WHAT’S REALLY WRONG WITH POETRY BOOK CONTESTS?
Note: As winner of the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize and owner of SmallPoetry Press, David Alpaugh has both won and run a Poetry Book Contest.
Isn’t that a rhetorical question? Everyone knows what’s wrong with poetry book contests. They’re rigged! In 2004 the web site Foetry began investigating personal connections between contest judges and winners. The poetry world was shocked by allegations that some of America’s most prestigious prizes were going to the judges’ students, friends, colleagues, even lovers.
Dishonesty! Cronyism! That’s what’s wrong with poetry book contests, right?
Not really. Most contest operators, screeners, and judges would never engage in the deplorable but statistically rare conduct outed by Foetry. I didn’t know any of the parties involved in the judging process that led to my own book award. During the five years that I ran a national chapbook contest there were never any personal connections between my screeners and judges and the finalists and winners they selected.
A glance at recent headlines should assure us that there’s no more corruption in “po-biz” than in sports, medicine, law, politics, media, religion, or any other human enterprise. To their credit, many contests responded to the concerns that Foetry raised by establishing clear ethical guidelines for screeners and judges and by taking steps to assure the anonymity of contestants. Manuscripts are more likely to be evaluated solely on their merit today than ever before.
Exclusive focus on the minor problem of contest fraud, however, has allowed more serious, systemic problems to go unnoticed. What’s really wrong with poetry book contests? They are being rendered less effective each year by the supply side economics that has subsidized their exponential growth and that promises even more in the foreseeable future.
A well-advertised contest, judged by a well-known poet, will attract hundreds of manuscripts, each accompanied by a $15 to $25 reading fee. Five hundred entries at the industry standard of $20 a pop will net $10,000. That’s enough to fund the cash award for the winning poet; compensate the judge and screeners; pay the bills for advertising the competition; and even cover the cost of printing the prize-winning book.
Since all but the advertising is payable after fees are received, contests are seductively risk-free. Anyone can set up as a publisher for little more than the price of a web site, a classified ad in a few literary journals, and some low cost, often free, announcements via internet poetry sites.
This risk-free dynamic is a powerful magnet, not just for existing literary presses and journals but for poetry entrepreneurs for whom book publishing would have been a financial impossibility twenty years ago.
The road to glut is paved with good intentions. Each additional contest-driven “publisher” believes that his or her contest is special; that it will advance the cause of poetry by introducing wonderful new poets to receptive readers via the prestige of a truly deserved book award.
But hold on to your ISBNs. There’s a significant difference between an “entry” and a “submission.” Traditional publishers are free to consider an unlimited number of submissions without obligation to accept a single manuscript. They are also free to solicit work from poets who have an established track record with at least a segment of the poetry reading public.
If 500 manuscripts fail to impress a traditional editor/publisher as marketable, or important enough to risk subsidizing—into the valley of rejection ride the 500! Many poets opt for the contest route only after being rejected multiple times by traditional publishers. If the same 500 manuscripts are entered in a contest, however, one of them must be given an award and must be published, usually with a glowing endorsement from the contest judge on the back cover.
Traditional publishers can deal with the fact that the supply of poetry greatly exceeds the demand by refusing to accept unsolicited manuscripts, and most of them are doing just that, making contests the only probable avenue for first book publication. The contest boom is further fed by the growing number of MFAs who need a book award if they are to have a shot at landing a position in a creative writing department. Since poetry book contest bottom lines depend upon entry fees, more and more wannabes are encouraged to put books together for entry in more and more contests every year.
Fifty years ago (around the time traditional publishers were introducing readers to Bly, Creeley, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Hall, Justice, Plath, Sexton, Snodgrass, Snyder, et. al.) there were only a dozen or so poetry book contests, mostly within academe. Today, a short search of the web turns up over 300 chapbook and full-collection competitions sponsored by colleges, universities, foundations, literary journals, publishers large and small, and by a variety of local and national poetry booster organizations. Even if contests merely continue to escalate at the rate of five or six extra competitions per year, an astounding minimum of 50,000 poetry books will be published as distinguished award-winners by the end of this century!
Remember Ionesco’s The Chairs? The universe of exceptionally talented poets being finite, there’s an almost theater-of-the-absurd irony in this “new math.” It’s not that most or, indeed, any of the prize-winning manuscripts are bad. Each has been chosen, after all, from hundreds of entries. All are well written, many quite readable. The trouble is, as Alan Williamson pointed out to a roomful of poets in Berkeley some years back, “The good poetry drives out the best.“
As the number of contests, entries, and awards burgeons, the standard of excellence declines until even once prestigious contests like the Yale and Whitman trail wispier (and whispier) clouds of glory. Not even the most zealous poetry lover can purchase and read more than a fraction of the 300 (soon to be 500? 1000?) prize-winning books published each year. Pity the 22nd-century English professor who will have to read 50,000-plus prize-winning books, each claiming to deserve careful attention by anyone hoping to be an expert on 21st-century poetry!
Ezra Pound would be horrified to learn how little pruning is going on these days in the Garden of the Muses. Poetry book contests transform editors and publishers into bureaucratic bean counters. Instead of proactively working to discover great poetry they spend their time writing and placing ads; logging entries; depositing checks; and distributing batches of poems to screeners, and finalists to the judge. Like Chauncey Gardiner in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, most contest operators “like to watch,” but take no active role in the selection process.
Nor should we assume that the poet judge is passionate about his or her choice. He has been hired not to discover a great book (that word is frowned upon in professional circles) but merely to choose the best of those presented by screeners who are often inexperienced MFA candidates. Trapped like a spider in a web, not of his own spinning, the judge is a relativist when it comes to taste. He must be satisfied with the juiciest fly that wanders in. Once he’s rendered his verdict and written his blurb, the judge’s commitment to the book, for all practical purposes, ends.
In many cases the judge could pick up the phone and get a better book from a friend, colleague, student, spouse, or lover. Paradoxically, contest ethics rule that out. Were contestants to learn that a judge had strayed outside his web of official entries to procure superior poetry he would be whipped down the slopes of Parnassus by Foetry-maddened bloggers furiously crying, “Shame!”
Which brings us to the profile of the typical contest judge. Who better to select the best collection of poems than a widely published, celebrated poet—a winner of many prestigious awards in his or her own right? Oddly enough, if the goal is to have contests decided by impartial brokers the standard profile leaves much to be desired.
When I ask poet friends if they plan to enter a particular book contest and the answer is “No”—the negative is always followed by the assertion: There’s not a chance in hell that X (or Y or Z) would like my work!
We need only mention a few superstar poets who have also judged contests—John Ashbery, Billy Collins, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, Richard Howard, Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Charles Simic, C.D. Wright—to remind ourselves that poets become famous for recognizable subjects, tones, and styles. They are often affiliated with partisan aesthetic movements: Mainstream, Confessional, New Formalist, New York School, Language Poetry, etc. Many have announced their predilections via essays or interviews in books and journals.
Asked to name four or five of the best contemporary poets W.H. Auden quipped, “It isn’t a horse race, you know.” Race tracks have an absolute method for measuring and determining winners, as do golf, tennis, shot put, and most competitive sports. Poetry contests are more like Olympic figure skating or Dancing with the Stars. Preference for one contestant over another (given the most qualified judge in the world) is ultimately subjective, unverifiable; there truly is no “accounting” for taste.
Still, it’s quixotic to pretend that poet judges will not prefer work akin to the sort that they write and espouse. No matter how good the poetry, it’s unlikely that a “New Formalist” will award a prize to a “Language Poet” or vice versa. My poet friends are right not to waste their twenty bucks.
It might make more sense to have contests judged by non-poetry-writing English professors—specialists in American literature who have no aesthetic horse at the starting gate. It would also rid contests of distracting po-ethical concerns that occasionally arise from inevitable connections between poet-judges and contestants who frequently associate and socialize in classrooms, workshops, and at writers conferences.
Needless to say, my suggestion is a non-starter. Though English professors would probably be more objective and impartial referees, they lack the name recognition crucial for a successful poetry contest. The more famous the judge, the more entry fees. As always, po-biz trumps ars poetica.
Someone flicks a switch with an ad or two and the poetry express gallops down the track! The P.O. saddlebags get fuller and fuller as the deadline approaches. Six months after it passes, the lucky finalists are announced by letter or email. Then the judge weighs in, and the publisher proudly announces the name of the winner and title of the book. A year or so later (lente, lente, oh horses of the write) the book finally appears. A few copies are sent with a press release to literary journals for “possible review.” (Don’t hold your breath; rather than deal with hundreds of prize-winning books, most editors throw up their pens in despair and review none.)
With no direct commitment to the poetry it should not surprise us to learn that contest publishers are minimalists when it comes to marketing their winners. Whereas a traditional publisher must sell hundreds of books to remain solvent, and must therefore take potential readership into account when selecting manuscripts, the contest publisher need not be concerned with readers at all. Having met his expenses in advance, and in some cases even turned a profit, he need not sell a single copy of the prize-winning book. The first edition was, in fact, sold-out before it was a tear or twinkle in the judge’s eye to readers who bought it blind, knowing neither title nor author.
It is routine practice for contests to throw in the winning book as a consolation prize for non-winners. In most cases losing poets constitute the main readership for award-winning books! May I suggest that they are perhaps the least likely critics to receive the book favorably?—that many of them begin reading with a question that would not be asked by readers of a traditionally published book? (How could Judge X possibly choose these poems over mine?)
Finally, and perhaps most worrisome, book contests subtly corrupt the art by substituting the petty goal of winning for the grander one of writing original poetry. Contests have their unwritten conventions which, if followed, will increase likelihood of success. Study as many prize-winning volumes as you can; adjust your style and content accordingly; and you may find yourself in next year’s winners’ circle.
Poetry book contests privilege serious poems over humorous ones; pathos over wit; “sincerity” over virtuosity; they eschew satire and persona; and devalue variety in favor of consistency of theme, form, tone, and “voice.” A swerve into the ineffable in the last few lines of each poem will keep your work “open” and “risky” in conformance with current MFA workshop practice. Prefacing poems with epigraphs from fashionable poets (usually in translation) will let the judge know that you are or aspire to be professionally hip.
When in doubt refer to one of the many how-to, poetry-for-dummies books from creative writing department pros. They may be judging some of the contests you enter, so learning their tips for writing the way they do will stand you in good stead.
Above all, keep in mind that poetry collections must be novelistically structured. Before Emily Dickinson’s heap of 1,775 untitled poems could be competitive she would have to discard 1,700 of them; give each of the remaining 75 a title; sort them into three thematic batches, each with a section title and epigraph; and come up with a catchy “umbrella” title (Wild Nights might be a hit with student-screeners). This procedure is so de rigueur these days it’s as if there were a bumper sticker slapped on every collection, boasting: “My other book is a novella.”
Every once in a while, to be sure, an exciting, original book of poetry is selected by this suicidally inefficient process. Unfortunately, when this happens a book that deserves to be widely read is just another dim star lost in the milky way, barely able to shine its light beyond the captive audience that the contest launches into orbit around it.
Imagine what twentieth century poetry would be like had Ezra Pound, Mrs. Alfred Nutt, John Quinn, James Laughlin, Barney Rosset, Cid Corman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti been content to be uncommitted contest coordinators rather than passionate editors, publishers, or patrons of the art. Behind The Waste Land, North of Boston, Patterson, Howl, and other landmark books of the last century were men and women willing to risk money, credibility, even imprisonment for poetry that mattered.
The reader may be wondering why I’ve limited this article to poetry book contests. Are not my criticisms as applicable to single-poem contests run by literary journals, including the one in which this essay appears?
Once again my answer is: not really.
Single-poem contests do what contests should do—distinguish excellent work, without the negative side effects that book contests produce. The likelihood of the judge recognizing an associate is much less when a single-poem (rather than an entire book) is on the table. Nor do single-poem contests add one jot to the glut that is increasingly marginalizing, even obscuring the best poetry. The winning poem appears on page x of the multi-page journal. A poem will appear on that page with or without the contest. By encouraging poets to submit their best work single-poem contests improve the quality of poetry published by the journal. Finalists frequently appear along with the winner(s), and the average quality of poems available to editors is heightened.
Single-poem contestants who receive the journal as an entry-fee benefit are treated not just to the work of the winner but to dozens of other poets, many of whom have proven track records and most of whom are being published through the regular submission process. This comparative dynamic encourages evaluation of both the winning poem and the judge’s decision; and that can lead entrants to reevaluate their own aesthetics, preferences, biases—a useful exercise that the hermetic nature of book contests cannot provide.
In the long run, the only genuine honor for a poet is readership born of love. Such readership does not always happen in the poet’s lifetime (Blake, Whitman, Dickinson); but when it does it continues for generations, even centuries. As one thumbs through issue after issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, each announcing yet another crop of poetry book winners, it’s difficult not to feel that one is watching the caucus race in Alice in Wonderland where, as the Dodo explains, “Everybody wins, and all must have prizes.”
Alice can hardly keep from laughing when the solemn-faced Dodo presents her with an “elegant thimble” (taken from her own pocket) as all the animals cheer:
Alice thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked
so grave that she did not dare to laugh; and as she could not think
of anything to say, she simply bowed, and took the thimble,
looking as solemn as she could.
Book awards may look impressive on a poet’s resume, cover letter, grant proposal, or workshop-leader bio; but readers do not fall in love with poems because they win prizes, and accreditation is a poor substitute for readerly love. What we need now more than any time in the past is not fifty or a hundred thousand “distinguished prize-winners” (each brandishing his or her thimble)—but a few good books. As more and more publishers and poets drink not from the Pierian Spring but from an intoxicating bottle labeled “Poetry Book Contests” their failure to offer readers poetry that matters becomes more obvious each year.
Shall we continue to curtsey like Alice? Or dare to laugh?
David Alpaugh’s latest collection, Heavy Lifting, was published in 2007 by Alehouse Press. His first collection Counterpoint won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize from Story Line Press. Publications where his work appears include The Formalist, Modern Drama, Poetry, Zyzzyva, and California Poetry from the Gold Rush to the Present. His article “The Professionalization of Poetry” was serialized by Poets & Writers Magazine in 2003, drawing over 200 letters and emails and wide discussion on the internet. He lives in Pleasant Hill, California, and coordinates a popular Bay Area poetry reading series in Crockett. (www.davidalpaugh.com)