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.
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,...