For several years I have served as a first round reader for a national poetry book prize. This means that the publisher has some faith in my astuteness and sensibilities as a reader of poetry such that they will entrust to me the job of nosing through piles of submissions to identify the five or six or so that should go on to the second round readers (who will identify a few to move up to the final committee). I read anywhere from 20-35, depending on the number of entrants and the number of first round readers. Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way:
Faced with up to 30-35 manuscripts, my process was to read a handful of poems at the beginning, two or three in the middle, and two or three at the end. In this way I quickly sorted the mss into three piles: Yes, No, and Maybe. If I was not captured steadily by the poems I read, the ms went to the No pile. If every poem I encountered held something of interest, it got a yes. If there was promise but some unevenness in my response, it went to Maybe. I then reviewed each pile to check my response a second time rereading the first poems I’d read, and reading some more. I almost never moved a No to Maybe of Yes, but occasionally moved a Maybe to Yes. Then all the Yesses got a complete scrutiny to find the handful I thought should go to a second round reader.
Here’s what I’ve found:
– The first poem is very important. And the next few. And the ones in the middle, and the ones at the end…oh, heck, every single poem is important. Not one poem can be a throwaway or a filler.
– There are really competent writers writing boring work, and there not very competent writers with really interesting ideas. The Maybe pile was the most heartbreaking because it contained these two cohorts. I learned that I have to bring together the best of my art and craft with a really good idea.
– Themed collections are no better than unthemed. It has been trendy to create themed collections, and they are often fun to read, but I did not find myself choosing them over a more random-seeming collection. My choices were all about the quality of the poems on the whole. A collection didn’t necessarily have to cohere, as long as every poem was fresh and interesting.
– Imaginative + vivid + fully felt = winning combination. By imaginative, I mean evidence of a lively mind at work. By vivid, I mean something special in the language (my preference) or the form or the approach. By fully felt, I mean some emotional gravitas. Any one of these without the others was not enough.
– The sensibility of the press is important, but may be broader than one might think. The contest I read for tends toward lyric poetry, does not tend to produce l.a.n.g.u.a.g.e-y work, and generally could be considered to be conservative in its tastes. But it also has published some somewhat more experimental work. It has been my own sense, and I have heard this echoed by other readers, that we are each aware of our prejudices about the kind of poetry we like, and we deliberately try to keep an open mind, and to find reasons to say Yes to a collection rather than No.