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Poetry Book Contests Should be Abolished: Why Contests Are the Stupidest Way to Publish First Books

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In the May/June 2011 Poets & Writers, there's a feature on writing contests. Editor Kevin Larimer (all credit to him for asking the right questions) interviews four poetry first book contest administrators, Stephanie G'Schwind (director of the Center for Literary Publishing and editor of Colorado Review), Michael Collier (director of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference), Camille Rankine (program and communications coordinator at Cave Canem Foundation), and Beth Harrison (associate director of the Academy of American Poets and administrator of the Walt Whitman Award), discussing issues of fairness, impartiality, process, revenues, and results. (Full Disclosure: I've been published in Colorado Review and consider G'Schwind an excellent editor; and I know Collier from Bread Loaf).

The contest model means a poet submitting a manuscript with a fee of around $25, and being part of a pool of anywhere from a few hundred to more than a thousand manuscripts judged "blindly"--we'll see soon what that means in poetry contest parlance. The winner gets about a thousand dollars along with publication, and publicity in cloistered academic poetry circles. The 999 losers print out another copy of the manuscript and write another check to yet another contest, never giving up hope.

Poetry contests are about the only remaining way to publish a first poetry book. And that's one way poetry is being killed in this country, reduced to consensus-by-committee, stripped of individual vision, yielding vast parchments of conformity and mediocrity, worth only as means of boosting resumes and securing academic jobs. Our poetry is haunted today by a blind adherence to lack of ambition--and the poetry contest model is part of the problem.

Is this the best way to discover new poetry talent in the country? What happens to editorial judgment, consistent aesthetic vision, commitment to particular values, building a movement, advocating for a particular style, and creating a critical mass of new writing if the contest model is allegedly based in "impartiality" and "blindness"--in other words, pretends to be the exemplar of democracy, egalitarianism, and disavowal of values? Has institutionalization gone too far? Would we all be better off--far-fetched as it sounds--if the contest model were eliminated and consistent editorial judgment were allowed to enter into the process of first book publication again?

The contest model wasn't always predominant, but along with the explosive growth in MFA programs and the institutionalization of literary writing under the academy's auspices, small publishers who used to read submissions (without a fee, without a contest) have become almost completely extinct; a few remain, but they're so overwhelmed with commitments to long-term authors that new poets can't look to them as a viable option; they're a drop in the bucket, drowned by the overwhelming scale of the contest phenomenon.

Publishing new writing by way of contests implies a certain metaphysical attitude--the model privileges randomness, divisibility, fragmentation, unknowability, and nondeterminism, perfected and ground through a process of rationalization to the presumed opposite of these conditions. Something that starts out fluid and yielding is supposed to gel into a final judgment. The contradictions are rife. Victory in a poetry contest is never unequivocal--hence the (sometimes inordinately) long lists of runners-up, finalists, and honorable mentions, as though any of these could easily have been the victor. There is a victor, and yet there isn't. The illusion must be perpetuated that everyone always has an equal shot at winning the contest. All books are potentially publishable.

Much of Larimer's interview focuses on the mechanics of judging contests, from the point of view of these four administrators. How do the contests get the submissions, who screens them, how is impartiality ensured, etc. However, the way the questions are framed presumes the fairness of the system, delving instead into the nitty-gritty. This serves to sideline the larger political and philosophical implications of the idea of publishing books by contest. Discussing tactics, or occasionally strategy, but not philosophy, is a way to defuse the angst and enhance existing legitimacy for the benefit of the system.

For instance, Harrison tells Larimer: "The Academy [of American Poets] has on staff three part-timers who are MFA candidates at Columbia University; they do a first screening of manuscripts.... If none of the screeners is particularly moved by a manuscript, but the person who's submitting has a ton of publication credits, it moves along to the judge anyway." Not all of them allow screeners to read publication credits. G'Schwind adds: "They [the screeners] each get between a hundred and fifty and two hundred manuscripts. I always have three screening judges and I just divide the pile up."

So the crucial work of initial screening of manuscripts is outsourced to lowly MFA candidates, themselves desperately trying to get a book published, preempting and anticipating what the judge might like or not like. Notice how a philosophical/aesthetic question has been broken down into a procedural one. Contests go out of their way to emphasize the fairness of their procedures, which is a convenient way out of the bigger issue. The reality is that only a certain sensibility will get through in a given contest.

Typically there are two types of aesthetics (following the MFA division of poetry into two major camps): the narrative/formally uninventive/epiphany-based confessional or memoiristic short poem, and the experimental/avant-garde/language poetry camp, which takes its inspiration from deconstruction and makes a fetish of the insensibility of ordinary language. A judge from one camp is never going to pick a book from another camp; it just doesn't happen. The screeners know it, and hopefully the submitters know it too (unless they're really stupid). Already a great deal of self-screening has taken place, and rapidly amplifies during the early stages of screening.

So what is going through the minds of the poor MFA screeners? They're guessing the sensibility that will most please the judge. There can be little question of independent assertion of aesthetic judgment, since the screener is neither qualified nor willing to exercise such judgment. Does the manuscript look like something the judge and the contest would feel authorized to endorse? The screener cannot be deeply engaged with the manuscript if he's looking at two hundred manuscripts! What he can do, with speed and efficiency, is to get a general feel for appearance, sifting out the ones least likely to get the screener in trouble for being "outlandish" or "inappropriate," given the biases of the judge and the contest's recent winners.

It's also interesting--but what else do we expect in the politically correct academy?--that diversity in judges is broken down by gender and geography. The administrators of the contests are keen to emphasize such diversity, as though this were the main question about the quality of first poetry books. Note the shifting logic: from evading the question of what kind of poetry is being published to the number of manuscripts handled by screeners to diversity of judges by politically correct criteria!

Rankine elaborates: "We tend to alternate between a man and a woman every year, and I think we do choose judges who have name recognition and will draw a lot of submissions." Similarly, Collier: "I rely a lot on Bread Loaf faculty, which is very diverse; they represent, I think a pretty good cross section of what's going on in contemporary American literary culture." The Bread Loaf faculty has its recurrent stars, returning year after year, a highly select coterie advancing each other's causes (these are the poetry superstars who give each other awards of huge sums of money, for which there is no nomination process). Bread Loaf has in place a sophisticated multi-layered screening process, so anyone not fully beholden to reigning aesthetics is unlikely to make it to a waiter's position--let alone faculty member! Gender and geographic diversity is a red herring in this sense. In fact, the article includes a sidebar, "The Anatomy of Awards," where the 129 book contest winners announced the previous year in Poets & Writers are broken down by gender, age, genre, education, residence, and ethnic background. What's amazing is that decomposing it in this census-like manner seems like the most natural thing to an academic.

What kind of money is involved? The Walt Whitman Award, according to Harrison, gets 1,245 entries at $25 a shot: that's $31,125. Thirty thousand dollars is a lot of money. The publishers justify the costs as going toward "administrative costs," including paying screeners and judges. For much less than thirty thousand dollars a publisher could solicit books from poets already being published in the best literary journals, or keep an eye out for burgeoning talent and encourage and promote them to put together a book. The way it used to work, before contests took over. Any amount of money, even $50,000, can be justified as being eaten up in administrative costs; costs will expand in relation to the amount being collected, which in turn is dependent on brand-name judges drawing in large numbers of submissions. Collier says that "the screeners and the judges cost almost ten thousand." That's a great deal of money to pay one's fellow Bread Loaf judges--the money stays in the house, within the circle, so to speak.

The most interesting part of the interview revolves around conflicts of interest. In the mid-2000s, Foetry.com exposed a number of egregious conflicts of interest. For example, Jorie Graham awarded the Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series award to her husband and Harvard colleague, Peter Sacks (see here for some of her indiscretions involving conflict of interest). At some level, the work of those who are regular conference-goers and part of the higher echelons of the MFA system is well-known to each other. There is only a slight leap involved from master and apprentice to judge and winning contestant.

I adore and admire Tony Hoagland, both as a poet and as a person, and have had occasion for many wonderful conversations with him, but in 2008 he picked Matthew Dickman for the American Poetry Review/Honickman prize--leading to the explosive rise in Dickman's career. Hoagland is an excellent poet, Dickman a mediocre one; more to the point, Hoagland regularly teaches at Bread Loaf, where Dickman is a frequent attendee. Surely Hoagland recognized Dickman's poetry when he came across the manuscript passed on to him? Perhaps Hoagland would have picked him anyway--but this raises the larger issue of contests serving as seamless ways to satisfy judges' preferences. What should Hoagland have done when he recognized Dickman's writing? Out of the apparent chaos of randomness in contests, order is being retrieved, in ways that accord with the traditional method--except that the new method comes dressed with the paraphernalia of democracy, almost the connotations of a lottery, which it most definitely is not.

There was a time, around 2005 to 2008, when I used to regularly scrutinize the results of poetry book awards in Poets & Writers, and just googling the names of the judge and the winner typically revealed some obvious connection--a common MFA program was the most recurrent flag. I gave up this exercise, and I suspect, based on Larimer's interview, that contests are more careful these days about permitting such obvious connections into the open. They must have tightened up the appearance of conflict of interest, so that just googling two people doesn't necessarily yield an instant relationship. Still, pursuing the old habit, I checked at random a book award in the new issue of Poets & Writers--Lory Bedikian, winner of the 2010 Philip Levine prize from Cal State Fresno--and found out that both she and judge Brian Turner attended the University of Oregon MFA program. Do the two know each other? Just coincidence? It would be enlightening to get a response from them.

Larimer and the four publishers reduce the issue of conflict of interest to adopting the CLMP (Council of Literary Magazines and Presses) Code of Ethics. Collier says: "We're very clear with the judges and the screeners that if they recognize the manuscript or if they have a relationship with the writer, we ask them to not advance it." One fails to understand, despite the vast documentation of overt corruption, how Collier can say even about the past: "By and large...the system ran pretty well without any real, let's say, policing, or scrutiny. But now it's just more explicit and it's tightened things up, and I think that's really good."

G'Schwind, on the other hand, recognizes that there was a big problem, but puts it clearly in the past: "The problem was that judges were picking students...people they knew.... The claim was that students were being picked by the judges. And they were." So there is admission here of corruption--violating the terms of ethics governing contests--in the past. The larger philosophical issue remains: the likelihood that the manuscripts that advance are the kinds that the judge's closest students would be producing anyway. And no formal code of ethics is going to address the issue of narrow boundaries of selection, since this is inherent in the process itself.

The four administrators dislike the fact that Foetry was washing dirty laundry in public; after those revelations, the entire contest system should have been delegitmized and dismantled, and a new process should have been discovered and followed. But then there is the MFA beast to satisfy--where are tens of thousands of "poets" to sustain the illusion that every time they shell out $25 they're in the running for the Whitman award? There's too much supply of copy--paper has to be kept churning, and proliferating contests are one way to accomplish that.

Both genres of poetry, under the contest regime, have degenerated into a parody of poetry. The domestic grief/loss/illness/ethnicity/migration/sexuality/race narrative is put together in a very structured way, designed to maximize the chances of getting through the early screeners. One gets the sense that there is a formal universal design to how poets put manuscripts together, how they hit the high and low notes with prologue and epilogue, how they check the different politically correct boxes, how they strike the right tone in terms of earnest personal striving (which is also completely depoliticized at the same time). It's an interesting exercise to pick, at random, contest-winning books and notice the similar patterns of structuring (in fact, in the March/April 2011 issue, Poets & Writers published an article by April Ossmann advising how to order a collection to maximize the chances of winning). Increasingly, winning manuscripts are coordinated in the form of prosy verse novels--with the same arcs of storytelling familiar from workshop instruction in fiction writing.

I picked three recent contest winners and picked a poem from each book, completely randomly. Notice any similarity in tone in the beginnings of these poems?

"A Beautiful Life"

I'll steal a stare across your thigh
and trace the small flaws that freckle
toward your heavenly hips.
I'll follow the implicit aroma
of you and whisper something

to stir the rich syrup inside.
You'll laugh at the absurdity of it,
yet you'll come wearing a summer
dress--the random color of dawn--

hiding the soft down of flesh underneath.

(Gary Jackson, Missing You, Graywolf Press, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize selected by Yusef Komunyakaa)

"Available Resource:"

When the clapping dies
down, I step up to the mic-

rophone. Because of the
lightning, it's hard to see

the crowd, but most (I assume)
are hoping for a mishap. With

the help of my assistant, I go on
to explain the act.

(Daniel Khalastchi, Manoleria, winner of the Tupelo Press/Crazyhorse Award)

"Before Memory"

As an infant, my eyes
wouldn't stay--

only ever looked up.
Good as lakes

for lenses, good as pennies.
I'm not supposed to remember this.

In flashbulbs
they went owlish,
lacquered in oil blue.

(Molly Brodak, A Little Middle of the Night, winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize)

Notes on White Carnations

But this has no womb?

I think of my own ruffled tomb, how it responds with color

like the carnation. If left alone, barely pink. If touched,
russet. Can I drink this?

(Lauren Berry, The Lifting Dress, winner of the National Poetry Series, selected by Terrance Hayes)

Go ahead, do the experiment for yourself. It's as if the same person(a) wrote all the books. If there are differences, they're minor ones among family members. Now how's this for a different sensibility altogether:

"The poet,"
Charles Olson writes,
"cannot afford to traffic in any other sign than his one"
"his self," he says, "the man
or woman he is" Who? Rodia
at 81 is through work.
Whatever man or woman he is,
he is a tower, three towers,
a trinity upraised by himself.
"Otherwise God does rush in."

This is Robert Duncan from "Nel Mezzo Del Cammin Di Nostra Vita," from Roots & Branches (1964). Now here's a poet of ambition, striding like a colossus across the tradition of English poetry, daring to make it his own in his own way, not giving a damn about readers and audience--or petty screeners at some MFA program! This is a challenging sensibility.

The heavy costs of this institutionalization of poetry are rather cavalierly ignored by the interviewed contest managers. Larimer again asks the right question: "How do you all see contests changing the publishing landscape? It's changed how poets, certainly, view getting their books published. It's a viable publishing model, but what may be lost in it is the idea of a sustained poet-publisher relationship." Larimer is smart--he's talking about the same strong editorial vision I've been harping on. Harrison offers the irrelevant response: "I don't know that the multiple-books deal at the larger houses is quite so common, if extant at all." Larimer--and I--are not talking about the multiple-book deal, for heaven's sake. We're talking about building a relationship, such as Milkweed or Coffee House Press do in encouraging poets over the duration of their careers. G'Schwind's answer is, unfortunately, circular: "My sense is that it's getting really hard to send unsolicited poetry manuscripts to publishers, and this is one opportunity where you still can." Well, maybe if there weren't contests! They've crowded out the non-contest model.

Collier gives away the philosophical sleight-of-hand behind the model: "It really is a facet of the democratization of the arts to be able to just send a manuscript out somewhere and know that, okay, you have to pay a fee, but you know it's going to be read, it's going to be considered. You don't have to have an agent; you don't have to know anybody." What Collier is implying is the emerging concept of "teamwork" in writing; whereas literary writing used to be solitary, now writers solicit input from those comparable to their eventual readers and publishers, modeling their writing according to what's successful in the market; a few do get published; and how democratic that we don't need to conduct this process through an agent! Agents that charge reading fees are suspect; the same should be true of contests. Opposition, originality, resistance, and dynamic movement are being bred out of poetry, and it is very much what the masters want.

Everyone, including aspiring poets, including even those stuck in the MFA system, would be better off if the contest system were abolished, and publishers once again took responsibility for promoting individual strong aesthetics, rather than outsourcing the decision at every stage, and supporting safe conformist meeting-room-style outcomes. A different model is that followed by, for instance, Canarium Books, whose editor Joshua Edwards has a vision, and whose recent books, by Suzanne Buffam, Paul Killibrew, John Beer, and others all impress me; the same goes for Anna Moschovakis and her fellow editors at Ugly Duckling Presse, whose recent batch of books really capture me. It doesn't have to be avant-garde poetry; from the formalist direction, Robert McDowell's (now defunct) Story Line Press set an example of promoting narrative poetry of a high order. At least there was a specific editorial vision, year after year, and the editors had the cojones to back up their vision. But to do this, you have to be a strong poet yourself, not an administrator/manager of contests. There are other small presses following the non-contest model, but they are distinctly in the minority, and the greater prestige, unfortunately, rests with the big contest winners: apprentices picked in the exact image of the all-knowing name-brand judge (whose number, by the way, is tiny and recirculating).

To sum up, the contest system is at least partially responsible for:

1. A halt to aesthetic progression, an emergence of strong schools of thought contesting with each other, as was true before the rise of the MFA system. Those who hit the jackpot winning a first poetry book then enter their manuscripts in contests for follow-up books, where they're likely to stay close to the winning aesthetic, to perpetuate their "brand" and not create any surprises among future selectors. Thus conversation between poetry schools comes to an end, as everyone gets distracted by the business of publishing more and more books designed to get tenure and promotion.

2. An encouragement of mediocrity and ambition, since by definition anything that stands out is less likely to get through. This is only human nature. Only strong poets can recognize and admire other strong poets. It's not probable that the apprentice at the lower level is going to get blown away by radically new work; it's more likely that he'll get intimidated and put it aside. Besides, the entire contest system would philosophically get corrupted if outliers and risk-takers were encouraged--it would mess up the system of feedback and expectations, whose ultimate manifestation is low expectation in workshop itself. It begins there, and it ends in contest victory.

3. A corruption of the poetic process itself--insight and inspiration and habits of writing and revision--since the goal is already in mind, and it is a large and looming one from the earliest stages (at least for the smart careerists). Is the formalized apprentice model (including entering contests to earn beauty-pageant approval--for that is what it amounts to) the best way to find great poetry? Or is the system an absolute negation of how we should conceptualize poetry's role in the larger society? If the young poet addresses the potential judge always in his mind, how can he possibly seek a strong audience (which may not exist yet)? Thus the tautological excuse that there is no audience for poetry except other MFA students; of course, since that is the premise of the poetry being written.

O ye oppressed contest-submitters of the MFA world, throw away your shackles and start your own collective with like-minded friends, publish poetry you want to immortalize you, not poetry with the maximum chance of pleasing screeners and judges! Start your own press! If nothing else, write on scrap paper and share it with your wife and dog, but don't dilute your work to win contests! It doesn't cost $30,000 to publish a book of poetry. Maybe it doesn't even cost $3! Just as it doesn't cost $100,000 to "buy two years of time" to get feedback on your writing in an MFA program--maybe it just costs a library card.

Anis Shivani's debut book of criticism is Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (September 2011).