One of the handy perks of being an endlessly judgmental soul is that it makes the occasional assignment of judging a poetry contest that much easier. Faithful readers know that I took the First Place prize in the 2017 Stephen A. DiBiase Poetry Contest run by the charming Bob Sharkey. Along with the check for $500 (probably the MOST money I will ever receive in a lump sum in relation to poetry) came the opportunity to be one of the judges for the 2018 contest. Never one to say no when it comes to offering my opinion, I agreed.
Last week a fat packet of poems came in the mail from Bob, with detailed instructions on how to rank my selections. There were to be five top poems, in order of my preference, and five “close” poems, in no particular order. I opened the packet last night before I went to bed, and finished up around 6:00 a.m. this morning, with about six hours of sleep in between the two sessions. It seems I may be succumbing to the same illness my Beloved has suffered from for the last five days, so my all-night cough finally got me out of bed even earlier than he rises for work. Having the rest of the day ahead of me (alone, since the Beloved didn’t have President’s Day off), I turned the first page and began.
I’ll be honest. Rhyming poems turn me off immediately. Unless you are EE Cummings (and who of us is?), the lines become clumsy slaves to the pattern. There are also certain clichés that I read as danger signs as well: “moon,” “soul,” “Paradise.” Worn out notions like that. They were glorious around the time of Jesus and his gang, but nowadays, they are threadbare wisps of their former selves. Avoid them. The best way to do this is to end your line early. For example:
You and I together, in this green Paradise.
You and I together, in this green.
You get the idea. Find another way to say what’s been said before. And it’s all been said before. That is a big part of the fun of poetry for me.
I will also come clean and say that most mentions of a deity usually turn me off, generally because they almost always hover in the neighborhood of cliché. Something a little deeper, requiring some analogy to a church structure, is a legitimate use of the reference. Otherwise, it’s kind of lazy to let a god do your literary heavy lifting.
Even with all my idiosyncratic baggage, I easily found ten poems I liked, and even a couple more just out of the running. And for those of you who entered (and I can’t be sure, because the manuscripts came to me nameless), there are at least four more judges who might very well cancel out my choices. So, don’t worry if you employed one of the above mentioned strategies. There is still hope.
I was completely shocked when my poem, “Your Service,” won last year. It had undergone a gazillion rewrites, and I’ve probably rewritten it a couple more times since. Contests are more than a little like crap games. You roll the artistic die, and see what the Muses come up with. Mostly, I love that people are still writing poems in this crazy time. Keep writing. Keep entering contests. Keep being somebody other than cranky old me….