|Art by Doug Beube|
Why doesn't a consortium of publishers start up another "national" poetry series for indie and/or experimental presses?
The principle is simple: poets pay a reading fee to have their books considered not by one press, but by five quality presses simultaneously. The existing National Poetry Series (which currently incorporates Coffee House Press, Fence Books, HarperCollins Publishers, Penguin Books, University of Georgia Press) has a great track record of selecting poets from a variety of aesthetics and matching them to appropriate houses. But they get a ton of incredible manuscripts, of which they can only publish a few.
There is room for another national poetry series, one that recognizes an annual cohort of exciting new voices. Coconut, Black Ocean Books, Octopus Books, Switchback Books: I am looking at you. Doesn't need to be the same publishers every year, though there should be a quality control mechanism for rotation in and out of presses (perhaps approval by an advisory board) that includes a pledge of minimum reasonable levels of support in terms of editorial infrastructure, design, number of copies printed, distribution, secondary award nominations, and publicity. The reading fees could fund an auxiliary force that works to market each year's winners, and by association the publishers. While I realize that there will always be variations in aesthetic--different opinions of what the "best" manuscripts are--that is why one employs multiple judges.
One thing the NPS does not do is create a network between each year's winners/judges, though the invaluable perks include name cache, an AWP reading, etc. But imagine if these indie presses went all in, and pooled their resources in terms of connections to opportunities with readings series and classroom visits around the country. Anyone who attends AWP offsite events recognizes that these likeminded affiliations already exist on an informal level. Imagine if this gave heft to freelancers trying to pitch small press books for review? Imagine if Small Press Distribution did an "Indie Poetry Series" summer special, a package rate for all five titles?
I'm not naive about the bureaucracy or ethical complications associated with contests, but I'd love to hear some discussion. Nothing great ever happens unless you start with the "imagine" phase.