It’s so much easier to describe how NOT to than the reverse.

There are more of them all the time. How do you win them? How do you CHOOSE the winner?

I don’t really know, but I (like Frank Sinatra but less melodiously) do it my way. It goes something like this. . . .

Ten days ago, I read the 664 entries to the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition, which closed on 6th September. That’s a lot of poems. I say this with feeling because I was attempting to read the poems on journeys hither and thither and I couldn’t carry them all.

It’s the biggest number of poems I’ve ever read at once, I think, and when I got to the end I felt peculiar, as though I had eaten a vast amount of porridge and was struggling to walk. Or perhaps gravel, not porridge.

I thought I’d note some of my impressions during the process, since reading 664 poems isn’t something I do often. The first thing that interested me was whether there were obvious barriers to reading. By this I mean off-putting presentation, including:

  • multiple folds in the sheet of paper
  • splashes of tipp-x
  • italic fonts
  • tiny fonts
  • huge fonts
  • bold fonts
  • spelling errors
  • wrongly used apostrophes
  • print that was excessively faint
  • centred formats
  • coloured print
  • uneven margins
  • dirty marks on the paper
  • lines too close together
  • lines too far apart
  • margins too narrow
  • pages that looked crumpled, as though they had been in and out of the washing machine and never quite recovered
  • blood stains on the paper

(Okay I made up the last one). Out of the 664 poems, I recorded 165 with a format that was alienating. I hasten to say, I didn’t rule any of these poems out simply because I didn’t like the look of them, but I had to force myself to be nice to them.

I also noted the poems with formal constructions. Out of 664, I counted 82 that were definitely not free verse – about 12%. I may have missed a couple.

Then I re-read them all, this time putting little ticks in the corners of the poems I wanted to come back to. This was the first trawl and it left me 180 poems. I can carry 180 on a train, so that cheered me up. I still had no idea which would win, and I was aware some people had sent in a good set, though they could only win one prize.

I repeated the process the following day. The second swathe left me 98 poems.

The third swathe, the day after that, brought the complement down to 55.

By this stage, I’d dropped a number of poems I liked but which seemed to me to have flaws. I still didn’t know what was going to win, and I was a little worried that two or three seemed to  follow similar structures or approaches, though their ‘voices’ were dissimilar.

The fourth swathe was hard. I had been happy with that group of 55. I liked them all, in different ways and for different reasons. However, hardening my heart (tough love, or what?), I reduced it to 43.

At each of these stages, some of the poems with off-putting formats had made it through. I still had three that looked (to me) pretty grim in presentation terms, as well as two formally constructed poems.

On Friday night, I steeled myself. By this stage I was aware there were some poems I wanted to win, though I wasn’t sure whether they would. There were also some poems I liked (and if they had come to me as part of a submission, I would have liked the poet behind them, I think) but which I didn’t think were competition winners. Why? I don’t know. It’s incredibly hard to put it into words. My preferences wouldn’t be the same as someone else’s.

Somehow, I got that 43 down to 20.  A whole set of good poems were lost at this stage, poems I’d have been happy to read in any magazine.

What was left? Well, still some poems that were interestingly different. One of the group was faint and tippexed, and for some reason didn’t end in a full stop – I think that must have been an error, since the rest of it behaved in a punctuated way. It also had a sub-title, which I thought it needed to lose. One had two spelling mistakes. Two were rather like each other in construction and design (though not written by the same person), and I began to conjecture about workshop writing exercises, though if they were products of an exercise, it was a good one. There was one poem that could have been excellent, I thought, had the writer formatted the direct speech more effectively. There was one I loved, really loved, but thought the last line needed to go. I had grown unreasonably fond of one rather odd poem but thought other people might not be. Then I decided it wasn’t my job to worry about Other People. One wasn’t as good, when I typed it out, as I’d thought it on first reading. By now I’d read them all about ten times.

I typed the final twenty out and printed them, correcting any obvious errors. That way, I knew I wouldn’t be influenced by how they looked on the piece of paper because each would have the self-same type-face and presentation. I was beginning to be fairly sure of two of the prize winners, though mildly surprised (but pleased) that these two had risen, like dumplings, to the top.

At Haymarket Station yesterday evening, I became totally ruthless. There’s nothing like having a train cancelled to harden the nicest of adjudicators. I chose number one: a poem I will not forget. Very different. I had six others I wanted to give second and third prizes to.

Okay. I’ve just this minute decided which the second and third prizes shall be. And there are ten merits, people who get honorary subscriptions to Assent, a very nice magazine. Several out of these ten could have won prizes. (At least eight poems that didn’t even get to the final twenty were undeniably good. I miss them still.)

For those who entered but did not win, at least you were supporting a worthy poetry organisation. For the actual results, keep an eye on the Nottingham Poetry Society website. Happily, I’ll be at the presentation in Nottingham on Saturday November 26th at The Nottingham Mechanics, 3 North Sherwood Street, Nottingham NG1 4EZ. So if I’ve written really annoying things about the process of adjudication here, come along and take me to task.

Later that same evening (26.11.2011), there’ll be a HappenStance event at Lee Rosy’s at seven-thirty. So perhaps I’ll meet some of you there . . . .