Devon Miller-Duggan on Judging a Poetry Contest

Over the next couple of days, I’ll be reading 110 pages of poetry and 3 chunks of memoir/creative non-fiction by high school students in Delaware (the small state by the big water…). Of course, they’ve been in my in-box for a while now. I think actually may be the Queen of Procrastination—especially if being queen involves highly developed skills around Getting In Under the Wire, for which I have a positive genius, if I do say so myself.

Decades ago I decided to quit trying to work the way “they” said I should and get good at working the way I seem to be genetically programmed to work. I can’t say that making peace with my inner ADD-driven procrastinator has eliminated the stress of last-minute, fear-driven WORK fits. After all, that anxiety is a lot of what energizes the work itself. But it has taken away a goodly portion of the self-laceration involved. Good thing.

So why did I agree to judge a contest (a national art and writing comp. that recognizes extraordinary gifts)? Bunches of fairly obvious reasons: citizenship, the honor of being asked, a longstanding and deeply held belief in the education of gifted and talented young people, paying my dues. What will I get out of it besides a very small, but still nice, honorarium and the loss of a not inconsiderable number of hours? Well, I’ll have gotten the material for this blog entry, because nothing energizes the brain like avoiding a pile of not-always-rapturous work.

More to the point, I will have gotten the answer to a question I heard for the umptieth time on NPR yesterday: Is Poetry Dead? Of course, the answer in the NPR story was no because it was another nice story about the transformative power of poetry for at-risk kids. It’s an old story, but one that bears repeating loudly and frequently. I have no idea about the circumstances of the kids who wrote the poems I’m reading. I’ll bet that a fairly serious proportion of the best poems will be by students from the state’s “better” schools. But some won’t. Doesn’t matter. I have on my desk a gillion poems written by humans who are in the process of surviving their own adolescences by, among other things, writing poetry. That is certainly not the only reason poetry is not dead and still MATTERS. But it’s a damn fine one. So, to the kids I’m giving lousy scores to—Boy I wish I could talk to you face to face and tell you how much I respect the work you’re doing. Keep doing it. It may not save you, but it’ll help. It may not change the world much that you can tell, but, believe me, it is keeping the world just a little farther from the edge—it’s sacred work. And to the kids whose work is already showing signs of gifts and energy and edge—the high scorers: you rejoice my heart.

1 thought on “Devon Miller-Duggan on Judging a Poetry Contest

  1. Pingback: Do you believe Melissa Joan Hart is fairly?

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