Things I’m Reading Thursday #10: poetry contest entries!

Yes, I’m still alive! I took a bit of a break from ONS over Easter, as I was away chasing the Muse in Wordsworth country. But now I’m back and normal service will (hopefully) be resumed!

You may remember that a while ago I was asked to judge the Sentinel Literary Quarterly’s latest poetry competition, which closed at the end of last month. Hopefully some of you entered! Well, this week my reading has been mostly dominated by sifting through the hundreds of anonymous contest entries. The results won’t be announced til next week, and I’m still working on my final decision, but it’s been such a fascinating process that I thought I’d share my initial thoughts (as a judge, but also just as a reader) with you here… hopefully it’ll be helpful to those of you entering contests in the near future!

When I was first faced with the huge pile of contest entries (hundreds and hundreds — the response was pretty amazing), I thought I’d be fine. I assumed that two years at the helm of Read This Magazine had prepared me for anything, that I’d seen the best and worst that poetry could throw at me, and that the judging process would just be something like a particularly large chunk of magazine submissions — the only difference being that I was going it alone, without the help of my editorial team, which I felt shouldn’t be too difficult. I was pretty much totally wrong on all of these counts.

Firstly, the process so far has made me value my assistant Read This editors, past and present, in a whole new way. When you’re faced with a huge swathe of poems that could all easily be called “good” or “strong” but couldn’t really be called “great” or “outstanding,” it’s so useful to have five other people to bounce your thoughts off in order to pare down the list. I was also wrong in thinking that, like with Read This submissions, a good 75%-80% of the poems would be quite easy to put into the “no” pile, for whatever reason. In fact, I ended up pulling out hundreds of those aforementioned “good” poems and feeling rather lost as to how to choose between them.

Don’t get me wrong, I did soon build up a sizeable slush pile… and I suspect that this is what you’re all secretly interested in. There are various things a poem can do to trigger my “just no!” response, which of course includes going over the 40-line limit (apparently you’re either within the limit, or you’re WAY over it. Very few people came in at 42 lines, for example) and containing offensive, graphic or unsuitable material (I do have quite an open mind about this stuff, I promise… it’s relatively easy to fly under my prudish-ness radar, but there has to be a limit). Mostly though, it’s clich├ęs that get my goat. If you can’t think of anything more free than a bird or more blue than the sky, chances are you’re not going to get too far. But there were weird recurring ideas too — I was really surprised (and eventually just wearied), for example, by the numbers of poems that used a flower or flowers as a metaphor for, um, lady parts. The number of poems about sex (and the number of weird and wonderful extended metaphors used to describe it) really threw me, in fact. I’m left wondering if I’m naive… are all poets secretly Byronic sex-maniacs and I just didn’t know?
There were also a lot of poems about black souls and bleeding hearts… something I had been prepared for by submissions to Read This. Don’t get me wrong, depression is a serious issue and one that certainly can and should be explored via creative writing. However, all too often “depression” is actually just short hand for self-indulgence and wallowing; spilling your anguished thoughts/words/tears onto the page under a full moon while some suspicious-looking ravens flap overhead etc. But mostly, the thing that unites the majority of the poems in my “no” pile is the fact that their authors have obviously read very little (if any) in the way of decent poetry. You can tell when someone’s writing an imitation of what they think a poem should be from fifty paces. It’s my favourite old chesnut, but reading really is the key to good writing.

My main problem now is all these poems I’m left with — each of them undeniably “good”, but none of them particularly leaping out at me as better than any of the others. There are loads of them — some that are a nice idea, but linguistically not that interesting; others that have flashes of wordy genius, but don’t really work as a whole… etc. None of them deserve to be dismissed out of hand, but none are leaping out and grabbing me by the throat, as a truly great poem really should. Fortunately though, I have been able to build a (small) pile of Instant Yes! poems, too. It’s much harder to analyse these than the “just no” poems or the “just good” poems… they’re slippery and sparkly as fish. Maybe once I’ve picked a winner, I’ll be able to say more. Watch this space…

What are you reading this week? Get thee to the comments box!

(Photo by Atomic Citrocity)

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6 Responses to “Things I’m Reading Thursday #10: poetry contest entries!”

  1. Emily Smith Says:

    I’m currently reading ‘Naming the Bones’, Louise Welsh’s newest novel. I’ve never read any of her previous novels, but I’ve been asked to write a review of this one. And I must say, I’m really enjoying it.

    But then I’ve been reading nothing more recent than the end of the nineteenth century for classes the last few months, so it makes a nice change!

    And, of course, I’m reading Sparkbright submissions, hooray!

  2. Crafty Green poet Says:

    I don’t envy you really, I have to say. I must be lucky with Bolts of Silk in not getting too many sex or depression poems.

    Currently I’m trying to plough my way through Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove; reading an excellent book about the environmental history of the Uk and totally enjoying Jeremy Reed’s poetry.

  3. David Says:

    Good article :-)

    I’d imagine you must get a sort of repetitive strain injury through the “no” pile :-)

    D x

  4. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Things I’m Reading Thursday #11: poetry contest entries, part two! Says:

    [...] I’m Reading Thursday #11: poetry contest entries, part two! So last week I spoke a bit about the hundreds of poems I’ve been sifting through in my role as judge for the Sentinel [...]

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