Behold the Characteristics of a Prize-Winning Poetry Chapbook

The life of those/who went before/their bodies take the shape of sheers/that breathe upon the window ledge – John B. Lee – author of My Sister Rides a Sorrow Mule, winner of The Ontario Poetry Society’s 2019 Golden Chapbook Poetry Prize.

If someone asked you to judge a poetry chapbook contest, what would you look for? The squish of rain beneath rubber boots? The whirl and clang of a pinball machine? Would you seek out manuscripts focusing on your favourite subjects or would you evaluate the work on originality or the strength of the writing? How does one evaluate and compare a collection of Shakespearian sonnets to a test tube of experimental poems? Can a bushel of McIntosh apples compete with a box of Mandarin oranges? Can the writing of a people’s poet battle with a scholar’s life’s work and vice versa?

How many of you have entered manuscripts into contests and upon release of the winner’s list have asked, where did I go wrong? How can I improve my chances for the next submission call? Where can I go for advice? Should I even bother to enter another contest?

Apples and Oranges Photo by Okun Hill

Judging a poetry contest is like comparing apples with oranges. Find a manuscript with hackneyed clichés and themes and it’s quickly eliminated from the competition.

Last May, a cardboard box filled with poetry chapbook manuscripts arrived at my door with the instructions to select a top winner and five honourable mentions by November 2019. My head spun like a flying saucer heading straight for a chain-link fence. I had judged poetry contests before but this was my first assignment judging a manuscript contest. Just reading through the poems once could take months. I finally understood the weight thrust upon publishers inundated with a year’s worth of manuscripts. This would be no easy task.

It took me approximately two months to read all the manuscripts. Since a submission fee was collected, I felt it was important to spend time with each collection, even though some work appealed to me more than others. I needed to be objective and open to the variety of work in front of me, so I jotted down notes along the way. Another two weeks were required to review those notes and to re-read (and re-read) those submissions selected for my initial long list. This is what I ‘unscientifically’ learned:

The competition is real.

 It’s humbling to walk away from your own writing to read the work of other poets. So many times during the judging process, I would exclaim “wow, great poem, what a unique and memorable line or lines”. Other times, I would admit, “oh dear, look at that weak spot, I do that too.” When I picked up a manuscript that I couldn’t put down, I knew it warranted another closer look. Not all manuscripts reached my favourite pile. If a collection felt weak or was filled with clichés, it was easily eliminated.

Reputation means nothing with blind judging.

The joy of judging a blind contest is that everyone’s manuscript is immediately treated equal. A poet’s name, popularity and/or previous publications and award records are hidden to ensure these factors don’t influence the judge’s selection. Can a judge spot an emerging writer from one more established? Not really although a judge should be able to tell the difference between a strong well-organized manuscript and one that has a weaker element that needs tweaking.

A passion for words and creativity rules!

With so many people writing poetry, it’s imperative to make your work rise above the others. Don’t imitate another poet and do not use a cookie cutter formula that makes each poem sound the same. Use your imagination and explore all the poetic devices that are available to you. As with many genres, show, don’t tell! It makes for a richer poem. I was most impressed by poems that razzle-dazzled, took risks, and pushed me off the edge.

Strong titles remind me of welcome mats.

Whether it is the title of the manuscript or the title of a poem, it needs to be eye-catching and unique enough to pull the reader into the book. Titles are like headlines in a newspaper. Its job is to encourage people to read more. Would an untitled poem be stronger with a title? Would a poem title be more powerful if it didn’t repeat the first line of a poem? Sometimes repetition is good for emphasis. Sometimes the echo is annoying. Make each word count.

Previous winners of TOPS Golden Grassroots Chapbook Award

Previous winners of The Ontario Poetry Society’s (TOPS) Golden Grassroots Chapbook Award: 2009 – One Leaf In The Breath of the World by John B. Lee; 2011 – A Puzzle Map of the World by Dales Matthews (missing from the photo); 2013 – Un-Deferred: A Draft Dodger’s Wife Remembers by Ronnie R. Brown; 2015 – Tell Me Everything by Rayya Liebich; and 2017 – Chalk Dust Clouds by Debbie Okun Hill

The first poem in the manuscript must invite the reader inside.

It’s important not to lose the reader with the first stanza or line. This introductory poem can help to set the tone, introduce the theme, and/or heighten a person’s interest. This may be your only chance to pull in the reader.

The last poem (and line) must be so brilliant that it lights up your desk.

You want your work to be unforgettable. Leave the reader with a line that will stick to them like a burr on a Halloween sweater, or sparkle glue on a child’s palm!

A theme can elevate or deflate a manuscript.

I personally like themed chapbooks where poems are linked together by a similar topic to reinforce some vivid thought or image. However, I was also impressed by the way unrelated poems could be attached together like dominos to build the manuscript’s frame. Sometimes the way a manuscript is arranged is dictated by the subject matter. If all your poems sound the same, it can make for a boring collection. Add too much variety and the work can feel disjointed. It really comes down to balance. Some of the submitted manuscripts started off slow and then increased in strength. The danger here is that the manuscript can drag so much at the beginning that the reader fails to reach the more dramatic elements of the collection.

If you’re going to rhyme, ensure the rhymes aren’t forced!

Poetry is like music, like art, like dance. Trends in each discipline can and do change. Sometimes rhyming poems appear dated. Sometimes rhyming poems are refreshing in a pool of free verse submissions. If the writing is strong, it doesn’t matter what style of poetry you are writing. However, if you decide to break the rules, especially with form poetry, make sure the rhythm and flow of words scan smoothly. By the way, I did read some strong poems that rhymed but some were eliminated due to weaker elements and/or a competitor’s submission was stronger.

Read the work aloud.

Don’t be shy! I repeat. If you trip over a phrase or if the material does not scan smooth, fix it before submitting the manuscript. Watch the breath…where the line should start and where it should end. Sometimes a manuscript felt like two different books. Sometimes, the order of the poems felt disjointed.

Avoid clichés.

Find a cliché and out it goes. Familiar phrases and/or themes weaken a manuscript! The more original the subject matter, the more original the poetic language, the stronger the manuscript becomes. Try to turn abstractions like time and seasons (and even feelings like love, happiness, anger, pain, sorrow, and grief) into something fresh and unique using the five senses or details or rhythm that no one has ever used before.

Avoid excess, confusion, and the urge to preach.

Some poems felt like they needed to be edited. Narrative poems are fine but when they sound more like storytelling (without using any poetic devices), I’m concerned. On the other extreme, using too many metaphors or mixing up images can weaken a poem too. Should a poem be preachy? My thought is that the work should allow the reader to draw his/her/their own conclusions.

Adoration of the Unnecessary by John B Lee

John B. Lee’s manuscript Adoration of the Unnecessary won an Honourable Mention prize in TOPS 2015 Golden Grassroots Chapbook Award contest.

Watch the length.

A couple of submissions exceeded the 24 page maximum; some were too short. I still read the manuscripts but had there been a tie for an award, this minor detail would have tipped the prize into someone else’s favour.

No two poets are alike!

Write the poems and manuscript that only you can write. Carve out your own voice. Then move me emotionally or intellectually or both.

In the end, everyone is a winner!  

The literary world, like nature, like technology, like so many other communities, is evolving. What I like and how I judge a manuscript may be different from the next judge. We are all human with different preferences. If you enjoy playing with words, keep at it, and enjoy the process. If you are frustrated, take a break, try something new, and see where that leads you.

Now you be the judge!

They say it’s easier to judge someone else’s work than your own. I agree and disagree. It’s a huge responsibility to evaluate a poetic project when there are so many variables to consider. Try it sometime. You may also be surprised by the manuscripts you select.

Below are the submissions that won the top six prizes for the contest I was judging. I hope you will take the time to search out and read some of the poets’ work. All of the poets have had poems published in numerous books and/or other publications.

Congratulations to John B. Lee on his first prize win in The Ontario Poetry Society’s 2019 Golden Grassroots Chapbook Award.

John B Lee at the Lummox launch in Hamilton on October 18, 2015

John B. Lee’s manuscript My Sister Rides a Sorrow Mule won The Ontario Poetry Society’s 2019 Golden Grassroots Chapbook Award. The winning chapbook will be launched this autumn 2019.

First Prize:

My Sister Rides a Sorrow Mule

by John B. Lee, Port Dover, Ont.

A haunting trail of loss! From “My Sister Rides a Sorrow Mule” to “The Girl Who Could Not Push Back”, this collection of 13 longer poems not only knocks on the ribcage but leads the reader down creaking boards to historic haunts like Wordsworth’s grave where the cultivated daffodils/of early spring/have drooped and lost their meaning/like yellow rags/that over use themselves/by cleaning time. Travel to Stonehenge, Cuba, and a fatal crash scene. Meet a rope maker, a watchmaker, a homeless man, and a dancer. Beautifully written and mesmerizing with original metaphors and similes that un-wrap the rural geographic gauze on ancient secrets and ghostly images.

A Close Competition:

Congratulations to the following poets who won Honourable Mention Awards:

After Timoleague by K.V. Skene, Toronto, Ont.

The greyness, the dampness, and the trickle of rain lure the reader into the poet’s deep water of words rich with images and metaphors. An insightful geographic mix of poems about nature, place, people and thoughts. An authentic glimpse of quaint Irish settings across the ocean.

August on her Hands by Renée Sgroi, Whitby, Ont.

With a memorable scent of tomatoes and basil! Well-crafted and written, haunting in tone with the majority of poems rich in Italian culture and heart-felt emotion. Expect a few tears from the onions, the birth scars, and a woman’s secrets.

Nature’s Path by Alvin Ens, Abbotsford, B.C.

Tight writing using a variety of forms to metaphorically describe scenes between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Pull out your Canadian map and take a poetic trip across the country!

In Passing by Elizabeth McCallister, Brantford, Ont.

Bring out the tissue! Narrative and accessible with heartwarming childhood scenes and familial memories of bubble gum, biopsies, and death passing by. Vivid descriptions enhanced with pillow scents and traffic noise

The Edge of the Whisper-Surrounded World and Other Speculative Poems Hovering Between the Absurd and the Existential by J.J. Steinfeld, Charlottetown, P.E.I.

A familiar yet unfamiliar knock at the door! Highly original, imaginative, and thought-provoking, with an edgy superfluous voice that dangles between madness and sanity in a surreal and speculative world. Expect the unexpected, a puzzling whisper, and that inner brain stretch and strain to imagine the unimaginable.

Your comments

I would love to hear your criteria for judging a poetry manuscript. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section.

Otherwise, wishing you much success with your writing!



6 thoughts on “Behold the Characteristics of a Prize-Winning Poetry Chapbook

    1. d78hill Post author

      Thanks Gloria for your kind comments.! It was an honour and a great experience to read all the submissions. The more I read other writers’ work, the more I learn and appreciate the vast talent of others.

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