Poetry Competition (April 2011) Judge’s Report

by Andy Willoughby

andy willoughby_thumbJudging a poetry competition is never easy, especially when the standard is high and the diversity of form and subject is wide-ranging which were both factors this time, I’m pleased to say. Of course one can’t be merely subjective on making decisions either, so I’ll explain my process a little as it may help future entrants, then I’ll focus on what I liked in the winners and some of the highly commended and commended poems.

First I eliminated poems that had obvious flaws in style and presentation. Poems that were for no discernible reason centre-aligned, for example, or their form was unlinked to their meaning. Then poems that were purely personal and focused on the poets’ feelings without working out how to connect to the reader, they told too much, didn’t contain anything concrete to connect to or were in a rhyme-led state where the chosen rhyme and even more importantly, the rhythm jarred with the emotional intention. I’d advise writers to do the following things to get past the first stage of judgement:

(1) Ask yourself if the poem’s words and form are creating a feeling you have in a reader you have never met, not merely reporting on your own feelings. (2)Remember it’s often better to suggest than to declare. (3) Does the poem engage the reader’s senses as well as their intellect? (4) Check your work for the use of cliché or easy phrases that are not sharp enough to take your reader anywhere new. (5) Check the verbosity of the poems – have you fallen in love with your own loquaciousness and packed too much in for the reader to settle on the image or the main intention of the poem? Cut and cut again unless verbal dexterity is the main point of your poem. Remember Eliot’s dictum of “the best possible words in the best possible order.” If this means cutting your favourite phrase or line because it unbalances the overall effect of the poem then so be it. (6) Finally it doesn’t impress a judge or judges if you haven’t typed up your work or have not left-aligned the poems unless you have a very good reason like writing a concrete poem or a Cummings type typographical experiment.

After the initial cull, I was left with forty poems all of decent quality and the work became very hard, there was some good stuff I was going to have to lose! I looked at more subtle differentiations – was the word order slightly jarring? Was the metre flawed in poems of set forms or did the less formal entries lose the quality of musical cadence and contain moments of flat prose to no good effect? I looked at line breaks, the odd remaining cliché and signs of further editing being possible.

I was left with twenty poems. All of which I would have published in a magazine if I were editing. Now it was really tough – I checked my gut reaction, I looked for the over-influence of other voices, were these poems original enough? Did they move as well as engage me – not sentimentally but on another level? Did they make me see the world anew for a moment? Did they pack a punch or induce a shiver? Did they contain a mystery in their silences that was powerful not confusing? I weighed up social and personal weight, I read them all out loud to a couple of other writers to gage their reactions. I got it down to sixteen, knowing the poems I had excluded were still good, they just didn’t measure up to the impact of the others.

Then I had to pick out the six poems for high commendation – it was out of 8 for me. It was hard but I managed it – though I knew I was now in the area of personal taste. How do you compare two good poems – one about an animal with one about losing a brother, a short poem with a longer one, when the quality is very high? I managed it, though to be honest all of the final sixteen could have been highly commended on another day.

However the winner was clear for me and the second and third came so close they were almost interchangeable. Here’s what I loved about them:

The Living Business of a Badger (by Ellie Evans) was my winner – within its 40 lines and two sections it managed to encapsulate a whole relationship, a particular one while also bringing home to the reader the general sense of motherhood. It was concise and clear in its images and in the initial flow of metaphor it avoided cliché it made it new. When it moved into more narrative form in the second section it placed us enough so we were in the writer’s world with a fine precision and juxtaposition of detail. It broke its form in the last four lines but this was for a specific effect. It worked. Then finally it used its imagery to help us experience the unnamed central feeling of the piece and of the writing of it rather than explain it. The poem had taken a particular feeling of the writer – one almost beyond language and connected it to the reader who is not a mother, it both de-familiarises to make new and evokes empathy. This is a poem that will last with the feeling of a lifetime experience in it. A poem about parent and child without sentimentality, that is also about poetic practice itself.

In second place I chose The World is Flat (by Catherine Edmunds) – it is a more minimalistic poem but still for me was incredibly moving. This time I was fascinated by something I found hard to put my finger on – like watching Beckett sometimes. I liked the way the poem moves from the general to a very particular image and voice in a moment of epiphany. It contains much subtext, its silences are pregnant. It has a deceptive resonance that has as much to do with what has been left out as with what is included. It haunted me.

In third place I picked Darling Sleep (by Tabitha Joy) – again it compresses and pressurises its language and suggests a much bigger hinterland of love and relationship, it deals with subject matter that could easily fall into cliché or unbalanced emotion but it is managed with such precision in language and form that it skilfully avoids these traps. It maintains a mystery but gives us enough to feel the experience in a way that prose could not manage.

I can see that a common thread in my top three this time is that they all deal with human relationships and show how the most ordinary experience is unique and in fact extraordinary – they illuminate the hidden, pull back the mask of the commonplace to reveal vast space and suggest a territory outside language, beyond the poems themselves.

The three highly commended poems touched on this too, as did many of the commended but all are very different in the subjects and approach.

I really liked the way Kaleidoscope (by Ayoola Oyeniyi) summoned the dead, created a personal moment that was also a portrait of a society in crisis. It has magic.

Jackie Scribbles Rides Again (by E.K. Wall) is a precise and entertaining social character portrait that moves skilfully between humour and pathos.

Finally Death in Inverness (by Bruce Gardner) manages to condense a lifetime of fraternal relationship into five tightly rhymed quatrains – formally skilful and highly moving.

All the commended poems were original and possessed strong voices, all could easily have won another competition with another judge, on another day. It was very heartening to see the quality of writing out there amongst readers of Sentinel Literary Quarterly and the final poems will make a stunning anthology of very original work.

Andy Willoughby