Boy: Mum, why does baby have to be such a slut? I wish she wasn’t such a slut this morning. Me: (gasping for air) What? What did you say? Where did you hear that word? Boy: (backing away) What word? Me: Uhhh...slut Boy: Oh...slut. I made it up Mum. Isn’t it a great word? Slut! Me: No. No, it’s not a great word! Don't say it! What do you mean, you made it up?
Boy: (proudly) I mean I invented it. Me: Oh...you did? How did you invent it? What does it mean? Boy: Well...I invented it because poor little baby has a runny nose and she’s been a bit sick. Me: (confused) So...uhh...why does that mean she’s a uhhh... a slut? Boy: Well, slut means sick-little-toddler or sick-little-tot or something like that. Me: (pausing) Oh. Right. Oh. Okay. Well...it doesn’t umm...sound like a very nice word. Boy: Why not? Me: Ummmm... it just... it’s... well, I mean, sick little tot would actually be slot, or sick little toddler would be slod... because there’s no ‘u’ sound in the words. So how about we use one of those. How about we say she’s a slod? That’s a great word! (enthusiastically) Slod! Boy: (shrugging). Okay, if you like... I still like slut though.
I’m judging a national poetry competition at the moment. The call came from out of nowhere:
Is this Maxine Clarke? Are you a writer? What do you mostly write?
And I’m thinking: This could be journalism work. Don’t say poetry...whatever you do, don’t admit it’s mostly poetry.
Uhhh... mostly poetry? (with some resignation)
Well...of course I also write non-fiction and pro— No, no, that’s perfect. We’re looking for a poet. I’m looking for someone to judge a poetry competition and maybe give some workshops.
Money. For poetry. Not non-fiction, not copy writing. Poetry. Proper money for poetry. Stay calm. Stay calm...
How did you get my number?
I actually have no idea. Someone gave it to me a few years ago when we needed some help with some poetry and then we found someone else, but I still had your number with me. Can you tell me a bit about your poetry experience?
I’ve rarely entered (‘on paper’) writing competitions. Partly because the very idea of ‘competition writing’ makes me feel a little grubby and partly because everyone always bangs on about how they’re rigged... they’re supposed to be blind read and they’re not...a ‘name’ writer always wins blah blah blah etc etc etc.
I don’t know why I give any credence to the ‘writing comps are rigged’ conspiracy theory (which is probably mostly espoused by disgruntled entrants), because out of the four times I’ve entered writing competitions, two of them I’ve won...both pretty much as an emerging or little-known writer.
I’ve also judged written poetry competitions before, and these clearly were not rigged. Unfortunately though the trend in the past has been that out of a hundred and fifty odd poems a hundred can be put on the ‘no’ pile straight away, twenty five can be put on the ‘ maybe...read a few more times’ pile and twenty-five are pretty much 'decent contenders'. I read each poem at least ten times over several days, and poems sometimes move from the 'no' pile to the 'maybe' pile, or from the 'maybe pile' to the 'serious contender' pile - or in reverse, but it would take something amazing to leap two piles in either direction.
I know, I know...if you’re a poet who does enter competitions frequently, you may well be outraged by this judging method. Sorry folks.
So part of me was thinking (perhaps hopefully even): Wow, this could pretty much be money for snoozing.
But now here I am, ankle-deep in poems and, quite frankly, peeing myself. Because I read the first poem, then the second, then the third, then to number twenty and then started to hyperventilate and couldn’t read on...
Because the standard of these works is mostly even.
And quite frankly, they’re all pretty bloody good.
So what does it come down to? Form? Subject? Rhythm? Rhyme? Originality? That get-you-in-the-guts kind of feeling a poem can leave you with?
I'm tired. I think I’m just gonna throw the pile up in the air and see which ones land at the top.
I swear that last bit was a joke. Please take it as a joke or it could get me into some mighty kind of trouble.
I’ve been left to my own devices as to judging criteria, and unlike past writing comps I’ve judged, there is no co-judge to chew the fat with.
Boy: I got a sad face on my school work today. Me: Oh. That's no good. Why was that? Boy: We had to use the word ‘bird’ in a sentence and I wrote ‘Drat the bird.’ Me: (stifling laughter) Oh. What did your teacher say? Didn’t she like the word ‘drat’? Boy: She said it wasn’t a proper sentence and she gave me a sad face. Me: Oh. Boy: Also, I didn’t write it properly, I wrote DRATTHEBIRD! All in capitals and smushed together with a big exclamation mark at the end. Me: (stifling laughter again). Why did you do that? Boy: Cause I’m tired of writing sentences. Me: What happened after she gave you a sad face? Boy: She asked me to write a proper sentence. Me: Oh, what was your proper sentence? Boy: I wrote ‘Drat the bird’ again, but properly so it wasn’t all in capitals and the words had spaces in between. Me: And what did your teacher think about that? Boy: She said it was better, but she said it still wasn’t a proper sentence. Me: Oh... Boy: I think it’s a proper sentence. Me: Do you? Boy: Yes, I do. Is it a proper sentence? Me: Uhhh. Well...if your teacher says it’s not a proper sentence then we’ll go with that. I think your teacher's right. Boy: But do you think it is a proper sentence. Me: Eat your dinner. Boy: But I want to know. You write books. Do you think it’s a proper sentence? Me: I don’t know... I’m a poet. I actually have no idea what a proper sentence is. Poets don't write in sentences... Boy: (incredulously) You don’t know what a sentence is? Didn’t they teach you at school? Me: Eat your dinner. Isn’t it a yummy dinner!