After the Nature Poetry Contest 2023, the literary magazine Tales for Love takes an interview with the writer Shmavon Azatyan who judged the poetry contest.
Interview by Rui M.
1 How do you judge a poem? Do you use specific criteria?
Poetry judging is probably the most difficult, compared to other art forms, such as fiction, music, sculpture. Of course, poetry has a structure and I can look at that and say, well, something doesn’t sound that convincing. But the structure is so flexible. In a short story, you must have a conflict, but a poem can be 4 lines and … really nothing is a MUST. I use the criterion of logic, first of all - is there any kind of logic in the poem in question? It can be nonsensical, that’s a logic, too. Is there an axis, around which the ideas in the poem develop? Other criteria are – how is that logic developed? Specific? Expressed? Does it excite me? Scare me? Surprise me? How do I feel? So, I look at the expression as well – ideas and feelings. Is there a new way of expressing these in the poem? Use of language in poetry is very important, so that’s yet another criterion. Finally, I look for a revelation, discovery and understanding of something that I may gain from the poem.
2 What is a good poem? If this is a good question to ask. Or what kind of poem should win a contest?
I try not to think of poems as good or bad. Any poem deserves to be read. Of course, this doesn’t mean whatever you write will be a poem. There are unwritten rules, also there are structures for a piece to be considered a poem. A good poem must speak to you, evoke images and tickle your senses. It must have a certain organic interrelation between form and content, sound and idea or feeling, structure and concept. It must say something new, whatever you can think of new means. Originality is subjective and varies from reader to reader. A poem must try to say more with fewer words. Still, there are difficulties in evaluating a poem. I’d use the word successful. There are poems that are hard to understand, very intellectual, political, and, or philosophical. And if you don’t understand a poem, it’s hard to say if it’s a successful piece or not.
Sometimes when it’s a difficult decision, because two or more poems are so equally well-crafted, the judge will have to be subjective and use intuition and idiosyncratic attitude to poetry. That’s why if your poem came so close to being number one or two, then you can easily think your poem could have been number one, if another judge was in charge. If your poem is not lucky to get one of the top ten, you can read those poems that got there and see how your work is different. Thinking of the next contest, keep this difference in mind. It’s possible you notice some weak points in your expression, your use of structure, your tone and handling of the theme.
3 You’re a writer yourself, and you write poems and you have been published. Do you consider the poems you judge as inferior?
No, I don’t think my poems are better than the ones I am judging. I mean, I don’t approach judging this way, that the contestants are still learning to write. Actually, I don’t know them. I understand it’s hard not to look down on these pieces, especially, I come across poems that have nothing in them to interest me as a reader. These are just ideas, jotted down on paper, they don’t have depth and associations, the constituents don’t interact with each other, and the language doesn’t evoke feelings and ideas. There’s truth in it, that when you’re judging a poem, you have this feeling that… you have gone a level higher and this is why you’re judging the poems. But if I allow these thoughts to divert my attention, that will affect my decision. Won’t be fair. So instead, I am learning – yes, I am learning from any poem, and believe it or not, some give me very good ideas about what to write and how to write.
4 How do you evaluate a poem, if you don’t understand it? Does it happen?
Yes. Writing a poem doesn’t mean you also can understand any poem. Some poems are strange to me, but I can’t say they’re not good. It’s me, not the poem. I must, then, judge this particular poem as much as I can understand. When I teach poetry writing, I ask my students to clarify what they mean by this or that phrase; when they answer, their answer doesn’t always make sense, because many times, in their mind, the beginner poets are writing an essay, but on the paper, they’re writing a poem. It takes time and work to learn to express yourself poetically.
5 Are poetry contests useful? What is a poetry contest’s goal?
Yeah, they can be. They are fun, first of all, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. We are not building a building; we are writing poems. But this doesn’t mean that we are not serious about writing poetry. Poetry, like any art, is a way to explore reality, our emotions and feelings, our ideas and perceptions, how we understand the world we live in. It can also be a discovery, when you’re writing about an idea, but then during the process you find out other ideas. Contest is a kind of a standard by which you test your skills. It’s not just sending a poem to a contest, but also reading other poems, also getting feedback sometimes, and most important, you see where your poem is after the results are announced. Now, you should think and decide what you make of where your poem has ended up. If it hasn’t won the first prize, but it came very close, then maybe you work a bit more on this poem and send to another contest or publisher. Or don’t do anything, just send to another contest because you know it’s a success.
6 In any contest, there are very few winners and so many participants who don’t win. What is your message to those who don’t win?
I’d say, don’t take it to your heart – ever. Winning a poetry contest is not a life goal, doesn’t mean you’re a good or bad poet. It can never be a qualification. You can have three different judges; each will give you a different comment. It’s very subjective. If you don’t win, make a point to win by understanding the poem that has won. Try to see what it is in it that earned it the first place. Look at other winners in other contests. Study these poems and you will have an idea why they win. If you want, and you feel comfortable, try write a poem in that spirit, style, and along those conceptual lines. If not, not a big deal, write more, workshop your poem with somebody else, learn from your own writing. And read more poetry. You can’t make winning a contest your goal, if you want to be a good poet. Consider this: there are hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people who write poems. How many poetry contests can we count? Whatever their number is, it’s impossible that they reflect the poetry writing demand. You don’t win, but I’m sure there are lots of people who read your work and tell you that’s great, and they really enjoyed it. So, you make them happy, that’s what matters.
The tragedy in Greece
World Youth Day 2023 in Portugal
With an ecological approach.