With just a week to go before the closing date for this year's Bridport Prize, I've just done my annual trawl of their website to decide whether it'll be worth entering. And just like every year, I've come away with the conclusion that the answer is no.
A strange response, you may think, for a poet keen to cement his reputation. And maybe so. After all, as far as UK writing competitions go, the Bridport Prize is the biggie. Its prize pot (with a First Prize of £5000 in the poetry category) is one of the heftiest in the country, and if you're lucky enough to scoop that First Prize this is one of the very few competitions that'll guarantee you national exposure. It's certainly going to command the respect of publishers when it comes to pitching a future collection. So what's not to like?
Well, the price tag on entries, for one thing. £8 a poem? REALLY?!?!
I've lost track of the number of times I've said in this blog that poetry is a democratic artform and that opportunities in poetry should be accessible to everybody - not just those with pockets deep enough to pay for it. "Pay-to-play" competitions are, in some respects, a necessary evil, as I pointed out in one of my very first Soapbox posts. It's not great that we have to cough up money to get our poems into competitions in the first place; it means that wealthy poets already have a head start on those without the cash to spare. But to some extent, it's understandable when the competition is there to support a journal, or an arts centre, or a writers' collective that muddles along on a shoestring budget without the benefits of Arts Council funding or a rich benefactor. When the competition is there to raise money for charitable causes, there's even less to quibble over.
However, the Bridport Prize is none of these things. Its total prize pot (£15,000 across all categories this year) would easily be enough to keep many smaller arts centres, and quite a few journals, in existence. Its patrons - who include Fay Weldon, Tracy Chevalier and Andrew Motion - have tremendous clout in the arts world; if anyone can rustle up donations, they can. Compared with many, the Bridport Prize is rolling in money.
Don't get me wrong. I can't begrudge Bridport its success. The problem I have with this competition is that the vast majority of entrants will be throwing their money away, and will be getting nothing back. No feedback. No idea of where their writing is placed (contrast with the Plough Prize, which for years has published a full breakdown of results including the longlists as well as the shortlists!). No idea who has actually read their work, or even if it got past the inevitable filtering committee to reach the much-trumpeted big-name adjudicators. When a competition demands as much as £8 a poem from its entrants, I would certainly expect to get some return on my investment. But unless you're one of the lucky dozen or so that make the final prize winners' list, you get zilch.
So, is it worth the money? My answer is: probably not. The whole thing has the feel of a sort of literary National Lottery. There's a lot of fanfare and razzmatazz, photo opportunities for the winners, and bugger all for the people whose failed attempts subsidise the whole venture.
Of course it'll be worth it for those fortunate enough to make the prize winners' list - and I don't for a minute begrudge the winners their achievements. You HAVE to be really good (or at least remarkably well tuned in to literary fashions) to get that far. But the fact remains that a whole pile of astonishingly good writers WON'T have got that far, and will have no way of knowing why. If you think you may be one of those people, my advice is to put your money somewhere else. Find a competition that gives you some genuine feedback, or at the very least a decent judge's report - and one that doesn't require you to take out a mortgage to afford the entry fee. "3 poems for a tenner" is the norm in most of the small to medium-sized competitions. Find one that fits your tastes and interests, or supports a venture that you feel is sufficiently deserving, and put your money there instead.