I remember having a conversation with an Irish male poet many years ago in a Dublin pub. It was one of those scrappy exchanges. I didn’t really know much about his work (he was an academic by profession and a poet outside of that), and I don’t think he knew very much about mine either. But in the course of things I recall him saying that women were always entering competitions, but that competitions didn’t really mean all that much. Or words to that effect. As a competition-winner myself, I was a little punctured by the remark, and it sent me off questioning the whole competition system for a while. I think he may have been suggesting that competition-poetry and fiction per se does not always add up to great ‘literature’ and great ‘art’. It was an elitist view in the wrong sense of the word elitist. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard of a Booker Prize winner being in any way damaged by having received that particular award, nor of an Impac winner returning the prize on the grounds that it didn’t mean much. All this is leading up to me saying that from time to time I’ve entered competitions over the years. Generally, in recent years, it has been a fruitless exercise. And in the last three years I’d more or less stopped entering competitions, especially in Ireland where everybody knows everybody else and entrants often wonder about just who is doing the pre-reading (i.e. slimming the mound of thousands down to a manageable hundred entries for some judge who is deemed to be too great to actually read ALL of them – speaking of which, full marks Strokestown, because having been one of their judges I know that ALL the poems are actually read by ALL the judges).
However, two poet colleagues have won major prizes in recent years – Jean O’Brien won the Fish Poetry Competition some years ago, before going on to win the prestigious Arvon International Prize for Poetry in 2010. Catherine Phil MacCarthy also won the Fish, only last year. Hearing of this was encouraging, and so I entered a short story in the Fish Short Story Competition last November, and then forgot about it.
Guess what? I received an email from Clem Cairns, the administrator and founder of Fish, last March to say I’d been short-listed. To say this was a pleasant surprise is an under-statement. But then, when he wrote again one week later to say that I was overall winner of this prize, it was one of those yowsa moments. The entry was large – some 1,900 entrants from an international mix – and so it was just great to get the news. It had been a long winter, and suddenly a prize like this brings light and energy to me, it signals something good and positive.
So, thinking of my pub-colleague poet from some twenty years or more ago, I have to reflect that competitions are worth entering (obviously if one wins) a) because they keep us writing at times when we might lie fallow; and b) because they keep the dialogue about the nature of art open and alive, and c) it takes courage to keep entering things and to have to reflect (when one doesn’t win) that not everyone thinks your work is hot, and d) it feels bloody good when someone felt your work was the best on that particular occasion and finally e) the publicity and profile-raising which follows is always helpful for those whose life is writing, pure and simple.
Now that I think of it, there’s hardly a woman I know who hasn’t won or been short-listed for a major literary competition. Eilish Ni Dhuibhne (Orange Prize for Fiction, and several other prizes in Ireland); Maride Woods, Ivy Bannister, myself (Francis McManus RTE Short Story Competition); Lia Mills (shortlisted for the National Book Award, nominated for an Irish Times Literature Award for Fiction); Sheila O’Hagan & Louise O’Callaghan (Strokestown Poetry Competition); myself again (Listowel for both fiction & poetry, V.S.Pritchett, Bloodaxe Comp back in 1990); Ann Egan (Listowel on several occasions), Anne Hartigan (for the Mobil Award for Drama). And of course Anne Enright won the Booker, fair and square, and it transformed her life. We’re a busy lot.
Competition-entering is just another aspect and option in a life of writing. It may not be essential to some. It’s not even essential to me. But I suspect it has been very necessary to women, who often felt their work was overlooked and sidelined in the Irish literary world. Thus the anonymity we trust exists in competitions has had its place in our lives. Sometimes I suspect that some of those who are quick to diss the competition as a system are possibly just a little bit sour. All these women winning competitions?!? Tut-tut. Can’t have that!