, and with foxes.  Brexit appeared sporadically.  The US elections came just before the deadline.

* For the sifter, entries with an overarching theme or story are easy to take in and remember.  Sets of poems that are quiet or work together without a story need to be given the attention they deserve.  I found it a pleasure to read formally versatile entries, and those with poems all in the same form skilfully handled.  The same applied to whole pamphlets of short poems; we didn’t get many of those.  Short poems are hard to do well. Formally and/or linguistically experimental sets stood out.  We didn’t get many of those either; I’d have welcomed more.

* The first poem is important: eg as setter of tone and theme, and inviter-in of the reader who is longing to be excited, charmed, wrong-footed, made to laugh, lured, thunderstruck, transported... This is especially true for electronic submissions (around 4/5 of ours were online) which encourage linear reading.  Yet a surprising number of pamphlets didn’t lead with one of their best.  This phenomenon struck all three sifters independently.  Maybe entrants had a certain idea about ordering, or were unsure which were their best poems.  Some entries only got going after the first few poems.  It felt like that familiar workshop question, Do you need the first line / the first two verses or are these just writing into the poem?  Perhaps ordering into a pamphlet is something to watch out for.

* Risks are good to take even if they don’t come off.  Conceits, for example, have to be really well done to work.  But that’s OK; the reader respects the attempt. 

* Trusting the reader to understand, make connections etc is important.    

* Line breaks that energise their poem are a delight.  If they aren’t doing this it might as well be prose. 

* Adjectives…  Yes, they still need to be talked about!  Many are superfluous or part of a predictable adjective/noun combination.  Each adjective should be scrutinised to see if it deserves to be there, and if so, whether it’s the right one.  (It’s totally fine to write a poem bristling with adjectives … provided you know what you’re doing and the poem is hungry for them.)  There are other poetry habits too, especially what long-standing HappenStance pamphlet publisher Helena Nelson calls leaning verbs.  She even has a blog-tag for those and her analyses of current habits are very shrewd. 

* Titles: they don’t matter much at this stage but it’s nice to find one that works. 

* As a sifter all I wanted was pamphlets that channelled old Ezra, more than 100 years on: MAKE IT NEW.  The best ones created a world of their own and invited me in.  Line breaks electrified the poems, the language felt alive with unexpected turns of phrase or syntax, form and content worked together, the poems had their own particular music (harmonious, harsh or whatever), beginnings and ends earned their place… etc.  The subject matter might not be striking but the angle on it was.  What’s the point of poetry (among so much other discourse) if it doesn’t convey the shocks and wonder of living? 

* When these things happened I’d get a sense of confidence mixed with excitement, and read on knowing that the next poem would work, and the next, and with luck, most of them…  I’d also have a sense that the writer was reading and listening to poetry, whether from the back of beyond or an urban attic.  So along with Ezra this too goes in capital letters: READ READ READ.  The two exhortations are complementary, not contradictory.  Read to write and write to read.  Read to make it new.  


  1. interesting work. I'm a bit naive with these sort of things as I just throw some poems together. Typical man the Mrs says. so good tips for future reference. thank you Fiona

    1. Thanks Gareth. I'm not sure everything in this post is universally valid. Mainly the ordering; I think I remember someone who runs another pamphlet competition saying they weren't too bothered about the order of poems when reading entries, presumably because it can be sorted out later. I still think it's common sense, at the very least, to grab the reader with the first poem.

  2. Dear Fiona

    You get more like Nell Nelson every day. You'll be starting your own publishing house next! I think that one of the more understandable reasons why British poetry editors make so many dreadful decisions is because they are completely punch-drunk after wading through thousands of manuscripts of varying quality.

    Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

    1. Editors can indeed get punch-drunk. However I think that mostly they do a good job choosing stuff that, according to their criteria and taste, works. And there is broad agreement between them about writing habits.

  3. Dear Fiona

    Yes, and the booming sales of contemporary poetry simply proves what a fantastic job British poetry editors are doing! Somebody once described poetry as the Olympics of literature. There is no money in it but the competition is merciless.

    Best wishes from Simon