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)
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)
As an infant, my eyes
only ever looked up.
Good as lakes
for lenses, good as pennies.
I'm not supposed to remember this.
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:
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).