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Journal, Day Three

By Janet Holmes

Yesterday was the first day of classes, and I met for the first time with Ahsahta’s new editorial board, the graduate students who will help select the finalists for the 2007 Sawtooth Prize. Our class is called “Small Press Production.”

I’d met the week before with Dennis, the undergraduate intern who will be opening, logging, and filing the entries as they come in over the next two months; we created the skeleton of the database and I explained the procedures. It’s Dennis’s job to remove the identifying parts of the manuscript (the title page with the author’s name and address, the acknowledgments, and the bio if there is one) and file them along with the SASE. He assigns a number to each manuscript and files them in numerical order in file boxes. These are what I brought to the first class session: anonymous manuscripts that have been gathering over the past two weeks.

I have great respect for the contest process. My first book was winner of the Anhinga Press contest in 1993, with Joy Harjo judging. At the time I was working in a corporate job in St. Paul, Minnesota, and was fairly well removed from a poetry community. What I remember most vividly about going to Tallahassee to read in the FSU spring festival the following year was dropping by the post office with the Anhinga Press board member who’d been asked to pick up the mail on the final day of their competition. She returned to the car wheeling five postal bins filled with manuscripts—somewhere around 200, I’d guess. As I helped her load them into the back of her Jeep Cherokee, I knew in my heart that if I’d seen this the year before, I’d have been far too intimidated to enter their contest in the first place. This was one day’s submission! And they all looked alike; how could mine have distinguished itself from the others? How could any?

As the students in my class will quickly find out, the resemblance among manuscripts ends when the envelope is opened. (They will also learn that nearly half the manuscripts in any competition arrive during the last week of the submission period.) Each student took a numbered envelope, and I asked them to give me their first impressions of the manuscripts they held.

“These poems have footnotes,” one said, flipping through his.

Another: “I hate this title.”

Another: “These poems are in very small type.”

Another: “This one is printed landscape.”

It’s inevitable; a manuscript will make a first impression before it’s even read. And, try as they may to be objective evaluators, all readers are human and will react to presentation.

The students in this class are going to learn a lot about presentation, simply by virtue of reading hundreds of entries to the contest. They’ll learn that there is no one right way to present a manuscript, but that there are lots of mistakes they can learn to avoid. I can predict that none of them, after this class, will ever use a script font for an entire manuscript of poems—not because I or anyone else is going to tell them not to, but because they are bound to run across a submission set in a decorative font its author believes enhances the poems, and will discover the barrier that provides for someone trying to read and evaluate the work on its merits. They will form opinions about epigraphs, notes, and titles that will affect their own use of these elements. They will quickly see what’s in fashion: is ekphrastic poetry all the rage this season, or will it be formal verse sequences? Poems about childhood, or about politics? They’ll form opinions about these as well, which will color their decisions in the reading process as well as their own writing. And this is perfectly natural.

I once heard Donald Justice deliver a lecture (later, I believe, printed as an essay) on the manuscripts he read while serving as a member of an NEA panel determining who would receive the literature grants in poetry. He had set everything up in statistics: 34% of poets preferred “gray” to “grey,” for example. (I’m making the percentages up.) I remember vividly his saying that Georgia O’Keeffe was the most popular human subject for poems that year (after people’s grandparents), but that only a small percentage of poets could spell her name correctly. (I can assure you that two e’s and two f’s is the correct spelling; I made a point to look it up afterwards and haven’t forgotten.) He said cancer was the “most popular cause of death.” Justice’s lecture was meant to be funny, and many in the audience of students duly laughed; I found the performance condescending, an eminence grise ridiculing the unfortunate masses. We in the know, he seemed to be saying, know that spelling “gray” with an “e” is an affectation! Those people are dopes! He was lecturing to students; we all knew poems from our workshops that fit the descriptions he was mocking. The laughter was nervous.

He was, of course, just giving us his subjective evaluation of the flaws in the NEA manuscript sample, not the Word of God. And I guess the lesson I took away was You can’t please everybody. There aren’t objective judges of poetry out there; there are only carbon-based life forms filled with aesthetic beliefs, political opinions, spiritual lives, dysfunctional relationships, happy memories, and amorphous needs who can’t help bringing all that to the process. In the best of circumstances they’ll make great efforts to be as objective as possible. I urge my students to try to put their preferences behind them when they’re reading, and I do the same.

If I had any advice for contest entrants, it’s this. As poets submitting manuscripts, your best bet is to present the work as plainly as you can so its individual power—its language, its structure, its idiosyncratic subject matter, its beauty or transgressiveness—can distinguish it. Beyond that, there aren’t any rules.

Posted in Uncategorized on Wednesday, January 17th, 2007 by Janet Holmes.