The Mind of a Feminist Poetry Judge: Tips, Tricks, and a Rape Stanza Ugh

It's fuzzy on purpose
It’s fuzzy on purpose: protecting anonymity.

About twice a year for the last few, I’ve had the privilege of judging poetry contests for NFSPS and its organizations.

One year, I judged the unrequited love category.

I’m not going to lie. A lot of those poems were intensely bad. I believe there were upwards of 400 of them. But finding the few excellent ones makes the whole thing worth it, every year. I get to choose nine. Sometimes, it’s really, really hard. Sometimes I wish I could choose twenty or at least twelve.

Sometimes, I want to write the poets who finally do not win long admiring letters about how much I like the way they paint with language or their rhythm or diction or just the words they choose. I want to encourage them to keep writing, to live and dream and be in the cold, scary ocean of words.

I want to explain that at a certain point, especially when dealing with poems of high literary merit, it becomes only about taste, that their poem was good and worthy and probably would’ve won if the judge were different.

Note 1:  Writing an unrequited love poem in second person is a pervasive impulse, and perhaps one to avoid, at least as an experiment or in early drafts–we always need to dig deeper than our first impulse because the first impulse is usually the easiest one, and the easiest thing is nearly never the best thing.

This year, I’m judging the Social Issues category and though I have made it through less than a quarter of the pile of around 200 poems (pictured above), I have read many about Wall Street, about how kids these days don’t pay any attention to nature because they’re too plugged in, and about war.

Note 2: When writing a poem about Social Issues, or anything really, remember that everyone else has been disturbed or illuminated by the same news as you have, lives in the same world you do. A fresh take is warranted, a new perspective, turning an issue on its head to look at it from the genitals down. If I wanted Fox News, I could just watch it. If I wanted NPR, I would just listen. If I wanted SARK, I would’ve read her.

At the risk of seeming indelicate: this year, I am especially glad that the poets remain anonymous to me.

One of the poems is by a right-wing gun rights person. It imagines a dystopian future wherein all people’s guns have been confiscated by the government. The final stanza closes with a woman’s imminent rape because, you guessed it, her gun is no longer in her bedside table drawer. As if a gun is her only option. As if a gun would absolutely save her. As if she wouldn’t have locked her doors, the feeble minded, wibbly, bad-at-life woman who needs a firey phallus of protection.

If I knew who wrote this poem, I do not think I could possibly keep myself from writing him a rant.

Note 3: If you know or can find out who the judge is for a contest you want to enter, use the Google. Unless you are genius like Billy Collins or Harryette Mullen, you have very little chance of winning with a poem that strips a woman of her agency when the judge is openly feminist. 

I only read all of some of the poems. There has to be something in the first line or stanza to keep me going. A baffling number of poems open with passive voice or with a tired, tired metaphor, or they blow the load in the first line. A lot of poems exit the gate with heavy handedness and some of them read like a person put line breaks into a news story.

In my system, I run through the poems quickly the first time. I make three piles: No, Yes, and Maybe. Marked N, Y, and M. The N pile is always the biggest, then the M pile. The Y pile typically has fewer than five poems, and often, not always, the top three prizes come from these.

In my first read, I’m also looking for poems that don’t follow the guidelines. These are easy to identify, and the upper line limit exists for good reasons. First, it’s fair. Second, if the poem will appear in any sort of publication, the organization running the contest knows its formatting limitations. So if the limit is 34 lines and you send 35, I am afraid you get a N, even if I think your poem warrants something better.

Note 4: More than half the poems get less than a full read. You get one chance. Sometimes, poems have great things going for them, but they are riddled with bad grammar and misspellings that are not intentional. This has been written many times before, but first drafts are almost never good drafts. And a proofread first draft is still a first draft. And poetry contests (and all writing contests) are competitive. You must send your best, most polished work. Even if you are sick of it. Especially if you are sick of it because that means you know it like your own soul and it’s probably as good as you can make it.

Friends who’ve judged writing contests, what is your method? If you select writing for a literary magazine, do you do it differently?

Poets, how closely do you look at the contest guidelines? Is it helpful to know that sometimes even good poems can’t win?

Girls’ Guide to Hiring Mechanics and Contractors

When I was a teenager and young adult, my dad took care of my car stuff.  He helped me with house stuff, too, when I lived near him.  Then I got a car that was too new for him to work on, but I worked at a car dealership, so I was pretty sure the folks I worked with would take good care of me.  Plus, I had a good relationship with the manager, so if they didn’t, I had a path of recourse.

Recently, I became a homeowner.  So I have had to have commerce with some contractors, and I also needed a mechanic. Having worked in the auto industry, I can say with authority that in many ways, it’s still the 60s in that world.

Too often, in the mechanic/contractor’s eyes, women are walking, drooling dollar signs.

Here are some tips to help you get a better deal, and to better the odds that  you don’t hire a douche bag who thinks you’re stupid because you’re a girl, or to signal to potential douche bag contractors/mechanics that you’re confident, competent, and won’t stand for being taken advantage of.

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Call for pricing

Search for the sort of contractor you need, and then call a whole bunch of them for quotes.  You’ll get a better deal, and you can tell a lot about a contractor by the way he handles you on the phone.

When I was calling for prices on tires, I had a guy tell me he could only do an all wheel alignment on my two-wheel drive car, and that there’s no such thing as a tire with a 60K warranty.

He wanted me to pay him twice what other garages quoted for an alignment, and he wanted me to buy tires that were 33% more than the middle-of-the-road tires I wanted.

Even if you don’t really know anything about what you need to have fixed, you’ll catch inconsistencies that you wouldn’t if you just go with the first person you get from google.

Make sure they know

On the first call, only ask for pricing.  Most mechanics and contractors are happy to provide estimates over the phone.  If you engage in conversation, reference other prices (but not other companies).  If you don’t, ask if they have a price-matching policy.

This will show that you’re being diligent and will signal the contractor or mechanic that you’re less likely to hold still for being screwed.  I have, mistakenly, hired the first person I’ve called, thinking that the price variation would be negligible, and that the time I’d spend calling around would make up for any difference.  Not only was I wrong, but that move put a big, shiny sign that said “sucker” on it right on my forehead.

Right guy or gal for the job

If you need body work, don’t call a mechanic, call a body shop.  If you need a plumber, don’t call a general contractor.

People who have a specialty can offer better deals on the work because they have the stuff they need to do the job.  Also, they’ve done it a million times, so they’re less likely to roger up your car, house, chimney, or porch.

Ask around

If you know somebody who uses a mechanic or contractor you’re considering, ask them.  If you have friends you trust, ask them who they use.  I found a great mechanic this way once.

Go with someone you know

Personal relationships can get tricky with contractors, but use somebody you know if you can.  It’s more likely that they’ll do a good job if there are personal or social stakes, too.

Be Loyal

Once you find a contractor, plumber, HVAC guy, or mechanic you like, stick with him or her.  S/he will get to know your car, house, yard, or pipes, and you’ll have a person you trust to ask for advice.  Plus, good business people will love your referrals.