Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Jury of Your Peers: The Rattle “Readers’ Choice” Poetry Prize

I’ll admit, I cringed when I heard that the poetry journal Rattle was letting their readers vote on the winner of this year’s Rattle Poetry Prize—at $5,000, one of the largest in the country. For years, I’ve been duking it out with thousands of other poets for this one, trying to find the right combination of tone, premise, length, and—well, hell, I don’t know what, and that’s part of the fun—that makes a poem worthy of such a large cash prize.

The news came a few months ago in an e-mail from Tim Green, Rattle’s superhumanly kind editor, a man who keeps in touch with his readers and writes a damned fine blog. Tim told us the plan: His editorial board would choose 15 finalists out of a staggering 6,000+ entries, publish them in an issue, and let Rattle’s subscribers vote on the prizewinner. It was a radical idea—Joe Q. Poets like me would get to decide who would take home the $5,000. And, since everyone who enters the contest gets a subscription to Rattle, a lot of us Joe Q. Poets already knew we were this year’s prizelosers, and now we would get to vote on the poems that had beaten us out, the grapes of wrath still fresh in our mouths.

I had my doubts. It all seemed fraught with emotional landmines. And it smacked of some sort of People’s Choice Awards, that lowest and most laughable of the awards shows. But Tim Green clearly had the same misgivings: In his instructions to us voters, he stressed that the contest was for the best poem, not for our favorite poet. This had crossed my mind, since Tony Barnstone*, one of my very favorite poets, was one of the finalists. Beyond that, Tim’s instructions were simple: “Use whatever criteria you’d like…. We can’t tell you how to fall in love with a poem.” It all felt weird—unfamiliar territory—but it seemed like my civic duty, as a longtime Rattle subscriber, to pitch in and see if this crazy thing worked.

So when the issue arrived, I sat down with the 15 poems and got to work. My first surprise was that I wasn’t at all bitter that these poems had been chosen as finalists over mine. It was just another contest—I’ve judged a few, and my brain goes into a hyper-slow, generous mode as soon as I have to write a number on a Post-It and stick it to a poem. I felt the usual mix of impulses: disgust over the absurd fact that I was judging one piece of art over another, and a sense of stewardship, of keen responsibility, when I found a poem that I loved.

I also was reminded that “judging” poems—pitting them against each other, whether for real or for fun—is a great exercise for poets. It forces you to think about each poem on its own terms: Is it doing what it set out to do? And because you’re considering a so-called finished poem, rather than one in progress as you might see in a workshop, it’s easier to take a step back and think about it as a whole product like a cake or a painting, without having to suggest changes. Does it satisfy me the way it is? Will I remember it later? Does it, in a word, work?

Another unexpected benefit was that I got to study what the Rattle editorial board picked as finalists. I can tell you that they favor long poems—only 5 of the finalists fit on one page, and there were several three-pagers. They also seem to like stream-of-conscious poems, ones that take the reader down unexpected alleys in long, convoluted, sometimes poem-length sentences. Narrative storytelling and complete sentences are the order of the day; few if any poems featured sentence fragments. Only one poem played inventively with white space; all the others were one long stanza, a few long stanzas, or consistent couplets, tercets, or quatrains.

In the end, I picked a poem that I felt was the clear winner, with a nod to a very good runner-up**. The others, for the most part, didn’t do it for me. This was perhaps a major flaw in the plan: I was constantly aware that I was choosing from among poems that someone else had already pre-picked, someone with a different aesthetic than mine. I’m a fan of paring down, of compactness, and I didn’t see a lot of that. And as I read those 15 poems, I couldn’t help wondering which of the 6,000 originals I would have picked, or which ones you, dear reader, would have picked. Such is the nature of contests: You’re at somebody’s mercy, and no two judges are alike. It’s just the way it is, and all the more reason to celebrate when you find one that fits.

So overall, it was a good exercise, and I liked the sense of community that Tim Green has established at Rattle. And while I’m glad not all journals let the readers run the show (cue the American Idol poetry nightmares), I’ll be curious to see how this experiment turns out.

*Here’s the first Tony Barnstone poem I ever read. He had me at “an amazing spread of food and drugs.”

** I will not say which ones I picked, unless drinks are involved.

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