Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What the Judge is Looking For

A renovated warehouse + cookies + guitar music + people reading poems.  It adds up to a lovely evening at Trinity Valley Community College's Poetry Festival.  I just drove home from it, and I can report that the creative vibes of the evening are still with me!

To celebrate National Poetry Month, TVCC invites a poet to give a reading and judge their student poetry contest.  The top student poets receive recognition, and all the poems appear in a journal.  This year, I was honored to be their visiting poet and judge.  THANKS to everyone who made the event such a success!

As I listened to the winning poems tonight, I remembered the qualities that made me choose each one.  A great image here, a clever line there.  An unusual topic.  A musical cadence.  They sounded even better in person!

In the back of my mind, though, I also recalled poems that fell short of their potential.  Actually, I didn't recall the poems themselves, but the missteps that landed them in the "no" pile.  Any of the contest entries could have been great poems, but only a few stood out.  How did those few grab my attention?  I'll tell you.

A few weeks ago, a bulging envelope arrived, and I sat down with a two-inch stack of poems.  My assignment: whittle it down to ten.  In the first pass, I hoped to find
1) sensory language that made me imagine sights, sounds, smells, and taste
2) metaphors, simile, personification, or other figures of speech
3) interesting topic choice
4) concrete details
5) sound play beyond predictable rhymes

With this, I eliminated more than half.  Poems that used all abstractions or rhymed in a nursery way, I set aside immediately.  Poems about love (which was most of them!) got boring fast.  Very short and very long poems felt like drafts.

Next, I reread.  Now I looked for:
1) complex emotional situations
2) heft or gravitas in the issues raised by the poem
3) humor that made me laugh, but also revealed a new perspective
4) a strong voice that used fresh language
5) harsh situations articulated with harsh sounds, like "t" and "ck"
6) gentle situations articulated with gentle sounds like "sh" and "w"
7) meaningful line breaks
8) meaningful arrangement on the page and use of white space

This gave me a stack of about twenty.  I read a third time and a fourth.  Only a handful of these twenty revealed a little more every time.  Those turned out to be the winners.  Poems that kept me coming back.

I've judged about twenty contests in recent years, and I'm going to confess something:  There's no foolproof way to rank or even fairly compare equally solid poems.  Sometimes a clear "best one" emerges, but more often I'm left agonizing, trying to find a reason to choose one over another.  At this point, each judge will go with her gut.  For me, this means asking myself crazy stuff like which poem I would want a copy of or which poem I wish I had written.  I might feel pulled to poems that touch on experiences I've had or philosophies I agree with.  I might pick a poem that seems more novel and unusual or one that attempts something challenging.  It's just plain unpredictable.

But, this is comforting.  It means that your poem might be very good and still not take first place.  Once it's polished to shine as much as possible, you can relax and not worry so much about what the results mean.  I enter contests, too, and I'm going to try taking my own advice.

Meanwhile, I hope the students at tonight's Festival enjoyed themselves, win or lose.  Just the act of writing is life-affirming and worthwhile.  To all the writers in that room:  Stay creative and keep writing!


  1. Hi Rebecca,

    I was one of the poets that entered this contest, and you chose two of my poems ("Hunger Pangs" and "Waste") for honorable mention...thank you so much! There were some amazing poems tonight, not the least of which were your own. I thoroughly enjoyed your words, your imagery, and your skill. I look forward to reading more of your poems and more of your blog. Thanks again for joining us and being our judge. You did a wonderful job :-)

    Kimberly Sherrell

  2. Thanks, Kimberly, for the chance to read your work. I hope you keep writing and keep your compassion alive. That's a quality we need in this world. Nikky Finney, the poet on the cover of this month's Poets and Writers magazine, says, "My responsibility as a poet, as an artist, is to not look away." You show that same courage in your poems! I'm glad you enjoyed the evening. Me, too!

  3. Yet another fantastic blog post! I really like how you analyze the craft from the judge's perspective. That will help me take a mental step back and look at my own work. Thank you! :-) ~Lisette