The Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition

Peter Sansom talks about the background . . .

Our competition has been a godsend, or at any rate has kept us afloat, all these (25) years. It is far and away our biggest source of income, and it is how we’ve come to find some of our most popular poets. Michael Laskey back in the 80s, for instance, and Jane Routh and Cliff Yates in the 90s, with more recently Catherine Smith, Yvonne Green and Allison McVety (to choose invidiously from many of our favourite writers).

This last year a further four exciting talents were chosen by judge Simon Armitage: Paul Bentley with a tour-de-force sequence about the Miners’ Strike; Christy Ducker (whose Armour was this season’s PBS Pamphlet Choice), Maitreyabandhu, who was surely about to be snapped up by any number of publishers, and the brilliant and still very young (in poetry terms) David Tait. (You are still young at 25 as a poet, aren’t you? I’ll just ask Keats what he thinks.)

Others of our winners include Mimi Khalvati, Selima Hill, Stephen Knight, Patrick McGuinness, Daljit Nagra and Kathryn Simmonds, all now with other presses. Some, like Mike Barlow and Cliff Yates have won our competition and been published by us and then published elsewhere before returning to the fold.  I’m proud of how varied the list of winners is. And it is validating or at any rate reassuring that some of our winners go on to win or be shortlisted for other prizes – the Forward for instance (several of our writers) and the T S Eliot prize (Michael Laskey).

The competition makes our wider publishing schedule possible. I’ve always thought we publish very few poets, compared to some other publishing houses. It has to be that way for us because it is so time-consuming and labour-intensive, given that we work closely with our writers from the first raw manuscript (sometimes over months) to the finished book. But looking properly at our list for our 25-year celebrations, it came home that we have a surprisingly large list of splendid and distinctive poets (some with two or three books each) that we keep in print.

There’s nothing new about competitions, of course. Ted Hughes was first published through a book manuscript competition (in the States), judged by Auden, Spender and Marianne Moore, as far back as 1957. In the late fifties, the idea seemed new. In Britain in 1985, when Ian McMillan and Graham Mort were The Poetry Business’s Auden and Spender (to this day they call me ‘Marianne’), they chose Adele Géras (best known as a children’s author, though a fine ‘grown-up’ poet) and Pauline Stainer (immediately taken up by Bloodaxe) for a shared publication. I learned lessons that year – for instance that it was best to have only one judge (Ian and Graham, though friends, had such different taste that they only just managed to stay that way). We moved towards a competition with single pamphlets as the prize (the idea of a book publication came later).

Twenty-five years on and the Poetry Business Book & Pamphlet Competition has its own momentum. Entries are judged anonymously so they seem happily separate from anyone we know, as if the poems had written themselves.

Nevertheless, running the whole thing is hard. At first, as with any competition, it can be exhausting, getting the hang of reading so many poems all at once for a month, day-in day-out, and having to measure them up against each other. It’s quite different from the year-round reading of poems for our magazine (The North), where judgement can and I’d say should come second to taste. Ann (Sansom) and I, as North editors, just take poems we like for The North (though sometimes we like different poems, so ‘judgement’ does come into play, as we discuss our choices). After that we simply hope our readers will share some of our taste.  And if not, there are other magazines for them – Home and Garden maybe, or Heat, or The Economist (or their poetry equivalents).

Whereas in a competition it seems important to be more impartial. (I once gave the first prize of £2,000 in the Manchester Open to a poem we’d rejected for The North. It’s true I didn’t remember us rejecting it, but we’d probably have done the same again. The poem was outstanding beside the other competition entries – it was easy to argue its virtues of seriousness and formal control put it above its nearest rivals. Which is not the same as liking it best.)

But that was just one poem on its own. The Book & Pamphlet competition wins out by allowing the judges to read a poet in depth, 24 pages altogether. And it’s good that every year there’s a different main judge, making the final decision. This year, as you know, it is Carol Ann Duffy.

If you like what we do, as publishers and as a writer-development agency, please buy our pamphlets, books and audio, or subscribe to The North. Or come along to a writing day or masterclass, sign-up for a residential course or apply in the Spring for our next Writing School for published poets. (Details of all of this shameless advertising are on our website.)  Though we are of course delighted to have kept regular Arts Council funding, it has involved a sizeable cut: 10% last year, like all ACE organisations, then a further 14.8% in this. Meanwhile, we and our business are (like the nation) in hock to the bank. We are depending on the Competition income to drag the business (if not us and the nation) back into the black. You can help us by entering and by putting the word round for others to enter.

And it would be especially helpful if you could enter a brilliant collection, in the next two weeks (actually ten days to go at the time of writing, eleven if you enter on line). Don’t hold back. Then Carol Ann can choose you as one of her four first stage winners. At which point, if you wish, you can send a more extended manuscript (at no extra cost), which might then be published as a full-length book. If not, your prize is our editing and single-minded promotion of one of our famously handsome pamphlets. Pamphlet or book, you will in any event win acclaim ­– and (who knows?) a share in the film rights (rather less likely). But most certainly your share of the £2,000 cash prize.

Or there’s 2013. Start your pamphlet planning now.

Before I finish, I want to mention the prize money, which last year and this has been sponsored by The National Association of Writers in Education (who also donate time for the winners on their Compass development programme). It was a tremendous fillip for us to be given the backing of such an important and respected organisation. Nevertheless, as you may know, NAWE have lost their regular Arts Council funding, which is strange, because they are indispensable and never more needed than now. So, if you’ve always been meaning to become a member, please do go to There’s a link also on our website, which you could check out while looking to download this year’s Poetry Business Competition entry form ...

Finally, I’d like to say something about pamphlets in general (ours being primarily a pamphlet competition), how they seem to me the perfect medium for poetry – just the right size and often beautiful objects in their own right. Take, for example, Rialto’s recent The Hitcher, by Hannah Lowe. Then there’s one I’ve enjoyed reading more than anything for years, Mariscat’s lovely Invisible Ink by Douglas Dunn, only just launched onto the world. I could mention a couple by HappenStance too but Helena Nelson says it would look iffy. (Perish the thought.) There are some fabulous pamphlets being printed and although the poems inside them would be good, of course, in a book, I can’t help feeling they’re even better for being pamphlets. . . .


Click here for details and an entry form for the 2012 competition.