Judge not lest ye be Shivani
Anis Shivani gives the first book contest model of poetry publishing the business over at Huffington Post. He writes in response to a feature from Poets & Writers, in which editor Kevin Larimer interviewed Stephanie G'Schwind, Michael Collier, Camille Rankine, and Beth Harrison, all editors who work at presses that run first book contests. Amongst other non-surprising, well-known facts about this obviously-not-the-only-way-to-get-your-book-out-into-the-world method, Shivani rails against most poetry being written today, dishes some dirt, and offers up some alternatives. To the rantmobile!
Poetry contests are about the only remaining way to publish a first poetry book. And that's one way poetry is being killed in this country, reduced to consensus-by-committee, stripped of individual vision, yielding vast parchments of conformity and mediocrity, worth only as means of boosting resumes and securing academic jobs. Our poetry is haunted today by a blind adherence to lack of ambition--and the poetry contest model is part of the problem.
Typically there are two types of aesthetics (following the MFA division of poetry into two major camps): the narrative/formally uninventive/epiphany-based confessional or memoiristic short poem, and the experimental/avant-garde/language poetry camp, which takes its inspiration from deconstruction and makes a fetish of the insensibility of ordinary language. A judge from one camp is never going to pick a book from another camp; it just doesn't happen. The screeners know it, and hopefully the submitters know it too (unless they're really stupid). Already a great deal of self-screening has taken place, and rapidly amplifies during the early stages of screening.
I adore and admire Tony Hoagland, both as a poet and as a person, and have had occasion for many wonderful conversations with him, but in 2008 he picked Matthew Dickman for the American Poetry Review/Honickman prize--leading to the explosive rise in Dickman's career. Hoagland is an excellent poet, Dickman a mediocre one; more to the point, Hoagland regularly teaches at Bread Loaf, where Dickman is a frequent attendee. Surely Hoagland recognized Dickman's poetry when he came across the manuscript passed on to him? Perhaps Hoagland would have picked him anyway--but this raises the larger issue of contests serving as seamless ways to satisfy judges' preferences. What should Hoagland have done when he recognized Dickman's writing? Out of the apparent chaos of randomness in contests, order is being retrieved, in ways that accord with the traditional method--except that the new method comes dressed with the paraphernalia of democracy, almost the connotations of a lottery, which it most definitely is not.
And then, the alternative:
Everyone, including aspiring poets, including even those stuck in the MFA system, would be better off if the contest system were abolished, and publishers once again took responsibility for promoting individual strong aesthetics, rather than outsourcing the decision at every stage, and supporting safe conformist meeting-room-style outcomes. A different model is that followed by, for instance, Canarium Books, whose editor Joshua Edwards has a vision, and whose recent books, by Suzanne Buffam, Paul Killibrew, John Beer, and others all impress me; the same goes for Anna Moschovakis and her fellow editors at Ugly Duckling Presse, whose recent batch of books really capture me. It doesn't have to be avant-garde poetry; from the formalist direction, Robert McDowell's (now defunct) Story Line Press set an example of promoting narrative poetry of a high order. At least there was a specific editorial vision, year after year, and the editors had the cojones to back up their vision. But to do this, you have to be a strong poet yourself, not an administrator/manager of contests. There are other small presses following the non-contest model, but they are distinctly in the minority, and the greater prestige, unfortunately, rests with the big contest winners: apprentices picked in the exact image of the all-knowing name-brand judge (whose number, by the way, is tiny and recirculating).
The full piece by Shivani, whose manuscript, HuffPo commenters have pointed out, My Tranquil War and Other Poems was a semifinalist for the 2010 Noemi Book Award for Poetry and a finalist for the 2010 Bright Hill Press Poetry Book Award, can be found here.