Poetry Judge: Marilyn L. Taylor

This year’s poetry contest was judged by Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate, Marilyn L. Taylor, Ph.D. Prior to being appointed by Governor Doyle to her current position, Taylor was the Poet Laureate for the city of Milwaukee and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she taught for the Department of English and later for the Honors College.

Taylor continues to lead poetry workshops throughout the state, including workshops at Lawrence University’s Björklunden seminar center in Baileys Harbor, and her articles on poetic craft appear bi-monthly in THE WRITER magazine.

Taylor’s award-winning work has appeared in a number of poetry journals and anthologies, and she is the author of eight collections of poetry, including Subject to Change (David Robert Books, 2004) which was nominated for the 2005 Poets Prize – an award for the best book of American poetry in the previous calendar year. Her most recent chapbook is titled Going Wrong (Parallel Press, 2009).


Marilyn L. Taylor:  About Winning…and Not Winning

How important are contests in building a writing career?

Marilyn L. Taylor (MLT):  Entering a contest like The Writer’s Exposé so generously sponsored by the Peninsula Pulse – and winning it – can be considered “important” for the simple reason that it gets one’s poetry “out there,” so to speak – puts it in the hands of many more readers than it might otherwise have had. It’s also true that being singled out by an experienced judge amounts to the kind of overt validation that can be achieved no other way. In other words, it’s a strong nudge in the right direction.

Entering a contest and NOT winning it, however, might contribute even more to a poet’s career – in the philosophical sense, anyway. See my response to the next question for an explanation of why I say this.

What would you like those who do not win to take away from the process?

MLT:  To all the poets who do not win, I would ask them to keep the following in mind:

a. You are to be congratulated for having enough confidence in your work to send it off to be judged by some narrow-eyed stranger. This is no small accomplishment!

b. You are urged to remember that the contest judge is at the mercy of his or her own tastes and biases, no matter how objective he or she tries to be. The fact that your poem didn’t win might simply mean that you and the judge have different expectations and preferences when it comes to poetry.

c. Never forget that another judge might very well have selected your poem as the winner. So there’s no excuse not to keep on submitting!

What are the best and worst aspects of judging a contest?

MLT:  For me (and please be aware that I’m speaking only for myself), the best aspect of judging a poetry contest is that the job exposes me to so many good – often extraordinary – poems. I find it a joy to go through the process of singling out the very best of the very best. Another aspect of judging that I welcome is that it tends to keep me humble. Not infrequently, I’ll read a submission and decide that the poet clearly deserves the Pulitzer Prize, and what am I doing here in the judge’s chair?

The worst aspect is probably the unavoidable fact that a judge is always at the mercy of the submissions themselves. Sometimes the field of entries is a little weak, and a judge has to work hard to separate the wheat (which is always there!) from a whole lot of chaff. But far more frequently I find myself confronted with many prize-worthy entries. Too many. It can be nothing short of painful to eliminate poems I really love to make way for the ones that I love even more.