Guest Blog: Confessions of a Poetry Competition Judge by John McCullough

If you’re in the business of sending off your poems to competitions and magazines, these helpful and witty comments by poet, tutor, and competition judge John McCullough could be just for you! They’ve given me a lot of food for thought. Thank you, John, for the post.


1) I read each entry at least twice, on different days. This means there are two or more John McCulloughs looking at everything instead of one. They don’t always agree. Sometimes the final winning poem is entirely overlooked by John #1, who can be a bit of an eejit.

2) As a result, if I had a TARDIS and could somehow be presented with identical sets of poems today but also five years ago and five years hence, it’s likely the placings decided on by each of the Johns would be a little different. There is no ‘best’ poem and life is not fair.

3) Nobody likes those fonts that look like squiggly handwriting.

4) The usual themes show up relentlessly―family, childhood, break ups, thoughts on the nature of life. Poems launched from less expected angles often arrive to me as a relief. Like most readers, I crave surprise.

5) A weak final line, one that lapses into worn imagery or phrasing, can kill stone-dead an otherwise brilliant poem.

6) The same poet very often submits one dazzler and one dud.

7) Stunning imagery and phrasing can make me re-read a poem but craft that’s more subtle and quiet will always beat this in a battle, hands down. If the images don’t pull together as a team then the underlying structure’s unsound and the poem satisfies less each time it’s read again.

8) When I encounter a poem that takes outrageous risks and pulls them off it’s an absolute joy.

9) I almost always wish I could award far more than the allotted number of commendations. So many poems have little things about them I love and I want the poet to know they brought me a slice of happiness. Sometimes I try telepathy. Let me know if this has ever worked.

10) Seriously, don’t use those fonts that look like squiggly handwriting. Not even for a shopping list. Not even for a memo to yourself. Someone, somewhere in a parallel universe will take offence.


John McCullough’s first collection of poems, The Frost Fairs, won the Polari First Book Prize and was a Book of the Year for The Independent as well as a summer read in The Observer. He has published two collections with Penned in the Margins, Spacecraft (2016), named one of The Guardian’s Best Books for Summer and shortlisted for the Ledbury Forte Poetry Prize, and, in 2019, Reckless Paper Birds.   He teaches creative writing at the Open University and the University of Brighton.

5 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Confessions of a Poetry Competition Judge by John McCullough”

  1. Thank you, JOHN MCCULLOUGH. Your advice is timely for me. I feel honoured to have read your thoughts and passed you by as a ship in the intellectual sea.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you, John, for the post and to Josephine for hosting. I love the line, ‘poems launched from less expected angles often arrive to me as a relief’. Guilty as charged for covering many of the ‘usual themes’, but I shall try and think outside my little ‘poetry box’ from now on. And what IS it with that squiggly handwriting font? I loathe it but my children inflict it on me at every opportunity!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Sarah, Yes, I am most definitely extremely guilty of writing about the ‘usual themes’ and I think John’s post will encourage me to be more daring. I think all children – but nobody else! – should be allowed to experiment with squiggly fonts 🙂 Thanks for your comment ❤


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