Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Just a Few (More) Notes

I believe the majority of book contests are run fairly and deliver what they promise.

I don't believe publishers who run contests are going to hell. I believe they run contests because they need to raise money to run their presses. Publishers have to find some way to raise money to operate because not enough people buy poetry books. As a book publisher myself, I have TONS of empathy for that situation. Publishers have discovered that while they can't get many poets to buy contemporary poetry books or donate money, they can get money from them by holding contests. It is a little karma in action. Yes, some poetry books are published via this system and some good comes out of it. I question how much good and suggest a lot more good (for everyone) can happen other ways.

I don't believe poets who participate in contests are idiots or deserve to be flogged. As I admitted in the comment field of the quiz below, between 2001 and 2005 I submitted to 65 contests. I was once part of the problem myself. I sent to contests for all the same reasons everyone else did. I thought it was my only way to get a book. I was drinking the same Kool-Aid as most MFA grads -- I had ideas of legitimacy and little understanding or knowledge of the history of poetry and the small press. I didn't consider self-publishing, or starting my own press, or making the effort to develop relationships with like-minded poets or publishers. I didn't even know of most small and micropresses. As I slowly became more involved in the poetry community (via blogging, starting my own online magazine, writing book reviews, running my own reading series, and yes, eventually starting my own press) I began to realize how many opportunities were really out there, opportunities I never considered. Now I suggest to other poets who feel hopeless and disgruntled, bitter and jealous, to fulfill their creative destinies (is that hokey?) and be CREATIVE.

If you think self-publishing is dishonorable and not worthwhile and prefer the contest route, why do you care what those who propose it as an option think? I embrace my dishonor and unworthiness. Besides, I wouldn't shut any book contests down even if I had the power and won't be burning my bras in protest (they're much too expensive and a good fit is difficult to find). I promise you that no matter what I say or write, there will always be contests for you to send your money to. I am no threat to the status quo.

I am interested in sharing ideas and generating dialogue on ways to get poems to an audience -- in books, in magazines (both online and print), in blogs, at readings, on the radio (both old-timey and online), on post-it notes, sidewalks -- and anywhere else they might find a reception. That's what I've been discussing here for the past 4 years in between posting pictures of my extremely good looking son and cracking jokes about other online magazine editors' nutsacks. That's pretty much what you can expect here. Four more years!

Maybe later today I'll discuss the process publishing a collaborative chapbook, for those of you who are interested in that sort of thing. But I warn you, I did most of the work myself which I realize might be disturbing.


At 10:14 AM, Blogger Charles said...

I feel like I have a cosmic relationship to this whole discussion, as you know.

Reb, bottom line, I think you are overlooking the fact that it requires tremendous bravery for many poets (especially those from the MFA arena) to take purposeful steps away from the toasty-warm world of academic and prizes and tenure and books and summers off.

In retrospect, I've felt very fortunate that one of my MFA teachers said to my class, "None of you will get teaching jobs. Look elsewhere."

I think it takes tremendous bravery to pursue publication outside of the award circuit because the award can sometimes entail travel funds for readings (or simply the cash award is good for that); there is often the perception of greater legitimacy of the press, the editorship, etc.

And I applaud you for being so outspoken on this topic. I think part of the problem is that no one really discusses the alternatives.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger Charles said...

And, to put a fine point on it: I think you are brave, and you are one of my poetry heroes.

So let's have lunch next week!! ;)

At 10:36 AM, Blogger Reb said...

Charlie, while part of me is quite flattered you consider me brave, I quite certain I am not brave. Adjusting my perception has been liberating, but the only thing on the line is my ego. I have lots of friends in academia -- their professional lives don't seem particularly toasty-warm to me. It seems cut throat, limiting and often demoralizing. I think teaching is a great thing and question no one's need for money and health care.

I'll e-mail you about lunch -- next week is the first week of preschool so I'll have to work it around that.

At 11:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Call me old fashioned (or just old), but I remember a time before contests. Or when there was just a handful of them: the Yalie Younger, etc. As contests became widespread, some publishers began funding a goodly chunk of their operations with reading fees. Do the math: 2,000 entrants at $30 a pop is $60,000. If your press runs enough contests you never have to sell a single book. This is corruption, pure and simple — but oh what a perfect reflection of so-called "free market capitalism"! Winners ride on the backs of losers — and when I say "winners," I don't mean the poets who win. I mean the publishers who no longer have to care overmuch about who they publish, no longer have to have passion for the works, much less their authors. Better to avoid contests altogether. Form local (or cyber-local) communities and publish each other as a cooperative venture. Publish your own books. (There is "shame" in that only in the sense that you're dissenting from the faux meritocracy.) As with any corrupt system, it will collapse when enough people stop enabling it.


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