Saturday, February 06, 2010


Catherine Daly has a reaction to my first post on THOUGHTS WHILE JUDGING POETRY. Very interesting and I excerpt:
.. a prize people outside the specialty on a hiring committee, or grant committee, or whatever, a sense of peer review, a sense that this is work that is somehow "approved"

Catherine's assessment is undoubtedly true, but it's another bankrupt assessment based on how people don't care enough about poetry to do their own direct due diligence. Let me put it this way--I've read about 25% of the entrants so far and ... Wait, let me explain first what I do after reading each book:

I have a list of all entrants. After reading each book, I place marks by their titles: a check, an "F" or an "A"...and now I've expanded it to include "A+" as I discovered that within the original "A" group, there still can be a stand-out or two which presumably could become the one winner. (I'd asked the contest administrator if I could choose more than one winner as I suspect there could be more than one winner, but I was told to limit moiself to one top choice.)

A book that gets a check-mark means, for my purposes, that it's a perfectly legit -- often wonderful -- poetry book, but isn't necessarily a cut above other lovely poetry collections to be the competition winner. The "F" doesn't necessarily mean the book's poems fail but that it's not going to have a shot at winning the competition despite how many re-reads I will do (and I plan to do some re-reads later in the process).

So, after reading about 25% of the entrants so far, I've got an "A" or "A+" after four books. Most books get a check. Check this out: none of the books which won manuscript competitions that I've read so far are among the A/A+ rated books. And one of them actually got categorized as an "F".

In past readings of poetry books, I can't say I discern consistently-higher quality among prize-winning books relative to other books not published through contests. Judging this competition continues to validate my sense that if a particular poetry book is going to be privileged over other poetry books, it shouldn't be because it won some competition (whose field of entrants is never going to be all-encompassing anyway).

As an aside, I'm sort of amused by these manuscript-competition winners participating in another contest. If a manuscript won a contest, the resulting book is No. 1, so to speak. If that same book now doesn't win another contest, doesn't that cheapen the worth of the earlier prize? I mean, the public may not know since competitions don't usually publicize the identity of all entrants -- but the poet or publisher would know that hir prize-winning book lost elsewhere. So why not quit while the book's ahead? (I'm probably over-thinking this point...)

Here's another point that may be related -- I mentioned in my first post on this series that I'd requested to read ALL books submitted to the contest, rather than judging what might be sent to me after some screening. Based on the poets participating in this contest, I'm fairly sure that my eventual choice of winner would be different based on whether I read all the books or allowed some screening. So, don't many contests screen entries before a selected group is send over to the final judge?

That's the thing about poetry -- if you don't experience it directly for yourself (if you don't actually read the book), you have no business making any sort of comment (let alone judgment) on it. If there's one creature that often belies its reputation, it's that poetic critter.

If poetry contests are here to stay -- if only because poetry contest fees are a major source of revenues for many presses which are located in an industry that doesn't enjoy humongous sales -- then maybe judges should be forced to address all entries. I anticipate the (logistical) objections (none of which I consider insurmountable) many might raise to my suggestion. But given the nature of poetry, how can it be otherwise?

I say this to my son all the time: whatever it is you're going to do, always try to do it right. Aw yeah -- we just got his second quarter grades: he got an "A" average. Poetry judges should get an A, too, for their approach/efforts before they begin to grade other poets. Give judges a bigger cut of the funds raised from contest fees, if necessary, but have them address all entries. Fairness is possible, even in a world greased by cultural capital.

Lastly, as another aside, this post would not have been written in this manner if current poetry economics weren't so moronic.

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