More Advice from Poetry Contest Judges

Who licks the gold stars/Decides on the winner,/The one who rises to/The next level? –Debbie Okun Hill from the poem “Licking Glue from Gold Stars”*

Behold the various opinions of poetry contest judges!

When I was an elementary school student, the grade one teacher would place a shiny gold star on any assignment deserving top marks. Sometimes, for special occasions, she would replace the star with a seasonal sticker such as a jack-o-lantern, a holiday wreath, and/or a bright red valentine. Oh, how this little reward was intended to motivate classmates to do their best! Not once did I ever doubt the teacher’s ability to judge.

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However, over time, I’ve discovered that to judge another person’s work is a huge responsibility, sometimes it’s subjective depending on the judge’s preferences, and when it comes to evaluating poetry, it’s not an easy task.

Earlier this summer, I posted a blog feature outlining my criteria or rough guidelines for blind-judging and selecting My Sister Rides A Sorrow Mule by John B. Lee as the a prize-winning poetry chapbook for a recent contest. See the blog post here. Upon sharing the information, I asked for opinions from other contest judges.

Below are the responses I received:

From Becky Alexander, Contest Judge for The Ontario Poetry Society’s 2017 Golden Grassroots Poetry Chapbook Contest and the publisher of Craigleigh Press:

Becky Alexander - author photo by SJ White - 2019

Contest Judge – Becky Alexander Photo by SJ White

 In judging chapbooks, I look for:

  • an appropriate title: does it fit the book? is it clever/original in some way, e.g.: play on words/ concepts;
  • strong writing;
  • language that is smooth and flowing—can I ‘get into the poem’ and feel what the poet felt?
  • lack of cliches/or cliches deliberately used in an original way
  • some light: not all ‘doom and gloom’: I think poetry readers need to feel uplifted after reading a poem, not flung into the depths of despair; but ‘bittersweet’ is highly regarded as it leaves an aftertaste
  • unity: does each poem ‘fit’ the book, or is it evident that some poems were just thrown in at the last minute to fill the required page limit?
  • readability: do I want to read this one a second, third, etc. time, or just toss it aside and force myself to read it later to be a fair judge?
  • attention to the rules: it doesn’t matter how good the book may be, but if the contest rules are broken, out she goes!
  • and as you stated in your article, rhyme is fine. I actually love good rhyme, but it must be well-crafted, with no bumps or holes due to forcing a word to end a line; my favourite all-time rhymed poem is “Along the Line of Smoky Hills” by our great Confederation poet William Wilfred Campbell. I memorized this one in Grade 5, and it is what got me fascinated with poetry.
  • no ‘ugly’ poems: I once read a dark poem about the death of an elephant: it was so grim and repugnant that I couldn’t get it out of my head for ages; the message in that poem could have been delivered in a gentler and less shocking manner: simply put, done more eloquently, while still getting the sadness across. That poem spoiled the rest of that chapbook for me. I think that a poet should want the reader to remember a poem based on its grace, not its horror.: just my opinion, but remembering the great poems studied in High School (like “David” by Earle Birney, and “Richard Cory”, by Edwin Arlington Robinson) I think my point is understandable.

PLEASE NOTE (ADDED AUGUST 31, 2019): Becky Alexander will be the judge for The Ontario Poetry Society’s The World Around Us Chapbook Anthology Contest. She will be looking for individual poems on a nature theme. The deadline for submissions is September 30, 2019. More information here.

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From David Stones, winner of the Brooklin Poetry Society’s inaugural poetry contest and Contest Judge for the society’s second annual contest which closed at the end of July:

Let me begin by being a wee bit provocative….. Although I enter poetry contests and have been doing quite well from a success standpoint, I find the concept of judging works of art and attaching scores to be rather distressing and antithetical to the spirit of the creative process. There’s a reason why many world class sommeliers eschew scoring systems for wine and why theatre and movie reviewers refuse to use star or rating systems.

Poetry DOH Author Shot 2 The Poet

Contest Judge – David Stones

Art, surely, is subjective. It’s maybe trite to say it, but surely the validity and efficacy of art, its inner beauty, if you will, is in the eye of the beholder. I respect totally every poem I read and the passion and intent of the person who created it. It takes courage to put your thoughts down on paper, even more to share them with others. So I start by saluting all poets who take the time to blacken pages and particularly those who share their work, whether around a kitchen table, behind a podium, with a prospective publisher, or on a stage.

Keep doing what you’re doing because all your work is beautiful, no matter what others may think. To create strategically constructed art is uniquely and wonderfully part of the human experience. Let’s always celebrate that.

All this being said, at least on a personal level, as writers we all know that there are qualities or features that generally make some poems more effective and memorable than others.

2nd Annual Brooklin Poetry Society poetry contest

So I’ll be looking for some specifics as I evaluate and assess the entries that I’ve now received.

Here’s the shorthand:

1) Poems are vehicles of communication. I’ll be looking for the intent or purpose of the poem. What was the writer’s objective in composing the piece? What appears to be the intended message, if any, and how well is it communicated? Obscurity, intended or otherwise, will be penalized;

2) From a technical standpoint I’ll consider the structure of the poem and how well the chosen vessel suits the message. Economy of words, meter, cadence, syllable and beat counts, enjambment and line breaks will enter the mix here. If the poem is intended to be of a particular form, then it has to follow the technical requirements of that genre. Superficial structure incongruent to content is not a good thing;

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3) Poems, of course, are words arranged on a page, so word choice will be another key differentiator for me. Unique, inventive word choices that communicate clearly while creating engaging and memorable images will be the winners. Trite phrases or avoidable clichés will result in downgrades. Imaginative assonance, similes, metaphors and unexpected words, these will stay with me and earn a higher rating;

4) Considering the previous three categories of criteria, I’ll be looking for originality: of intent and message; of technical design and execution; and of use of language. I really rank originality high on my list of “musts.”…….That’s a summary, not a complete list by any means.

And one more thought on this topic: wouldn’t it be interesting to have a poetry contest judged for once by non-poets, by people who know very little about poetry as artistic craft but understand, as all humans do, what communicates clearly with them, what resonates with them, what moves them emotionally and intellectually? As poets we constantly submit our work to be judged by fellow poets and professional arbiters of poetic standards. I might suggest that a contest judged by non-poets, by people who seldom read poetry, would yield winning entries very different than those chosen by the intelligentsia of the poetry community. They’d choose what communicated to them and moved them deeply.

Thank you Becky and David for your insight!

More information about Becky Alexander and Craigleigh Press can be found here. Also watch this blog’s event page for the September launch (information coming soon) for her latest book.

More information about David Stones and his October 20th performance in Stratford can be found here on my blog post as well as on his website.

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So there you have it! Two more opinions!

As autumn approaches, may you jump back into your writing with the enthusiasm of a child leaping into a pile of freshly-raked leaves! Whether you decide to enter a literary contest or not, find ways to be original and to challenge yourself.

As my poem “Licking Glue from Gold Stars”* concludes: Yesterday I wandered/through the dollar store/forty years older still asking questions/amazed to find a package of stars/peel n’ stick, no more licking glue/wishing I had a loonie to purchase them/pass them around so no one would be left out.*

Hope you have a great long weekend!

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*The poem “Licking Glue from Gold Stars” was first published on The Ontario Poetry Society website October 25, 2007 to present and reprinted in Swaddled in Comet Dust: A Collection of Award-winning Poems by Debbie Okun Hill, Beret Days Press, 2008. 

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