by William Wootten: 2020 judge, Poetry and Publisher’s Awards
Judging the Michael Marks Awards was two parts extra job to one part extra birthday. First there were the parcels – three boxes containing the 205 pamphlets up for the Michael Marks Poetry and Publishers’ Awards along with the publishers’ statements – that were to become moveable impediments to the humans in the house and, at one stage, what the cat reckoned was its bed.
Plucking out a pamphlet was a game of lucky dip, but usually there was something to interest me. Even if the poetry didn’t greatly impress me as poetry, I might be intrigued by some aspect of the poet’s life in the poems or the way the pamphlet had been published. Then, every so often, there would be the surprise choice gift, perhaps by a poet I’d never heard of and perhaps never would have read had I not been judging the Michael Marks. There were a lot of pamphlets to get through in the time. Still, I was conscious of the obligation to give each pamphlet a fair hearing – I might have read a pile of other pamphlets that day but this was this pamphlet’s only shot. So, to try to keep my judgements consistent, I scored each pamphlet out of 20. Any pamphlet scoring fifteen or over, plus a few that I wasn’t sure what I thought about, went into a tote bag for a second look. These were then slowly winnowed to a longlist of 25 including my five favourites.
After all this solitary reading and scoring, meeting the other three judges on Zoom was a grand social event. Each of us also had the odd treasured pamphlet which was to remain an unshared passion, and there was good natured debate on where we disagreed. But there was much agreement too on which pamphlets and publishers we most admired and why, and it was a pleasure sharing what we had enjoyed. Arriving at the shortlist took an afternoon, deciding on our winners – ‘but I love that one AND that one!’ – another. But in the end we reached our decisions, and while others are of course free to disagree with them, we certainly thought and talked them through.