Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Role of Judges in Poetry Contests - Behind the Scenes

The strange and angst ridden position of the judge


Today with the historic decision by the Supreme Court Justices on health care for the nation, I decided to finally share my experiences as a poetry judge for one national and one international contest. A few weeks ago I promised to write about my experiences judging two poetry contests in just as many weeks. Before the experience fades too much behind me, I thought I better offer some thoughts.

1. Judges are just like you and me. They have good days and bad days. Sometimes a poem might hit her between the eyes and she knows "this is the one" and other days it's a struggle between poem a, poem, b, or poem c. For one of the contests I judged I knew the winner as soon as I read the poem - it knocked the top of my head off. However, with the other contest I struggled mightily between two top choices. Honestly, they were of equal merit and on another day I might have picked a different winner.

2. In most cases, the judge reads only a small sampling of the contest entries turned in. This was true for me with both contests. Although 125 -250 entries were submitted, I read only about 15% of the submissions and other poets read the rest deciding which they believed had the most merit. Certainly if I had not found strong poems in this batch, I could have asked the contest organizers to see all of the poems, but that wasn't necessary and I trusted the process. Still, it was good to know I had options.

3. Famous names mean nothing when the names are taken off the poems. There is a great democratic sense when the names come off the poems. In both cases, the poets I chose had not published a full length collection and had few publications to their names. Their work was chosen on its merits - and the more "famous" poets weren't the winners this time.

4. On average, I read each poem twice through carefully --- sometimes more. I read the poems as one group when they first arrived, eager to see if the winning poem would announce itself right then. I then divided the poems into two groups, the poems I was interested in as winners and the poems that didn't stay with me. I waited a day and read each pile again hoping to see the work with new eyes. No poems moved over from the "interested" group to the "didn't stay with me" group or vice versa. However, my interest in certain individual poems did change. I say the poems got at least two readings, but that doesn't include the careful readings of the screeners before the poems were sent to me.

5. Shorter poems made me happy. I am the fan of the poem that fits on a page. Perhaps it's my short attention span, but if the poem goes on too long I can't help editing out its weaker sections as I read it. In both cases I chose poems that were 40 lines or less. Some contests seem to like a longer, meatier poem, but I think in general the one page rule is a good guide.

6. Poems with interesting subjects and word choices. It's easy for poems to start looking alike after awhile. A poem about a subject other than love, death, family, or your garden would automatically earn you some extra attention. For some reason, there were an amazing amount of poems that were a new genre to me: the break-up poem. These poems had an automatic tension as in --- are we really breaking up? Can we have sex one more time? Maybe we should get married instead? I'm thinking an anthology of break-up poems would be a great project.

7. Choose to send your poems that take risks. In each contest I judged, all the poems that were sent on to me were quite competent. However, competent is not enough to win a contest. The poems that startled me, that made me want to read them and re-read them, the poems that could not be nailed to a chair in terms of their meaning --- for this judge, those were the poems that stood out.

I think having had these two experiences back to back allowed me to understand firsthand that sending to a contest is really no different than sending a submission to a journal. Acceptance or rejection is not a given and each judge has different tastes and predilections. If you believe in the poem, someone else might too. Challenge yourself to enter a few contests this summer. Try to choose ones that provide a copy of the journal (or book) for the price of submission. That way you get a sense of that particular judge's aesthetic. Remember, most contests change judges each year.


  1. Thanks so much for your insights and advice. You are compassionate and understanding as a poet yourself, and straightforward about what grabs you as a reader, and as a reader in the particular position of being a judge! Also, I love the wig.

    1. Thanks, Kathleen -- And especially for noticing the wig!

  2. Thank you so much for letting me know this was useful and that the long search for the right image was worth it!

  3. Susan, yours was the second piece I read yesterday that touched on judging poetry and I was intrigued by the fact that both suggested boldly taking risk wins out over polished work. Enjoyed your reflections and blogged on it lat night. Thanks for sharing. Have a great weekend!

  4. Thanks, Michael;
    I am curious what the other piece is that you read on contest judging? Always interested in more insight -- thanks for reading!

  5. Susan- I was speaking of the Mary Biddinger interview by Victoria Chang. You will fin it here: