Emma Simon was selected by Neil Astley, Michael Schmidt and Amy Wack as one of our 2019 International Book & Pamphlet Competition winners. We asked for her thoughts and advice about preparing her manuscript and entering the competition. Her winning collection, The Odds, is published by Smith|Doorstop in February 2020.
I assume most people are like me and enter competitions without any real expectation that they might win.
When I had the phone call telling me I’d been selected as one of the winners I was in a Tesco car park. I was so taken aback I managed to leave all my spare bags-for-life at the checkout. I am not sure it’s quite sunk in yet.
But despite this lack of expectation I still put considerable effort into trying to make the submission as strong as it could be. For me, the real challenge was trying to select which poems worked well together.
If you want to feel like a proper writer, I recommend sitting on the carpet with print-outs of your poems scattered near and far. By putting them into different piles and various orders I found that I was starting to see potential themes and connections I hadn’t teased out before.
In fact it was only by doing this that I realised how many poems touched on the idea of fate or chance, and this helped me come up with the title of my pamphlet, The Odds.
It is never an easy to order a collection of poems. One thing I found useful was trying to group poems together in two or threes that really seem to gel together, and then look at how the mood changed between these groups.
I found had quite a few poems that dealt with loss and death, for example, as well as a group of more surreal poems, and others that played with myths and fairy-tales. For me the trick was trying to strike a balance between them, and spotting where they overlapped, so there wasn’t too much jarring as you moved from one poem to the next.
I play the piano (badly) so I tried to think of it like a piece of music moving through quieter and more upbeat phases.
I’d submitted pamphlets and collections before and not got anywhere. Here I changed some poems, but kept what I felt were the core poems holding it together. It’s strange how just changing a few poems in a sequence, or starting from a different place, can really alter the sense of the collection as a whole.
What is particularly brilliant about this competition, is that once you are selected it’s not the end of the process. There is then an extended period of working with the editors at Smith|Doorstop to improve the pamphlet further.
I found this to be a really productive phase. Peter Sansom is a very thoughtful editor, as you’ll know if you’ve ever been on one of his and Ann’s Writing Days. He made lots of suggestions as to how this collection of poems could work better as a whole. I had a busy summer working on the edits. Some new poems found there way in as part of this process, and one or two fell by the wayside.
I’d urge anyone who’s thinking about entering this competition to do so – it’s been a fantastic experience. You can’t win if you don’t enter, so my advice is to give it a go. Just hold onto your hessian bags.
These are poems by a versatile poet, drawing on a wide range of subject-matter and making use of an impressively handled variety of forms, including her own energetically updated version of Anglo-Saxon stress metre. Throughout the collection her working of the line is impressively tuned to what she evokes, from one poem’s staccato measure tracing the thoughts racing through the mind of a disbelieved Harvey Weinstein victim to another enacting the hopping and sliding of a frog, from couplet to couplet. These two examples show something of the breadth of range in The Odds: in between we meet a latter-day Lady Macbeth, visit a poisonous laboratory (a tour de force, this one), walk on water, break down on the motorway, and find ourselves descending through space as earth-bound astronauts. All in all, a collection celebrating what MacNeice called ‘the drunkenness of things being various’ – and with style and panache.Neil Astley, co-judge for the 2019 International Book & Pamphlet Competition