Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Poetry Contest Judging and the Lessons Learned

One of the other things I did this Spring:  I judged a poetry contest that a local writing group far from S. Florida holds every year.

I felt a bit nervous about it--after all, I'm nobody famous.  But here's the beautiful thing about not being famous:  I fit within the budget.  If I was famous, I wouldn't be asked because my fees would be so high.

I didn't feel nervous about my ability to judge.  I've been teaching over 20 years; I'm quite skilled at judging writing.  I was to choose a first, second, and third place, and up to 3 honorable mentions.

I thought that the process would be more like getting a batch of essays.  I expected that I would get one or two spectacularly good entries, one or two spectacularly bad entries, and the rest, in the middle.  It was not like that at all. 

I was surprised by the variety of poems, and within that variety, the relative lack of poems written in form and/or meter.  The subject matter also varied.  I was impressed with the ways that poets handled difficult subject matter.

What separated the winners from everyone else?  Every poem had something to recommend it--let me begin by saying that.  I know, because I went back and wrote a positive comment on each poem, once I learned that some of them would be going back to entrants who sent self-addressed, stamped envelopes.  I thought that the least I could do was to give them some encouragement.

My spouse said, "Aren't you worried that they'll figure out your address and write to argue with you?"

I said, "No.  I doubt anyone will write to tell me that I was wrong about what I liked about their poem."

What I want in a poem may not be what other people want.  I want a poem that leaves me seeing the world differently.  I want a poem that makes me say, "Cool.  I never thought about it that way."  I want a poem that will leave me unable to see it any other way, whatever it may be.

Some poems had interesting images, but I wasn't exactly sure what they meant or how they went together.  Some poems started with an interesting idea that fell apart somewhere along the way.  Some poems made comparisons or created symbols that I couldn't quite make work or that felt flawed in some way.  Some poems didn't seem to come to an end--they read as if the poet just got tired and stopped.  Some poems took awhile to warm up.  Some poems could have used a careful pruning.  Some poems could have used some development.

On second thought, maybe judging a poetry contest is more like grading Composition essays than I first thought.

The poems that ultimately made it to the final round were the ones that took risks and pulled them off.  The poems that ultimately made it to the final round were the ones that were unified in their effects or in their figurative language or in their themes: all those things you likely learned in middle school or high school hold true here.

Of course, I should offer one caveat.  I'm one woman with my own reading tastes, tastes formed through years of completing graduate work in British literature, through years of reading (both primary and secondary sources), through years of teaching, through years of conversation/argument with other writers and artists.  Someone else might have come away with a completely different set of winners.  That's the risk you take when you enter a contest.

Happily, I was the lone judge.  I would have hesitated if the deal had included being part of a panel of judges--but ultimately, I probably would have said yes, because it would have been a new experience, and I'd have been interested in it.

One of the happiest effects of judging this poetry contest was that I came away hopeful for the future of literature and the arts in our country.  There are all sorts of people out there writing poems that are every bit as good as the professionals who are writing poetry (and as good as some of the masters of the form from centuries past).  The world is not ending because of the Internet (or television or fractured attention spans or global warming or whatever else you want to blame)--at least not right now.  There are people out there who believe in their work so much that they will enter a contest--and in fact, they are right to believe in their work.  It's quality work.

Poets may not make the kind of noisy splashes that the Oprahs of the world make, that sports heroes make, that politicians make.  But we are there, working steadily, polishing our poems, brightening the days for our readers.

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