On Judging My First Poetry Contest (for the Prism Review)

Special thanks to  Sean Bernard, creative writing faculty at University of La Verne,  and editor of their literary journal, the Prism Review. Sean invited me to judge their poetry contest and to be interviewed by the journal. Besides the fact that Sean is awesome, I decided to be a part of this project because I really liked that the journal’s staff is entirely made up of undergraduate creative writing students at La Verne, led by a faculty advisor.  U of La Verne is located in Southern California and has a high population of students of color.

I had never judged a poetry contest, but I found the process to be quite enjoyable. Basically, the staff of Prism carefully read through all the submissions and sent me the finalists poems (without author names or bios). I read and re-read the finalists packet for about two months. One thing that was obvious right way: all the finalist poems were prize worthy, and this wasn’t going to be easy. So I re-read the entire packet every week, and after each reading I forced myself to eliminate a poem that didn’t continue to amaze me as much as the others. The poem that I ended up choosing was the poem that continued to blossom with meaning even after more than five readings, even after two months of living intently with the poems.

I recently received my copy of the new Prism Review (#13), and I finally learned the name of the poet I chose as the winner: congrats to Mary Ann Davis for her winning poem: “From the Sublunary Year.” And congrats to all the finalists.

From the contest press release: Mary Ann Davis is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English and the Program in Gender Studies at the University of Southern California, where she’s been the recipient of a Moses Poetry Award and the James Prize for Best Critical Essay. Prior to USC, she earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan, where she received an Avery Hopwood Award in poetry.

Here is my judge’s comment about the winning poem:

” ‘From the Sublunary Year’ is a poem that haunted me every time I read it. From its first prepositional phrase, it pulls the reader in, and as we are pulled, the speaker is pulled into a loved one’s illness and feels, bending over the waiting bed, “every flaw I always feared.” As the poem intensifies, the lyricism transforms into stark narrative: descriptions of grape juice and new pillows, of sleeping on the couch, of not sleeping. And then the coins, coins everywhere. For the two months that I lived with the finalists’ poems—I kept hearing the coins—felt a chill whenever I found a coin in my own house or on the street. “From the Sublunary Year” manages to weave lyricism, abstraction, narrative, image, symbolism, formal experimentation, character, and deep emotion not only into a poem, but into a haunting poetic experience. It’s a heartbreaking attempt to “fill the silence of illness.” A poem worthy of prize. A perfect prism.”

If you want to read the winning poem, you will have to support the students at La Verne and buy yourself a copy. As a bonus, you can read the very thoughtful interview that Sean and the staff conducted with me for free online as a PDF here. This is, by far, the longest and craziest interview I’ve ever given.


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