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Katlin Profile
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Reading Poetry for Contests


Not sure if this is kosher or not, but a friend sent me a copy of an essay that was attached to a rejection letter she received from a book contest she entered, and I thought if might be of interest to some of you:

Reading Poetry for Contests by Jeffrey Skinner

The first “first” reading I did was for Daniel Halpern, who ran the National Poetry Series. My
colleague in this task was Henri Cole, and we were each given 500 manuscripts, from which we were
to cull around thirty. I found it very difficult. Unless the poetry was obviously, glaringly inept (titles
like Reflections or Poems of Love were a tip-off; the first lines of the first poems were all one had to read
of these), I felt duty-bound to plow through at least five poems in the beginning and five at the end
of the manuscript. It’s amazing how long just such a reading takes when the desk is piled with five
hundred densely packed envelopes. But many of the manuscripts were interesting or teasing enough
that I read even deeper. MFA writing programs were firmly ensconced at this point, and very
popular. So the percentage of “sophisticated” manuscripts was high, though not as high as today.
Every so often I’d glance over at Henri, who was moving at warp speed—barely did he draw a book
from its manila casing before he was sheathing it back in. Apparently he knew something I didn’t.

Now, after more than thirty years of judging contests and teaching creative writing, I can
more easily and rapidly discern the truly good from the half-good, and then, in the case of the last
culling, the exceptional from the truly good. It is a matter of experience. The top ten percent of any
pile of manuscripts fairly leap out of the pile. This, in spite of the fact that the number of writing
programs has grown exponentially since my work with the National Poetry Series, and sophistication is
an over-abundant quality.

Every generation has its mode. In my seventies and eighties generation it was the very sincere
lyric/narrative hybrid. The current generation has absorbed a greater range of influences, but its
mode is characterized by such postmodern tropes as disjunction and an absence of the un-ironic I.
Irony, in fact, seems the only sure thing on the contemporary landscape. As always, one has to look
beyond (underneath?) the gestures of the current mode to find the exceptional.

When I’m doing the final reading I look for those manuscripts that involuntarily engage me;
I read for thirty pages or more without thought of comparison or judgment. I suddenly realize I’ve
stepped outside of the whole book-contest business. I’ve not been reading evaluatively; I’ve been
reading poetry, and my consciousness belonged wholly to the poet. This is rare, and it is the surest
way I know I’ve run into the real thing. Later, when I do step back and consider such writing as
writing
, of course I can find the poet’s influences and lineage; I can name his or her attributes, and
weaknesses.

But it’s the first stunned, thoughtless engagement that tells me I have found real poetry.
Jun/12/2012, 8:14 pm Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
Christine98 Profile
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Re: Reading Poetry for Contests


Well it all makes good sense and may be helpful to [sign in to see URL]... my overwhelming impulse was to slap the snot out of this Jeffrey Skinner guy. Go figure,

Chris
Jun/12/2012, 10:26 pm Link to this post Send Email to Christine98   Send PM to Christine98
 
Katlin Profile
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Re: Reading Poetry for Contests


LOL Thanks for telling it as you see it, Chris. What about Skinner's 'tude irked you the most? He kind of reminds me of that old definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. In one sense that's true, but then so much depends on the I/eye of the beholder.
Jun/13/2012, 9:45 am Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 
Christine98 Profile
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Re: Reading Poetry for Contests


Actually Kat, on second reading, he makes some very good points. The point re: "sophisticated" writing resulting from enrollment in MFA programs and the description of "involuntary engagement" which "truly good" writing elicits. Also, looking "[sign in to see URL] gestures of the current mode..."

Maybe it's the implied confidence in his ability to make all these distinctions that annoyed me. The infallibility of his own judgement-- emoticon Something like that...

Chris

Jun/13/2012, 1:28 pm Link to this post Send Email to Christine98   Send PM to Christine98
 
Terreson Profile
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Re: Reading Poetry for Contests


Funny. I didn't take "sophistication" as a compliment actually. But that could be me. I have come to devalue sophistication in poetry as being a bit aenemic, if not down right bloodless. And I can spot it immediately. When I do I know I am dealing with a smooth operator, a poet for whom the well crafted word is paramount, duende of moment subordinated. I can name more than a couple regularly winning IBPC poets who strike me in this way. What was it Cocteau said? Something like when we are pleased with our work it usually means it reminds us of something, some poet we've learned and admired.

But I guess it depends upon what is meant by sophisticated. To me Neruda is sophisticated. Lorca is sophisticated. And I can't see either of them today winning poetry contests at least in North America or Britian.

Thanks, Kat.

Tere
Jun/14/2012, 6:36 pm Link to this post Send Email to Terreson   Send PM to Terreson
 
vkp Profile
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Re: Reading Poetry for Contests


I feel that Skinner is not saying that sophisticated is good poetry, but that it can seem "goodish" in comparison to dreck, and that is what used to distract him when he was young and inexperienced. Then, I feel as if he's saying he figured out the 'secret' that his friend Henri knew, that you have to stop thinking evaluatively, and comparing one poet to another, before you can actually "evaluate" poems. You need to know it's poetry first. It's like when Terreson says to a poet, "This is a poem." He figured out it was a poem before the thought of feedback becomes paramount, or even enters the equation.

That's the challenging thing about reading work on a board where people want feedback. You don't want to accidentally slip into "evaluative" mode at the expense of enjoyment, in other words don't let critique get in the way of revelry. But even if Skinner is being arrogant (and I may have missed it -- but am too lazy to reread the essay to find out where I may have gone wrong), I kinda get his point. Unless I missed his point. Always a possibility.
vkp
Jun/26/2012, 7:20 pm Link to this post Send Email to vkp   Send PM to vkp Blog
 
Katlin Profile
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Re: Reading Poetry for Contests


That's the challenging thing about reading work on a board where people want feedback. You don't want to accidentally slip into "evaluative" mode at the expense of enjoyment, in other words don't let critique get in the way of revelry.

Absolutely. In addition to losing your own voice, which some think is passé notion these days, that is the real danger of workshoppiing I think. I realized I had fallen into the evaluate mode and all but lost the revery mode one day when I was reading a book of poetry and immediately started critiquing the poems instead of enjoying them! That's when I started changing my approach to critiques in an attempt to correct this tendency. Instead of doing a number of close readings, I began taking a wholistic approach and offered more general commentary. Occasionally I still do close readings if I think my take has validity, may be useful and might be appreciated.

If anyone is interested in seeing the criteria Tere developed while judging poetry contests, take a look at his last post in this thread:

[sign in to see URL]

I also like what Libra said in the pentultimate comment in that thread:

No need to get hung up on "critique". Rather, I think, what we want is dialog -- because while I may hear in my inner ear exactly what I mean to say, I can't hear in your ear what you have understood, nor how my song has affected your dance. And if your perceptions change over time, or over mood, that is a changing of information to discuss as well.

I remember when we were designing this board, Tere often talked about wanting a space that encouraged more writer/reader dialogue instead of being limited to the more standard workshop approach of critter/reader interaction. In some ways you might say that is the raison d'être for the board.
Jul/10/2012, 9:25 am Link to this post Send Email to Katlin   Send PM to Katlin
 


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