THOUGHTS ABOUT JUDGING POETRY (#6)
My 8 millionth Peep just backchanneled with some questions about my ongoing process of judging a poetry contest:
1) What kind of criteria might be brought into play when judging a poem or a book of poems? I've never understood judgment to be anything other than purely subjective, in spite of all the theory that surrounds judgment and attempts to ground it.
2) So here's a question for you: what kind of criteria do you use? Is it something "formal"? Is it "the little hairs on the back of my neck go all aquiver?"
3) And here's another: how can you (how can anyone) be sure you're applying the same criteria at 2 pm that you did at 10 am the day before?
4) Finally, does it just come down to "I liked this best"? Which is fine, but is really different than "this **is** the best?"
Let me address the last question first. Of course it comes down to "I liked this best." I believe any contest result should be viewed as "The Winner According to Contest Judge ____" (and this contest's website will depict both winner and judge). But that's why I said (did I already say this?) that any poetry competition result is only as good as the poetry judge. (And I'd posited in my second post in this series that a judge's reading list, especially absent knowing anything else about that judge, might be a good way to understand something about that judge's points of view.) For example, if the judge is someone known for being open only or primarily to a certain group/aesthetic/et al and the winner is someone within that group/aesthetic/et al, then I personally don't give that result much credibility. AND what's hypocritical is if the competition is supposedly open to all poets (who will send in the competition entry fee) from all sorts of poetries.
Note that I say "being open [to]", versus, practicing a certain aesthetic. There are poets who write a certain way who are open to being moved by various poetries that aren't at all like they write -- those can be ideal poetry judges.
By the way, this also means that I suspect -- were I to devote more time to thinking about the matter -- that I would criticize the structure of keeping judges' identities confidential in poetry contests. Because saying a book is No. 1, according to CONTEST NAME instead of CONTEST NAME AS JUDGED BY JUDGE'S NAME, implies some objective standard. I've heard of arguments for keeping judges' names confidential, but the problem is the result is the implication of there having been an objective process; nor can one assess the significance of the winning choice absent knowing anything about the judge's predilections. It'd be like someone believing the choices in the Best American Poetry volumes without contextualizing the choices as the decisions of specific judges (how's about that BEST OF BEST OF AMERICAN POETRY volume, eh?).
As an aside, I just thought of another issue percolating on some blogs recently -- about whether judges of color are more likely to be more receptive or sensitive to authors of color. Well, I'm "of color" and I sincerely can say that I'm not paying attention to authorial biographies as I read through the poetry collections. Having said that, one of my top three favorites from what I've read so far has to do with the African diaspora (though I feel I immediately should say the book attracted me mostly for how the poems were made versus the subject matter). Would this book have surfaced to the reading of someone else not "of color"? I don't know, of course. But I do know that the content/topic of African diaspora, by itself, was not something that made me less (or more) receptive to the poems. Meanwhile, the other top two books are both by (I think) white poets -- one is overtly "political poetry" and the other is lyrical imagism. Go figger.
First question: So, for criteria used to judge poems, it depends on the judge.
Second question: I (deliberately) didn't bring any formal criteria to the judging process. The books with A-rankings do have to set my lovely hairs aquiver, but, you know, my hairs quiver for many reasons. When I read a poem or poetry book, I try not to set its terms for it -- I try to understand the terms on which the poems were created and see if the results are effective, by the standards of its own terms. (The worst criticism is when someone says of a poem, It should have done this, rather than looking at what is actually done.) A quick example might be one that I've been hearing lately about contemporary poems presumably not being sensitized enough to the politics of their times. Well, despite some empathy with that point of view, I'm still not going to lower my regard for a book that's all about, say, birding. I'm going to read those poems about birds and see if they end up not just being for the birds because they -- in that space of experiencing the poems -- move me to care about birds, learn from birds, get off on birds, etc.
Having said that, it is possible -- and, as I go into the judging process, it's looking to be the case -- that I will come up with a group of lovely A-rated poetry collections, each of which will be different from each other. If I like them all, how would I judge what's better than the other? I likely will then pay attention to its underlying (conceptual) terms. If books X, Y, and Z, for instance, are all about birds and I love them all, I might take note that X is about sparrows and Y is about eagles but Z -- that Z! -- is about sparrows, eagles, owls .. and then a hyena! In such a situation, I'm likely to give the award to Z. If I'm coming off as flakey, let me sum up by saying: if all books' quality seem otherwise equal/equivalent, my bias would be to the ones with the most ambition in what it was attempting to do...or be.
Third Question: Before I began this process, this factor actually worried me a little and that's why I always anticipated doing some re-readings of books. But I've been pleasantly surprised to find that as one is forced to choose one top winner from a gazillion poetry books, the bases by which books rise to the surface in my reading (by which it gets an A rating vs a mere checkmark, according to my preliminary look-see) are holding fast. So this question's concern seemed to be more valid in theory than practice -- at least it's coming out that way for me.
Also, I think the context here matters -- I'm judging a group of books for which one would become the sole recipient of a poetry prize, which is not quite the same as assessing a poem/poetry book and getting different reactions at different times of the day or while having different moods et al. The two can overlap but, this factor doesn't seem to be a strong one for purpose of judging a competition.
Yes, I'm reading tons of poetry books as we speak. But do feel free to send me questions by back-channel. Moi is all about Toi.