A few years ago, as ten years of persistence began to pay off in terms of publication here and there in literary magazines, I began to be asked to be a reader, and later a judge, for a number of contests and fellowships. This, the service element of a literary life, doesn’t get written about as much as I think it should. There are so many ways to be of service: reading for (and its more sophisticated cousin, editing) a literary magazine, running community workshops, charitable gifts to libraries and literary organizations, and on and on. I think of being a reader and a judge the beating heart of literary service. And here’s why: it takes years to develop one’s skills and aesthetic as a writer, years more to develop a deep understanding of other aesthetics. This accretion of knowledge and empathy can be used, certainly, in the classroom, but not every poet is a teacher. Nor should every poet teach. Judgment passed after thorough, fair-minded consideration is what every writer hopes for when applying for a residency, a grant, or when seeking publication of a collection. Being a part of the process is an intangible but important mark of success as a writer. It means we’ve earned the confidence of our peers.
No one gets wealthy from judging state literary contests and fellowships. I’ve served on panels that offered a few hundred dollars for dozens of hours of work. I’ve served on panels that paid gas fare and gave us a deli lunch. I’ve served on panels for which there is no payment whatsoever. That is, if I didn’t consider the chance to read 15 to 25 of my fellow poets’ new collections and discuss them for an afternoon with other writers whose views I admire.
I spent three years on the judges’ panel for the Connecticut Book award. The judging process was pretty typical: each judge received a copy of every book under consideration, then read and took notes on the books over the course of a couple of months, winnowing the group down to the strongest five or so. We’d then schedule a multi-hour meeting and go through the candidates one by one, often reading particularly strong or weak passages. The real difficulty would come at the end, when we had to choose the winner. There was a year in which there was agreement from the beginning. In other years, we tore our hair out trying to compromise. But in every situation, I worked with a group of people who took literature seriously, who took the time to build an argument for a favorite, and who had the sense of fairness to recuse themselves if they were friendly with the poet whose work was under consideration.
For weeks my office was filled with stacks of manuscripts and I’d scream at anyone who got near enough to topple them. About a quarter to a third of the manuscripts for any of the contests I’ve read for are relatively straightforward “Not for us.” Another third comprised the “this is getting there but needs a lot of work” category. The final third consisted of the beautiful, the moving, the memorable and the initially incomprehensible. These were the manuscripts I read over again and took notes on and argued with myself about.
I then had to winnow down to the two manuscripts I felt were the strongest, then to label the one I felt the most confident in. I was one of a number of readers—seven, I believe—each of whom made the same decisions. Our group of finalists was given to the judge, a well-respected fiction writer, who made the final judgment. And no, my choice wasn’t the winner.
I’ve not yet been a judge for a book contest, but last summer I had the opportunity to be nearby during the three-day judging of the Washington Prize, which is decided by a committee of writers on the staff and board of The Word Works (Washington, D.C.) I was impressed by the time and serious effort the five judges put into the process. Each had read and taken notes on all the manuscripts before arriving, and when the time came for the judging, they closed themselves in a room for the better part of a day, emerging at last with a winner: Brad Richard’s Motion Studies, due for publication this spring. They wouldn’t talk about the candidates in front of me, and only after the winner was contacted did they let me know who it was. This is the kind of process I admire; I’m reassured that the thoughtfulness and skill required to write the collection is matched by the effort it took to shepherd it into life as a book. I hope you're reassured as well.