Whittling soberly – the preliminary deliberations

Four things belong to a judge: to hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly, and to decide impartially.
– Socrates

I have now read through all poems at least four times – twice or more yesterday, and twice or more today. It’s both better and worse than I feared. Better in that there are nowhere near as many really really bad poems as I was expecting. Worse in that there were fewer poems that leapt out and grabbed me than I had hoped. One thing that’s becoming apparent is that I need a different mindset to the one I use when editing – I’ve actually got a lot more freedom. I’m not looking to offer encouragement, or reward effort. Just one thing: excellence. I just have to decide which are the five best poems. That’s it. I can award a maximum total of twenty Highly Commendeds and Commendeds to the next tier down, but only as many as I think are deserving. And because I know there will be a second chance for everyone with the anthology selections, I can really just focus on finding the absolute best. It’s a very liberating feeling.

Yesterday I started by dividing the piles into four, and reading through each pile as calmly and quietly as I could. Whether by good luck or good management, my first pile began with a number of quite decent attempts. Nothing to begin with that I wanted to frame, but also nothing that I wanted to use to line the worm bin. I deliberately didn’t try to sort them into any sort of order, or make a distinction between good, bad and ugly. Just read my way through each pile, then went outside for a half hour break to clear my head before starting the next batch. And so on.

My second read through was the whole lot pretty much in one sitting. This time I did make piles – less good bad and ugly than “yes”, “hmm, meh” and “no”.

The yes pile was the smallest – about twenty poems made it the first time. I used a pretty simple yardstick – they were the ones that made me react physically. It probably sounds corny, but it does actually work. These are the poems that made me sit up straighter, or nod my head, or sigh, or widen my eyes, or even make a small laugh-snort. Whatever flaws they may turn out to have, these are the ones that made me pay attention. So they made the first pile.

The next pile was poems that just did not work as haiku. I didn’t try to think too much about why at that point – just went with my initial reaction. This didn’t mean poems that I thought weren’t good haiku, or that had a couple of issues, but … Epigrams, laundry lists, rants, jokes, political comments and a couple of poems that couldn’t be mistaken for haiku even by people who hadn’t moved past the “seventeen syllable poem about nature” stage. Yes, it is possible to write a haiku that is epigramatic OR that is a run-on sentence OR whatever else you want to point to on the list. But they’re rare, and were very definitely not represented in this pile.

The biggest pile was the ones that hadn’t moved me much either way. They got a third read-through, with the intention of seeing if there were any more to add to my “yes” pile. This time I wasn’t so much looking for a physical response as a mental one – anything that got a prickle of interest. I managed to come up with about fifty more to shift across to the serious consideration pile. And that’s where I left my first day’s deliberations.

Today was the beginning of scrutiny. I started off with my discard pile, and sat down to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with them, and see if maybe I was being too harsh anywhere. And two did make the crossing back to the middle kingdom pile. But this is where judging is freer than editing – I don’t have to be able to justify not considering a poem for final placement. If it has a flaw, then I need to discard it. I don’t have to rank every poem: just the top twenty-five. So as long as I do look and look again, discarding poems is perfectly ok. I’m trying to make myself come up with a reason for each of the poems that hit the discard pile, and I will give them at least one more read through to make sure there’s not something I’ve missed. But the reality is that the only poems I have to really get inside and walk around in and prod all over for every possible nuance are the ones that are in my final group. And if there’s a reason why it hasn’t made that pile, then that’s enough. Very liberating.

I ended up with a discard pile of 230 poems – a bigger number than it felt reading through, but a smaller number than I would have guessed on Monday. The most common issue was the dreaded laundry list, followed by a close relative, the flat statement. They accounted for a good 50% of the pile. (Sadly there were plenty of poems that ticked both boxes, and then some). Surprisingly there were only a handful of poems that failed because they were run-on sentences, and only twenty-eight which were 5-7-5 syllables. (Which is not to say that there aren’t other 17 syllable poems in the other stacks; just that there were only those twenty-eight that were flawed enough to be discards. Seventeen syllables is just the symptom. The fault is verbosity.)

After that, I sat down to give my middle pile some serious attention. Looking for poems which I didn’t get, or thought might need some sort of key before I could make a final decision; poems which I got but which didn’t move me; poems with flaws; and poems which I thought were reasonably good. It ended up with a pretty even spread across the latter three categories. (I was hoping some would make it into the Primo Pile, but not so far.) The plan for tomorrow is to really immerse myself in the middle poems. First to sort out the flaws – see if they warrant a drop into the discard pile or not. Then I need to try and get my head around the ones that I’m not certain I understand. Then it’s some serious close reading of everything not discarded to come up with the thirty or so best poems from this group.

Then it’ll probably be time to have someone come and check my marbles …

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