No Good News: Notes from a Second Round Reader, or Why Judging Poetry Contests Depresses Me

This is a continuation of previous posts called Notes from a First Round Reader. This year, by reason of computer glitch and miscommunication which led to a slight sense of desperation on the part of the publisher, I was asked to be a second round reader. This time I’m to review a dozen or so of the manuscripts that have filtered up from the First Rounders. I’m to pick two or three to be sent up to the Powers That Be. I am one of four people with this task. Terrified with power, I quickly sweep through the first several poems of each manuscript. I more slowly read several more poems in each manuscript. Damn. There is not a damn thing wrong with any of these. If I were to encounter any of them between the covers of a nice looking book, I’d be perfectly content. None of my snarky “Really?”s, none of my “What the…?” or “Are you freaking kidding me?” These are all fine manuscripts. DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS? Not only am I going to have trouble picking three, it also means that I now even more profoundly understand the competition when I send my own manuscripts out.

In the face of a dozen perfectly fine manuscripts, I must now try to identify factors that raise a few above the crowd. Now I’m searching for innovative, imaginative approaches — to language, to subject matter, to perspective or approach. I’m looking for something special, new (or, new to me), something to make me say Wow. Mere thoughtful autobiography is not enough, however lovely; musings on motherhood not enough, however, witty or gritty; that death comes to us all — insufficient; the way herons drag desire across a marsh, no; inexplicable juxtapositions of nonsensical utterances however whimsical, nope. I’m looking for guts and invention, for idea and blood.

And all the while I’m nursing a terrible sinking feeling that my poems do NOT yet have that something special, my collections are NOT yet innovative, inventive, or addressing something particularly compelling or in compelling ways. I HAVE TO UP MY GAME. Oh. Large sigh. Damn you, fine poets. Can’t you just go write fiction?

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2 thoughts on “No Good News: Notes from a Second Round Reader, or Why Judging Poetry Contests Depresses Me

  1. You are right that this entire process is daunting…And the second-reader stage is where the rubber meets the road. Where the reader realizes how much personal taste does factor into the process. One person’s idea of “new” is another person’s idea of “already been done.” My idea of “moving” is another person’s idea of “I don’t need this.” Your reveling in the imagery’s fresh take on reality leaves me craving more intellect. On and on it goes: our roiling, evolving, shifting perceptions…And a roiling, evolving population of readers and editors and judges decides what will be committed next year in ink onto some ground-down-and-then-pressed-into-the-form-of-pages. A book. And oh how we hunger to become one of them, the books.

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  2. Pingback: New Notes from a First Round Reader | Marilynonaroll's Blog

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