February 19, 2012

Judging a Poetry Contest

On this dark winter night, I look out upon the sheet of ice in front of the house. Boot prints pressed into the melting and soft snow earlier in the day are now frozen. I have memories of old ice rinks, fenced with boards, memories of carved lines in the ice, compressed and polished. I remember the empty rinks gleaming in the pools of light around the lamps, and beyond, midnight ink.

It's a privilege to read poems and select winners. As a judge of a recent poetry contest, I want to write about the process of winnowing. I know some of the poems in the stack are from new poets and some are from poets with strong skills and confidence. After reading all the entries carefully, I began separating the entries into two piles: "possible yes" and "definite no."

The table looks like voting day at the township meeting hall. Papers and papers. I take some away to look at, stand by the window, look outside. I lay them down on the table again like a game of solitaire. What poems will I elect?

The poem should be presented in a professional manner, free of spelling errors. Large or ornate fonts are distracting.  Some have too many archaic or "poetic" words, some are goofy.  Humor is definitely okay, but I want the poet to give some serious attention to language. I read more than once, because I don't want to miss a gem.  

I look for poetry that has patterns in sound. Some poets use rhyme (internal or at the end of lines) and others use assonance and consonance (a pattern of vowel and consonant sounds).  Some poets count meter and create a pattern of stresses (like iambic pentameter or trochaic rhythm, etc).  Some poets work with visual patterns on the page or create a circular form or the like. I'm not just looking for formal poems, sonnets or sestinas or villanelles. I'm looking for poems whose form might follow their content. Compression of language is also pleasing. The best way to discover and savor these patterns is to read poems aloud. 

I look for poetry that uses concrete details and figurative language (like metaphor). The best poems engage the five senses.  The best poems have a strong sense of place. I like those with concise and precise language. 

Things that went into the "definite no" pile were poems that were overly sentimental and lacked strong images.  Sometimes poets sacrifice meaning for rhythm.  A sing-song rhythm can overwhelm and trivialize the topic.  Sometimes the language was too loose and prose-y.  Extra words. Passive verbs.  Jumbles of things at cross purposes. Tired language. A poem is less strong if the writer tells the emotion instead of using a concrete detail to create the emotion.

Show, don't tell. This was a maxim when I was learning to write, and it is still good advice. For example, in a poem I will read a line that goes something like this: "they were bored/ lonely...."
or "...she was happy."   This kind of line does not make use of good writing skills. Instead, it would be better to show the feeling with concrete details like in this example by David Allen Evans in "Neighbors":

Today they are
washing windows
(each window together)
she on the inside,
he on the outside.
He squirts Windex
at her face,
she squirts Windex
at his face.
Now they are waving
to each other
with rags,
not smiling.

Sometimes writers need to get out of the way of the poem. A poem often gets started on a
good thing, and the writer thinks too much, and starts interfering. Not once does David Allen Evans neglect the picture. He uses concrete details so the reader can see the scene. The emotion is evoked. The reader is not told how to feel.
Note: this was not a poem that I reviewed in the contest.

Other "definite no" poems were the ones that had abrupt or jarring shifts in language or their metaphor. Sometimes poets keep jumping to another metaphor. That doesn't work. It's best if the poet can get all the elements working toward their best effect: the images, sounds, details, and form to all become parts of an exquisite whole. 

It's a good idea for the poet to take some time to identify who is speaking in the poem, and to whom. If affects the tone. Poems can be personal, even intimate. Or poems can be addressed to a multitude. Consistency is good. 

After the first sorting of poems, I picked up the "possible yes" poems and examined each one a lot closer. There were a fair amount of "almost" poems. Finally, I found the top ten percent.

These are all good poems, unfortunately, I can't give that many awards. I've been asked to choose first, second, third place winners and three honorable mentions. I put the poems into a stack and come back a few days later to read and read them. Many poems would be better if the poet had deleted the last few lines or even the last stanza. A poem is not the place to make a summary-of-ideas conclusion. Repeating what has been said is unnecessary and depletes the energy of the poem.

Sometimes I notice there is a line or two that should really be omitted for better effect. Sometimes a word will really bother me. But I'm not the editor, so I don't get to advise anybody about anything. This affects the ranking. What is second or third place might have been first if it wasn't for a single glaring wrong note.

I was asked to make comments on the six selections, so I decided to write comments about my top ten percent. I think best with a pen on paper, it seems to help me drop down a level, go deeper. Suddenly the top choices become very clear. Those are the ones that I want to write about.

At the final selection point, I notice that the poems I selected had the strongest voices. Voice is a term that refers to a personality or energy, a compelling combination of story and sound that rises out of specific place. I chose the poems with the best craft and vision. In addition, the winners were those with the best focus: staying in metaphor long enough to explore it with depth, following the image throughout the poem, and inhabiting the world created in the first two lines.

If a poetry competition were a skating championship, then I'm judging the artistry. My attention is on the poetic equivalents of the triple axles: build-up, execution and landings. Seeing the effort, endurance and grace of a good poem is such pleasure.

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