On judging and being judged

A couple of days ago I finished judging the annual poetry awards for the Science Fiction Poetry Association–a very otherworldly reading assignment! The following reflections on the experience appear in slightly more compressed form in the new issue of Star*Line and are reprinted here with permission. Thanks to the SFPA folks for inviting me to serve and to all the poets who participated. Spending time with their work gave me an interesting view on a literary universe I’m still learning about, and as you’ll see below, it also inspired some thinking about poetic judgment generally.

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Rejections are always showering down on me like micrometeoroids. Learning to tolerate the hail is a character-building aspect of being a poet. Sometimes disappointment burns; mostly I shrug it off. No poem pleases everyone, and besides, judges are fickle. Writing that seems dull one evening, when a reader is tired and grumpy, might glitter in the morning light. Or a triolet about spiders might land on the desk of a rhyme-hating arachnophobe. That is, there’s contingency involved, even when everyone involved is doing their best to read objectively. A poet has to do good work to win a contest, but you also have to be a little bit lucky.

I’m personally calmer about that luck factor now that I occasionally judge as well as suffer judgment. Most recently, selecting the SFPA contest winners, I wondered about my differences from previous arbiters. I didn’t find myself worrying, for example, about degrees of science fictionality. A haiku might only deploy a brief speculative trope but that was okay by me—whereas another judge might be a stickler.

Instead–and my former students will recognize these terms from workshops–I read, as I always read, for power, control, and complexity. By power I mean the energy some poems emanate, perhaps through emotional intensity, narrative suspense, or startling imagery. Sometimes a less-polished poem conveys more power than an exquisitely crafted one, but you can’t disperse prizes on potential—that’s where control comes in. When judging these entries, I reluctantly put aside some poems with heart when I realized line breaks didn’t make sense or cliché dragged down the description. Complexity takes various forms, but in short, good poems work through at least two problems simultaneously. Maybe it’s a human-alien love story in concert with an unusual take on the sonnet, or a folklore revision using hyper-scientific diction—in any case, there’s a lot going on linguistically, emotionally, intellectually, and/ or structurally.

Last week I received three packets of poems stripped of identifying features and had to process them quickly. Over many pots of tea, I marked intriguing poems with sticky notes, took head-clearing walks, and read them again. Sometimes I realized the ending of an otherwise good poem was just too predictable; sometimes verses that had seemed marginal grew on me. I didn’t recognize any writer by his or her style or obsessions and was surprised to learn later that some quite different poems were by the same person. I also had no idea so many of the winning pieces were authored by women and don’t know how that stacks up to the entry pool, proportionally, but given that most of the publishing world tilts the other way (see VIDA for details), that result seems like a good thing. Several entries barely missed an honorable mention—so if you entered but didn’t get named a winner, ask a smart friend to read your piece with a critical eye, then tune it up and get it back into circulation. And as I said above, all judges have moods and idiosyncrasies, so I may simply have failed to render your brilliance appropriate homage.

Among the Dwarf poems, I admired the surreal situation and resonant ending of “Anomaly,” the imagistic freshness of “Methane Snowfall,” and the way “Crater Conundrum Pizza” riffs both on ad-speak and time paradoxes. Among the Short Form entries, “Metis Emits” delighted me with sound play and feisty sweetness. “Phone Tree” and “Some Who Wander Become Lost” juxtapose the mythic against the mundane, the first with wit, the second darkly. (The Short Form category, by the way, received more entries than the other two put together and so offered the stiffest competition: sf poets, keep that in mind for next year!) The three Long Form winners are very different from one another: “Transference” unfolds a complex sf premise in vivid language; in “Arizona Rest Stop” a lively voice projects a wild tale; and the weird sonnet crown “Comet Elm” is formally impressive.

I congratulate the winners but know others will judge the judge benighted—I rarely agree with other referees’ selections, after all. Fortunately, however, SFPA judges change annually, so next year you can take your chances with a different barbarous, stardust-battered hominid. Engage and allons-y!

2 thoughts on “On judging and being judged

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