So, I’ve been serving as a preliminary judge for a poetry book competition. I definitely had no idea what I was getting myself into. There are nearly 250 manuscripts, and my job, along with my two fellow readers, is to narrow that down to 10 finalists and forward them on to the final judge (who presumably has much better name recognition than I do). I’ve been through the process many times as a submitter, but never as a judge. The experience has definitely given me better insight in how it all really works. Let’s start with some simple math. Assume 250 manuscripts have been submitted, and each is 50 pages long. That’s 12,500 pages to read. If you skimmed them all at 1 page per minute, that would take more than 200 hours, or five full 40-hour weeks. So, unfortunately, you can’t read every page, at least not the first time through. At best, you can spend 5 or 10 minutes per manuscript, which translates into roughly 20 to 40 hours. My basic approach is to read the first two poems, and the last poem. If the collection is named after a particular poem, I make sure to read that one, too. Otherwise, I pick a few more at random. Sometimes, it’s clear that the collection will never be ready for publication, and the decision can be made to move on fairly quickly. Sometimes, the collection is clearly above par, and again, an initial verdict can be made without spending much more time. More often, though, the collection is clearly competent and complete, but it lacks that ineffable spark that distinguishes it from the rest. And those are the ones that take the most time–I read much more of them, to see whether I have missed something, or just happened to pick some of the weaker poems to read. Many of these are clearly first manuscripts, and really just need the help of an objective and dispassionate editor. But it’s not my job to edit. I suppose that’s one of the hallmarks of competition books–they need to be complete as is, because the judges can’t assume that they will be further refined by the publisher’s developmental editor (if there even is such a person).
While the task is indeed daunting, I have found it to be a pleasant diversion from my usual routine. The act of judging other poems has made me more critical of my own (if that’s even possible). When I see what I consider to be a missed opportunity or generally weak writing, I ask myself whether (or how often) I have made the same mistake. I also have a more concrete notion of what I don’t like in poetry, although it’s harder to codify what I do like. For example, I don’t like parentheses (in poems–they’re fine in blog posts). If something is important enough to include in a poem, it should be faced straight on. I don’t like religious imagery or biblical references. For one thing, they’re too facile. They’re ready-made. That’s also what limits their range and effectiveness. Similarly, although I prefer classical myths to biblical ones, there’s probably not much that a young poet can do with Orpheus and Odysseus that hasn’t already been done. I don’t like the use of ampersands to replace the word “and.” It’s distracting, and just seems juvenile. I don’t like poems that address an unnamed “you.” If you want to address a particular person, write a letter. I don’t like the use of the word “so” as an adjective (a peeve I share with Richard Hugo). And I typically don’t care for poems written from a child’s perspective. It seems a cop-out, an excuse for not trying to fully engage with the subject at hand. I don’t like poems about poems and poetry and writing. That just seems like the height of narcissism.
Of course, I’m by no means dogmatic, and I frequently find exceptions to the rules. For example, I generally don’t care for ghazals (which seem to be the sestina of the modern age), but I found a few in these manuscripts that impressed me. In fact, I’m often most intrigued by poems that violate my list of “don’ts” but still manage to hold my attention.
And what does hold my attention? Engaging language. Empathy. A distinct and perhaps unusual perspective. And, of course, honesty. A good poem is one that won’t let me stop reading until the end. And I’m not talking about morbid curiosity. I’m talking about a visceral connection from writer to reader that can’t be severed without both parties losing something vital.
As with most things, my experience as a judge has been both depressing and inspiring. It’s disheartening to think of all the people writing poetry in a world that does not particularly value it. And it’s inspiring to see that they continue nonetheless. And while I consider it a disservice to encourage anyone to pursue poetry as a life ambition, I definitely want to support anyone crazy or desperate enough to try. Young poets deal with a lot of disappointment, and I hate to make matters worse. That’s why I’ve had a different scale in mind as I read these manuscripts: not “yes,” “maybe,” and “no,” but rather “yes,” “maybe,” and “don’t lose hope.”