Things 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 Literary Quarterly Poetry Contest — last week I had only just received the hefty envelope and was still feeling rather daunted by the prospect of choosing a winner! Now, however, the winner and two runners up have been chosen, along with three Highly Commended poems and nine others that narrowly missed out on a prize, but which I chose to be published in the magazine alongside the winning pieces.
The results of the contest should go live sometime tomorrow on the Sentinel website, and I’m very excited to see who wrote the pieces I chose. Judging “blind” was actually really hard — I had a lot of anxieties about it. The main one was a worry that I’d award a prize to a poet I know well, and that people would then wonder if the judging had been biased (it really wasn’t. The brilliant Sentinel editor, Nnorom, was very thorough in making sure all the poems looked identical, without any identifying marks). I was also worried about the fact that I didn’t know how many poems each poet had entered, and I was terrified of the prospect of giving 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize to the same person, for example. The first worry was really overpowering — I know a lot of my friends, acquaintances and ONS readers entered poems, and I “know” a LOT of poets, both in real life and online! Every time I came across a line that sounded even vaguely familiar, it was difficult not to start worrying. However, I got over it, and I’m confident that I gave the prizes to the best poems, without being influenced by my anxieties. I’m also confident now that the three prize-winners are all different people — if they aren’t, then the person responsible for the three poems has a deft sleight-of-hand when it comes to switching voice, style and tone!
In fact, the most difficult part of judging “blind” was the fact that I’d never previously realised just how differently you read a poem when you have no idea who wrote it. As part of my undergraduate degree I took an incredibly dull module in Critical Practice, the only highlight of which was a lecture on “blind reading,” given by the brilliant Professor Colin Nicolson. He gave us a Margaret Atwood poem to read, without saying when, where or by whom it was written, and we had to give our impressions of who the author might be, just from reading the text. We were all way, way off. Reading these poems was the same, only on the grand scale. Of course, knowing who wrote a poem doesn’t change it’s quality — it’s still a strong poem, still a poem that needs more work, etc. but you find yourself looking at a poem about, say, childbirth, and thinking “I assume a woman wrote this. But what if it was a man? That would be really interesting.” You develop a bizarre nosiness about the author — the more poems I read, the more I came to disagree with Roland Barthes!
So what about the poems I chose? Well, I obviously can’t reveal their identities before they are announced, but I have written a report on why I chose each and will probably post those reports here in the next couple of days. But I was surprised by some of them — particularly the winning piece. In my first post about the contest I gave a few clues about what I was looking for as a judge — a strong voice, an original take, and “excellent wordsmithery.” The second prize poem had all of these in spades, but the first prize winner was more difficult to analyse. The voice is strong, yes — and well maintained — and the poem is a parody or subversion of a rather tired genre, done well, so it’s also original. But the wording was very simple, as was the conceit. I found that I had given first prize to a funny poem, and that its funniness was key. I realised — from reading so many pieces in the pile that were obviously trying to be funny — that finding a balance between laughs and strong writing is actually really damn hard. The winning poem had an effortlessness to it that made me curse my own tendency to over-think my poems. When a piece makes you look afresh at your own work, makes you think something new about the writing process, that’s a pretty big deal.
Something else that struck me was the weird and wacky nature of a lot of the poems I picked out. I realised that the pieces I liked best were the ones that took risks, found unusual ideas and ran with them, poets unafraid to boldly go (ouch, split infinitive!) where no poet has gone before. I thought I’d built a reasonably clear idea in my head of the kind of thing I was looking for. The poems I whittled down out of the hundreds of entries totally hit that for six. Which is really, really, really cool.
Check back tomorrow to find out who won! In the meantime… what are YOU reading this week?
Tags: advice for young writers, competition, critical practice, judging, poetry contest, publishing, reading blind, resources for young writers, sentinel literary quarterly, Things I'm Reading Thursday, young poets