February 18th, 2006


Judge not lest j'accuse

I've got some pet peeves on contests. I'd like to see a contest Code of Ethics, that, unlike the wimpy thing recently implemented in the wake of Foetry, deals in specifics.

One complaint I have is about not giving response deadlines, or failing to honor them, AND THEN NOT RESPONDING TO INQUIRIES, which happened to me with the 2005 Pittsburgh Quarterly Sara Henderson Hay Prize: they gave the notification date as Sept. 1 (I ALWAYS include an SASE and my e-mail address). I finally made an e-mail inquiry (polite, no attachments, explanatory subject line, etc.) on Oct. 24. I made a second, also polite, inquiry on January 6th to other e-mail addresses given on the site, mentioning the lack of response to the first inquiry, and have yet to receive any reply to those, either.

My biggest gripe, however, is with contests that don't name judges. For competitions that want to avoid any relationship between the judge and selected winners, the only sensible way of doing this is to put the responsibility in the entrant's lap, where it belongs, by prohibiting them from entering if they have a prior relationship with the judge (and obviously, entrants need to know who the judge is to make that determination). Not that I don't believe we haven't seen some egregious examples of collusion and favoritism for which the judge in question was clearly to blame, but the system as it stands puts an unfair burden on honest and well-meaning judges.

Marilyn Taylor, the Poet Laureate of Milwaukee, a friend of mine and a person of sterling reputation and uncompromising integrity, has been harassed non-stop for the past year by a woman who has posted diatribes on foetry.com and other sites, as well as sending letters to organizations whose boards Marilyn is on, calling for her removal. Marilyn was kind enough to judge a small local poetry contest for the Milwaukee Public Library, with negligible prizes. Another adjunct professor at UW-M, who Marilyn did not know (Marilyn's name was announced as the judge, however), entered and won second place (the would-be watchdog of poetic purity received an honorable mention). The contest was judged blind; Marilyn was not familiar with the other professor's work, and the library staff is not especially knowledgeable about the poetry scene. I find it odd, in this situation, that the judge was blamed for what was clearly, in my opinion, a lack of ethical judgment on the part of the entrant.

A judge (to say nothing of competition staff) cannot be reliably expected to recognize the work of former/current students, family, friends, etc. and it is awkward, tedious, and disappointing to re-judge after winners have been selected (assuming the judge is given the opportunity to do so following disclosure of winners' identities), and even more annoying and embarrassing to withdraw and redistribute prizes after winners have been announced. And yet MORE vexatious to get an undeserved reputation for running a rigged competition!

Contests should be blind-judged—and the names of judges should invariably be announced up front (except where judging takes place by committee at a level where pretending that judges do not know the candidates would be disingenuous). Contest entrants should be required to acknowledge that they will incur legal penalties by ignoring or concealing a relationship with the judge. I guarantee that the first time someone has to give back a prize they won dishonestly—and pay the legal fees incurred by the contest organizer—this sort of backbiting will become a thing of the past (other backbiting will take its place, of course. Don't say I didn't warn you.)

The only logic behind not naming the judge, as far as I can see, is discreditable to the competition sponsors:

a) the judge is not sufficiently prestigious to draw the hoped-for number of entries
b) no one has gotten around to hiring a judge yet
c) a judge has been hired who it is feared might be amenable to bribery (or hey, how about blackmail!)