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Judging poetry less fun than listening to it

To the long list of things that are harder than they look, add judging live poetry competitions. Saturday, the Spirit Lake Poetry Series Board hosted its annual St. David's Day reading at St. Scholastica to name this year's poet of the year. I, a...

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To the long list of things that are harder than they look, add judging live poetry competitions.
Saturday, the Spirit Lake Poetry Series Board hosted its annual St. David's Day reading at St. Scholastica to name this year's poet of the year. I, along with the Duluth News Tribune's Mary Thompson, was asked to judge.
It was an honor of course. In Duluth literary circles, this was a star-studded event -- Barton Sutter, Nancy Fitzgerald, Jim Perlman, Patrick McKinnon and Connie Wanek were among those in attendance.
Despite all the reviews I've written, this was my first opportunity to judge a live poetry contest. And while, as Sutter advised, it's not like a Bush Fellowship was at stake -- if you saw the poetry chair the winner received, you'd know what I mean -- it was not an easy job.
For starters, 16 poets competed (not including any of the above names, all of whom read outside the competition), and a half dozen could have made a case for victory. The poetry ranged from the sacred to the sexually explicit, with subject matter ranging from rotted out bachelor pads to feminist treatments of the Salem witch trials.
The performances varied from polished to just plain nervous.
That was great news for the folks in the audience, who numbered more than 60. Their reactions showed they were wowed.
But as a judge? The act of judging makes you self-conscious already. You're sitting there, watching people share what is arguably the most intimate and personal of the arts, and the first thing they do when they finish is look right at you.
"How'd I do?" their eyes ask.
You smile, of course. They all deserved a smile.
The level of concentration when judging is much higher. As a spectator, the worst that can happen if you zone out for a minute is you'll miss a great poem. The worst that can happen as a judge is ... well, you can miss a great poem -- and look like an idiot passing over a deserving winner.
Finally, there's something oxymoronic about "poetry competition" anyway. As Mary and I learned when we compared notes, these judgments are subjective.
I didn't want to be the East German judge.
In the end, Mary and I debated three finalists and ultimately picked Sarah Gans. Her poem, "The Greenhouse," was a short but evocative and well-crafted work, a deserving winner. On the announcement, a surprised Gans said her friend had only barely managed to convince her to read.
Honorable mentions went to Connie Linnett and Katri Sipila, with the obligatory jokes about sawing up the prize and distributing it.
It wasn't until after the competition that we saw the piece of paper Gans had written her poem on. A bright yellow napkin, nearly as bright as her verse, had the poem scrawled on it. No, we were told, she hadn't written the poem just now on the napkin -- in her hurry to get to the event, that was the quickest place to copy it down from wherever she had been working on it.
What I took away from the evening, besides a good time, was a renewed respect for Duluth's literary community. Meeting these people one-on-one and reading their works makes it easy to appreciate individual talent. However, collectively these individuals help make Duluth an amazing part of the literary world. Fine small presses and accomplished writers litter this little city up north.
Just take Saturday. Wanek shyly noted that her work was featured on the Poetry Magazine Web site that day. Jim Perlman was handling numerous questions about the latest book from his small press -- "What Do I Know?" by John Calvin Rezmerski, which was reviewed in last weekend's Budgeteer -- which had arrived within a day of the event.
That's a day in the literary life of Duluth.
I had fun, despite some nerves. I suspect the audience had more fun.
If you didn't make it Saturday, you have more chances. St. David's Day marked the halfway point in the Spirit Lake Poetry Series season. The group hosts a reading by Rezmerski March 11 (7:30 p.m. in Somers Lounge at St. Scholastica), and additional readings in April and May.
You can tape "Walker, Texas Ranger."

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