By CL Bledsoe
My friend asked me to be a judge for a middle school poetry contest. I thought, how hard could it be? Read a bunch of kids’ poems about puppies or werewolves or whatever. The real challenge will be getting through all of them.
And what a good guy I was for doing this. When I met with the organizer, she apologized for the meager stipend. I was already thinking I would make the magnanimous gesture of donating the cash back into the contest, because I’m just that awesome. Someone should build a statue. How grateful these kids would be.
I neglected it for a solid two weeks. I figured I’d knock it out in an hour, tops, right before the deadline. It’s only a few hundred poems. Besides, this new show on Amazon isn’t going to binge watch itself. “My time is valuable,” I croaked, my mouth full of Girl Scout cookies (another organization I generously support).
When I finally sat down to read, I was surprised by some of the word choices that popped up seemingly out of nowhere. Then, the next poem would use the same word/s. Many of the poems either came from prompts or were using other poems as starting points, but hey, plenty of published and even award-winning poems do the same thing. I pressed on, hero that I was.
As I read them, I began to realize these are kids, writing about their feelings. A lot of the poems were about violence. Sadness. Loneliness. Loss. It’s a fucked up world out there, and kids these days seem to be more aware of it than many kids were in previous generations. They don’t have that shelter of unawareness. There’s a lot more information coming at them.
Then it clicked. I was in the unenviable position of rejecting a bunch of kids for not expressing their feelings in a pretty enough way. These were middle schoolers writing about their lives. Some of them were scared. Some of them were hurt. Many of them were unsure about their futures.
I had also forgotten that I hate judging other people’s writing. This is a lesson I thought I’d learned in college when I worked on the student literary journal. Other people, maybe, thought of it as having the opportunity to bring great (or, let’s be honest, mostly passable) literature into the world. I had thought it would be a good way to get to know other writers and maybe learn something. Networking! Mostly, it felt like I crushed the hopes and dreams of a whole lot of strangers. And now it was children.
I went back to the instructions. The organizer had given me a number to whittle it down to. I got it down to twice that much and slowly eliminated them, one at a time, until I barely squeaked by. I felt miserable about the whole thing. Sure, those few kids would be happy, but what about all the others?
What if this rejection kept a kid from ever writing again? What if they took it personally? Grownups take rejection personally all the time. Ever edited a literally journal? I’ve worked on several. Two people sent me poems about how much they hated me. One guy accused me of being part of a communist conspiracy to keep him out of print. (If I were a communist, wouldn’t I publish everyone?) Lots and lots of people responded to rejections very personally with very choice language. People stalked me on social media or posted rude comments to things I posted on blogs or wherever.
But I don’t care about a bunch of hack grownups. I’m talking about kids.
The only solace I found was in examining my own criteria. When I wrote as a kid, teachers usually disliked my dark subject matter. They wanted me to write about nature, instead of things inspired by my terrible home life. (So I wrote about plants dying.) I wouldn’t do that to these kids. I would be more open.
I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be standards for poetry (again: middle schoolers), but I had to be very careful about what those standards would be. Mostly, I wanted to give them all an A and a cookie. But I’d already eaten all of those. There goes my statue.