As The Compte De Valmont knew, tactics are everything, whether you are plotting to win the National Poetry Competition or to possess and/or ruin your beloved. You need particular tactics rather than mere instinct or emotionalism.
Everyone should formulate their own tactics, but I offer up my own particular formula as a point of comparison.
Lay out all your completely finished, unpublished poems of the correct length. Pick the one you feel the least likely to win, then the next least likely etc. Until you have 4 or 5, dependent on your purse.
My first success of this formula was with a poem called Three Is Just A Better Form Of Two and in it, Wild Bill Hickock is brutally shot in the back, a buffalo snorts in his face, The Good Thief and The Bad Thief hang on their crosses and the poem ends with a hint of troilism. The poem, like the book it eventually ended up in, was governed by the notion of threes and triangles. That seemed a good, highly unlikely candidate.
It got a Commended—which I always like to think of as Joint 4th Place (with nine or so sundry others).
Next I managed 3rd place with a poem called Low Maintenance Roof Garden . It was partly inspired by a party animal who, every New Year's Eve, to impress the revelers, would back-flip, many storeys up, across the castellated turrets of a squat in Ova—who, in his seventh attempt, back-flipped sideways and ended up as a mess in the street. The garden was really just a stretch of gravel.
Again, it had that promisingly unpromising tang to it.
After that, I had a poem called L.Z which, appears, on the surface at least, to be a homage to the great late-modernist /ur-post-modernist/ ‘Objectivist', post-Poundian poet Louis Zukofsky.... a frighteningly brilliant and 'obscure' poet. His long poem ‘A’ took him 46 years to write, and is beautiful but baffling and very complex. He's not talked about much, at least not in mainstream circles.
The poem was one of my 'apparently' poems, each of which start, or occasionally end, with the word 'apparently'.
It got 2nd Prize.
It also got unfavourably talked about on the blog of Zukofsky's American biographer—in what I considered a rather pedantic and patronising manner. I fired off a counterblast which he described as 'the most stinging e-mail he's ever received. Later, I read the biography and found it compelling and brilliant, told him so, and we've since made up.
Perhaps this method at the very least helps the poems stand out against any mass generic poem de la jour.
A warning: what I am not mentioning is all the times I haven't got placed at all—sometimes, surprisingly, as the consequence of not having got around to entering any poems, and sometimes because of the equally baffling decisions of the judges to not pick one of mine. So, formulas might be illusionary after all.
For me, though, there's still that burning gap at the top. It would be great to complete the sequence and get first place—then I could save on stamps and quit the field.
So I will stick to my tactics, you stick to yours. After all, 'it's beyond my control'.
The National Poetry Competition closes on the 31st of October. Click here for more details.