Hello, I’m Paul-Newell Reaves–
I’m the judge of the Lengthy Poem Contest.

I kinda hate to admit this, but there are some very concrete things I’ve learned from reading submissions in previous contests that will put your poem in my Not Interested folder before I finish your first page. So here’s some very concrete advice to help you write what I am looking for.

Strong Opening

I’m not only the contest judge, I’m also the publisher (our other contests have paid judges and submissions readers, but this contest pays all of that to the poet– leaving just me to read submissions, choose the finalists and then the winner). But as publisher, I’m trying to draw readers into our site, involve them, and keep them coming back, so my first priority in selecting finalists is an interesting first couple of stanzas– something to hook a reader. Don’t start with the weather. Also, don’t lead immediately with sex or seduction– build the desire first. An entrancing title goes a long way to hook a reader– why not take the very best part of your poem, or maybe what you feel you’ve accomplished in the poem, and work that into the title or a subtitle.

If You Use Meter

Unending iambic verse is quite monotonous. I thoroughly enjoy metered poems, but you must play with it, vary it, and make it interesting. Give “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe a read, he’s mostly using anapests, but he varies them with iambs. Definitely don’t put in a bunch of extra stuff just to sustain a meter– take Keats’ advice, take out the extra stuff and break the meter. Don’t be haphazard, though, for a great deal of artistry can be summoned with meter. If you’re in a strict meter, dropping a syllable can call attention to that line, make it stand out for one reason or another. Or you might break from your established meter entirely to highlight a turning point in the work. Maybe you can architecturally design a strict combination of differing meters in a single stanza, then sustain the combination across an entire lengthy poem.

If You Use Rhyme

I’ve no problem with end rhyme. Embedded rhyme might be more sophisticated, though– depending on your poetic style– and sometimes that’s as simple as changing up your line-breaks. Again, no problem with end rhyme, however, sustained couplets of end rhyme can become tedious. Unending hard rhymes (as opposed to soft rhymes) can become tedious. Obvious rhymes, a rhyme I can predicted the moment I read the first word, those should be used sparingly– but again, a great deal of artistry can be employed. Bomb is a very, very hard rhyme. But if you’re gonna drop one half-way through the poem, that would be a great use of a predictable rhyme.

If You Have Mythical Beings

You must be imaginative. Do not rely on tired tropes. Great fantasy writers can adapt the ancient types of mythical beings to make those beings entirely their own. I enjoy when authors create new names for an old type of mythical being– I’ve read the word elf before, call your creature something inventive.

No zombies under any circumstances. I do not support work whose principle theme is the braindead.


Some authors are satisfied never editing their work at all, good for them. For those of us who do, it is as much of an art form as the original pen-to-paper moment. There are many stages of editing, and many approaches to it– far too many to list in a lifetime. But I’ll address an undervalued one:

Polishing is an often-used name for the penultimate stage, which might continue until just before the final proofreading. To put a concrete definition to it: polishing makes the final intentional changes, whereas proofreading fixes any remaining mistakes.

I think of polishing as tinkering with the inner workings of a clock: I move the gears around, file them down, poke at the bouncy bits. If a writer’s clock breaks, we may simply return to a previous draft and compare it.

Here are some of my aims when my work advances into the later editing stages:

Themes can be intentionally reinforced. An awesome idea has emerged in my work, so I want to address it throughout. It’s surprising how much these themes are capable of mutating– maybe I intended to say something completely different about my theme, and now the act of writing it has changed my mind.

Motifs can be woven throughout the piece. What a vivid image I just created– why not use it more than once, maybe several times. Even better, this motif might represent the same thing every time it appears– perhaps even mean something everywhere it appears.

Every single word in a piece should be compared to all of its synonyms. Thesaurus is just a fun word to say.

The poem must be tight and clean: I gotta delete all the unnecessary bits. Any lines that aren’t as powerful can simply be removed– even a good line, if it’s surrounded by lines that are even better, it won’t be as impactful. Phrases within a clause might be redundant or pure bluster, I’ll nix them. Even an entire stanza– or an entire section!– if it doesn’t actively contribute, I should cut it. Words: now it gets tricky. Use fewer words to say the exact same thing, without ruining your style, your rhythm, or any meter you might be using. Yet this part is what gets a poem especially clean and shiny, and it’s where the tinkering helps most. The process is the same as changing a passive sentence into an active one: move the words around in order without changing the meaning too drastically. Article words, like a and the, by making the noun plural can often be removed. Is this exclamation, interjection, or expletive absolutely necessary? Possessives are your friend, here, and prepositions are generally not (that said, I find prepositions endlessly generative, I’ve actually even self-identified with, “I write in adverbs and prepositions.”) Contractions do not usually do this job well. You might think that they’d be good at it– hey, just throw a contraction in there, it’ll cut out at word every time– but too many contractions and it gets messy and sloppy. Remember, the aim here is tight and clean.

This one takes a long time, and there is no “getting it right.” At some point, I must simply let it go and say, “this piece is finished, and there will be no more changing it, even if I do find something else to tighten.”

The Elizabeth Bishop Method of Polishing Poems

Elizabeth Bishop, who published in the 1940s-70s, would physically cut apart her poem word-by-word, stick a pin in each word, then assemble her lines on a cork board. She would move the words around within the sentence. She would move the lines up and down, the stanzas up and down. If she thought up a better word, she would cut out that word and pin it to the board. This method is significantly simpler with access to word processing software– yeah, I recommend doing away with the pins and cork board these days. But she was obsessive in her tinkering to a degree that she didn’t need to save too many old drafts, if her clock broke, she’d toy with it until it stopped being broken. If you haven’t read Bishop, check out “the Moose”. That poem is what I mean by polished.

Long Poems Take a Long Time

The submission period for our contest is open for five months in the hope that submitters will spend those months editing their work. It is obvious when reading these poems who has dashed it off in the last two weeks. Spend at least several months on your work. Maybe a year. Maybe many years. I worked on a lengthy poem of 160 lines for eight years. Maybe spend a decade. I worked on a chapbook-length poem for 15 years. If you don’t make it as a finalist this year, consider refining the same poem all year and resubmitting a new draft of it.

Got it?
You can do this.

Lengthy Poem Contest

Facebooktwitterlinkedinrssby feather
Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather

Welcome to
Defenestrationism reality.

Read full projects from our
retro navigation panel, left,
or start with What’s New.