March 7, 2016KR BlogBlogChatsEthicsRemembrancesWriting

Against Certainty: On Contest Judging and Self-Assuredness

Writing in The New York Times Book Review in early January, Rivka Galchen elucidated her opinion on literature’s unforgivable sin. To wit:

For me, the unforgivable sin in literature is the same as that in life: the assumption of certainty and the moral high ground…A position of power—power from being attractive, power from heading a classroom—is nearly inevitably accompanied by a slight stupidity of self-assuredness.

Galchen’s misgiving re: the folly of power’s self-assuredness is one that I wholeheartedly share. Her essay further reminded me of an encounter from my recent past, one involving a rejection from a writing contest. The fact that I was rejected wasn’t noteworthy. It was a book contest open to any poet writing in English, hosted by one of the biggest small press publishers in the country. Over a thousand poets entered, and competition was surely fierce. I wasn’t surprised when I lost, nor was I surprised that I was neither a finalist nor a semi-finalist. What did pique my interest, however, was the rejection letter I received, one that, for context, I’ve included below. (I feel a small amount of grief about making it public, but since it was written over four years ago—the contest was held in 2012—and is one that hundreds of other poets received in the end, I’m not overly worried about it. All names, however, have been redacted; all bolding and italics are mine.)

The first “first” reading I did was for [poet/big time publishing executive], who ran the [big time annual book publishing poetry contest]. My colleague in this task was [big time poet], and we were each given 500 manuscripts, from which we were to cull around thirty. I found it very difficult. Unless the poetry was obviously, glaringly inept (titles like Reflections or Poems of Love were a tip-off; the first lines of the first poems were all one had to read of these), I felt duty-bound to plow through at least five poems in the beginning and five at the end of the manuscript. It’s amazing how long just such a reading takes when the desk is piled with five hundred densely packed envelopes. But many of the manuscripts were interesting or teasing enough that I read even deeper. MFA writing programs were firmly ensconced at this point, and very popular. So the percentage of “sophisticated” manuscripts was high, though not as high as today. Every so often I’d glance over at [big time poet], who was moving at warp speed—barely did he draw a book from its manila casing before he was sheathing it back in. Apparently he knew something I didn’t.

Now, after more than thirty years of judging contests and teaching creative writing, I can more easily and rapidly discern the truly good from the half-good, and then, in the case of the last culling, the exceptional from the truly good. It is a matter of experience. The top ten percent of any pile of manuscripts fairly leap out of the pile. This, in spite of the fact that the number of writing programs has grown exponentially since my work with the [big time annual book publishing poetry contest], and sophistication is an over-abundant quality.

Every generation has its mode. In my seventies and eighties generation it was the very sincere lyric/narrative hybrid. The current generation has absorbed a greater range of influences, but its mode is characterized by such postmodern tropes as disjunction and an absence of the un-ironic I. Irony, in fact, seems the only sure thing on the contemporary landscape. As always, one has to look beyond (underneath?) the gestures of the current mode to find the exceptional.

When I’m doing the final reading I look for those manuscripts that involuntarily engage me; I read for thirty pages or more without thought of comparison or judgment. I suddenly realize I’ve stepped outside of the whole book-contest business. I’ve not been reading evaluatively; I’ve been reading poetry, and my consciousness belonged wholly to the poet. This is rare, and it is the surest way I know I’ve run into the real thing. Later, when I do step back and consider such writing as writing, of course I can find the poet’s influences and lineage; I can name his or her attributes, and weaknesses.

But it’s the first stunned, thoughtless engagement that tells me I have found real poetry.

Although I’m obviously using the above letter within the context of Galchen’s claim that “[A] position of power… is nearly inevitably accompanied by a slight stupidity of self-assuredness,” to be fair I think the writer of the above rejection had a thankless task. As the author makes clear, during the first “first” reading he ever did he found many of the entries “interesting or teasing enough” to force deeper reads; this is contrasted, then, by the first-read reading practice of [big time poet], who progressed “at warp speed—barely did he draw a book from its manila casing before he was sheathing it back in.” The rejection letter writer takes this to signify that [big time poet] “knew something” that he didn’t; his subsequent thirty years of judging contests and teaching creative writing thereby confirmed that initial hunch. In the rejection letter writer’s opinion, experience is the key to judgment and one’s “first stunned, thoughtless engagement” with a writer confirms his or her value as a poet of “real poetry.”

The rejection letter writer’s sentiments seem to make all sorts of sense—I won’t deny that—yet in the end I still find them lacking, mainly because I think the subjective nature of “real poetry” drastically changes from poet to poet. Like many other writers, I read widely, in a variety of genres. In poetry specifically, I enjoy poets as disparate as Lyn Hejinian and Hilda Morley, Robert Desnos and Paul Celan, Wang Ping and Ed Dorn. All of these poets are vastly different from one and other and yet I consider all of them to be poets of “real poetry”; their work, for me at least, allows a “stunned, thoughtless engagement” wherein I’m eclipsed by their language usage.

Yet I realize that this is an entirely subjective opinion, one that wholly resides in my own peculiar, particular sense of certainty. My case for Ed Dorn or Hilda Morley’s greatness might be your case for their weakness and in our own little minds we’d both be right, surely. When the rejection letter writer also states that he believes that “one has to look beyond (underneath?) the gestures of the current mode to find the exceptional,” I suppose that’s a belief I’m not sure I completely understand, at least in terms of holding a national book contest devoted to publishing contemporary writing, much of which, sadly, will be written in various shades of “the current mode.” For me, at least, generalizing the features of that “current mode” seems to be problematic as well, mainly because, if irony is its only real tenet, the term “the current mode” is so wide-ranging as to make it essentially meaningless.

Certainly experience has its place when judging writing; indeed, it might be judgment’s defining quality. And publishers big and small have full right and authority to judge their contests however they see fit. Publishing is a largely thankless task, and, gatekeepers or not, most publishers struggle with the rejection they must dole out in order to continue to exist. So as the author of the rejection letter lucidly states, the need to differentiate—from the half-good to the truly good to the exceptional—is desperately needed.

In my own humble opinion, however, one person’s half-good is another’s exceptional is another’s truly good. There is no one singular definition of “real poetry,” and believing in such a notion is folly. The certainty encased in the big time poet’s contest judging—“[e]very so often I’d glance over at [big time poet], who was moving at warp speed—barely did he draw a book from its manila casing before he was sheathing it back in”— is one that, frankly, scares me. At that point you’re not reading to find the new or undiscovered; you’re simply confirming what, discarded manuscript after discarded manuscript, you believe you already know. It’s the reason that Emily Dickinson published almost nothing during her lifetime; it’s why Charles Reznikoff self-published for most of his life.

The school of thought that believes that the things one is closest to are the things she knows least has always been an intriguing one to me, primarily because I don’t really buy it; if after ten or twenty or thirty years of doing something we can’t differentiate the good from the bad, what’s the point, finally? And yet the certainty of one’s fervent beliefs is something to also—always—be wary of, especially when it comes to art. Within the framework of a national contest setting that might be impossible. But you like Harryette Mullen’s “real poetry” and I like Mary Oliver’s; I like John Yau and you like Ted Kooser. And each of us is right.