Reflections on a Poetry Contest

I am in the Moline airport, heading back to Mississippi after two wonderful days at Knox College, judging the Davenport poetry prize. In reflecting back on the experience, I am first struck by how much fun it was. The best part for me, besides getting to spend time at my alma matter and hanging out with Robin Metz and Liz, was spending time with students in half-hour conferences. These conferences really gave me the chance to get to know the students better and to better appreciate their poetry. Of course, my judgments had to be made prior to the conferences, based solely on the poems that I read with no knowledge of the poet. I enjoyed everyone’s poems and found strong moments in all of them. I also tried to point out areas in everyone’s poems that might use work, acknowledging that  sometimes these are very personal choices, but ones that shouldn’t be made too easily, and issues that the poets may want to work on in new poems.

So, how did the process I described in my last post work out in the end? The contest judging turned out about as I expected. Two of the top prizes went to poets whose work struck me on first read, but one was a poet whose work on first reading hadn’t stood out. With further reflection and after reading it a second time, her work grew on me, and I was happy to award her a prize. The ones I focused on initially managed to keep my interest throughout the process. So my method of sorting and reshuffling the poems worked for me to give a new, fresh look and/or confirm my first impressions.

I read all the poems I was given at least three times, and often several more times. I read them at least twice before making my initial decision of who to conference with, and then at least once or twice more as I prepared my comments for conferences. It was only at this point that I made the final decisions about who would receive a prize and who would receive honorable mention.

And I must say that the competition was very stiff. Most of the poems that I read were polished, and many would be worthy of a prize, yet only three could get the top prizes, and I decided three was a reasonable number for honorable mentions, though I did feel it was appropriate to honor everyone who had taken the effort and the risk to enter. They are all poets, as I told them, and all ought to be proud of their accomplishments.

Nonetheless, I am pleased with my selections. I did my best to judge based on a cold reading of three poems. My goal was not to judge the entrants as poets, only to judge their entries as poems. If I had it to do over again, I would come to the same decisions. And yet the first lesson any of these young poets needs to learn about contests is that they are subjective. That is to say, it is the decision of one poet on one submission at one point in time, and if you changed any of these factors, the decision might be different.

The language in one poet’s poems that to me felt just a little too sensational, might to another judge have just the right level of edginess. The formal experimentation in another poet’s poems that to me might have gotten in the way of my reading, may have taken the fancy of a judge whose own work leaned towards a similar use of typography. You can’t take the poet out of the judge, in other words, and there is and never will be a perfect decision.

That said, I feel any of the poems I selected would have fared well in most other judges’ rankings, though another judge may have gone a slightly different way. The shade of difference in the top ten or so entries was not so great that the choice was obvious or easy. And that was the greatest thrill for me in the judging part of the process, since it asked me to carefully weigh what is most important to me in a poem.

I must confess that I am drawn to subtle poems and have a harder time with poems that are brash or flashy. Some poets may have chosen those poems from their portfolios, hoping that they would do better in a contest because they would get the judge’s attention. Another time, that strategy may have paid off.

As is true for most poets, I am moved by vivid imagery and a poem that seems grounded in sincere emotion. But most of the poems I read had this to a greater or lesser extent. Beyond these qualities, that I hate to call basics but will instead name essentials, poems that worked well with the sounds and rhythms of their language affected me. But ultimately, the main concern that differentiated poems for me was the attention paid to the subtleties of sentence structure and syntax. The logic of the poem, both on the macro level of the meanings of words and on the micro level of the syntactical glue that holds them together (and in what order or pattern), made the difference to me in a poem that was nearing a professional level — and many of the poems I read could easily be published; the top poems read like ones I would expect to find in an anthology.

Is syntax the most important aspect of a poem, then? Hardly. But image and music are probably the areas of poetry that get the most focus in a workshop setting. I found, as I find with my own students, that Knox poets are quite sophisticated in image and are beginning to listen to the music of their poems. Grammar is an area that may be harder to notice. Beyond being grammatically correct, is a poem structured in the most effective syntactical way?  How to address this in a workshop setting? Yet the phrasing of the sentence across the line and the phrasing of sentences in relation to one another creates the most vital rhythms of a poem, especially of a free verse poem that does not rely on meter. Or that is where one of my interests in poetry lies, and that interest is reflected in my choices and in the comments I made on my selection.

So, if you are a Knox poet who won a prize or didn’t, bear that in mind as you weigh the results of this contest. It is an issue I tried to raise in nearly every conference, and it is an issue with which we as poets must constantly struggle and constantly improve. And remember, if you whether or not you were one of the lucky three, the results will be different next time. The first lesson of the writer is to keep writing. If you win a prize or if your work is published: be happy! Then get back to work. And if your work is not so chosen, move past it and keep writing. Everyone I talked with at Knox seems dedicated to their craft, so I have no doubt they will keep at it. And there will be more rewards in the future. Yet the greatest reward is one they already have, a community of writers who inspire (and yes also sometime compete with) each other. I like to think that the Davenport prizes foster that healthy competition and collaboration. It is one of the things I most value about my Knox education, and one reason I was so glad to once more briefly be a part of the Knox campus community.

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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