It’s interesting to read the recent posts by Kwame and Kenny talking about first books and prizes (or the lack thereof). It makes me wonder what percentage of first books published each year are attached to contests. I’m glad that Kenny pointed out that a number of first books do get published each year outside the mainstream. (Is “mainpuddle” more appropriate?)

It’s undeniable that there has been a proliferation of first book contests over the past twenty years; in the late 80’s there were a handful and now there are dozens. The rash of contests is problematic for reasons beyond why an entity like Foetry was able to gain traction: (waiter, there's a con in my test). It’s unhealthy when many poetry publishers won’t even read manuscripts without an entry fee. I can kind of understand the publishers’ defense: they’re understaffed, doing the best they can, first books are hard to sell, and the contest entry fees are a quick, reliable source of capital. But you hear stories, like Joshua Beckman entering fifty-two contests before Gerald Stern picked his manuscript, and it all starts to seem a little absurd.
Just for the record, I met my publisher at the National Poetry Slam in San Francisco in 1993. It was the second day of the event. I read a poem, Following Her To Sleep, that had been published in Ploughshares (and would later appear in Best American Poetry). (Strangely my poems that tended to do the best in slams were often also my poems that did the best on the page.) (By “did the best”, I mean getting published and anthologized.) Anyway, the publisher’s husband came up to me in an alleyway behind the venue where I was sharing a bottle of whisky with a poet from the other “team” (Asheville), a guy named Pat Storm—may he rest in peace—and the publisher’s husband casually mentioned that his wife (Jennifer Joseph at Manic D) would be interested in publishing my book.
At first, I declined. I wanted to win a contest, the Yale specifically. I wanted to be like James Tate. Luckily I moved away from that position and went with Manic D. Who knows how many contests I would have had to enter, (all those checks and clerical work), before something finally clicked. In hindsight, I’m probably lucky the way things worked out.

Originally Published: March 22nd, 2007

Jeffrey McDaniel is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Chapel of Inadvertent Joy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013). Other books include The Endarkenment (Pittsburgh, 2008), The Splinter Factory (Manic D, 2002), The Forgiveness Parade (Manic D Press, 1998), and Alibi School (Manic D, 1995). His poems have...