May 02, 2020

What Breaks Through: Poetry Book Contests

A couple of weeks ago, I taught a streamlined online version of "Taming the Beast," a seminar on organizing poetry manuscripts that I've offered at The Writer's Center and elsewhere. My customary version considers Tables of Contents from a number of collections, and explores the topic of meta-text: meaning, the way that title, epigraph(s), TOC, and section divisions combine to present an understanding of a book's core concerns. (I wrote a brief craft essay on this subject that will be included in Demystifying the Manuscript, slated for publication by Two Sylvias Press.) When time permits, we also do a partnering exercise that analyzes with the meta-text for each participant's work-in-progress. 

Those who have worked with me through the University of Tampa's MFA program, or in individual consultation, know that organizing manuscripts is my favorite thing to do. There's something magical about observing what chemistry is generated from individual poems, written over a span of months or perhaps years, being put into conversation with each other. I try to be generous but persistent in asking what it will take to create a successful manuscript, versus the optimizing of individual drafts. I love shuffling and re-shuffling pages to create the right pattern, and approaching ordering as both art and science.

I've benefitted from winning multiple contest-driven models toward publication, and been a behind-scenes force in deciding the outcome of others. There's a lot of apprehension and suspicion around awards--how deliberation happens, who benefits, how you can bet prepare your manuscript. I don't claim to have definitive answers, but I can tell you about my own experience and instincts. 

As a judge, here's what I look for:

Is the approach to speaker(s) discernible?

I never assume the speaker and the author are the same person. Period. Even if there seems to be a close congruence. The rigor of my position has proven useful in leading workshops, and it means that I'm not prejudiced against "unlikable" protagonists. That said, I know we often draw from the well of biography in writing poems, and I respect the intimacy of the "I" and "you," as well as any archetypal proper nouns such as "Mother" or "Dad," when on the level of the individual poem. 

What gets tricky is when I'm reading a chapbook or section in which the manuscript only periodically relies on having a sustained speaker: meaning, the author wants the understanding to be cumulative, in fact relies on it...until they don't. 

This often takes the form of a persona poem that would, if applied to poems surrounding, dramatically shift our understanding of the relationship to a "you" or a given love / family member. The manuscript actually wants us to engage with that poem in a vacuum--to lift it out of context, as a moment of experimentation--but if that's the case, I look for helping signifiers on the level of title or form. Otherwise, you're inexplicably breaking your contract with the reader. 

And if a figure carries over from a poem to the one immediately following, check to see if there's continuity in tense and mode of reference (direct address, versus third-person narration). If there's a change in how the character is handled--why? Is it tied into a changing perspective or emotional distance? There's nothing wrong with revising poems to be in more substantive dialogue with one another, even if they'd already been in print on the level of journals or magazines. 

Does this gathering of poems have urgency?

This often gets simplified to saying contests favor the "project" book. I don't think that's strictly true. But every artistic medium is struggling with the pleasures and perils of volume--the reality of many worthy voices that are publishing, performing, and producing new work in these times--and while that's terrific, we look for why this particular set of poems needs to appear together and now. This is particularly relevant in scenarios where you're taking your recommendation of a winner into conversation with a group, arguing for it against others' top picks.

Tension can come from concerns that are thematic or formal, but it's gotta be there. Personal identity, historical moment conversant zeitgeist, core relationship dynamics, craft of form or line--create a collection that articulates a crisis or big question of some kind. Here's the good news: sometimes a single poem is enough to raise a collection's long simmer to a boil. Maybe that's a poem waiting to be written. 

What poems do I remember the next day?

Judging is usually done under less than ideal circumstances, along with everything else when you're trying to make a living as a writer. The boxes of binder-clipped pages that used to arrive at the homes of National Poetry Series screeners were legendary. Although we've since found a way to spare the trees using online submission, one's neurons can still get pretty frazzled. 

Any responsible judge will only solidify a decision over multiple days, usually via an informal sifting out of manuscripts worthy of further consideration. Every manuscript on Day 1 might blur together. But the manuscript we pick up first on Day 2 or 3 might get our best, freshest attention. Motivate us to return to yours. If the decision comes down to a few manuscripts of indistinguishably high quality, we might ask, "What's the single poem that has made the strongest impression?"

So: don't hide your light under a bushel. Lead with a poem that will energize and inform every poem we read thereafter, and don't save the "best" for last. If you want more thoughtful dialogue about what poems to use when opening and closing, check out this series of interviews conducted by Sarah Blake for Chicago Review of Books. 

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Keep in mind that this is in addition to whatever evident qualities of image, soundplay, lineation, and narrative that I'll reward on the level of the individual poems. 

There's no magic formula to calculating who will like your work: some judges favor contest entrants kindred to their own aesthetic, whereas others specifically resist anything that sounds too much like themselves. 

What I'd advise is that if there's any particular "de-coding" that might be needed to best access the collection, such as identifying a nouveau form or citing historical resources and allusions, err on the side of being direct in your explanations via endnotes, epigraphs, etc.. You can always lighten the touch later, in consultation with your editors. But there's no way to clarify retroactively.

Here's what I don't worry about:

Who you are. Manuscripts are usually scrubbed of identifying info before they get to me but, when not, it's pretty easy to set aside awareness of the author. (Unless I've mentored or have an intimate relationship with them--at which point, I'd disclose the conflict.)  The extent to which author identity matters is if the manuscript centers on a particular culture, I want to have good faith that it's not an appropriative or merely decorative gesture. But it's on me to figure that out from the text itself.  

That one typo. You know how you send off a manuscript and then find the page where gibberish (or worse, a wrong but plausible phrasing) has crept in? Or realize you should have switched the order of a couple poems? That happens to all of us. Don't feel like you need to bother a contest administrator--pleading to update a file or substitute a page--based on such gremlins. They aren't the make-or-break factor.

Here's what YOU need to consider:

If you view a chapbook or book as the destination, you'll almost invariably be let down on some matter of production value, interaction with the editors, or lack of media recognition. No process is perfect, especially if it's coming after years of anticipation. 

I use the metaphor of book as passport; online or in person, where can a collection can take you? What conversations will it spark? That said, your publisher is not your travel agent. People are often surprised to realize that W. W. Norton doesn't arrange or fund my participation in readings, conferences, or festivals. I do it all on my own. And there's a lot to consider about the privileges and iniquities embedded in an attitude of "you make your own path"--that's not a tidy end to any conversation. But it's where we need to begin, in understanding the value of contests that yield an artifact of bound pages and a judge's citation. What I've experienced over and over is that what matters most is not a physical book, but the community it fuels. 

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If you're interested in learning more about Driftwood Press's Chapbook Contest, the guidelines are here--you have until July 1 to submit a manuscript of 15-40 pages. The cost is only $12, though I'd encourage you to take the $20 option that includes a copy of the winning chapbook. I bought a trio while visiting the Driftwood Press table at the (rumored, improvisational) AWP Conference in San Antonio, and they're beautifully designed. Each closes with a brief interview with the author, which makes the collection eminently teachable. Pictured here with editors Jerrod Schwarz (center) and James McNulty (right) is recent winner Kimberly Povloski, author of Hell of Birds. 

I'd love a chance to read the poems that you've been working on.


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