The difference between judging and editing

I’ve just about finished making the selections for the anthology. Everything has been read, re-read, and re-reread. Longlists have been compiled, and shortlists are emerging. Fingers crossed, I should be able to get notifications out by the end of next week.

The mechanics of selection are pretty much the same for judging a competition and compiling an anthology – in both cases I sort the poems as I read them into three piles (actually three file boxes) – roughly referred to as “yes”, “maybe” and “no!!!”. The yeses (always the smallest pile) are the poems that grab me on first reading. The “no” pile is usually the biggest, and is where the poems that have no visible poetic merit go. The “maybe” pile is for poems that have something, but I’m not sure quite what. Or that I want to read again, to give a bit more time to. 

Then I read them again, and re-sort. And repeat. Even the “no” pile gets read through at least three times – I’m aware that it’s very possible to miss something worthwhile in the first few readings. Having said that, it is fairly rare for a poem from the red box to make it into the final anthology.

Most other judges that I’ve spoken to say the same thing – that there’s often a clear winner quite early on. Or maybe a small group of poems that you know will be the group. Sorting out to the shortlist-stage is usually fairly easy – once you winnow out the poems that are badly written, or too derivative, or that lack any music, or that don’t follow the conditions of entry … it becomes a fairly small pile. Then it’s a case of seeing which poems succeed as poems. The ones that start in the right place, and don’t go on for a few lines (or stanzas) after the point where the poem should have stopped. All the technical details come in to play. Then you rank them: the best three, the next tier, and the ones that nearly but not quite. 

As an editor, my job is a bit different. Yes, I winnow down to a shortlist. And poems without poetic merit shouldn’t be anywhere near the list. But I’m not looking for “the best”. (Presumably the judge has already selected all the “best” poems!) My job is to select good poems that will work with the winners (and place-getters, and commendeds). To create a book from all of them. So I have to look at things like subject matter – it’s no big deal if the judge picks five poems about topic X. But it does mean that I have to consider how this will come together as a book. Maybe I’ll have to discard the other perfectly good poems about Topic X. Or try to balance it out by favoring poems that deal with subject Y. Still based on merit, but with other considerations.

The other complicating factor is the sheer size. The NZPS anthologies are compiled from four different competitions – Adult Poetry (sigh: poetry written by adults), Junior Poetry, Adult Haiku, and Junior Haiku. The judges only ever get to see their own sections of the comp. I have to work with all of them, and still try to create something coherent. The most awkward part is with the Junior Poetry – some of these poems are good enough to place in the adult competition. Others are being written by kids who are still in primary school. (Sometimes both statements apply – eight year old Laura Ranger famously tied for first place with Lauris Edmond in the 1993 Whitireia Poetry comp, so it can happen.)

So now I have to sit down with my shortlists, and try to make sure I don’t have too many poems on the same topic. And see how they’ll fit together (or not, as the case may be. Sigh!)

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