Wednesday, February 17, 2010


See -- this is what I mean. I've long detested the poetry contest infrastructure (I don't count the poetry contests I do for Filipino poets through Meritage Press' "Babaylan Speaks" performance as that's a different animal altogether). The last thing I was interested in doing, therefore, was getting involved in said infrastructure as a judge. But what poetry's also taught me is that if I'm reluctant to do something, I should try it. So I did and, whoah, to my surprise, the process wasn't such a slog because, ultimately, it's about reading poems!

Of course I did it Moi way -- no screening. I read every single book entrant. And I have this to say about the results which I will announce when the contest sponsors say it can go public:

1) While reading every book, I placed 3 checks by each book: An A or A+ for a group of potential winners; a check by often lovely poetry collections but which aren't likely to win the contest; and an F by those books which clearly have no shot. Of the total, 11% got an A/A+, and 15% got an F. The bulk of entrants got a simple check. Judgment is subjective but if backed up against a wall and forced to articulate what I looked for the most, it'd be for those poems that are not just effective but also seems *fresh* (e.g., they're not derivative, or come off as the same ol', same ol' poems one gets the sense is being written by 94% of poets (see #6 for explanation of "94%"), etc). Most of the poets are writing perfectly wonderful poems, but which aren't the type that would be "better" than their peers.

2) Most of the poetry books provided perfectly fine experiences. That they would not have won a particular contest don't detract from the validity of their engagements. This is probably the way these poetry books should be read/enjoyed -- unless one is deconstructing them for some class or attempting to be a gatekeeper.

3) Nearly 20% of the entrants are books which became published as a result of winning a manuscript-based poetry competition. Based on my judgment of this contest, I'd say to such poets -- you already won once; quit while you're ahead. Only 25% of these manuscript poetry-prize recipients got an A or A+. One got an F. In a way, I quite like this result -- it validates the idea that poetry books should still be published for other reasons than by winning a poetry contest. This result also validates my earlier sense that poetry-contest winning books are not necessarily doing something extra special than books published outside the contest system--this is not a diss at the contest-winning poets but a cogitation over whether, in an industry where it's difficult to get published, many of those still getting published are the more seasoned and experienced poets (and perhaps such seasoning, especially if with bagoong, counts...?).

4) Although small presses sent in their books for consideration, almost none of my own personal favorite publishers -- typically the indie publishers -- participated in this contest. Most are university presses and the more established poetry presses. Among the university presses, which I highlight as they do seem to produce many, uh, like-minded writing, one will be able to glean from the results which press is clearly doing more interesting work than others -- "interesting" being defined here as a press publishing poets who are creating *fresh* poems.

5) Still mentally cogitating as to why this would be the case -- but I found judging books to be different than judging manuscripts.

6) By doing this competition, I discovered several poets whose work I would be interested in following in the future. Actually, this makes me think that this may be the most meaningful statistic. Of all the poets I read through the competition, only six percent of the poets interest me in continuing proactively to follow their works (for one of them, I've already ordered earlier books).

7) The experience makes me want to immerse myself for a while in COLLECTED and SELECTED POEMS. I have to say I wasn't much satisfied, generally speaking, with the COLLECTED/SELECTEDs that I read through this contest, but there weren't that many among the entrants...

Results no doubt to come. Meanwhile, Kudos to you Six Percenters! Thank you for your palabras.