The Columbus Arts Festival – one of the largest in the country – features poets every year, and has done so for well over two decades now. This year, in an attempt to further make the featured slots even more notable and significant, the number of slots was weeded and there was pre-judging of poems submitted with applications to determine who should actually get to audition. In the past, the number of applicants hit at or under the same number of audition slots, so every poet who submitted pretty much got a shot at an audition. This year we received so many submissions that we had to institute the pre-judging process we always threatened poets with, and I was happy to be one of two judges. (The other was a young, very cool professor of literature who also wrote poetry. A nice balance between the street and the school yard, I thought.)
Poems submitted were blind, which meant that the names of the poets had been stripped and replaced with numbers. We judged using a simple point system and whittled the list down to the number we were asked to reach. The reading and judging itself took place in our individual spaces, and the two of us met at a café to compare and combine scores for a final list.
But here is what I really want to talk about: Without fail, both of us came to the table having given the lowest scores to poems that were submitted “ugly”. A more institution-minded judge might call these suspect submissions “non-traditional”, but being that I’ve been kicked out of both a high school and a college, I call them “ugly”. I had submissions that were faxed with borders of technical gobbledy-gook, submissions that were handwritten, submissions that appeared scribed in crayon, submissions that were printed out on ancient dot matrix printers. I don’t submit my work to journals or contests, but I know that a submission style exists, that editors are typically buried in submissions from hopeful poets and that they have no time for work that they have to decipher before they can read. I know that any person serious about having their work considered knows to at least type that work out before sending it away.
Please note: I took great pains to take the work on its merits and not on its presentation. I did not write-off someone’s work because it was written on the back of a grocery receipt. The other judge assured me he did not do this either. We both understood that this was mostly a local affair and that many of the poets were submitting for the first time. We knew that many poets probably didn’t consider themselves poets and were being pushed to enter by a friend or family member who thought the hundreds of poems they had in a box in their closet might have merit. We weren’t snobs about it. We knew that good poetry often comes to people in many forms. This isn’t a rant about their presentations. This is a rant about the science of what their presentations represent.
Allow me to put on my white lab coat for a moment and explain the math in play here:
Of the poems that scored low between us, some of them were ugly submissions and some of them were perfectly good-looking, traditional submissions. But without fail, ALL of the ugly submissions scored low. And once you strip away any prejudice on the part of the judges ascribing qualitative standards to the poems based on visual presentation – which I know I did and have it on good faith regarding the other judge as well – we are left with one astounding conclusion: poets who send ugly submissions are largely not good poets.
I know what you’re thinking: what font did Shakespeare use to type up his sonnets? The suggestion here being that good poetry doesn’t need a computer or a printer to be good. I agree, and believe me, I was looking for diamonds in the rough in these submissions. Charles Bukowski’s books are, in their original printings, ugly poems and I love them to death. But as scientists now we should be wary of the exceptions, and always mindful of the context of the times. Everyone used quills when Shakespeare wrote, so that question is unfair, and everyone used typewriters when Bukowski wrote, so it is almost equally meaningless to point out. Yet in an age when technology can be had on a street corner for free? When libraries provide everything a person might need to generate what a common submission requires (including access to books and internet sites that would relay such information in seconds)? There is little excuse.
Again: this is not a study of bad submissions. There will always be ugly submissions. My goal isn’t to strip us off ugly submissions. My hope is that poets will look at the way they are submitting and consider what it means for their work. Not in how I or an editor will interpret their work, mind you, but what it might say about their work that the authors themselves aren’t seeing.
Isn’t that profound?! What if you and I sat down with all of your poems and laid them out on a table or a football field, then ordered them in rows or columns or stacks based on how good we could agree they were. Not how well you could sell some of it with a performance or whether or not you could sneak it into a journal, mind you; just what we could both agree was your good work and your less than notable work. Having done that, what if we could go through your bad work as a whole and look for tendencies and trends to see if there was some tell-tale glitch that, maybe even from its inception or how the work was captured or with what tools you realized the work, and forecast your bad poetry before it ever left your possession? What if we discovered that every time you use the word “circumnavigate” a bad poem surrounded it? Or what if we determined that all of your bad poems were the ones you wrote directly by using a computer versus writing them by hand? What if all of your bad poems were the ones you thought would be cute if you centered them on the page? Or used red ink to compose? Or were all about your dog?
This is the sort of Rosetta Stone many poets would kill to apply to their work to ensure a stronger overall aesthetic and portfolio, myself included. As a scientist I say begin the journey by looking at how you submit your work for other people’s consideration. Just bear in mind that, while it may be unfair for an editor or contest judge to write-off your work as bad simply because you submitted it with a coffee cup stain on it, there is some measure of meager science to support why they shouldn’t bother…and maybe why you shouldn’t have bothered sending it in the first place.