Advice from Soma Mei Sheng Frazier, Judge of the Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest
Soma Mei Sheng Frazier offers her advice to poetry contestants at Winning Writers:
What, for you, makes a poem in traditional verse feel fresh and contemporary?
Poetry is as ancient and persistent as war, so I'll quote military strategist Sun Tzu:
There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.
There are not more than five primary colours, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.
There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of them yield more flavours than can ever be tasted.
(Sun Tzu, The Art of War)
Being intimately familiar with the vast poetic terrain, a skilled traditional poet can adeptly navigate meter and structure—guiding readers unwaveringly toward the destination—in a singularly modern way. Thoughtful inclusion of today's events, perspectives, vernacular or themes can render even the strictest villanelle contemporary. And a slight, strategic bending of the rules can make a sonnet feel utterly fresh. Shakespeare took occasional liberties. Poet, so can you.
Consider Samsara Turntable, a crown of sonnets by Lois Elaine Heckman of Milan, Italy—winner of the Traditional Verse category of 2013's Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest. The sonnets span the arc of a mother-daughter relationship, traveling nimbly back and forth in time between two appearances of the one stunning, transforming line that opens and closes the work: "Her hand is cold and trembles into mine." With thoughtful manipulations of common language we hear every day, Heckman zooms in close on doctors in bleached white smocks; a grapefruit tree displaying its golden baubles—zooms out again to ponder the symbiosis of parenthood; the horrors and discoveries of dementia. These are not your great-grandfather's sonnets.
What poetic qualities do you look for in free verse, to differentiate it from prose?
Robert Mezey, poet and professor emeritus, once said to me: "Prose is an opening form. Poetry is a closing one." So in free verse, I look for linguistic closure: a finality of language—a satisfying precision, throughout the work and especially in the poem's last line—even if its narrative is left unresolved. Beyond that, I really expect poetry to follow the advice of another great teacher—my second grade teacher, Mrs. Brown. "Show, don't tell," she'd remind us when we wrote our wobbly-lettered stories. "Make it so I can understand and experience whatever you're writing about." Thank you, Mrs. Brown, for imparting the purpose of nearly every poetic device: metaphor, imagery, alliteration.
How can poets figure out whether our contest is a good fit for their work?
Here, I'll let the interviewer answer the question for the interviewee: check out Jendi Reiter's spot-on advice on selecting the right poetry competition. Once you have, you'll see why Winning Writers offers more than one contest category.
Because each category is adjudicated professionally and ethically, and Winning Writers has a long history of choosing winners who go on to produce more high-caliber work (and paying these winners well) each category receives hundreds, in some cases thousands, of entries from the US and beyond. So my advice for ensuring that your work is competitive in the Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest is this: read your poem aloud, listening as though it were being read by a stranger.
Imagine yourself seated in a sunlit café, on a rumbling train or in a doctor's waiting room and overhearing the poem read. Could you stop listening?
If you could, go back to the drawing board. Your work still needs revision. If you couldn't, your poem is ready for this contest.
Do you have any pet peeves as a contest judge? E.g. over-used themes, clichés, awkward line breaks...
I don't have pet peeves, and here's why: I've been called on to help screen/judge work for a number of literary contests, ranging from literary journals' competitions to the Kore Press Short Fiction Award to Youth Speaks poetry slams to the City of Oakland's Youth Poet Laureate competition. And at one time or another, every pet peeve I held as a judge was forcefully dispelled.
Never rely on general words that one might hear in a platitude (like "beautiful", "evil", or "tragic") I thought, till a poem said something extremely specific with general, flowery, oft-used words—turning those words on their heads to make me gasp audibly. Never write about writing, I thought, and particularly not in rhyme, till a rhymed poem about writing raised goosebumps down my spine.
So go on: write another poem about birds, or your last breakup. Create a natural-disaster-based metaphor. Use the image of a red rose in your work—albeit one that's so ubiquitous Rite Aid builds Valentine's Day campaigns around it. When you do it, though, do it well. Give me goosebumps. Give me gasps.
What are the greatest rewards of being a contest judge?
Like everyone these days, I've got a lot on my to do list: help shape and run my department at the college where I chair and teach; edit a multimedia publication; finish a novel; finish a screenplay; collaborate on a stage play; edit my second prose chapbook for release this spring. And beyond all that lie the demands of life and parenthood: drive my daughter here, drive my daughter there, keep her alive and feed her and such.
It's the nature of the world we live in.
What better, then, than mandated reading time; being forced—by my role as judge and responsibility to study each contest entry closely—to read and reread poems? This justified literary luxury is the greatest reward of being a contest judge, as I'm not only giving, but also receiving something unique from each submission I read. Inevitably there's an unfamiliar word, a mesmerizing line, a distinct or devastating image that grabs and rattles me; sparks emotion, research, dialogue or a poem in answer; pulls me back into the reading or pushes me out the door with some dawning realization. And I'll admit something, too: as the editor of a literary journal and the organizer of multiple literary events, sometimes I steal authors from contests. I look them up online and, if their information is public, contact them to solicit new work or a public reading.
Do you encourage writers to re-submit the same poems in future years (or revised versions thereof), or would you prefer new work each time?
Revisions, to me, are new work: I can't count the times I've sent a poem or story off to a contest, then edited the heck out of it and submitted it anew. Sometimes the revision is transformed beyond recognition. Other times, I've changed just a sentence or two yet in doing so altered the tenor of the entire piece. And it's paid off. I've had editors and judges pass on one version and reward another. So yes: I do encourage revised work.
Regarding resubmission of an earlier entry: I don't strongly encourage it, as I want to provide incentives for poets to keep writing; keep revising. But I don't discourage it either, as there are those times when a poem nearly makes the cut, but, due to some variable such as the quality of the other entries, doesn't quite. In those instances, it may have a good chance in another year's contest.
How do you know when a poem is "done"? What are the signs of over-revision?
There are myriad ways in which to strengthen a piece of writing; myriad alternate versions. So perhaps the closest a poem can come to "done" is to relay the intended experience to the target readership; deliver the right message to the correct recipients. I stop tinkering with my own work only once I've received satisfying feedback from four or five bluntly honest people who represent the audience I want to reach with a particular piece.
One of those people is myself. So I'll examine the poem in several fonts (the visual is potent, as any graphic poet knows: sometimes the unfamiliarity of larger, smaller, or sans serif lines will jar me into seeing something new). I'll ask someone to read it to me, then read it aloud myself (first sitting, then standing; first alone, then for others). If I've overworked it, it'll no longer ring true in my own ears. Then I'll set it aside. This is hard, but I do it. I leave it alone for a few days. When I come back to it, I know whether it's done.
Poems are tricky, aren't they? So in making this decision and all others—for my own work, and for that of the poets whose entries I judge—I've always got to look closely, and more than once. As I began with Sun Tzu, I'll end with Sun Tzu:
"To lift an autumn hair is no sign of great strength; to see the sun and moon is no sign of sharp sight; to hear the noise of thunder is no sign of a quick ear." (Sun Tzu, The Art of War)
Categories: Advice for Writers