The Story So Far: Evaluative Highlights, Impacts, and Evidence of Need
The Women Poets’ Prize
Facilitated by the Rebecca Swift Foundation in support of the Foundation’s mission to nurture the craft, creativity and wellbeing of women poets in the UK, the Women Poets’ Prize is awarded biennially to three women poets at any career level. Receiving a monetary award of £1,000, each winning poet additionally gains access to a wide-ranging programme of mentorship and development supported by the Prize’s seven Partners: Poetry School, Faber & Faber, The Literary Consultancy, Verve Festival, Bath Spa University, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and City Lit. Resilience coaching is also made available to the winners, with the aim of building a holistic body of support spanning from poetry craft to personal wellbeing.
The Women Poets’ Prize is free to enter, and a submission currently consists of three poems and two short statements. Following the closing of the submissions window, all applications are seen by each member of a three-poet reader panel before a longlist is compiled for forwarding to three head judges. The judges meet to select a nine-poet shortlist and the Prize winners. At all stages of the Women Poets’ Prize submissions are read by women who are also themselves poets. Additionally, submissions are considered blindly throughout so as to maintain, as far as possible, the anonymity of applicants and to eliminate biased selection.
The inaugural Women Poets’ Prize opened for applicants in 2018, receiving 573 applications in total before three winners, Claire Collison, Anita Pati and Nina Mingya Powles were selected by judges Fiona Sampson, Moniza Alvi and Sarah Howe. In the time since their selection as winners, Collison, Pati and Powles have continued to accrue many successes in their poetry careers, including winning and being shortlisted for the Rialto Open Pamphlet Competition in 2019, receiving a nomination for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2020, and the receipt of a grant award from the Society of Authors for the completion of a poetry collection.
In 2020, the second cycle of the Women Poets’ Prize was launched – with submission numbers increasing by a third to 734 applications. Alisha Dietzman, Natalie Linh Bolderston and Warda Yassin are this year’s winners, selected by judges Malika Booker, Liz Berry and Pascale Petit. With a new addition to the Prize structure, 2020 is the first Prize year wherein all longlisted poets also receive an award, with all thirty listed poets gifted a year’s free access to The Literary Consultancy’s Being A Writer, a creative developmentplatform specially designed for writers to engage with flexibly and at their own pace.
The three winners of the Women Poets’ Prize 2020 were announced at a sold-out online ceremony, supported by Prize partner Poetry School, on November 17th 2020.
Evaluation of the Women Poets’ Prize
Over the course of 2020, several measures have been taken to ascertain the impact of the Women Poets’ Prize to-date, its position within the literature landscape, and the needs that it addresses in addition to recommendations for improvement. These actions have taken place in the three following ways:
- An Evaluation Report for Prize years 2018-2020, externally compiled by literature organiser and consultant Dr Nathalie Teitler FRSA, using data from the inaugural 2018 Prize cycle. Produced in tandem with this is a brief Executive Summary outlining the key findings and impacts of the Report.
- An eight-question Applicant Feedback Survey successfully completed by 240 of the 734 total applicants who applied for the Women Poets’ Prize 2020, via SurveyMonkey. This survey also provided space for applicants to offer any further comments about their experience of the Prize.
- A Diversity Report detailing the findings of the optional Equal Opportunities Monitoring Form made available to all applicants at the point of submitting to the 2020 Prize. These findings are compiled from 496 usable responses.
The prevailing indication, drawn collectively from the results of three evaluative actions outlined above, is that the Women Poets’ Prize meets a number of areas of demand, many of which appear to have been long underserved prior the creation of the Prize.
Representation: Who applies for the Women Poets’ Prize?
- 44% of applicants are from under-represented or non-white backgrounds.
- A third of applicants have a caring responsibility, most commonly for children under the age of 18 or primary or secondary care for the disabled, elderly or other.
- More than half of applicants are over 35.
- Over a third of applicants identify as LGBTQ+
- Over a third of applicants identify as having a disability.
Applicant Experiences: How do applicants feel about the Women Poets’ Prize?
78% of respondees have never applied for the Women Poets’ Prize before, reflecting the rise in applications from the 2018 Prize and also indicating that the reach and profile of the Prize continues to grow.
89% of respondees would apply for the Women Poets’ Prize again. Despite an awareness of the high number of applications – 734 eligible applications in 2020; 573 in 2018 – and a low numerical probability of winning, this result suggests that applicants view the Women Poets’ Prize as holding promise for them. This figure also suggests high confidence in the fairness of the Prize, and a sense that there is nothing to lose by applying (since entry is free) and much to gain.
For one quarter (24.2%) of respondees, this was their first time applying to any literary prize. This figure suggests that the Women Poets’ Prize inspires confidence in a significant number of applicants. These applicants feel able to submit their poems to the Prize when they have never done so for any prize before and – if the preceding statistic is drawn upon – may well do so again in the future. Given that submitting poetry to competitions might be seen as an integral part of a poet’s work, it is notable that the Women Poets’ Prize has catalysed some poets to enter into this practice of sharing their writing.
69% of respondees had never applied for a literary initiative solely tailored for women. This could suggest both an absence of initiatives for women poets and a demand for them. Unlike the well-established Women’s Prize for Fiction, founded in 1996, there was no equivalent prize for women poets in the UK prior to the 2018 founding of the Women Poets’ Prize.
93% of respondees felt that the Women Poets’ Prize was either ‘Important’or ‘Very Important’ in the context of other literary competitions in the UK.
Positive comments and feedback from applicants include:
‘I really like the combination of poetry mentoring and support for wellbeing. A really wonderful initiative, thank you.’
‘It is a very important prize for Women who write poetry to be recognised.’
‘It was heartening to hear of this prize, which I hadn’t been aware of before. The process to enter was reassuringly easy and fuss free which helped and totally free which was incredible.’
A Summary: The need for the Women Poets’ Prize
As stated in the Evaluation Report, compiled by Nathalie Teitler, the Women Poets’ Prize meets a longstanding demand for provisions specifically designated for women poets:
The reasons why they are writing, how they write and what they write about are often fundamentally different to their male counterparts. This explains why there is a significant demand for the kinds of women-centered programmes and courses which have yet to be programmed.
In addition, however, are the many other facets of the community of poets represented by the Women Poets’ Prize applicant pool. In other words, while the Women Poets’ Prize sets out to support poetry written by women in the UK, a closer look at the experiences and backgrounds of its applicants suggests that it not only serves to address the needs of women but that it also greatly attracts submissions from women of significantly diverse backgrounds, ages, sexualities, career-levels and abilities. This is a fundamentally key finding, illustrating that in its two years of running the Prize has already illustrated an impact that is far more complex, accessible and wide-reaching than its name suggests.
With the securing of sufficient ongoing funding, the Women Poets’ Prize will be able to expand its resources and capacity to better serve the clear and urgent needs of the community of poets who trust it with their work. Currently relying on individual donations alone, it is able to employ one freelance project manager, and relies on the generosity of its partners and pro bono support. Being able to recruit staff and develop the infrastructure of the Foundation will be critical. This will also allow the Foundation to transform the feedback received into tangible and concrete improvements to the Prize, which may include developing a network for alumni through workshops and masterclasses, tracking the applicant pool with proper data analysis in place in order to better articulate the needs of women poets to the wider sector, and developing a more responsive reading policy in order to better read and meet the needs of particular applicant groups, especially older women poets, newer women poets with fewer publication credentials, and disabled women poets who make up a third of the current application pool and whose access needs will need to be met as a priority.
The future of the Women Poets’ Prize is not simply about continuing to offer encouragement and support to women poets, but evidently to poets from walks of life whose experiences are otherwise rarely attended to with as much care.
With the right support to do so, the Women Poets’ Prize is uniquely placed to deliver its work within a framework that prioritises excellence (of poetry, community liaison, and competition delivery) and self-evaluation, all the while with real potential to set an ‘industry standard’ for poetry competitions across the UK as a whole.