‘Best’ but not First…

After my local writing group poetry competition adjudication last night, I left knowing my poem had been ‘the best’ entry – and that it hadn’t won the competition… Sound strange?

It’s important to say that I knew I was taking something of a risk, though not with the poem per se. The piece is called “Interregnum”. I use it as an example at one of the workshops I run when away mentoring on writing retreats. Because of the feedback I’ve had from multiple attendees I know it’s a good poem. So I had high hopes.

The problem? It’s a ‘found’ poem.

The piece is based on an article concerning someone’s experience walking the streets of Tokyo. It’s a long article and really well-written. I used the article to curate some words and phrases which I then reorganised and moulded into a poem with an entirely different subject and theme; it’s not a poem specifically about Tokyo at all. Indeed, last night someone said that for them it conjured images of Middlesborough! At the foot of my poem I explicitly acknowledge my source.

The judge was impressed with the piece but confessed to being in a quandary given she knew she was actually looking at the work of two people – so how could she judge what was ‘mine’ and what was not?

Fair comment.

At the end of the evening all the entrants present read their work. Someone asked the judge what would have happened had my piece not been ‘found’ – or had I not confessed to its origins. She said it would have won.

In the position she was in, I think the judge made absolutely the correct call in not awarding my poem first place. But the whole episode does help provoke a whole raft of interesting questions about ‘Found Poetry’ – or any kind of poetry that uses sources outside the poet’s own imagination. Especially when it comes to ‘judging’, which is something we all do whenever we read a poem or a book.

At the most basic of levels, should we be concerned about the ‘source’? After all, we’re told not to worry about a writer’s ‘intent’, and that we should simply focus on the words on the page. Should ‘source’ be treated in the same way as ‘intent’?

Complex, isn’t it?

Although I write it far less than I used to, I think Found Poetry can be a great source of good work (and, I admit, a cheat’s charter for those less talented / scrupulous). More than that, it can help poets become better editors and craftspeople. And it’s fun! I know people who had never written poetry who then do so as a result of attending my Found Poetry workshop. That’s priceless!

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