Monday, August 25, 2008

Of Note and for Comment

Jill Alexander Essbaum is the Featured Poet at Anti-.

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Every Sunday Bruce Covey is featuring a Coconut poet at the Best American Poetry blog. This past Sunday was Anne Boyer.

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And in case you haven't seen this book contest nightmare yet.

Now this is an extreme example, but there are plenty of unhappy book contest winners out there -- for lots of reasons. In the above case, clearly the press mentioned was unprofessional, to say the least. But even in cases (most of them) where the press is totally on the up-and-up and comes through on all its promises, contests often still are disappointing -- for the winner, nevermind the hundreds or thousands of losers.

In most cases this is because the winners don't have any prior relationship with the press.

Huh, you say? Aren't contests winners supposed to be completely connection and relationship free to ensure fairness? Isn't that supposed to be a priority in the contest system?

Sure, for a contest system.

But why do contest systems usurp publishing systems?

This is why book contests are bad for poetry publishing.

Every year, there are thousands upon thousands of poets contributing money into contests. In many cases each poet is spending hundreds and sometimes over a thousand dollars a year doing this. If we do a very conservative estimate that there are 4000 poets a year spending $250 (that would be roughly 5-6 contests and doesn't include postage) a year -- that's a million dollars into this contest system.

In most cases, these poets know nothing about the presses or organizations running the contests. They may have heard of the contest, perhaps know the work of the guest judge, maybe even know the work of the past winners, but they don't know the publishers and editors -- the people responsible for making their book a "reality." They had zero interaction with one another beforehand. They don't know if these editors and publishers are responsible, if the press is stable or about to fall into the abyss. These poets have no idea how much say they're going to have into issues like cover design, layout, editing -- or other important things like how much promotion will the press do, will they send out review copies, if so, how many? Will the press help find readings? Will they arrange any readings? How long will the book stay in the print? Will they do a second run if the first run sells out? What is the distribution? Will the book even have distribution? And about a million other things.

The same goes for these editors and publishers -- they don't know the "winning" poets they're publishing. Is it going to be a compatible working match? Will the winner be making all kinds of outrageous demands and throwing fits because he has no idea how publishing works? There are a lot of difficult and unreasonable people out there.

I know a lot of book contest winners. A few are completely and perfectly happy with their experience. But most have serious gripes from little input over cover design to editing decisions they didn't agree with and some have bigger problems like contractual breaches. Almost all of them are in the same exact boat with their second book -- they're back to searching for a publisher -- and now there are even fewer contests they can send those manuscripts to because many contests are *first book* only.

With the exception of contests like Yale and Whitman that exist solely to bestow the honor of the award, presses and magazines hold contests to raise money. They need to raise money because these books and magazines don't sell very well -- even the books by well-known, well-published authors don't sell very well, rarely enough for the press to break even, even if the press is fiscally responsible and smart. These presses don't need to discover new talent, every editor with one eye halfway open knows tens, maybe hundreds of manuscripts they'd love to publish if time and money were no object. Really.

So what's a poet to do? Feel helpless and a victim to a cruel and unfair system? Well, you could. Most poets do. You'd have plenty of company. For people who profess to be creative, they sure lack creative ideas on how to bring their art to an audience. For people who profess to be outsiders to "the system" they sure seem beholden to one -- and voluntarily so. I mean it's not like non-participation in the contest system will mean you'll lose your house and your kids will go hungry. Only a handful of these contests mean diddly squat to academic hiring committees -- and even then, there's zero guarantees. There's past Yale, Whitman, Bakeless winners still looking for teaching jobs.

If that million dollars (which I'm confident is actually a much higher number) went into book sales, most presses would have sufficient funds to operate and focus solely on publishing -- that would mean more time for books and everyone would benefit from that. More books could be published, more attention could be given to them, more promotion, etc.

If you used that $250 (which in many cases is a much higher number) towards a creative project, either publishing your own work or another poet you admire, you'd be much much better off. If you spent over $500 on contests, know you could have published your own or someone else's book for that amount -- and that includes distribution and a short run of copies. You could have started your own press. You could have gotten with three other poets and created a publishing collective. You could each contribute $250-500 each per year (what you're spending already on contests that frustrate and anger you) and take turns publishing one another books -- or if you're so concerned about the self-publishing stigma, you could find another 4 poets who create their own publishing collective and they can agree to publish your collective's books and you there's. If that's not "legitimate" -- well write off the Beats, the NY School, Black Mountain poets, cause they published one another, a lot.

Oh, but what about all that nepotism -- doesn't that mean more crappy books?!?! The floodgates!! The horror!! I have a bright idea, pretend like, you're an editor, and only accept poets whose work your admire into your collective. Only agree to publish work by other poets that you think is worthy. Everyone has the power and "cultural capital" to make smart editorial choices.

Ah, but what if you only see yourself as a poet. You just write poems. It's not your job to think about editing, publishing or generating ways of getting your work out there. It's not your job to contribute anything the same poetry community/economy that you want to benefit from. You're not gonna start no stinkin' press, you're not gonna edit no stinkin' magazine, you're not gonna start a reading series, you're not gonna buy anyone else's books, you're not gonna ask your local library to buy any contemporary poetry books, you're not gonna write any book reviews, you're not gonna exert any of your precious time or energy into any of that crap. No, you're the type of poet who expects other poets to do all the work for you, you think other poets should take away time from their own poems (and jobs and families) and spend all their time publishing and promoting your work. What you need a servant poet, a poet to dedicate her energy to making things happen for you.

If you are that type of poet, there is a path, it's called the contest system. You have to pay a lot of money for that -- and remember, good help is hard to find.

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17 Comments:

At 12:51 PM, Blogger Collin said...

Sing it, sister. I'll never enter a contest again. Submit to small presses with open reading periods that accept submissions year-round. Buy the press's books, donate money, subscribe. Do anything, but don't continue to support the contest cycle of abuse.

 
At 1:23 PM, Blogger shanna said...

ew, that story is nightmarish.

& your post is awesome.

hi!

 
At 1:55 PM, Blogger Shann Palmer said...

This is a great post, Reb- I agree about buying books and subscribing to zines. It's a much better path in the lomg run, for many of us.

I will say I seldom spend more than $100 a year on entering contests- I just don't want to put out money for little gain.

I'm still looking at Lulu- though you should hear my academic colleagues fume and fuss when I bring it up.

 
At 2:01 PM, Blogger Barbara Jane Reyes said...

hi reb, great post. i am glad you've pointed out that so many contest are held to raise money, rather than to "bestow prestige." thanks for this.

 
At 2:46 PM, Blogger Jilly said...

LOL @ servant poet.

 
At 2:48 PM, Blogger Jilly said...

ps - It's getting to the point where I don't even want to BUY a contest-winning book anymore.

 
At 4:13 PM, Blogger Bill Knott said...

. . . why isn't that "million dollars" supplied by major publishers from their proceeds? why aren't the profits of bestsellers like Anne Rice and Stephen King et al taxed to support the publication of poetry? why can't poets take concerted action to confront and persuade and if necessary shame those publishers and authors into assuming a little responsibility toward the literatures of their culture . . . poets need to stand up and demand more resources . . . they must assert in every way possible the importance of their art and its legitimate need for adequate funding . . .

 
At 4:55 PM, Blogger Bill Knott said...

ideally of course, since those in the other arts derive (steal/plagiarize) all their ideas from poets,

then their profits as songwriters screenwriters novelists etcet should be

garnished taxed tithed sequestered

to pay for all poetry publications——

 
At 5:15 PM, Blogger Bill Knott said...

seriously, why can't poets employ the means that other marginalized and suppressed peeps have used to gain their rights . . .

sit-ins, picketing, boycotts et cet
for a start———

 
At 6:04 PM, Blogger Reb said...

Bill, I hear what you're saying -- and your proposals sound awesome, I'd love a slice of a best-selling author's or pop singers royalties -- my magazine and press could do a lot with that. -- but I'm having a hard time conceiving of a way to make that possible. I already don't buy best selling books or best selling pop CDs, so I'm not sure what I'd be boycotting . . . it seems an ineffective place to funnel my energy.

I'd love it for all the people who have hurt, used and otherwise done me wrong to acknowledge what they did, consider what effect it had on me and become more thoughtful, generous people. That would mean so very much. But that's all out of my control. So if I ever want to be whole again, I have to make it happen myself -- cause if I wait for the selfish and thoughtless to come around, I'm gonna be at their mercy forever.

I don't want to be at anyone's mercy -- in terms of poetry, I don't have to be. I can do a lot on my own -- and what I do alone won't change the world, but it can change my world and help people close to me -- and that is far more satisfying to me than going after the "big guys" who aren't paying me any attention anyhow. I don't need them. Just like I don't need all the assholes of the world to see the light.

 
At 12:42 AM, Blogger Keith said...

This is a great and thoughtful post. I feel like Stacey's has really lit a fuse. I don't know what's going to blow up at the end, but people are reading it, and thinking about it, and considering what to do next, and that's a good start for now.

 
At 1:07 AM, Blogger Bill Knott said...

and I hear you, Reb, but I reiterate: they're not going to give you that million until you force them to give it to you . . . they——the cultural establishment, its institutions and authorities——will not stop underfunding poetry until poets rise up in rebellion and demand their due . . . poets should organize and agitate and commit civil disobedience if need be . . . chain themselves to the doors of the foundations and the media . . .
they've got the money, but they're not giving it to poets, they're giving it to opera companies and orchestras, and to all the other arts except poetry . . . why aren't poets out on the sidewalk in front of Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center picketing and protest-leafleting against this inequity . . . why aren't poets doing sit-ins at the offices of the Association of American Publishers . . . all these cultural powers and dominions could be coerced to properly fund poetry if there were enough poets willing to attack them, and yes willing to risk arrest martyrdom in the name of upheaval and disturbance . . .

 
At 1:33 AM, Blogger Bill Knott said...

. . . When poets start to break under the torrent of hatred society pours upon them; when they begin to internalize that hatred and to self-generate it in the neurotic hope of propitiating its cruelties, when they snatch the whip from Master and lash themselves;

when they understand how loathed and despised poetry is by all the powers of this world; when they realize how loathed and despised they are by all the authorities of this world; and when, under the endless onslaught of contempt and scorn and persecution which they as poets are condemned to suffer, at last they too loathe and despise themselves,

that is the point when they, when they . . .

 
At 9:24 AM, Blogger Bill Knott said...

the problem of underfunding for poetry is institutional, and can only be changed by concerted action . . .

poets must adopt the tactics used by other underclasses in their crusades for equality and justice . . .

the feminists burned their bras, poets should march in front of the NYTimes building and burn every book on that damn bestseller list . ..
poets must rage and riot for their rights and fight using the same civil disobedience models and actions that other oppressed minorities like blacks and gays and women have employed over the past half century and more . . .

they aren't to give you that million unless you earthquake their sinecure complacency . . .

 
At 11:55 AM, Blogger Bill Knott said...

and in response to the contest controversy:

. . . most of the comments responding to Brown on her site are commiserating with her, and saluting her bravery in exposing this nonsense——

but none are slamming his honor the Hoagland who bops in to these contests and does his ten minute stint as “judge” and then scoots off with another tick on his resume, another notch on his reputation, who doesn’t give a damn if it’s a scam, he doesn’t care if the process is fair and the press treats its poets properly, all he cares about is cashing that fee and that boost to his ego . . .
Hoagland is a Po-Biz whore who will obviously sell his ass out as a “judge” at every opportunity legitimate or ill- . . .

if you’re going to condemn the presses, you must also censure the “judges” of these contests: they’re part of the scam . . . they don’t give a damn about what happens after they take their money and run . . . Hoagland is as much to blame here as Cider is.

 
At 1:48 PM, Blogger Rachel Mallino said...

*claps* Great post, Reb.

 
At 6:13 PM, Blogger BLAKE BUTLER said...

nice reb, that's my girl

i agree with bill knott, why are these famous poets sticking their names on these shitass contests?

it's like endorsing a cell phone company that gives you cancer in record time

can you really release a first book for $500?

you should blog a blog about that, how for that price that can happen, the costs i have seen are much higher and i would love to hear, and i think it would be good for a lot of people

 

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