Hal Prize Poetry Screening Judge: Peter Sherrill

We asked the group of local screening judges for the Hal Prize to share with readers and writers what they’re looking for when they go through submissions: Why does one piece of writing make it to the final round, but not another? These columns will illuminate the screeners’ process and help those who want to improve their writing – and are perhaps writing with the intention of submitting their work to the contest.

I am one of three judges doing the preliminary selections for the Hal Prize in poetry. My job is to help winnow roughly 300 entrants into the “20 best,” which go to the final judge. Why? There are very, very many good poems. It is not easy to decide. Yes, I am judgmental. It is in the job description.

In making my decisions, there are two overarching categories that I pay attention to: mechanics and aesthetics. 

In the mechanics category, I am thinking about the objective qualities of each submission. Did you read the instructions? Any number of entrants get bumped out of contention right away because they did not follow the rules. For example, the rules require that the poet’s name not appear on the manuscript. This has been a problem for a few of the submissions.

Other problems include typeface and the use of emojis. I take a very dim view of multiple fonts, and “dressing up” your manuscript with script and other alternative fonts is not helpful: It is distracting. Standard fonts such as Times New Roman and Garamond are big in my book. 

Similarly, the use of emojis is an almost immediate disqualifier. We are not texting each other. Make your words do the work for you. 

Check the spelling! I can’t tell you how annoying it is to have obviously misspelled words come clunking down in the middle of a poem. Don’t rely on spell-check. Read the manuscript; then have a friend read it for errors.

Similarly, look at your punctuation. If you are going to use punctuation, do so consistently and correctly. If you are going to be minimalist with the punctuation, do that consistently.

Now we come to aesthetics: That’s the “art” of the poem. If you have passed muster with the mechanics part of your poem, then I start thinking about the aesthetics. To paraphrase James Baldwin, a poem can be looked at as having four parts, of roughly equal importance: the title, the first line, the last line and the rest of the poem. This has been my approach.

Does the title grab my attention? Does it somehow reflect the arc of the poem? Then, does the first line usher me into the poem and make me want to keep reading? Does the last line close the poem appropriately? A good last line should have enough weight to let the reader know the poem is finished. A last line that is really solid can make the rest of the poem almost glow in the dark. Does the “rest of the poem” support the first three items?

Meter and rhyme? Fine, but don’t turn your lines into pretzels to make that work. One of the flaws that I commonly see involves what’s known as scaffolding: using excessive “setup” words that don’t really support the meat of the poem.

If you’re going to make a jump in the poem, don’t forget to take me with you. I have a little more than two weeks to evaluate these poems and don’t have the time to puzzle out too many mysteries.

In short, be kind to your judge. Send error-free copy with a compelling title, first line and last line; and have the body of the poem polished so it pulls all three of the other elements together.

Peter Sherrill has had work published in a wide variety of journals and anthologies, and he has earned multiple state poetry awards. He is a past president of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.

Learn more and submit to the Hal Prize here>>