Day One: Judging Torbay

Nine hundred poems on my desk. 

What if one of them blindsides me?  What if I let a work of breathtaking excellence pass me by?  What if I am THE TORBAY FESTIVAL COMPETITION JUDGE WHO FAILED TO SPOT THE FUTURE WINNER OF THE FORWARD PRIZE?  At the start of the first day’s judging, that terror certainly concentrates the mind.

Patricia Oxley handed over eight hundred  poems to me yesterday outside Bath rail station in a Marks and Spencer recyclable dark green plastic bag. They join the so far scrupulously unread hundred poems in the brown manila envelope which I collected in July at John Miles delightful pamphlet launch in Brixham when I was down in Devon for Oversteps Day at Dartington.

Nine hundred brand new windows on the world.  I love not knowing who the writers are.  It should be impossible to bring any preconceptions to the reading. All the clues will really have to come from the black marks on the white page.

Last night, I treated myself to just one poem, drawn at random from the Brixham manila envelope.  I don’t know why these lines were so immediately haunting, and may never know who sent them in.  But a big ‘thank you’ to whoever began this wonderful journey for me in such an enchanting way.

A place where tap water is refreshingly cool / in the early days of good weather….

The first thing I will do this morning is to shuffle the whole pack to prevent poems by the same person appearing adjacent in the pile. If you develop a suspicion that poems come from the same hand, you can allow improper ideas and judgments to creep in and I want to block that from the start.

The second thing I will do is to bluetack the following  axioms to my study wall.  The Bath Poetry Cafe devised them several years ago as common ground for the twelve first stage judges we used in our own competitions and they served us well.  The only change I am going to make is to the first.  ‘Like’ seems a rather narrowing word so I will amend it to I like/admire/respond to this poem and I think other people will like/admire/respond to it too. 

  • I like this poem and I think other people will like it too.
  • I am convinced by the observation and emotion in this poem.
  • This poet is sensitive to language and uses it well.
  • The treatment of the subject engages me.
  • The poem holds my interest throughout.
  • This poem is well crafted.

The Cafe Poets’ instructions went on to say : Poems which meet those requirements will then be revisited to select the ones which most impressively “say something which is not trivial, not obvious, don’t use outworn images or diction, and which work at many levels simultaneously.”  (Patricia Oxley)

 I think rather a high percentage of my nine hundred poems are going to clear all these hurdles.  The adventure ( as always, in life as in literature) will be discovering what happens next.

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