Well, in fact, Philip Gross, himself a winner of the National Poetry Competition, the T.S. Eliot Prize and Wales Book of the Year. Here he gives a view from the Magma Poetry Competition 2013 judge’s bench:
I’m starting this with caution. Even a one-off blog post, the kind of letter-to-anyone the internet facilitates, implies a conversation; there’s a particular kind of listening at the other end. Maybe you’re reading because you know that I’ll be judging in the Magma competition. Maybe you’re thinking of entering, and fishing for clues. Because after all, by the same principle, entering a competition isn’t one-way either; you’re sending your poem into a space prepared by someone’s tastes, the quality of attention they might give.
I wish I could help you. Or rather, I don’t, because the last thing I want is for you to try to please me, and I’ll probably spot it if you try. In the part of my life where I’m a writing teacher, I hope that what I mainly teach is questions; with them, with luck, other people’s poems or stories might discover what they need to be.
Still, it’s dishonest to behave as if I’m not here, or to think I should be like the non-directive therapist whose carefully affectless uh-huh grunts deliver a powerful message of withholding who they are. No, the space between us always has a shape.
… which is a fair clue to one kind of question that nags at me. When Anne Carson titles her Poetry Society lecture Stammering, Stops, Silence, or Jane Hirshfield talks on Hiddenness, Surprise, Uncertainty, or Ruth Padel on Silent Letters of the Alphabet, something in me responds. The spaces in a poem interest me, as much as the words. That and the space around it, of course. I’m not talking necessarily about shapes on the page. More, it’s the sense that any space, especially one involving humans, will have its own dynamics – sometimes so powerful that the space seems to have a personality of its own.
In a day I spent recently with a lively thoughtful writing group, we found ourselves looking at some of the hints we writers can leave in the space between words. We did punctuation. We did not do pedantry. These jots and tittles are pointers both to the shape of the spaces they are in and the dynamics of the words around them. And don’t we take them personally, these dryasdust dots and dashes? Everyone had a favourite, or one that they felt, sometimes with embarrassment, to be their own. Most of us have mannerisms in this department… but those too are worth spotting – not simply to edit them (out of the poem you’re about to pop into the competition, for a start) but for a more positive reason: a habit or tic is going to be an avoidance of something. Some question worth asking is nearby, if only you could see.
So, there… By the paradox of ’don’t try to please me’ I’ve made it impossible for you to use punctuation… or not to. In other words, ignore me. Write your poem. The space between us is wide open, and ready to resonate to what you write.