I, as probably several of my fellow-bloggers here, published my first book as the result of a contest. In fact, the manuscript had been making the rounds for years, ever a finalist, never a bride. By the time it did win, and the $1000 check arrived, I had probably spent--who knows--twice? that on entry fees, copying, and postage. But what to do? It seemed the only way to publish a first book.
That appears to be changing...

I read with interest this news item in Poets & Writers on Ted Genoways and the University of Georgia Press. It has dismantled its contest series, and will return to a more old-fashioned publishing model of developing and spotting new talent.
I welcome this shift. There have been too many contests for too long, and they keep multiplying, becoming in effect less prestigious, less actually meaningful, with each mitosis. I wonder sometimes that there are even enough entries to keep them all going! Even major annual prizes would seem to get all the major players sooner or later. I wonder sometimes if there had been a Nobel or a Pulitzer in the ancient world. Sure Virgil would have won--three times--and Horace, and Tibullus and Propertius and Sulpicia and Cicero and... well, everybody. Maybe not Catullus (the racy-ness would probably be OK, but there is that nose-thumbing at Caesar...), maybe not Ovid (too... in exile), not Lucretius (too... Epicurean), but everybody else that you have ever heard of and a heap of people you haven't.
Foetry may be a factor behind the shift, for good or ill . (It is surely partly behind the closure of the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series in the first place.) One of the problems with Foetry's crusading-bordering-on-paranoia was that it actually bought into the whole contest apparatus. They did not ask that contests be dismantled (although in some cases, that was exactly the result); all they asked was they be scrupulously fair.
But Art is not fair. Art is not a democracy and it is not a lottery. The problem with entry fees, is folks feel it should be. I remember my own indignance the first year Merwyn judged the Yale--he selected no one, but our entry fees were not returned. Somehow it seemed outrageously... unfair. As if we had all been invited to a birthday party and all had a turn at the pinata, but the pinata, rather than being broken, was just spirited away, all the candy and trinkets still rattling away inside.
The truth is, not everybody does have a chance in these contests. There are some people who haven't a chance in hell, no matter how many entry fees they pony up--the poems are abyssmal. And there are some that are going to stand out, that are sure to win something sooner or later, even if they are totally outside the Po-Biz universe, even if every contest is stocked with former-pupils. After all, what ultimately makes a judge "look good" is having discovered a rising star.
I welcome new-old systems like this one, that function on an editor's taste, on developing new talent. I welcome presses that look at manuscripts without contests, without judges, without prizes, (Prizes! Prizes!... so many dry crumpets at the end of the caucus race.) Sure, let them charge straight-forward reading fees. Let submitters have to buy a book to support the series. Let poets pay their dues... but not entry-fees.
I've done it, I've been there, I've been thrilled to win awards, and had that mix of emotion that comes with being a finalist and a semi-finalist over and over. I commiserate, I sympathize. Up to this point, contests have been necessary, since so few presses have been willing to look at unsolicited manuscripts. And awards can give a boost in terms of encouragement and publicity to a struggling author. (My own prize publisher does a great job with their books, all handsome and affordable hardbacks.) I've been a judge, too, and have some war stories from the other side of the battle field. For one, there is a reason that committees have an odd number of members!
I was gearing up to go through it all again with book number two (around the same time as baby number one--well, there's just the one), when a publisher, flukishly, with no contest at all, took the book on. What a relief it was not to be sending it out to be judged, like some pre-teen on the beauty contest circuit.
How did it feel not to win a prize? Lucky.

Originally Published: November 22nd, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. November 22, 2007

    I too won a contest with my first book of verse but went through an editor's acquisition process (no contest involved) with the second.Both made me feel very lucky. I agree that a shift towards acquiring editors, away from contest judges, would be good for American poetry at the moment, though 20 years ago the reverse may have been the case: it might be good for British poetry at the moment if a few university presses decided to set up contests there.

  2. November 22, 2007
     Antoine Cassar

    Thanks for an interesting blog post.
    I am yet to take part in any poetry contests, but I have a dilemma - what if the poetry you write is multilingual? Where do you send it, if almost all contests are single-language?
    I like the tounge-in-cheek quality of the word "Po-Biz", from an internet search I see it was David Lehman who coined it.
    "Po-Biz" seems to be a lot more discreet here in Europe... I don't know if that's for better or for worse.

  3. November 23, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    Hmmm... an interesting quandary about multilingual poems. Are you able to publish them in journals?
    One of the things that drives US Po-Biz is the professionalization of poetry--through MFA programs, the goal of which sometimes seems to be as much to produce professors in MFA programs as poets--something Europe lacks so far, though I imagine it is just a matter of time.
    Many of the US contests limit themselves in their rules to "US residents"--for what reason, I don't know, and have sometimes been annoyed by this arbitrary hurdle as an ex-pat...
    Steve, I'm curious about why British Poetry would somehow benefit from such contests. I guess they might conceivably be a way for an outsider to enter an Oxbridge-dominated publishing world. But it seems that British poetry is so lively right now. I've been re-reading Simic and Paterson's New British Poetry and getting excited about it all over again. For one thing there is Paterson's brilliant essay on the Main Stream (one of these days soon I need to do a "Don Paterson is brilliant" post), but then so many of the poems are terrific--often with formal flare and vernacular verve, with none of the fustiness that seems to have attached itself to much of American new formalism, and eschewing likewise a glib obscurity. I'd love to see a similar anthology of younger-ish American poets which would cross all kinds of "school" lines.

  4. November 23, 2007
     Robert Vasquez

    Contests, as one of my mentors put it, are often "luck and suck": You're fortunate if a judge or panel decides in your favor; however, you might be chosen because of who you know (i.e., some judges select former students or their friends and colleagues), especially if a contest judge wants to help a someone secure a position or tenure via book publication and a national prize. More recently, some book contests have tried to limit the "suck" element by making former students of the respective judges ineligible (which is a step in the right direction toward "fairness," if such a thing can be delineated in any of the arts for a multitude of reasons).
    As a person of color, I'm cynical when it comes to contests because of the lack of ethnic diversity among most judges and panels (they seem to mirror most hiring committees in creative writing programs: the persons selected generally aren't people of color). Of course some poets of color have won prestigious awards (Dove, Rios, Komunyakaa, and Mackey for instance), but they can be counted on one hand. My book At the Rainbow was among the finalists--not the winning selection--in an AWP First Series Competition; thus, the AWP acted as my agent and helped me secure a publisher for the text--and the judge was a person of color. Of course I'm grateful that the AWP has a policy of helping finalists place their manuscripts (for this could be one way to increase contests' "fairness": publish at least three to six manuscripts submitted); still, I've always wondered if I would have been so fortunate if the judge had been a Caucasian. Hence, "fairness" has always been a concern for many Latino Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. Personally, it's a tangible phenomenon I can't help but notice whenever I browse in bookstores or read literary journals.
    Furthermore, Antoine Cassar's point is quite valid when one considers the growing number of bilingual/multilingual poets and writers. For example, the University of Texas at El Paso has a bilingual MFA program (no, I'm not a former student or employee of UTEP), something that other graduate schools should consider when creating their thesis/dissertation guidelines given America's heterogeneous population and the increasing number of biracial/multiethnic offspring.
    But "fairness" is a sticky issue; after all, was it fair for Eliot to win the Nobel and Williams didn't? For my money, Williams will always be a more important and influencial poet when it comes to American poetry and poetics; as for Eliot, he was--and probably still is--the darling of academics who weren't trained as poets. According to the mentor who promotes the "luck and suck" theory, merit is merely a horse race: One day Galloping Gal comes in first, but another day Galloping Gal gets minced into dog food.

  5. November 24, 2007
     Antoine Cassar

    I look forward to the post on Don Paterson... He had a wonderful poem called "The Error" published in Poetry a few months ago, with the following deceptively simple opening lines:
    "As the bird is to the air
    and the whale is to the sea
    so man is to his dream."
    He then goes on to justify these lines in three more concise, technically sound yet easy to read tercets, apparently questioning man's attitude towards the physical world as a mere medium for him to accomplish his worldly ambitions (thus however deep we listen, we find that the skies are silent) - but the opening gem is what remains in the memory after the reading experience.
    Paterson's version (not translation, as he intriguingly explains in the afterword) of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus is also delicious. I would be very interested in reading his essay in New British Poetry, but I find it difficult to give in to purchasing the book with the Union Jack on its cover... I cannot help it. Although the title of the book may be enough to justify the chosen design, I firmly believe we need to bring patriotism out of poetry, which is after all a supranational phenomenon, irrespective of whether or not it is composed in a single tongue.
    Alicia - Thanks for your reply. So far I have published two multilingual poems (I call them 'mosaics') in the Italian journal "Nuovi Argomenti", and I have publications coming up on webzines in the US and Australia. But as for poetry competitions, although it is still early days (I have so much more to ruminate and write before considering the poetry presentable to a contest!), should the right moment come, I have no idea where to present a sample of the mosaics.
    In any case, the mosaics are designed more to be heard than to be read, so ideally the contest would be one of 'audiopoetry', a contest where you can send in a cd... if that exists! As is the case with a great deal of poetry, being placed pleasingly on the page is not enough if it is to be appreciated in full. Taking your sonnet "Explaining an Affinity for Bats", for example - I enjoy recreating the sounds in my head as I read it, but how much more would I appreciate it if I could listen to the intended rhythm!
    Are there any audio-poetry zines out there?

  6. November 24, 2007
     Don Share

    Antoine, Cortland Review might be what you call an audio-poetry zine.

  7. November 24, 2007
     Mary Meriam

    Here's a new audio-poetry zine:
    Soundzine: http://soundzine.org/index.php
    I just got asked to be an in-house reader there!
    PS to site owner: this is second try on this post - I think I forgot to put my name on first post.

  8. November 24, 2007
     Moira Egan

    Antoine, your mosaics are particularly unusual because you are making syntactically sensible, rhyming pieces that mix and flow in English, French, Italian, Maltese--and even the most polyglot of us English-speaking types know very little about how Maltese works! But when you read them aloud, who cares. You are quite sui generis (sorry to lapse into yet another language), but remember that even the very savvy guys at Nuovi Argomenti -- one of the most highly regarded journals in Italy -- had trouble with the proper diacritics for the Maltese bits of your poems. Well, that doesn't help much with publishing, does it, but do keep on writing. You're great.

  9. November 25, 2007
     Chris L

    What a strange and muddled back-handed defense of some amazing contest crookedness... even stranger that it peters out and becomes a wishy-washy acceptance of non-contest mechanisms while all the while ignoring the fact that being fair is simple and achievable, the vagaries of aesthetics and post-modern ideas of quality notwithstanding.
    Art is not a democracy, but contests are not art and they ask for money in return for a simple attempt at fairness... which too often isn't on the menu. It's certainly true that some people write so poorly they will never actually have a chance at winning, but that doesn't excuse the nepotism, croneyism, and incestuous politics of contests that claim to be evaluating work on its merits (where its perfectly OK to reject poor writing) when in fact they are just swallowing the contest fees and, quite often, publishing poor writing *anyway*.
    I'm glad to see contests die... too bad so many remain alive, in part because of apologist writing like this post.

  10. November 25, 2007
     Antoine Cassar

    Don and Mary - Many thanks.
    Not only does The Cortland Review contain reading and listening material for several weeks, but there are even features on the sonnet, on poetry and voice, on poetry on cd and cassette...
    Robert, I am curious - does the bilingual MFA program you mentioned focus on bilingual poetry, or is it simply taught in two languages?

  11. November 26, 2007
     Robert Vasquez

    To answer your question, I quickly looked at UTEP's MFA program's website (again, I'm not a former student or an employee of UTEP; however, I did select Sheryl Luna's wonderful book of poetry, Pity the Drowned Horses, in 2004/05 as the inaugural winner of the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize: Luna received her MFA from UTEP): Unless I misread their website's description of the program, UTEP's creative writing program utilizes English and Spanish for both instruction and student work.
    I think most MFA programs allow students to take graduate courses taught in languages other than English as part of their literature seminar requirements (my MFA alma mater, UC Irvine, encourages their graduate students to do so), but few overtly encourage their creative writing students to produce poetry or fiction that's bilingual/multilingual--and there's the rub.

  12. December 13, 2007
     Robin Kemp

    Well, that's good news, indeed. I write slowly, publish maybe 1-2 poems a year, and cringe at the thought of having to enter "first-book" contests. Maybe it's my journalist's background: I write it; I submit it; you read it; either you take it and it gets published, or you don't and (with a little compulsive editing in between) I send it out again. Sometimes I think I should just self-publish and get it over with. On the other hand, I think a first book might benefit from a thoughtful editor's eye. Meanwhile, first-bookless I remain. It's my own little personal conundrum.
    I used to wonder whether I had some deep-seated fear of not "winning" a contest. The truth is, I've entered single poems in contests; sometimes win, sometimes place, sometimes show, sometimes no. There are SO many contests, ALL the time, that I can only make a short list, then go into a catatonic state trying to decide which poems to send where. It usually ends with me drooling on the stack of neatly-addressed envelopes the night before the deadline. This is why I'm forcing myself to enter just one or two contests this year.
    I like working with editors (and I've worked with many different ones over the years, literary or otherwise). I also like editing other people's work. I understand that editors use contests to screen out less-developed work and to fund their magazines. What I don't understand is how that differs from reading the usual non-contest entries. Why pay for that, especially if one supports the magazine through subscription?
    * * *
    About the bilingual MFA at UTEP--I think it's a great idea and wish that more MFA/PhD programs in creative writing allowed for (or required) a more interdisciplinary approach to poetry written in languages other than English. Arkansas had an M(F?)A in translation, which I think is a brilliant idea. My own program does not offer the option to include comparative literature or literature in translation specifically as part of the creative degree. I suppose one could cook up an independent study of some sort. I've always bought bilingual poetry editions whenever I could get my hands on them (most often Spanish-English), and find it interesting to compare the grammatical structure of the original versus the translation, the translator's choice of words among several, and the way certain colloquialisms, metaphors, etc. do or do not "work" in English. Requiring close study of these and other matters would improve a lot of student poetry, IMHO (but then I think that graduate students in poetry also should be required to study grammar, versification, the history of the English language, and linguistics).