Poetry, judgement, and the Oh God of Earthquakes

On Thursday night I was at the monthly meeting of the South Island Writers’ Association, to present the results of the Jean Ruddenklau Poetry Trophy for 2012. It was the first time I’d managed to deliver judgement in person, and was an … interesting experience.

The competition itself was quite tricky to judge. Usually you have one or two poems that leap to the forefront and remain there, and then it’s just a matter of whittling the rest down to your few others for mention. Harder this time round. Each of the twenty poems entered had something about it that got a tick in the margin, but each poem also had at least one thing that made me go grr! and scribble a big cross. To make it harder still, there were a number of poems that had been written either in, or as a result of, one or other of the Dead Poets R4W classes. I managed (by dint of some serious double-think and compartmentalising) to avoid thinking about who had (or might have) written them until after I’d sent the results back to the competition secretary.

Anyway, on Thursday night I toddled along to St Mark’s Church in Opawa. When the time came, I climbed to my feet and took the three steps sideways to stand at the lectern, feeling horribly visible to all as I began to make the comments that had seemed so much funnier when I was typing them up at home … Actually it was quite odd to be commenting about what poem X had done well, and then what was not done so well, with the poet concerned sitting a couple of chairs away, smiling and nodding while plotting my horrible demise in an alleyway listening to comments that would have been a lot more informative if anyone other than me had had a copy of the poem in front of them at the time. A copy of my comments was going to be supplied to everyone when their poems were returned to them at the end of the evening, so I hope they made sense and did actually contribute something useful.

But in the way of such things, the person who won the contest was sitting one chair away from the lectern, so I was delivering my suggestions for improvement half to the room and half to my own left shoulder. I think I had just mentioned that there were only two and a half lines that I thought needed changing, including one dud linebreak, when the latest aftershock hit.

I can remember standing there thinking that I was never going to be able to take shelter under the lectern, and that wearing a short(ish) skirt was not, in the circumstances, the wisest choice. I don’t think I grabbed hold of anything, but apparently just stood there looking mildly alert until things stopped shaking. And it was a nasty shake too – only 3.7, but very close to where we were, so it felt quite violent. There was an initial whump, then the shaking built and built, then there was a big thump, and then it stopped dead.

Quote of the night was the first thing said by the winner after the shaking stopped:
“The linebreak was good.”

Strangely, I didn’t feel inclined to argue.

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