September 16, 2013 by Tracey S. Rosenberg
I always wondered how people got gigs judging poetry competitions. I mean, if you win a major prize I’m sure you get deluged with requests, but there have to be other methods. And it turns out that – as happens often in this life – sometimes you just have to ask, preferably without wanting any money in return.
So, having volunteered, I am judging the Thynks 2013 Open Poetry Competition. Thynks has other competitions to enter, including a poetry competition for poems up to 80 lines, so have a look.
Shortlisted poems are now, even as I type, popping up in my inbox as the organiser forwards them on. Rather exciting – who knows what awaits me?
(Okay, technically, the organiser does.)
I’ve never done this sort of thing before – though I have enough relevant experience that I’m confident of being able to do a good job! – so I’m going to discuss my process here on the blog.
Now, the procedure in this case is that the organiser of the competition and another person have selected the nineteen shortlisted poems from the full set of submissions. (Judging from the numbers on the documents I’m receiving, there were just over a hundred poems.) In other words, there were filter judges and a final judge. From my experience, this is fairly standard though not universal. Personally, I prefer when the final judge reads everything – such as in this year’s Yeovil Prize, when Neil Astley read all 386 submissions. (Oh, and yes, that is one of my poems he commended. Huzzah!) But it isn’t always possible, sometimes because of the sheer number of entries, and of course the final judge might prefer to have a smaller, already-filtered selection to choose from. In my case, the structure of the competition was already in place, and as it’s my first time judging, I thought I might as well start with a smaller number and see how it works.
And now all the poems have arrived! I am going to print them out individually (on the backs of old drafts) and read them without making any decisions or judgments, or making any notes. Having only nineteen means I can probably do that in one sitting, though of course I’ll take a break if I start feeling as though my brain is tired. For better or worse, these are the poems I have, and it’s inevitable that they’ll end up being compared to each other, so I want to get a full sense of the range.
Then I want to set them all aside for at least a day and see which of them stick in my mind. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll win, but I strongly suspect that the poems which end up in the top three will be the ones with strong imagery, narrative, and word choice. If a poem haunts me, or makes me want to grab the nearest person and say “listen to this!”, it’s worth further consideration.
Once I come back to the poems, I’ll start making decisions. Honesty time: I’m not entirely sure how I’ll do that. Scary.
Claire Askew, in her judge’s report for the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition, talks about how she used to divide the poems into no/maybe/yes piles but decided to change to no/maybe, as sometimes poems grew on her with multiple readings. (And can I say how thrilled I am that Claire not only awarded one of my poems second place, but chose a second for her commendeds?)
So that’s one possibility for ensuring that the best poems are selected as winners, but I’d love to hear from other judges. (I promise I will not be using the staircase method.) Poetry judges: how do you do it? Poetry competition entrants: what do you think?