top of page

Leaving Home: What makes an award-winning poem?

The entries for 2019's Hammond House Poetry Competition explored LEAVING in many intriguing ways – but it was the work of London-based poet and journalist William Hatchett that caught the judges' imaginations with his fascinating take on the theme.

Hammond House founder and writer Ted Stanley chatted to William to find out more about his award-winning poem.

What was the inspiration for your winning poem in 2019 ‘Leaving Home’? The inspiration came from entering innumerable poetry competitions and submitting poems to magazines and very rarely receiving a response, or, in some cases, even an acknowledgement. I looked at this experience from the point of view of the poems – how would they feel about being rejected? I used the analogy of going to a party at which one does not feel welcome or comfortable – something I’m sure that we have all experienced. What is your writing process? It’s different for different forms of writing. For prose I just sit down at a desk with a laptop and grit my teeth and do it (or try to). Poetry is floating on the breeze outside the window and you have to try to catch it. Even inspiration is wayward. If you ever wake up in the middle of the night with some words in your head, you must write them down. You probably won’t remember them in the morning. They might be rubbish. Or they might not be. A lot is happening inside your head that you are unaware of.

Having said that, I quite often force a poem to happen through the physical process of writing. I think that routines and self-imposed deadlines are good – which is why creative writing groups work. I used to write poems on my 45-minute bus journey to work, every morning. It was a time when I knew that I would be undisturbed and could daydream, eavesdrop on conversations and look out of the window. It was a self-induced trance. Perfect.

It’s another cliché, but it’s really important to have a poetry notebook. For years, I scribbled on napkins and random bits of paper and stuffed them into my pockets, which was extremely inconvenient. Then I had an apotheosis. Use pages which are bound together! The notebook doesn’t have to be leather-bound or anything fancy. My personal rule is to use the most commonplace and available kind of stationery, which I buy from WH Smiths (or used to!). It’s good to set some predictable parameters – part of the process of going into a trance, or being ready for one. Travelling is good because it breaks normal routines. What is good poetry? I don’t think there is an easy answer to this question. After all, every person will have a different idea (which is equally valid) of what good is. One definition would be a set of words which enable the reader or listener to see or imagine something or to experience an emotion in a new way – like picking up a familiar object and looking at it from a different angle. What will you be looking for as a judge? Originality. The form or words of a poem may actually be unpolished. The poetry is the light that shines through them. Do you have any literary pet hates? Life is too short to hate anything (with a few exceptions). But I do dislike, in literature, or poetry, the simpering Wordsworthian idea that nature ennobles people and makes them, and by extension, us ‘good’. Nature is vicious and, in my experience, the people who live in it tend to be more ignorant and intolerant than the people who live in towns, where people from different cultures have to rub along together. I think that this romantic myth has bedevilled not only poetry but English culture generally for more than 200 years. What are the most important elements in a poem? How long is a piece of string? Sorry to be flippant. But, again, I don’t think that there is an obvious answer to this. Every poem is different. What advice would you give to anyone entering the poetry category? You don’t need a special writing chair, you don’t need a golden pen, or moonlight, or a moleskin notebook. You simply need to have something to say. Some poems ‘just happen’. But generally they don’t. You need to create the conditions for inspiration. Entering a competition comes under that heading. Never be discouraged. I love what Samuel Beckett said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” What are the characteristics of different verse forms? How can they be used? Do you have favourites? Blimey, this is like a school essay question! Personally, I am a fan of the heroic couplet of the eighteenth century, as used by Alexander Pope, John Dryden and the Earl of Rochester. It’s a robust form, like rap, which can be political, visceral, satirical, scatological. Poetry can be outward rather than inward facing (the myth of the tortured genius is another pernicious offshoot of romanticism). I am really fond of sonnets, simply because the form invites a question to be asked and turned around and an attempt made to answer it. I like the concision that the form imposes.

You can read the brilliant Leaving Home in Leaving, an anthology of award-winning poetry from the 2019 International Writing Competition.

You can find out more about our 2020 writing competition here.

bottom of page