Confessions of a poetry contest judge
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
I felt honored to be asked to make this selection. And I felt the loss for the non-winners (let’s not call them losers). True, there were a few books that went pretty quickly into the “not” pile. But the largest stack was “maybe” and here lay the hopes and dreams I felt most keenly. It was hard work and I had more than a few nights of dreams prompted by anxiety about the task and the responsibility.
There’s the worry about objectivity, first of all. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s primarily in the eye of the beholder and the conscience of the judge. I knew many of the authors of these books, and I’m sure that’s often the case in contests. Since these entries were not anonymous, you could easily make a case for some kind of favoritism. But you’d be wrong. I tried scrupulously to make sure I was not giving unfair advantage to poets I knew. Or unfair disadvantage either, for that matter.
And of course, it’s all apples and oranges. The books were all over the place in terms of theme, style, and intent. But I tried to figure out how well each book succeeded in being itself. I wasn’t trying to equate, say a spiritual descendant of “The Bell Jar” with one more in the X. J. Kennedy mode. I was just trying to see which seemed to be most successfully the book it was meant to be.
What I came away with after I was finished was a sense of huge affection and respect for the poets who entered the contest. All poets are putting so much at risk when they put themselves on the page. I once heard a singer and songwriter say, “All my songs are autobiographical; they’re just not about me.” With a poet, it’s just the other way around. Whether or not they’re autobiographical, the writer always shows through.
One of riskiest maneuvers of all is entering a poetry contest because you have to declare to yourself and the person who will read your work that you care very much about this. And that you are trusting the reader to treat your work with respect. You do that with any reader, but with a contest judge the stakes are higher.
So here, finally, is my confession to you authors of the stack of books now just off to the side of my desk. My feelings for you are tender and grateful, respectful of your efforts, admiring of your resolve. You are the ones who follow your dreams, who honor your words, who notice the world and offer it for us to share. Thank you.