This summer I was invited to take part in a panel of judges for a poetry book contest. OK ok ok, that sounds all official... it wasn't quite so glamorous. It went a little more like this: This summer, I got to scour the a publisher's slush pile of contest submissions and toss a few up that seemed worthy of a second look.
And you know what? I think I learned a thing or two about contest submissions and judging in the process.And wouldn't you know it, I'm a very generous person, so I'm passing that oh-so-sagey wisdom on to you (no, not saggy... though... hmm).
How the Process Looks:
We've all heard those horror stories about poetry book contests, yes?
They're just big scams set out to make publishers more financially solvent. Their secondary function is to tack a fancy award title onto a special person's name, the crowned winner, who is probably just publisher/judge/book god's student/friend/lover.
Well, being on the inside ::gasp::, I learned that at least in this case, this wasn't the case at all. Our panel of judges was pretty enormous. Each book, regardless of how stinky it was, got at least two full read thrus by "esteemed" writers. Ok ok ok, I was deemed an "esteemed" writer, so we know how prestigious that title is, but whatever. It got two looks by two people.
When I got an inbox full of manuscripts, the author's name, of course, was nowhere on the manuscript. It just so happened that I recognized two scripts from the poems themselves. I promptly let Publisher know. Publisher sent me two replacements and discarded my vote on those two manuscripts. Blind, through and through.
From each set of, oh, twenty manuscripts, I'd select about fifteen or so to eliminate. The other judges would do the same, and the scripts that received two or more votes were tossed out. I think I looked about three sets of manuscripts in round one. It was some exhausting reading, but I remember doing some of it while on the beach in Galveston ;)
We ended up having to send the books through another round of eliminations, though, because I think some of us were softies. I was a softie. I fell in love with far too many to count and had a hard time narrowing down my choices.
In the final round, with the ten or so manuscripts remaining, we were asked to pick a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winner. I read the manuscripts and sent in my votes. It wasn't too tough narrowing down my three faves, but it WAS tough deciding which one placed where.
And then, the books that received the most votes were sent to the contest's guest judge to look at.
You see? Nothing too scary.
What I learned from my experience
There are a lot of fantastic poems; however, there are far fewer fantastic manuscripts. You see, every manuscript I read had at least one or two poems that took my breath away, poems that I fell in love with. But... then rubbing up against it would be a sloppy poem. And, well, that left an ugly taste in my poetic mouth. There's something really admirable about consistent genius, and most books, ok just about all books, simply don't have it. Moments of brilliance are exciting, true, but ummm... I'm really going to remember the sloppy poems as a reader. A bad poem can make someone just want to stop reading your manuscript.
So the lesson I'm taking away from this is that if I have a stinky poem, I'm going to axe it from my manuscript. It just dilutes the book. And yes, as a reader, I remembered the great poems and skimmed over the mediocre ones, but the bad ones? Ugh. I'm sorry, but there are just some things I couldn't let pass my editorial eye. I remember one manuscript in particular taught me this lesson -- it was really original, deep, interesting, and funny. The first three sections were brilliant. I was along for the ride. But when I got to the forth section? It almost seemed as though the author got tired and gave up on her book. And so, well, I did too.
I like to think I'm pretty intelligent and adventurous, but there is something so comforting about a themed book. Cohesiveness. I'm drawn to it as a reader. I wasn't consciously thinking about it, but the books I ended up advocating for were ones that were tied together as a unified book. And that took some pretty different shapes. One book I loved was an extended narrative of poems that together told a story. Another were a collection of poems about wildly different subjects but deep down, they could be tied back to the theme of aging and mortality. Another book was about landscapes -- all of the vastly different ones and how they shape our identities. I wasn't consciously reaching for those books, but they drew me in as a reader, I think simply because I could wrap my brain around them. That might be the book reviewer in me, though, looking at how these books exist in the greater discourse of poetic conversation. And if I could articulate it, I could write about it, and if I could write about it.... you get the point.
I'm a girl with motives. I want to champion women's poetry, feminist themes, formalists, regionalisms, revisionist myth making, etc. And as much as I wanted to serve these motives, I just couldn't bring myself to letting them into my supposedly objective judging. I voted out an amazing revisionist myth making manuscript that I LOVED because of its sloppy moments. It was hard. I didn't want to. But it just wasn't ready. And I stayed true to objectivity as much as a passionate poet can.
Above all, though, what I learned from this experience is that there are some really good books out there making the contest rounds. It also made me feel encouraged that my manuscript, when it's ready, should join the ranks and try its hand at a few contests. There ARE good, honest, fair contests out there. It's not a hopeless case.
I'm a nobody, and I got to take a look into this always-illusive process, and advocate for what I think good poetry ought to be. I feel honored. It was many an hour reading, but in the end, I'm really grateful I had the opportunity to make my little mark and cast my vote.
And on that note, I've sent What Plagues the Goddess off to another chapbook contest.