Phil with cat

I have judged several poetry awards at ms and book level, with one other and two other judges, and it can be strange encountering readings and pre-dispositions that are not merely lacking knowledge, and rigour, and fairness, but reacting in ways that are beyond poetics.

These might be:

  • Intellectual/poetic ignorance on one hand, acute subjectivity and affect, enough to mis-read woefully, or attack a work, or love it, because it fits with a personal experience, trauma, bias.
  • Outright bias without reflection, that is, favouring of friends, publishers, men/women.
  • Bias with reflection (as above but quite OK because everyone else does it. Sadly all too true).
  • Bias through dislike or bias against others, as above.
  • Irritation with a fellow judge through clan, personality, any of the above…
  • Laziness, not bothering to read the submitted poems or books, closely or, in some cases, at all.
  • Being too easily swayed by another judge out of their own weakness, bias, etc, laziness, so all above (again!).
  • Favouring the new, which can be good, giving new (if excellent) poets book prizes, but not at all good when it’s just novelty, being colourful as a judge, in place of more rigorous critical judgement.
  • Wrong kind of judge (see below).

At the moment judging seems locked into deciding for the new or the clan, the latter meaning the established poet who is deeply well connected and whose every book will be shortlisted and in some states, NSW for example, the judges will award that poet for each consecutive book.

(Note: this has nothing much to do with the poets concerned, my question lands on the judges.)

Yet I have seen judges withdraw because they know the work in ms, or even suspect they do, or because of conflict of interest of some other kind, whereas other judges ignore that and keep silent about their personal allegiances, some judges even take advantage of that other judge reserving their call. It is not unusual to see in the make up of shortlists that judges are favouring their own publishers, or perhaps hoping their considerations will move their next manuscript; and then there is the big one of a judge or the dominant judge letting the main prize go to their own close friend, or colleague or (again) publisher’s entry. THIS one is quite stunning and there have been a few cases in the last two years, at national level, of what looks like the decision being rolled by one judge having too much influence.

Some judges now chosen to judge national book awards are specialist ‘performance poets’ and it must be assumed their selection is made perhaps for some questionable logic of fairness (oh, poetry’s a big happy family, let’s be inclusive of all poetics and poetry types) even when these judges have stated they don’t regard written work highly and don’t rate it as significant, and so… do they also lack depth of discernment in it? Can they ‘read’ its gradations, of diction and syntax and linguistics, of quality (do they believe in quality?) or of tone and meanings? Might analysis of texts be just too hard, too subtle, too complex for them? Would they let ‘page poets’ or, their favourite bash, ‘academic poets’, judge a noisy Slam? Call the gong for an Idol?

And… their stated focus is on performance, not on language but on gesture, movement, the body, especially on use of the voice as a rhetorical influence – and not on language as rhetorical and reflexive, ie: counter-rhetorical. If so this should bar them from judging poets who are language-based (ie: all good poets!).