Sunday, January 7, 2007

Poetry Contest: Judging

When I was 20 years old, I entered a contest with my one favorite poem--something about shopping carts and orange slices. I felt it was edgy and original. And I wanted validation. With much emotional investment, I entered it into Contest X, and then I waited all summer for the anointment of the judges. When the great void continued to be silent, I finally realized it was not chosen for an award, and then I spent another six months in despair. Fortunately, Contest X did not have an entry fee, so I was not out cash. And many years later, as I judge contests for the Solomon Valley Arts Alliance (Nov. 2006) and the Langston Hughes Literary Awards (last week), I remember how charged the experience was for me, and how little I understood of the process.

Now that I am on the other side of the desk, I try to remember how I once felt. As a judge, I enjoy reading the entries, even those that are not polished and those that "lose." Entering a poetry contest is helpful for writers at any level of experience.

First, I think a contest should be a chance to sort out your best poems, polish them, print them out neatly (in 12 pt. Times New Roman font only), revel in them, and see how they work together. You are creating a portfolio of your works every time you enter a contest, so this is a good practice. Then, whatever the outcome, I hope you don't go through the summer of emotional trauma that I put myself through. If you win, believe the judges were fair. If you lose, do not let this be a conclusive comment on your work.

All sorts of things happen during the committee process of most contests. Numerical ratings are strictly adhered to or become a starting point for discussion. One person may dominate a committee and push through a favorite (I've seen this not recently, but in the past). One time I sat on a committee where the agreement was the poets did not show enough variety. Another time almost the same committee said a contestant's poems were too diverse and did not show focus. You get the idea. Think of the last committee you were on and how clean and neat its process was.

Sohere are just a few things to consider when entering contests, as well as your own mental health:
  • Use spelling checks, editing checks, and proofing to make sure your work is letter perfect. Especially with poetry, each comma and each word matter. Grammar does matter. Even a minor spelling error, these days, is enough to prejudice judges against a piece of work.
  • Make the work look professional with 12 pt. Times New Roman font. Please, no fancy fonts.
  • Follow the contest directions carefully. Some contests will toss any entry that puts a name on the pages when that is not allowed. Follow the format directions and the page limit.
  • Present only your best work. I recently overlooked a pretty good set of poems because, in order to fill out all X number of pages, the poet must have reached into the bottom drawer and pulled out several tepid poems and then put them near the front. I almost quit reading. Even if you are a few pages short of the maximum allowed, stick to your very best.
  • After these basics, look at a local or national magazine that carries poetry and read some samples of what is being published. Of course you want to be original, but also you are writing within a tradition that is thousands of years old. If you want to use rhyme, really make sure it is helping the ideas behind the poems. Form and content need to match, and in American English, rhyme tends to evoke children's poetry or rap. Be aware of how your work fits into the larger world of poetry. Read other poets (and also buy their books and help support the cause!).
  • If you don't win, think of how you can use this portfolio in your own circle of fellow writers.
When I judge, I really try to set aside my own personal taste and take poems on their own terms. I have selected poems for awards that are in forms I do not personally write or care for. I have tried to be open to a wide variety of topics. I'm a Taurus and this is not easy!

Also, I try to select works that most consistently achieve control of language, skill with poetic forms, choice of significant topics, and passion. A non-poet was on a panel with me recently, and I appreciated her reminder that the point of poetry is communication. When you ask someone to read your poem, which is the most difficult medium to read, you ask that person to invest themselves. It should be worth the effort.

Have you caught the underlying point here--that writing poetry is not easy? There are very few children poetry prodigies. But we keep trying, and we can continue to learn how to author verse into all stages of our lives.