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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Percy French Prize for Serious Poetry?

For the first time in around nine years, I didn't attend the Percy French Prize for Comic Verse at the Strokestown Poetry Festival. The winner was Samantha Strachen, pictured above, with judge Eleanor Tiernan. Congratulations to Samantha.
The reasons I didn't attend were manifold. I didn't much like the way that the competition was advertised - it seemed to be looking for slammers and rappers, rather than people who can craft a comic verse. I didn't like the way that the number of shortlistees has been cut from ten down to eight and now down to six. I didn't like the way that the competition was pushed back to 10pm, as the highlight of the evening is always the craic in Anthony's afterwards and this would seriously eat into that time. And I have also taken a strong turn against serious poetry mainly due to the politics within it. All in all,  despite the fact that I have tremendous admiration for the people on the ground running the festival - Melissa, Pat, Kay, Shane et al - the weekend didn't inspire me to attend.
Now, I've been speaking to a couple of former shortlistees about the competition and, like me, they're not enamoured about the way things have gone. One of them, in England, added the fact that the nominations were announced so late that, had she been successful, she would have had to have declined, as Ryanair flights would have been too expensive.
But the main reason that all three of us felt disheartened by this year's "inaugural" comic verse competition was that none of us got through. Is that arrogant? Well, possibly. But, and I mean absolutely no disrespect to the winner, none of us failed to see anything remotely comic in the winning entry. You can read it here and then tell me it had you rolling around in the aisles.
I, like the others, hark back to Declan O'Brien and The Corinthians Letter to St Pauls; Josh Ekroy and his Vicrossloo (a non-rhyming poem); Sean Lyons and his trips to Fungerola and Shopping for Trousers; Martin Parker's subtle wit; John McDonagh's superbly crafted poems; Ian McDonald's ribald humour, Dee Gaynor's wry take on life, Margaret Hickey's subtle, yet perfectly metred observations (well done Margaret for making the shortlist by the way). The list goes on and on. Memorable poems. All crafted their works to maximise the humour but still retain the poetical authenticity. Sadly, I don't get this from 'Ideal.'
Of course, its not Samantha's fault. The judge picked it. But the disappointment for me is that there are so very few outlets for humorous verse in the world today. Nobody wants it; there are precious few competitions for it. Yet it is an art form that takes every bit as much skill to perfect as serious poetry. And Strokestown was the one competition every year we looked forward to because it seemed to appreciate the art form. Okay, it never printed up the winning poems (one step in the right direction for this year's organisers) but at least you knew the winning poem would have to be something special - both comic and well-crafted a la Percy French - to beat off the competition.
Now, sadly, there seems little point in entering again.


  1. I hesitate to comment, as I got the third prize. But, as a comic from 40 years ago and way back when, I can't say I understand the winning entry. Maybe I'm getting old!! There were some very funny poets there who were not placed at all. A lovely gathering of people altogether! And the prize was almost enough to pay for the hotel which in the end I did not use.

  2. Hi Mike, Yes, you're in a difficult position, of course. I thought your mole poem was very clever and deserved to be there and well done on your third prize. I know I'm running the risk of being accused of sour grapes here but the winning poem?? And the annoying thing is, it really is a great festival. I enter for the serious prize each year too and have never got close, but I can accept that no problem because I can accept there are others better at the art than I am. I'm not saying my entries should have been there but I know several very funny poets who entered and I'm pretty sure any of theirs would have been classed as funnier than 'Ideal'. Must stop ranting...

  3. Unlike Mike I did not win a prize on Friday - Mike deserved first place for his performance alone, which was outstanding. Expert delivery and timing. I feel lucky that Cardiff University agreed to pay for my expenses going over to Strokestown, as it is 400 miles away and cost quite a fair whack of money.... I would be screwed by now if they hadn't. Do you have an email address, Peter? I'll let you know my experience if you're interested.

  4. Hi Peter, you're bringing my house down with your wit! You must have posted the wrong poem in that link embedded in your wonderful commentary.
    Anne Marie Kennedy

  5. Hi Joao, Yes, without seeing the pieces performed, I had picked out Mike's possibly as the winner, though one wasn't printed on the website. I thought your Oedipus was a startlingly good poem, maintaining the impeccable rhythm and rhyme throughout. Just wondering possibly, if you could have cut it a bit? I feel audiences tend to wander if the poem is over-long. I'd love to hear about the evening! gouldingpeter@gmail.com

  6. Anne Marie,
    Baffle is yer only man!
    I'm not comfortable with putting on a poor mouth and I've never once complained about results before, and I'm sure Samantha's a lovely girl but I'm totally baffled!
    Hope ye're all well down there

  7. Peter, I am honoured indeed to get a mention in a ‘rant’ like yours! My feelings about the Festival are somewhat similar and, like you, I would first shower praise on what the hard working committee has done over the years. As one who has been part of the BAFFLE committee for nearly 10 years I can empathise with the dilemma they may have had, knowing that change is always necessary but ‘if its not broke why fix it’. You must experiment to find the right formula. However I agree with you Peter, that the present formula would not encourage me to take part again. (I had no entry this year as I had expected to be away on holidays). I thoroughly enjoyed my nights at the Percy French competition over the past few years despite knowing we were very much the fringe end of the festival. It would seem though that we comic writers have been further marginalised with this new format.
    The poem ‘Ideal’ was most likely a great poem, I am really not qualified to make a judgement, but maybe it should have been entered in the main competition. My sincere congratulations to Samantha on her win though. It is always good to see younger talent to the fore in the arts world.
    Venues are few and far between now where ‘belly laugh’ poetry can be performed. And I don’t demean the genre by emphasising the LOL bit. Comic poetry can be witty by also being clever, insightful, ironic, dark, romantic, realistic, informative and even course. The fact is it can be anything that ‘serious’ poetry can be. I don’t expect we will ever have equal standing but narrowing the gap rather than widening it would be a move in the right direction.
    I hope exception is not taken to my critique, which is meant to be nothing if not constructive.
    Ian McDonald

  8. Hi Peter,
    Well first of all I think we need to remember one thing when entering a poetry competition - there actually is no such thing as a 'best' poem. I don't enter competitions because it reminds me of doing English for the Leaving Cert. It is all a bit far removed from the point, it's more about jumping through hoops combined with a bit of cronyism and nepotism.
    To me, the winning piece is clever. CLEVER, but not humorous. It's a square posing as a circle.
    Personally, my style is more slam poetry and tongue in cheek. However, using humor is critical to my work, because I deal with serious and political themes through humor. My piece ' Going to Hell', (on youtube somewhere if you search my name) leaves people in stitches, but it deals with the pain of being gay in 1970's Ireland. I decided at some stage in my life to use humor as I feel that when people are already uncomfortable with an issue, making fun of it is a great way to make people comfortable and that really works.
    I decided to stop entering competitions after taking part in a Baffle Bard competition. One of the judges was a woman who had sent a number of letters to the newspapers declaring that she felt slam poetry was for 'failed comedians'. Even though I won the audience choice award, I obviously came nowhere in the competition, the organiser's husband won, and again, it was funny and all that, but personally, if my partner was running the show I'm not sure I'd enter. In most competetions that is a stipulation. I really liked all the people there, but it was just awkward I thought.
    But like you say - you can't say these things or it sounds like sour grapes. I just thought it wasn't fair, and I lost heart after that. So my point is...
    1.When people charge money for competitions the rule should be that immediate friends and family cannot enter.
    2. When you enter a competition don't expect to win it on the grounds of your poem. It goes way beyond that. Once money is involved, it is business. The rules of play are different.
    3. If you are entering to win, don't write from your heart, be a wordsmith.
    4. The lower the stakes, the larger the daggers.
    5. I have become bitter and twisted and I haven't even started the menopause yet.

  9. It didn't make me laugh.

    I do think there's a brilliant comic poem in all of this though.

  10. And here's something to restore your faith:


  11. Thanks for your email address peter, and thanks also for the feedback. you're right on the length of the poem, it is far too long at the beginning where it is highly descriptive, which takes longer for the story to get going. I will email you later on today.

  12. Ah Titus, you're right, there's plenty of humorous verse out there!
    Hi Mags, glad you managed to post (I think its something to do with Chrome or old Internet?) I agree with much of what you say. I didn't actually mind that I didn't get shortlisted (I've had plenty of experience losing, believe me! In fact, I entered the serious Strokestown Competition too and have absolutely no quibbles with the winning poem) What annoyed me was that the winning poem didn't conform to the ground rules - ie to bring the house down with your wit. Not putting words into anybody else's mouth, but if I were one of the other shortlisted entrants, I'd have thought WTF?
    I remember well your winning poem at Baffle. I know I voted for it! To me, Baffle is a bit different to Strokestown. Strokestown is an international poetry competition. Baffle is more getting the community out and writing, having a bit of craic and a lot of respect for people who might not always feel comfortable reading their work out in front of an audience. At Baffle, I love to get through the heats to the Final but seriously, after that, I just enjoy the evening.
    Hi Joao, I'd love to hear what the reaction was in the hall on the night. A lot of polite clapping and then puzzlement over drinks afterwards? Id also love to hear the judge's justification of it!

  13. Hi Peter,
    I think that ultimately, the bottom line is that judging poetry, no matter what kind of poetry it is, or what competition, will always bring along other issues. Judges start to get up their own arses, politics enters the competition, etc...
    I've been a judge myself, and it is not too far removed from my day job, where I have often had to interview job candidates. In the end, there are about 50 people who can all do the job, you could nearly pull a name from a hat.
    I wonder why that poem got picked? I think the judge probably lost track of what it was all about.
    Well the Baffle competition is good craic, that's true, but it's very cliquish, and just as you are making the point that a competition needs to stick to it's ground rules, I also think the same, and one of those rules is that you can't ask people to pay money to part of your gig and then have your spouse as the winner. No matter how brilliant they are, it just doesn't sit right.
    I wonder what made that lady enter the poem into the humorous section? She was probably just being funny...

  14. So it's been a year and the 2014 Strokestown Poetry Festival is now accepting submissions. Do you think you'll submit and/or attend this year?

  15. Hi Tristan, Yes, I've been thinking about this one recently. The problem is that there are so few competitions for humorous verse that it seems to be silly not to submit, so I probably will, though not with much hope of success. I have huge respect for the people who run the festival down there and I see they made a loss last year and I wouldn't want to see them go under. On balance, I think I'll give them the benefit of the doubt! What are your thoughts?

  16. I agree that major light verse competitions and awards seem to be few and far between. There's this one, and the Michael Braude award—any others? There used to be one issued by the Espy Foundation, but that's since been dissolved.

    I also don't understand the rationale behind last year's winning entry, but surely the timing of the ceremony itself is something which the organizers would be open to feedback about. After all, it's in their interest to keep people submitting and attending each year.