How Not To Judge a Poetry Competition

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November 15, 2015 by Tracey S. Rosenberg

Back in 2013, I wrote a two-part blog post about judging a poetry competition (part 1 and part 2). In 2014 and 2015, I was a judge for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland’s poetry competition – partly because I won it in 2013 and I felt it was better not to enter again anytime soon (also, I didn’t have anything else I wanted to say about mountains), and partly because I wanted more experience in being a competition judge.

The MCofS judging is quite different from the one I blogged about previously. There are six judges, some of whom judge poetry and others prose (maybe some do both; I’m actually not sure) and we each read and rank the pieces individually, without consultation. While this removes the possibility of amusing round-table arguments where we passionately stand up for our favourites and denounce the judges who don’t agree, it does seem pretty democratic – everything’s based on points. In 2014, the winners as chosen by all of the poetry judges matched my own personal scoring system, which was gratifying. This year, there was a bit more digression, as some of the other judges (none of whom I’ve met) gave high scores to poems I didn’t feel had much merit, but I’m still quite happy with the winners.

Slight digression: while the competition does have geographical (UK only) and thematic (mountains and related issues) restrictions, it doesn’t have an entry fee and it has cash prizes, so I’m surprised more people don’t enter. I did my best with the promotion, but maybe there are other ways to reach poets I don’t know about about.

The judging is done anonymously; I had no idea who had written any of the 27 poems I was looking at. The anonymity turned out to be an excellent thing. How not to judge a poetry competition = knowing the authors of the poems.

Most competitions ask for blind submissions, so this isn’t really a huge revelation, but by accident the judges received a partial list of entrants. Thankfully, I hadn’t opened any of the documents before this was discovered, so I immediately tossed it into the recycle bin, unopened. However, it did make me think carefully about how I would have approached the judging if I had opened the document.

As previously, I read through everything once without making any judgments; then, because I was assigning scores rather than choosing winners, I worked my way up in groups – I selected the poems I felt were weakest and assigned them marks between 1 and 3, then did the same with the better but not quite strong enough poems, marking them from 4 to 7. Only a few poems received 8 or 9, and – as last year – nothing got a 10, which is probably for psychological reasons. If I give a poem 10 out of 10, I want to be following people around, reading the poem to them and pointing out the particularly brilliant bits until they shove me down the nearest open manhole to shut me up.

When the marks were all totted up and the winners announced, it turned out that all three prize-winning poets were people I know, and by “know” I mean “have a casual friendship with and often see them at poetry events and respect their work highly, so I’m not terribly surprised they placed highly in this competition”. This makes me even more glad I didn’t know who they were when I was judging. It’s easy to say you’ll be fair and open-minded, but it’s simply impossible to ignore your personal knowledge. Much better to judge only the words on the page, and know that the winners won because you and the other judges felt those were the best words.


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Tiny bio

I live, work, and write in Edinburgh. I travel to other places as much as I can. To contact me, email writingmostly at gmail dot com.


CURRENTLY READING: The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo.

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