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Winning Ways to Make the Shortlist: an Interview with Saradha Soobrayen

With the change in seasons comes the next wave of competitions, prizes, awards and schemes for poets in the UK. Already thinking about your submissions? Poet, mentor and facilitator Saradha Soobrayen is on hand to help, with her course Winning Ways to Make the Shortlist providing 30 editing tools and writing strategies to help you get your poems in the best order. We caught up with Saradha to talk submission nerves, coaching techniques and stand-out poems… 

What were your experiences submitting to the Eric Gregory Awards, and how did winning in 2004 change you as a writer?

Saradha: I’m not particularly lucky nor do I possess any tangible knowledge on what constitutes a winning formula, and yet I did feel I was on a mission. It was the first and only time I was able to submit for an award, as I was reaching 30 and had only started Poetry School courses in 2000. For the Eric Gregory submission I had only 20 reasonable poems. So I decided to write a sonnet sequence as a way of making the judges an offer they couldn’t refuse. As I had delivered the submission to the Society of Authors offices in Kensington I felt I’d already won. I also felt a bit sick as I knew I’d gain a lot but also lose a sense of innocence with my process. You can check out more pros and cons of winning in the autumn edition of Poetry News, where I interview past and present winners, the multi-dynamic Sasha Dugdale and the very talented Miriam Nash.

What poetry projects are you currently working on?

Saradha: I’m working on an essay and two new poems which will be published in issue 14 of Long Poem Magazine due out in November 2015. This new work is part of a poetic inquiry in to the depopulation of Chagos Archipelago. Between 1971 and 1973 Great Britain and the United States exiled the entire population of the Chagos Islands. The islanders were forcibly removed, misled, and left to live in squalid conditions in Mauritius and the Seychelles, in order to make room for a joint US defence base. At this time not only were the Chagossian people the original and rightful inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago, there were also citizens of the UK and the colonies.

Part of the purpose of the work is to bring to light this ongoing shameful episode in British History and so I’m speaking to diplomats and politicians, the UK Chagos Support Group and Chagos Refugee Group, and the Chagossian community who are based in Crawley, Manchester, Mauritius and Seychelles.

You work as a mentor and coach for emerging poets; what’s the difference between coaching and mentoring, how do you encourage reluctant or stuck writers?

Saradha: Coaching supports the writer’s own development and Mentoring supports the development of the work. So I tend to work closely with each person and develop a unique package that suits their needs and the demands of the creative work. In October I’m launching the writing sofa a place where people can have free chats with me about their work or apply for formal tutorials, mentoring and coaching. As an accredited coach and a trained action learning facilitator I will be offering additional support to poets that work as facilitators. As finding the right work-life-creative balance is tricky.

With stuck writers they might be simply composting rather than producing new work so I like to be flexible and go off the page. Recently with Slade Art School students – who don’t like writing essays usually because they are thinking visually and don’t always know how to use words – I borrowed Keat’s ‘negativity capability’. It seemed to open their minds a little to stay within the mysteries and delights of the blank page the “mysteries and doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” That’s where the real stuff happens!

What’s your experience of entering poetry competitions?

Saradha: This is the first year I have submitted to poetry competitions. There is something quite social about competition entries: I picture them mingling at a party with other kinds of poetries. The long listed poems know how to make an entrance while the shortlist are highly skilled in presentation and making small talk with the judges. The winning poem makes a lasting impression by engaging the judge’s ear and eye while confirming their preoccupations and challenging their perceptions of poetry. Reading the work of the judges seems an obvious and perhaps ineffective strategy but a great way to widen your own reading as well as gauge how well your poems might be received.

BREAKING NEWS: The Long Poem Magazine editors have agreed to publish my winning poem ‘Their homecoming is not yet out of reach, not yet out of sight’ which won first prize in the Pacuare Poetry Competition 2015: one week board and lodging as the Poet Laureate of the Pacuare nature reserve in Costa Rica.

What piece of advice can you give for somebody waiting to hear back about a submission?

Saradha: Don’t stop writing or thinking about writing! Try and see the submission as part of a process: a kind of clearing of the desk in order to make room for something new. Also, allow yourself to do nothing. Doing nothing can be an active way of allowing space for the new or the forgotten things that need reclaiming, that need more attention once you have the time and space to return to the quiet privacy of the page.

What do you think are the key things that can encourage writers to develop their poetic skills?

Saradha: Read and read and read. Writing poetry is a form of close reading. Go to the Poetry Library and just browse and see what other poetries there are, challenge yourself by reading something different or uncomfortable, be curious, be authentic, and be patient with the writing of any new kind of poem. Wait and see what happens. We often finish a poem to early and fail to see the real potential just waiting below our expectations. Let it speak back to you, rather than you trying to put all your ideas and images into the poem.

What do you hope students take away from Winning Ways to make the Shortlist?

Saradha: My hope is that participants will gain a fresh perspective and find a way forward that inspires greater confidence and a critical understanding of their own poetic process. I hope they will begin to develop an emotional resilience, and catch a glimpse of their own unique place in contemporary poetry beyond the prizes and awards. I hope they find a sense of belonging within the poems as they start to produce a body of work. For me, being in the creative process is part of the joy and difficulty of writing poems and with the right support anyone can tap into and release their hidden potential, and I have been blessed to have worked with International writers through the Poetry school courses: Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Dorothy Porter, Eric Ormsby, Mimi Khalvati and currently a guiding influence for me is the Vancover based writer Betsy Warland everyone should read her excellent essay ‘Sustaining yourself as a Writer which is available to download for free. I have dedicated the final session of the Winning ways to make the short list to looking at next steps and sustaining your creative practice in the face of life’s challenges.

To learn how to entice your reader and identify your signature poem, you can book Saradha’s course online here or by calling the Poetry School on 0207 582 1679. SPECIAL OFFER: don’t forget, if you’re under 30 you can get this course at a special half price rate – call us to find out more. 


Born in London of Mauritian descent, British poet and editor Saradha Soobrayen writes lyrical, compressed poems that explore themes of power, transformation, and intimacy. Several anthologies have featured Soobrayen’s poems, including Oxford Poets Anthology 2007 and The Forward Book of Poetry 2008. Named by The Guardian as one of “Twelve to Watch,” Soobrayen won an Eric Gregory Award for her poetry. She served as poetry editor for Chroma: A Queer Literary Journal, as reviews editor forModern Poetry in Translation, and on the advisory board of the literary journalConclave. She lives in London.

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