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?

How Plath’s Neatly Laid Plan For My Love Life Went Wrong

From Anosmia on, used under CC Attribution License


Now this particular girl
During a ceremonious april walk
With her latest suitor
Found herself, of a sudden, intolerably struck
By the birds’ irregular babel
And the leaves’ litter.

By this tumult afflicted, she
Observed her lover’s gestures unbalance the air,
His gait stray uneven
Through a rank wilderness of fern and flower;
She judged petals in disarray,
The whole season, sloven.

How she longed for winter then! —
Scrupulously austere in its order
Of white and black
Ice and rock; each sentiment within border,
And heart’s frosty discipline
Exact as a snowflake.

But here — a burgeoning
Unruly enough to pitch her five queenly wits
Into vulgar motley —
A treason not to be borne; let idiots
Reel giddy in bedlam spring:
She withdrew neatly.

And round her house she set
Such a barricade of barb and check
Against mutinous weather
As no mere insurgent man could hope to break
With curse, fist, threat
Or love, either.

by Sylvia Plath

Here’s a source for more info, if you wish.  Lots of sounding off about readings of this poem in the comments, some of them are grammatically wonky in hilarious ways.

Today is Poem in your Pocket day.  Lucky (or not?) for you, my pocket is on the internet.

A bit of history: Sylvia Plath was married to Ted Hughes, the British poet.  Their Correspondence is on my To Read list.  Plath committed suicide in 1963.

I read this poem when I was about 14.  I learned the following words from it: bedlam, burgeoning.  And, for many years, my internet handle was vulgarmotley.  Because of this poem.

Also, my pubescent mind was totally taken by the notion of spinsterhood, or–as I read the poem in my youth–indulging in romance on my terms, and nearly always being home alone.  Spinsterhood did not mean frigidity, it meant independence, freedom.

I am part of a large-ish family, the oldest of four children. My mom had two babies (who are now simply lovely grownups) when I was old enough to help.  Consequently, I spent about 8 years yearning for solitude until I moved out of my parents house lickety split upon graduating from high school.

I was probably about sixteen when I started envisioning a future for myself in which I would take what I used to call “a string of lovers,” but what I meant was probably closer to “terms of serial monogamy lasting however long was useful spiritually, physically, or emotionally.”

I also used to say that I did not want babies because my mom had enough for both of us.  And I tried to get my tubes tied as a young adult, but was told that I could not.  They’re tied now–obliterated more like–and I’m still totally confused about whether having a baby when I did was a good thing, and whether it remains one.

I loved living alone.  I loved my 20s.  I loved living alone with a baby.  But living alone with a baby is exhausting, and call me short sighted and selfish, sex is a pretty excellent part of adulthood.  Unfortunately, getting laid as a single parent in safe, reasonable circumstances is almost impossible.

Enter my first-time-ever yearning for a romantic partner, a couple-three years of internet dating hijinks (most of which I feel rather stupid over and would prefer to forget), and the super-special Fella with whom I now live, and am proud to announce have been entangled with for nearing four years, and if you count the year for which I made him email me before I would meet him, closer to five.

And while I find the challenges of partnerhood and parenthood to be rewarding, I do miss solitude.  I miss the adventure of fresh lovers.  Some days, I want to stop the ride and change my mind.  I want to wind back time 7 or 8 years and talk myself into that adoption scheme I’d carefully cooked up but abandoned for reasons that made sense at the time.

So today, when I read this poem that used to fill me with hope for the future and certainty that it was all right not to want what all the other girls wanted, I am filled with nostalgia and the irony of the fact that I now have precisely what I never wanted, and I am mostly pleased, and even able to return to the ambition of my solitude.

It also strikes me as significant that Plath killed herself at 31, and I am 31.  This is my Plath year.

What specific passage or poem in literature influenced your thinking when you were developing your sense of yourself?  I’d love to hear your stories.

The Reading Life: More on Chairs by Andrew Merton

After a completely sane, reasonable, temperate email exchange with Andrew Merton following my review of some of the poems in his book, Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs, I feel like it’s important to share a couple of the poems from the book that didn’t get my knickers in a feminist lather.

Also, it begs repeating: Merton is, himself, a feminist.  He’s written extensively on womens issues and is one of the few men to have ever been published in Ms. Magazine.

As I mentioned in the original post, there are a lot of poems that are really funny and can’t be read as anti-feminist at all.  So I’m going to share some of these with you now.

Here’s one of the funniest ones:

My favorite line is, “because astrology is serious business.”

And I think the last stanza here shows–in particular–Merton’s personal sympathy with women.

Here is another funny one about the moon’s cliches.

And finally, “Why I Left The Poetry Reading Early” beautifully describes a writer’s sense of awe and neurosis around writers she admires.

I liked to imagine while I read this one that the poet Merton was talking about here was Billy Collins, a former US Poet Laureate whose work is also frank and funny.

The Reading Life: Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs, poems

Book Cover: Andrew Merton's Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs

Whenever I read, I’m always dissecting the author’s psychological process.  Not, I promise you, whether the events of a story or poems mirror an author’s own life.  I am a fiction writer, so I know that it’s almost always synthesis or loads of practice or having paid careful attention.  It is hard to write interestingly about one’s own life.  Unless you’re David Sedaris, and when it’s brass tacks, it’s probably hard for him, too.

What I’m looking for in the words of other writers is clues about how they feel about things: issues, people, events; or insights about their writing process: sometimes you can tell when a writer gave up and took a short cut, or you can locate his “real” story in the words that are there–that is, you can see a writer’s affection more clearly than the writer himself can, if you read carefully.

As much as I want to turn off this readerly impulse, I can’t.  Perhaps it is what makes me a writer, or maybe it is deeply ingrained from those hundreds of hours I spent in writing workshops.

If you read here regularly, you know that I’ve been feeling a little bit militant about injustices toward women and the way we American women seem to be keeping ourselves in these corners of oppression, and how our politicians are happy enough to help us stay there.

The Book & what one has to do with the other

Andrew Merton is a professor of writing at University of New Hampshire, and I am lucky enough to be reviewing his first book of poems called, Evidence That We Are Descended from Chairs because of the Guest Post by Joy Jacobson that appeared on this blog a few weeks ago.

Imagine my fancy when I read–perhaps erroneously, more on this later–some poems that seem to be truly angry at women in this utterly delightful collection.

Don’t misunderstand: I am not calling Merton a misogynist.  The poems are art, and exist outside of Merton’s consciousness, or perhaps in spite of it.  Perhaps I’m identifying Merton’s anger with his mother or wife, isolated to those two people and nothing to do with women in general.  Or maybe I’m misreading it all together.  The book provides for much thematic wrangling, to review each poem or theme would be to write a second book.  So I’ll take a closer peek at these few poems I read as being non-feminist.

Perhaps Merton’s poems that deal with women angrily are presented as a critique of the things men say about women, I’m thinking specifically of one called, “The Way Women Are,” whose first two lines are, “She says there’s no reason for me to be jealous,/ even though he’s good with his hands.”   The implication here is that the woman in the poem is being unfaithful and lying about it, but the poem is about the speaker’s experience of that phenomenon, which he attributes to “the way women are about these things” in the last line of the poem.

There is one that he writes to the speaker’s progeny, “Advice My Daughter Will Probably Ignore,” in which he describes an eel of a man who is setting himself up to take advantage. The last two lines of the poem may indicate something of Merton’s observance of The Way Men Are. It goes, “by then,/you’ll have heard it all before.”

Taken as a collection, the poems are funny and insightful and largely unpretentious.  They are short, simple, revealing of the human condition.  Merton writes with sensitivity and freshness.  Former US Poet Laureate Charles Simic said it best in the foreword, “…he knows what it’s like to be at the other end of the stick.”

Another thing I love about these poems is the way the ones with epigraphs interact with them.  The poems literally speak to the epigraphs, often in humorous ways. Here’s a great, short example:


God does not play dice

Not, at least,
since that day in the garden
when He rolled snake-eyes. 

Back to the women

Here is a full example, and the first poem in the book, also set in the garden:

The Original Sin: Adam’s Story

God saw that I was lonely.
He was right about that.
The rib thing, though–

consider the stars,

the firmament,
the beasts, fish,
birds, all that.

Don’t tell me he had nothing left.

What I saw
when I saw Eve–
her long hair, breasts,
the absence between her thighs
was me.

That was all right
until the business with the snake,
the rising of my desire.

I have read this poem now four times and re-typed it one time.  I can’t not read the tone of blame in the last stanza: Eve was all right till she made me sin.

And maybe Merton’s intention is to draw attention to the absurdity of this social trope: the notion that all of men’s misbehavior can be attributed to women in some way.

But then there’s the poem, “All Hallow’s Eve,” in which Merton invokes both Joan of Arc and the witch who tried to eat Hansel and Gretel after the speaker “taste[s] his mother’s ashes.”  How is it productive to compare any woman to a misunderstood (probably delusional) warrior and a cannibalistic witch?  I want it to be productive.

So then, do I read this mother in this poem as Merton’s mother, so it is about one woman instead of all women?  Or do I read her as any mother, which would be sensible considering the references to well-known historical and literary female figures?  Do I interpret the reference to Joan of Arc as someone who was strong and impressive and unconfined by the cultural moment in which she lived (but then ultimately was when she burned as a sorceress and adulteress), and the reference to Hansel’s witch (Gretel’s apparently already been eaten) as something about hunger instead?

Now two things: These are five poems in sixty-some that it’s not even absolutely clear are overtly antithetical toward women as a group.  And they are still good poems.  In 1980, Merton wrote a book called, Enemies of Choice: Right-to-life Movement and Its Threat to Abortion.  It’d be hard to mistake the thesis of that book.  So clearly, Merton himself is fond of the notion of women as people with thoughts, ideas, choices, and rights.

But I think that the best poems offer multiple valid possibilities for interpretation, and I think the best poets are ready for questions like these.  So, Andrew Merton, write on.  I can’t wait to read your next book.


Beam me up, Scotty! (part 2)

Poetic Public Domain Image

Due to the faithful forward-paying of germs between daughters and mothers, I canceled my swank plans tonight to go to a Poetry Reception at Bucknell.  Yes, that Bucknell.

Instead, I stayed home and judged a poetry contest.

It was for Category #13 of the PA Poetry Society’s Annual contest.  Here’s a link: Click Contests once you get there.

These were poems with the subjects “Arts, Artists, Artistry.”

A lot of them were very, very bad.

One or two–which is enough–were good enough.

I learned about some artists. I always enjoy learning about artists.

Boris Vallejo is a fantasy painter.  Someone wrote a poem about his painting, “Amber.”

Someone else wrote about Felix Valloton’s  “La Ballon.”

But once more, I find myself ill-equipped to offer any thoughts or perspective on the matter.  I am, instead, beat, exhausted physically and intellectually, and desirous of some horrible television.

Goodnight, Fair Blog Readers.  At least tomorrow is free story Wednesday.  So If I can’t muster any thinking, at least I can paste an old, potentially salacious, story.