Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Drama: Poetry Contests and the Poets Who Love/Hate Them...

So, some parts of the poetry world are in an uproar again. Two book contests have recently done some things that confound the poets who entered and those who eagerly await the birth of new books. First, poet Stacey Lynn Brown has started a blog and is recounting her seemingly horrendous experience with Cider Press Review. The nuts and bolts of the story are that she won their annual poetry contest and, after a battle with the press, had the prize revoked. She even had to hire a lawyer to settle things. After the fallout began, the press did eventually give their own explanation for what happened with this year's prize.

Second, the Cave Canem recently announced that there was no winner chosen for their annual first book prize. The whole community is a little fuzzy because we all personally know poets who submitted to the prize and believe that there was infinite potential in the manuscripts submitted, but we're not sure what the judge's process was and/or why the ultimate decision was made. In fact, the buzz has spread beyond the CC fellows. Everyone seems thoroughly confused, while some are just plain angry and disgusted.

All this talk makes me think about the value and validity of book prizes. I know this may seem rather strange because I won a book prize (more on this later) and have certainly benefited because of it. However, I think some poets who protest against the book prize system have valid points. For instance, check out my fellow Bennington alum Reb Livingston's take on things. Poets are definitely the step-children of the American literary (publishing) system. Most of us don't have a prayer of getting published unless it's through a book prize and, for the most part, the final final decision for a book prize comes down to one person's aesthetic taste and eye. When you enter a prize, you are a needle in an ever-growing haystack, and you might get thrown out with some of the hay just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Case in point: I won the 2007 Naomi Long Madgett Prize. I was excited and honored when I found out that Dr. Long Madgett had judged the prize herself that year and had personally chosen my manuscript. Now, this was fantastic, but certainly not the way the press (Lotus) planned things. As it turns out, there was another judge, but a problem with scheduling prevented him/her from judging the prize that year. So, the onus (or privilege, I'm not really sure which) eventually fell on someone else, if the press wanted the prize to be presented that year. After the field was narrowed down to finalists, fortunately Dr. Long Madgett found my work compelling and believed in its potential (as DeLana would put it), so she chose it to be published and my book was born. However, had things worked out as the press originally planned, it is very likely that I would not have won the prize and my book would still be floating in the ether, like so many other promising manuscripts.

And this is really my main concern and the thing I stress the most when talking to other writers (especially those who are discouraged by, leery about or not momentarily enamored of the book contest process): at best, contests are a crap shoot (yeah, I said it) and should be taken with a grain of salt whether you win one or not. Here lately I've been telling myself the same thing, as I'm about to embark on another foray into the world of book contests now that I have a real handle on my second manuscript.

Now, let's be clear, I do believe that there are some things people can do to increase their chances of winning or placing in a book contest. Here's a short list of tips that I've received (or just witnessed) that I think will always remain true:

  • Follow the presses' guidelines. If you buck their rules, they'll simply discard your work, and they have the right to do so. If you hate this concept, don't enter or start your own press and make your own rules.
  • Write a good manuscript. It may not be absolutely, positively "finished" when you submit it (i.e. you will probably want to tweak it some more before it's actually published), but it has to be polished and stand out from the hundreds to thousands of other manuscripts in competition.
  • Check your grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. before you send the manuscript off and be consistent.
  • Don't enter a contest, if the judge is someone you know. There is so much drama about contest rigging that you should just steer clear of anything that could be perceived as favoritism by a judge.
  • Research the press before you submit your work. How else will you know if you even want them to be privileged to have your work?
  • Be prolific. Write while you're sending things out and revise while you have stuff out there.
  • Be persistent and keep track of all of your submissions. Yes, postage and contest fees can get expensive, but it often takes a few rounds of submitting to many contests to even get a little bit of interest in the work, mostly because of the reasons cited above.
  • Don't give up! Rejection is part of the writing life. If this is really what you want to do, unfortunately, you have to get used to it. Despite this, those small glimmers of hope and recognition are often sweeter because of what you did to get someone else to take notice.