Judge? Mental.

Here we are, beginning the long slide into winter, and in a clever attempt to keep warm I’m donning my best wig and doing another stint of judging. Two stints, in fact: judging the Junior Poetry Competition for the New Zealand Poetry Society, and the Jean Ruddenklau Poetry Trophy for the South Island Writers’ Association.

I judged the adult haiku section for the NZPS back in 2011 (and blogged extensively about it – starting here), and the Jean Ruddenklau for SIWA back in 2013 (you can read about that one here), so it’s fair to say that I’ve got a good idea of what to expect. As, more importantly, have these two fine – and, may I add, extremely discerning – organisations. Should be a lot of fun!

One small worry. Checking my calendar, I have a suspicion that both lots of judging will be taking place at around the same time – June/July. Which is also when I’m teaching … um …

Coffee? Lots of? And keep me away from matches, knives, alcohol and anyone with a heart condition?



Veni, legim, placuit – I came, I read, I decided

slice from “Dragon Fruit” by Kenny TeohYep, that’s it – I’ve finally selected my winners for the 2013 Takahē Poetry competition. It feels like it’s taken me a very long time, but I’m satisfied with my choices. (I’d better be – I’ve submitted my report and sent the entries back to the competition secretary!)

Picking the two runners-up was actually the hardest. It came down to selecting two poems out of a trio that all had things going for them, as well as against them. In the end I had to trick myself into deciding, by arbitrarily choosing two, and then realising that I couldn’t bare to drop X in favour of Y. (And no, I’m not giving you any hints about who, or what, or why.) I toyed with the idea of making a cento from lines from the shortlisted poems, but I suspect that would be frowned upon …

Actually, writing my report was something of an epic undertaking. I started out ‘just making a few notes’, which ended up running to about five pages. I had a quick squizz back at previous reports and checked the length that had been tactfully recommended as a maximum (why doesn’t anyone give me minimums?) and realised I was going to have to make quite a few cuts. Out came my detailed exegesis on the way in which the competition could be seen as a reflection of the state of poetry and cultural engagement in New Zealand society (no, not really), out came my fulsome waxings on the glories of metrical substitutions as a weapon against simultaneous syntactic laxity and rigidity (again, no, not really), out came my slightly too pointed remarks regarding Rhyme Crimes and Poetical  Clichés (umm, yes, ok that one is true) and so on. Then I realised I hadn’t said anything at all interesting about why I’d picked the winning poem. And believe me, you don’t want to know how long that bit took to edit down to a sensible length. But I did, eventually, get there.

The winners will be announced in the December issue, Takahē 80. I think the results and report are also sent out to entrants who included an SAE for such an eventuality with their entry. It will be interesting to see if Siobhan picks any of the other poems for inclusion in that issue (technically all entries are considered for publication – no idea how often or how many do end up being taken).

Now I just have to try to remember what it was I was meant to be doing with all this spare time and brain-power … I think there was something about a book?

Dubito Ergo Iudicio – I doubt, therefore I judge

Barrister’s Wig cIt’s strange, how the approach changes as you move through the stages of judging. The first read-through was all about being open and not especially critical. Looking for reasons to say ‘yes!’, and only dismissing things that really were pretty bad. Then you move into the critical phase (whittling down), where you start being über picky and scrutinising the poems inside and out, actively looking for a reason to reject them. Then you go through yet again, trying to occupy the ground somewhere between those two positions. Ok, you say, maybe I was a little harsh. I’ll give you one last opportunity to convince me. Tell me why I should reconsider my decision. You go back over all the Noes, making sure every poem has had a fair shot at moving up. Then at the Maybes, again, being as scrupulous and fair as you can.Then the longlisted poems get a final chance to put themselves forward, and win their way through into the final selection. Yes milord, I really did give the defendants a fair hearing before dismissing them, and I can take the court over each step of the decision, should milord require it.

But now it changes again. From twenty shortlisted poems, I have to work my way down to just four. Four that I would be willing to argue the case for. Four that I can’t quite bear to let go. In an ideal world, the four poems would have made themselves obvious right from the start. Clearly superior. Four thoroughbreds in a paddock full of crossbred ponies.

In some ways, this is the easiest part. All I have to do is put each of the other shortlisted poems beside them in turn, and ask the question: better, or worse? (Although anyone who has ever had to get glasses will tell you, simple binary choices aren’t always either that simple or that binary.) There has been quite a lot of pacing around the room and declaiming of poems aloud. A lot of going away and coming back. I have it narrowed down to half a dozen now, and think I know the final order.

But this is where the Dubito bit comes in.

The poorly written poems are easy to dismiss. Hold any one of them up to one of the shortlisted poems, and the difference in skill is dazzlingly obvious. Even the Maybe pile are fairly clearly a step below in accomplishment. And of course no-one but me will know which pile a particular poem was consigned to, so as long as I am satisfied that I have done my duty by them, I can now ignore them completely.

But now I have six poems, two-thirds of which will stand as exemplars of what I believe good poetry is. Now I have to start asking the question a bit harder of myself: have I chosen this poem because of my own personal taste, or because it is genuinely and objectively the better written? Now the challenges aren’t just to the poems. I have to challenge my own decisions, my own motivations. There are a couple of things that all six poems have in common. (And no, I’m not going to tell you what they are.) Is that a co-incidence? Or have I been unduly influenced by some aspect of poetry that is colouring my judgement here? Have I picked poem X at least in part out of a wish to seem pro This or anti That, or to demonstrate how broad and funky and contemporary (or pure, correct and worthy) my tastes are?

Ultimately those considerations do have to come into things. Like everyone, I have blindspots and biases. So now I have to check my selections against those biases, and try to allow for them in my final decisions. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? That would be me. The judge, judging the judge.

(Overly analytical? Who, me? What makes you the eighty-eighth person to say that with that exact facial expression, and a not dissimilar tone of voice?)

Living with Poems – the second and third read-throughs

whittle04 aWell, after two more read-throughs of every poem, I managed to whittle things down to a longlist of fifty by bedtime last night. It made for some slightly weird dreams, but hey, I do it so that no-one else has to. (Plus I have weird dreams anyhow.) I began by sorting things into three piles – I Think Yes (actually called that), Maybe, and That Would Be No.

I made myself go through the No pile once more, to see if I was being too harsh. As part of that, I tried to categorise what it was about them that let them down so badly. Rhyme Crimes and Poetry Clichés were the two biggest sub-categories (and saw a lot of crossover). I will read these No poems again, just to make absolutely sure that I’m not missing some hidden subtlety that actually redeems the errors and transforms it into a perfect poem … but I would be surprised to see any of these ones move.

Then I went back through the Maybes. This was by far the biggest pile. This time I took a pencil, and made notes on the poems where there were things that bugged me, or that I wanted to check. Some of them were probably really No poems, but that had some hint of something that I thought needed to be considered again. At this point I didn’t think too much about how many poems I was bumping up to the Yes pile – it was really just a case or reading them again and deciding if they were well written or not. There were a couple that made the leap across, but only two or three. This I found comforting.

So then it was the turn of the Yes pile to feel the Wrath of the Pencil, and be subjected to a more critical scrutiny. This time there were a handful that were demoted to the Maybe pile. (Including one on the ones that I’d just bumped – sigh! it ain’t easy being a competition poem.) Again, my main consideration was whether they were well written or not. Clichés got crosses. Spelling mistakes got crosses. Tangled grammar (and it has to be pretty darn tangled for me to notice) got crosses. Anything with no crosses, and that I was still feeling fond of, stayed in the Yes pile. Those with pencil marks got given another quick flick through – some stayed, and some were demoted. By the end of it all, I had fifty poems that still made me want to reread. The Longlist was born!

whittle04 b

Today I whittled it down to the shortlist of twenty. (The nice, neat numbers are a complete fluke.) I was being super picky this time, looking for the sorts of things I’d pick on if I was being paid to critique the poems. I spent quite a bit of time checking words, phrases, references etc on the internet (how did we ever manage without it?!).I wanted to make sure I wasn’t giving undue weight (in either direction) to something I only half-understood. All fifty poems were covered in notes. One thing that I made a point of doing (and which was quite illuminating) was read each poem out loud. It’s funny – the poem that looks so dense and tricksy on the page can actually turn out to be beautiful on the tongue. (And attracts bonus marks.) Equally, there were a couple that I had quite liked that really floundered in a couple of places. Sometimes it was things like clusters of sound that were very hard to enunciate, sometimes it was more to do with the line futzing the rhythm and becoming quite clunky. Rightly or wrongly, I think a poem should work aloud. Homophones are hard to pull off: true. But with the page in front of you and the poet’s own words on your lips, surely that’s the best possible outting? And if the poem doesn’t work there, then you have to go back and re-examine the text. See if you can come up with a plausible reason for it to be that way. Otherwise … you have to assume it’s an error.

Tonight I’ll transfer my on-poem notes to my journal, bust out the eraser, and return the poems to their unadorned state. I won’t read them over the weekend. Monday morning I’ll come back to them fresh. I’ll take five at random, and pit each of the other shortlisted poems against them. Poem X and Poem Y – which is better written? Which could I argue the case for better? X? Then try Y against poem Z. Y better? Then it replaces Z in the five. How does Z do against W? And so on, until every poem in the shortlist has been compared to each of the poems in my top five. Then I’ll do the same through the longlist discards. Then I’ll go through the other two piles for one last time, see if anything feels like it deserves a shot at the title.

Then – assuming I haven’t started wearing my knickers on my head, or attacked someone with a pencil, or something else that suggests my judgement may be a little less than perfectly reliable – I’ll just have to decide Which is the Poem to Rule Them All …

The Karenina Aspect – reflections on the first read-through

from Tungurahua Erupts  Image Credit & Copyright- Patrick Taschler

The first words of Tolstoy’s novel, Anna Karenina, are much quoted:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The thing that has struck me most forcibly about the poems in the 2013 Takahe poetry competition is that this phrase (with an inversion and a few substitutions) could also serve to describe the entries to a poetry competition:

Bad poems are all alike; every good poem is good in its own way.

It’s probably a bit … premature? arrogant? me? to offer any sort of overall verdict based on one read-through, but that particular aspect of it – that so many of the entries fail in the same way/s – is overwhelming. And somewhat depressing. Here are three.

A large number of entries aren’t poems. I’m not talking about prose poems, or even making any assessment of subject matter. These are pieces that are the classic ‘chopped up bits of prose’. There’s no charge in the syntax, no music, no sense of underlying rhythm. Just … words, bunged down on the page. (Partly in preparation for this judging, I’ve been rereading my Stephen Dobyns. Particularly his essays on the history of free verse, and metrical verse vs free verse vs vers libre vs vers libere vs prose. If you haven’t read Best Words, Best Order yet, you really should.)

No awareness of what a linebreak does. Or could do. Or should do. Or really doesn’t do. You can break a line wherever you want, and for whatever reason you want. But there should be a reason. At least some of the time. It genuinely does have an impact on how the poem comes across, and what the lines say. Ok, I’m a bit obsessive about such things. But it’s such a fundamental part of writing poetry!

Most of the poems that use rhyme use it really badly. Moon/spoon/June badly. The line isn’t just bent, it’s fractured, minced, freeze-dried, vacuum-sealed, shipped around the world on an oil-barge, and used as a binding agent in the manufacture of cheap toilet paper. All so the person can bang in the first word they’ve thought of that rhymes with the one at the end of the line before.from Tungurahua Erupts b Image Credit & Copyright- Patrick Taschler Forget the need for each line to still make sense with the lines around it. There are some poems where the whole line fails to make any sense with the rhyme word. I keep hoping that one of these poems will turn out to be an ironic send-up of the bad rhyming poem. Alas, no.

There are lots of other things – heaps of typos and spelling mistakes, way too many poems using a reference to the moon as some kind of Magic Poem Seasoning (“just a dash transforms the ordinary into the poetic!”), and quite a few poems written by people who I would be willing to bet haven’t read and enjoyed any book of poetry published for adults since the 1800s.

Perhaps this all sounds horribly negative and judgmental. But I have visions of all these people sending their entries in, buying a copy of the magazine to read the results, and then sitting there feeling resentful and baffled when they read the poems that won. And here’s the secret – I know how that feels, because I’ve been that person. I have entered competitions with poems that were guilty of all the sins I’ve listed, plus several more that were all my own invention. But I learned. And worked. And now I can usually tell the difference between a poem that I just don’t like, and a poem that isn’t well written. (Yes, I know, there are plenty of you who would dispute that last point. But at least I have enough self-awareness and knowledge of the genre to be able to argue my case, even if it isn’t always a winning one.)

Maybe I’m getting this wrong. Maybe the people who wrote a lot of these bad poems are just happy banging them out and sending them off, and really don’t expect to get anywhere. And don’t mind thinking of entry fees as the price they pay to keep enjoying their hobby. In which case ok, but you could probably do more with your money by subscribing to magazines and buying books. Or going to poetry courses, or readings. But hey, I am actually happy that you enjoy yourself, and that poetry is your recreational choice. More power to your elbow. But, in the interests of not making people who judge competitions feel quite so overwhelmed, maybe only enter the ones that you think are as good as you can possible do? (It is a competition, after all. Eddy the Eagle and Eric the Eel were great one-offs. But if we had a dozen of them in every event, it would soon lose its appeal.)

from Tungurahua Erupts cBut for those who are in the other category – the ones who don’t get why their poems aren’t being picked, or who feel baffled by the whole thing of modern poetry – ok, there are things you can do. In the privacy of your own home, with no special equipment needed. When you get the magazine, read the poems. Your first reaction may well be “this is bullshit, this is rubbish, my poems are better than that!” Ok, have a stomp around the house, swearing at the appliances. Whatever you need to do to process that feeling. When you’ve got it out of your system, come back to the poems. And read them again. See if you can find something in there that might be the reason why this poem got the nod ahead of yours. Read it out loud. Try and forget ownership, and just look at the poem as a piece of verbal machinery. Does it rhyme? How? Is it subtle, obvious, funny, non-existent, what? Do the linebreaks do anything? Tease double meanings out of words, make you more (or less) aware of a certain word or phrase or sound? Are there strikingly appropriate (or weirdly wacky or funny) images? Do phrases stick in your head? Does it make you want to reread? Turn it into a game. See how many things you can find that I might be giving a tick to. Then look at your own poem. How many of those things have you done? Lots of poems had a great title, or a really interesting first line, but then wasted that spark by being boring or poorly written from then on. How did the winning poem do? And yours? How about language? I admit that the modern preference for language to be unobtrusive and non-fancy is a matter of fashion, but it’s a fashion that’s been in vogue since at least 1798, so it’s probably one that’s worth taking on board. If the people in CSI started phrasing things the way they do in Shakespeare’s plays, you’d think they were extracting the urine. Same applies in poetry – if it’s not the way you would naturally say something – albeit a polished, rehearsed, well-thought-out way – then why make your poem talk that way?

All of this is quite a long way of doing what was meant to be a brief comment about my first impressions of common issues with some poems. And of course, there are lots of good poems. But weeding out the bad ones tends to be the first step in judging (for me at least), so that’s what I’ve been thinking of most.

I’d be interested to hear from others who have judged literary competitions. What did you find about the overall standard? Did the failures all tromple down the same paths, or did they fail in a different set of ways?