Nurturing poets and poetry: 21 years of the Ledbury Poetry Festival Poetry Competition

Started in 1997 by a group of enthusiasts, Ledbury Poetry Festival is today recognised as one of the nation’s pre-eminent and most substantial poetry-only festival platforms. Even way back in 2000, Carol Ann Duffy was calling Ledbury “one of the most exciting and important literary festivals in England”, and one which “exclusively features real writers”.  

One of the ways to foster and encourage those “real writers” is to hold a poetry competition, which the festival has done since its inception. In 2017 the Ledbury Poetry Festival and Poetry Competition celebrate 21 years; those 21 years reveal a competition that has been instrumental in many a nascent poet’s career. This year’s T S Eliot Award winner, Jacob Polley, started his journey with a 2001 win at Ledbury. He then went on to publish his first collection in 2004. Polley says that “winning the Ledbury Poetry Competition in 2001 gave me a huge boost. I'd never won anything, and the confidence the win gave me pushed me forward, towards more poems, my first book and beyond.”

It was a similar story with Maitreyabandhu, who won in 2010, and whose first collection Crumb Road was published in 2013. Many other poets’ careers have been launched, including Jonathan Edwards, whose win in 2014 was rapidly followed by the Costa Poetry Award. “Having a poem acknowledged as part of the Ledbury Competition was a wonderful experience” says Edwards, “the competition has opened up a number of opportunities, as the festival has generously involved me in its projects and commissions since then, and that first phone call with the news will always be one of my joyous and holy poetry moments.”  

As Edwards notes, one of the benefits of having a competition in association with a festival is that there can be a lasting relationship with entrants and winners, providing a legacy of professional development. Many winners re-appear to hold readings of first and subsequent collections, hold workshops and residencies. Polley has been back to the festival many times, re-appearing as the festival’s poet in residence in 2016, and treating Ledbury audiences to a reading from Jackself (the collection for which he received his T S Eliot Award) before its publication. 2007 winner, Jacqueline Saphra returns to the festival whenever she can and states: “I really feel as if Ledbury has become my unofficial poetry home.”

This is as true of the adult winners as of the children and young people:  young poet Flora de Falbe (2012) re-visited as young poet in residence in 2016, and lead an enchanting workshop on retelling fairytales, a subject she wanted to explore. Mollie Davidson (2013) came back as a festival intern to immerse herself in all things poetical.

A poetry competition is a challenge, a call to arms for poets and a reason to write new work. As Ian McMillan, poet and judge of the 2015 competition says: “The Ledbury Poetry Festival Poetry Competition is vitally important to the health of new writing in many ways: it forces people to write new poems, and to send them out into the world. It reminds us, in these tumultuous times, of the importance of heightened language in helping us to think, and it places brand-new writing at the heart of a literary festival.”

The 2017 competition has a first prize of £1,000 cash plus a week’s residential course at Tŷ Newydd the National Writers Centre for Wales. This year’s competition is judged by Fiona Sampson MBE who encourages entries as a way of participating in the festival “whether or not you can get along to any of the events. Poetry is a great way to communicate with people you've never met,” she says. “I look forward to discovering many new poets I've never come across before.”

The Ledbury Poetry Festival Poetry Competition is just one element of the festival’s integrated, well thought out programme for new and emerging writers which is acknowledged by poets and publishers alike as leading the sector. In addition to entering the competition, poets can learn “How to Publish Your Poetry”, and attend workshops to improve their voice projection, and clarity of performance in order that they gain more readings and subsequently sell more collections. The festival also holds “20 minute” events, where an emerging writer reads in an informal yet intimate setting, developing their skills in a supportive atmosphere. Being free to attend, these events encourage audiences to hear a poet they might not have heard of, and has resulted in many a delighted discovery. “In my opinion, these are the most diverse, surprising and inspiring events of the festival.” said one festival-goer.

In the words of Carol Ann Duffy, writing in the preface to “A Book of Ours. Poetry from the Ledbury Poetry Festival 1997 – 2000”, and as competition judge:

“Poetry needs good teachers. It needs young writers who will grow up at ease with contemporary poetry. Poetry needs readers and audiences of integrity. It needs poetry competitions. Poetry needs festivals where all these things can come together and be celebrated.”

Ledbury provides this in spades. Festival director Chloe Garner says: “The town has a distinctly special poetic eccentricity and colour. Poetry is embraced here, poetry matters, people care, the town is engaged with this joyous celebration of words, poems and poets.” Poet John Burnside calls Ledbury a “paradise garden” with “marvellous, appreciative and informed audiences”.  For many poets their first entry into this magical world, and the global poetry family, is through the doorway provided by the festival’s poetry competition.

Phillippa Slinger is manager of the Ledbury Poetry Festival.

Ledbury Poetry Festival Poetry Competition is now open to all entries of original, previously unpublished work across categories for adults, young people and children. The closing date is Thursday 13th July. For more details visit the website or follow the Twitter account @ledburyfest.