Guest post by Michael Wolfe
Over a three-week period in July, Johns Hopkins University Press hosted an epitaph writing contest on the Goodreads website, which you may still access and review here. The Press proposed the contest as a way to mark the shortlisting by PEN/America of my recently published book, Cut These Words into My Stone, a collection of ancient Greek epitaphs in English translation.
As the book’s author and translator, I agreed to judge the contest. The ground rules were simple enough: Compose an original epitaph in English and submit it to our online contest at Goodreads for others to read. From each week’s collected submissions I then agreed to select a winner, whom Johns Hopkins would award with a free copy of the book and publication of the winning epitaphs here on the Press’s blog. Three weeks, three winners, three awards.
Criteria for Judging
The criteria for a good epitaph were presented in a post on the JHU Press Blog site. Rather than reprint them here, let me simply say that authentic emotion, brevity, compression, and the few formal constraints that have accrued to good epitaphs in a variety of languages over the centuries were all recommended to the contestants and abided by in the judging of the winners.
There was one winner in Week One:
He ran as free as a young stag,
but like the stag’s rippling shadow
he also got entangled in the leaves.
by Daniel Abdal-Hayye Moore
No winner in Week Two; but two winners in Week Three:
Do not mourn me . . .
I have lived.
by Tina Paggi
Eye me—you’ll find I’ve changed and so we’re free:
Green maid, green man, two eyes for you and me.
by Wilson Engel
Comments on other submissions
From Week One:
If you don’t live for something you will die for nothing.
Comment: Though more an aphorism than an epitaph, Raphael’s notion contains the core idea of many classical sepulchral epigrams. This was the first submission to the contest.
From Week Two:
Open the windows —
he always loved the sky.
A change of address
from his home in Uruguay.
by Abdal-Hayye Moore
Comment: The voice in line 1 instructing the living to honor something the deceased loved is very much in keeping with the spirit the epitaph. The humor in line 3, when the poet refers to “A change of address,” is subtle but hard to miss, implying the deceased has, as people used to say, “died and gone to heaven.” The rhyme of “sky” with “Uruguay” is admirable, too.
From Week Three:
My body rests below you
Yet no stone at my head
Nor soil to make my bed
Has kept my soul—it is free.
Dry your tears—don’t cry for me.
My spirit soars above you.
Comment: One of the longer submissions, I appreciate this poem for the way it holds together a complex thought from start to finish.
And, lastly, this strophe sent in by JoJo:
Silence the drummer in my chest
He has become too passionate.
He strides and flicks the surface
Having no care of the flames atop my shoulders.
Comment: Although not an epitaph exactly, these lines show passion, powerful imagery, and word for word precision—all hallmarks of Greek epitaphic verse.
Comments on the Process: Looking Back, How Did it Go?
General instructions for a “giveaway” on Goodreads are available here for those who may want to experiment with the format. A contest, however, is not precisely a “giveaway.” The design of the epitaph writing contest, without precedent in more than one way, was produced by JHUP’s Jack Holmes.
Goodreads welcomed the idea but did forewarn us that success was hardly guaranteed. The main challenges to attracting submissions seem to be 1) the problem of distinguishing your contest from a welter of material on the Internet; 2) drawing attention to the fact that a contest exists; and 3) bringing the contest to the attention of likely contestants. It helps, of course, for your page to gain a high ranking on Google and other search engines, but a contest with lifespan of three weeks isn’t likely to do that.
The contest took a while to get up to speed. I had imagined that of the innumerable Goodreads members, some would be writers interested in being published. To hedge my bets, I posted an invitation on a LinkedIn Group called “Poetry Editors and Writers,” which boasts a readership of 16,000. At the end of Week One, with only a pair of Contest entries to judge, my wife suggested we add some potential to the Contest by signing up with Google’s Ad words program, to try to increase participation.
The Ad Words must have helped. Time helped solve our problems too, I think. Week Two saw an increase in submissions (from two in Week One to nine in Week Two). Week Three showed a substantial increase over Week Two both in quantity and quality. I should express thanks here to a couple of contestants, Daniel and Wilson, who submitted multiple entries and not only boosted the numbers of submissions but also, more importantly, explored the potential of the epitaphic form, thus enriched our reading pleasure.
At the end of Week Three, I was sorely tempted to keep the contest going, but free copies of a $20 book don’t grow on trees, and in the end reason prevailed.
Many thanks to everyone on all ends of this effort, from PEN/America, which first introduced us to Goodreads, to Goodreads itself, whose operatives gave us many useful tips, and to Johns Hopkins Press for designing the contest and providing the prize books. The winning poems are also singled out in the final post on the Goodreads Epitaph Writing Contest Page.
Michael Wolfe is a poet, author, documentary film producer, and president of Unity Productions Foundation, a nonprofit media organization. He is the author of many books of verse and prose, including Cut These Words into My Stone: Ancient Greek Epitaphs, now available from JHU Press.