Wednesday, October 05, 2011

“atypical and exceptional”

[C]ompetitions are the way in which many, if not most, books of poems are published nowadays. For example, when you see a phrase like ‘Winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry’ on the cover of a collection, it means that the manuscript in question was selected in an open competition … Typically, books published through these competitions have a series editor who appoints judges each year, and in some cases those judges are anonymous. In addition, these contests cost money to enter – usually around thirty dollars or so. … Every year, large numbers of poets … end up spending hundreds [of dollars] for the chance to publish a book …

The above comes from David Orr’s new book about poetry today, Beautiful and Pointless. I quote him mainly to introduce the next quote, this one from Carolyne Wright’s essay on how her books came to be:
[T]he publication of both my first and so-called second books qualified, according to some rubrics, as a chapbook and a limited edition, respectively – they represented such atypical and exceptional publishing circumstances that very few publishing contest organizers could determine what their actual designation was. Before sending to competitions for second or third books, on several occasions I had to query managing editors and explain these circumstances in order to learn whether I was qualified to submit. Fortunately, the ostensible third collection, Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire, won the Blue Lynx Prize, an open competition for poets at any stage of their publishing career, so the status of earlier collections didn’t matter.

When Carolyne Wright’s first two books – each of which was the winner of a different competition – turned out not to fit the standard definition of a full-length poetry book, she found herself in difficulty. Wright seems to have concluded she could not ethically enter a first book competition, but could she justify entering a second book competition? In the end, as she says, she managed to win a competition that wasn’t restricted to first books or second books. (Or third books? Who knew there were competitions exclusively for third books?) Carolyne Wright seems to have gone all-in on the competition as the way to see her books into print.

I hate contests. Well, not per se. But I do hate that contests have become “the way … most books of poems are published.” It seems to me that if you are going to get into the business of publishing poetry you should choose to publish what you love. Or who you love. There is no money in it. The reward you’re going to get (if you get any at all) is seeing poetry you believe in by poets you admire get into the hands of readers who, for a few precious moments, will not be wasting their time reading bad poetry by tiresome poets. And you’re going to be putting a lot of time and effort – and your own money – into that triumph. So why waste your time publishing anything but what you love?

There is no money in it? Not in selling poetry. (Yes, every so often there’s going to be the freak like Billy Collins or the perennial dead poet who gets assigned in enough college courses to make it worth a publisher’s while to keep her – and books about her – in print. There is a little bit of money in selling poetry. It just doesn’t spread far.)

There is money in publishing poetry. But it’s not from selling it to readers. The money comes from the other side of the transaction – the poets. Poets are so desperate to get into print they shell out hundreds of dollars in contest entry fees. $30+ entry fees fund the publication of the lucky winners. It could be you’re super talented (or super connected) and you win the very first contest you enter. One wants to believe one would be that poet! But even good poets who have published frequently in literary magazines and ezines have to enter contests over and over before they win. And there isn’t even a guarantee anyone will win. A few years ago the name poet who was hired to judge one of the most prestigious contests, The Yale Series of Younger Poets, decided not one of the manuscripts submitted was worthy of his recommendation. The prize went unawarded that year. Fun, huh?

Do these prize books sell out their print runs? More frequently than the book brought out by the publisher who put his effort into it out of love? Some contests will send the winning book out to all entrants. Is that a way to get it read?

Because so many poets are academics, David Orr says, they have to publish in order to keep their jobs. The contest entry fee as a business expense? If you never win, what happens?

sources: Beautiful and Pointless: a guide to modern poetry by David Orr, and “A Reply to Storms: How Some Collections Were Ordered (or Disordered)” by Carolyne Wright, appearing in the bookOrdering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems edited by Susan Grimm

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