How to Judge a Poetry Contest

Okay, I’ll admit it, everyone is different in this regard, so I ought to just title this “How I’m Judging the Davenport Poetry Prize for Knox College.” There, now that I’ve included the name, some enterprising Knox students googling my name or their school, might stumble upon this page. That’s all right. I promise not to reveal the winners nor those who won’t win. With 21 entries, there’s only one thing for certain: 18 people won’t go home with a cash award.

This is a small contest (in terms of numbers). I’ve judged bigger ones with more entries, but my method is about the same. One of my first goals is to read everyone’s poem a couple of times. Another goal is to fool myself into making a decision, because it isn’t easy to disappoint 18 out of 21 people. They are all people, after all. And all of those people are poets. So how to decide?

My method is to start sorting. Initially, I”m not looking for who’s in the top three coveted spots. That would be too daunting. Instead, I’m looking for whose poems strike me as worth another look. But rather than sorting into two piles (again, too daunting), I sort into 3-4 piles: Very good chance, good chance, maybe not, quite likely not. So far, I only have 3 piles, though I haven’t decided what to call them yet.

When I have made it through the stack once, I will go back through each pile again and sort until I end up with 2/3 in one part and 1/3 in the other. I like to read most poems at least twice, since I find my initial reaction to a poem may depend on when I read it or how I reacted to the poem before it. Sorting helps me to look at poems in different orders and different contexts. Reading a poem a second or third time, I usually see it better than the first time, though initial impressions are often true (but not always). Some poems get three or four readings at this stage as I weigh which pile they ought to be in.

One aspect of the Davenport prize is that the next round involves conferencing with students. Everyone’s work has merit, and I wouldn’t mind talking with any of these poets. But my time is limited, and 14 half-hour conferences will likely take me more than 7 hours, figuring some time in between, breaks, lunch, etc. This will be spread out over two days, and I’ll also be giving a reading, for which I’ll need to prepare.

So what am I looking for in a prize-winning or even conference-eligble poem? I’d like to find some lines that I wish I would have written in a poem that I would never think to write. Vivid imagery is one way to achieve that; another is interesting use of rhythm and sound. Ideally, there’s some of both. I appreciate unity and concise language (even in a long poem). Ultimately the poems I’ll gravitate to are the ones that reward multiple readings as I go back through them to prepare for the conferences. For that to happen, the poet also has to have something to say. I don’t mean I want a didactic poem (though I’m not averse to it), but I want to feel what the poet feels, and I want a poem that still gives me something to think about after I’ve read it several times. I’ve seen several poems that have this potential. It will take more time with them all before I know for sure which will rise to the top.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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