The "Prestige" of Poetry
Yesterday, I posted the link to Stacey Lynn Brown's blog where she talks about her dealings with Cider Press Review after she won their book contest. CPR has responded with a letter from it's co-editor, Robert Wynne, that addresses none of Stacey's concerns, but attempts to save face and make her out to be a meddling, "abusive" poet. It sounds just like something Wynne would write. I met him at the Austin Poetry Festival a few years ago and his nose was so high up in the air you could have skied off it.
Barbara Jane Reyes asks some valid questions at her blog in response to Stacey's experience:
My central question remains: Why the contest? I still haven’t heard a sensible response to this question, if it’s mainly publication we seek. If it’s mainly publication that poets seek, then it doesn’t make sense to me for poets to privilege the contest over general manuscript submissions queries and open reading periods. If it’s “prestige,” “respect,” we are after, I am also fairly certain we can gain “prestige” and “respect” in other, less costly, less insane, less humiliating ways.
My last question: How do we subvert this poetry contest system when so many poets (literally) buy into it so completely.
Poets need to stop buying into the contest cycle of abuse, let go of the notion that self-publishing makes you less of a poet and that working with a small or micro-press won't bring you any "prestige." Basically, get over yourself. There are many ways to get your poetry to readers besides the ones pounded into your head at MFA programs, through Poets & Writers magazine and by other sniffy poets who have achieved what they believe to be "prestige." Magicians break down their tricks into three stages, the final one called "the prestige" where the illusion is produced. If you ask me, prestige is not only an illusion but a delusion suffered by many poets.
One question I posed at Barbara Jane's blog was who is the arbiter of "prestige" in poetry? Your thoughts, readers?
I think folks know my opinion of the whole thing by now.
I think I will see you Saturday.
Yes, I think the academic system is one. But what if you're not part of that? Do they still dictate the terms?
Poets look to the contest because that seems to be one of the three or four so-called legitimate publishing venues offered and virtually 90% of all presses who make themselves known to the writing world at large (see what I did with the word large?) operate on contests and the fees they generate. They try to attract quality judges with honorariums and hope to pay poets a stipend up front because they know if a press run of 500 or 1000 sells out, that is a contemporary miracle unto itself.
Readership of poetry is down. That much is obvious, but what should be as plain to see, is the establishment refuses to acknowledge that. Where the old leadership could once get away with putting down self-publication as being base and tacky, they forget that money has become a part of the series of questions editors have chosen to be subject to when deciding what to publish. The big houses only publish the 3-4% of those poets who will sell out a first run without breaking a sweat---and that determination is based a a whole lot of assumption.
One of my old professors, a dear friend of mine, who used to publish his books through Copper Canyon gave one of his strongest warnings against self publishing while ignoring one very telling contradictory statement. He basically admitted that if Sam Hamill himself hadn't taken a liking to him, he doubts any of his books would have been picked up elsewhere. Now that Copper Canyon turned down his latest ms. as 'un-readable,' he's in a position where other presses have had a chance to see what his poetry is, and actually ask him to submit. But without that break where would he be?
Most new poets find themselves in the same boat, and look to contests to break in to the world of publishing. They want to feel legitimate or legitimized, and a prize has that connotation. It isn't the money if you are in serious contention for a book, and it isn't presige. Well, not in this world anyways.
Publishing poetry today is like navigating the perfect storm. Too many elements controlling the issue which spill over into to many other realms, which cannot all be solved at once, except for brief calms or cloudbreaks, where the occasional poet is lucky enough to slip through.
so then perhaps the 'better' thing to do rather than casting oneself into the contest fray would be to find a community. certainly, communities are formed around publication or affiliation with publishers, journals, and even mfa programs. (i think this is why some writers find themselves blogging - they are perhaps trying to find community.)
as well, there are the communities formed around starting up and/or attending local reading venues, supporting community arts programs, taking classes there, supporting those by attending events.
i think also when you know your work/your poetics, then it isn't so difficult to find communities of like-minded artists. or even that if you have communities of like-minded artists, then you get to know your work/poetics.
i just think it's mighty hard to 'survive' (and here i mean mentally/emotionally) in the publishing industry without solid grounding somewhere. hence, all of this buying into the mythology of "breaking into the scene." hope this makes sense.
On one hand, I think I should actively support Stacey Lynn Brown, because I think the contest system is flawed. I think the contest system takes advantage of poets. She’s a poet, and so am I. I should support her. On the other hand, if I were able to substitute my manuscript for Stacey’s right now, I’d do it in heart beat, photo or no photo. I want publication more than to be “right.” I could get real un-picky, if a publisher offered me a contract.
PWADJ is right, when we enter contests we are contributing to a given press in hopes that we’ll have the winning manuscript. I’m not a gambler; if I went to Vegas, I’d go to WalMart and spend my allotted $50.00 there, because I know I’d get something for it. So why enter poetry contests, which I have done? Well, because the prize is publication. And because the poets I learned from did it this way.
Is it the best way? No. And it’s certainly not the only way. Poets are really footing the bill to publish other poets’ books. So why not your own? Well, because I’d like to know that at least one other person on the planet thinks my manuscript is worth reading. Editors do perform a service that way.
I try to submit my manuscript during open reading periods and to network with people who may have leads as to where I can get published. But all this “join a poet community” doesn’t always work. I am 61 years old and do not want to ”hang” and drink with Artsy “kids.” I don’t drive (poor peripheral vision), and my husband isn’t interested in poetry (but supports me in my interest). Not driving doesn’t make my poetry bad. I want to write poems in my own house and send them out for others to edit it, publish it, and sell it on Amazon.com and in Barnes & Noble. I want to read, when asked.
I didn’t major in business. I taught English. I’m not a seller. But some of my poems sing.
I find it interesting that you said you wanted to win a contest because that's how the poets you learned from got there start. I believe that's a belief system that needs to be dismantled. Just because a certain group of poets did it this way, doesn't mean it's the only way or the "right" way.
I know you're poems and manuscript will find a home, Helen. Look at all your options. And thanks for taking part in this discussion.
If you want to play by New York's (or whoever's) rules, do it. If you don't, there's no shame in doing it your own way. These days, unless you're Billy Collins or Salman Rushdie, you have to do virtually all your own PR even if you are published by a "name" publisher. So why not take the bull by the horns yourself if your main goal is to get your work out there?
I do think if you self-publish, you should have one or more people you trust read through the manuscript for careful editing. Sloppy self-publishing is just plain yukky.
I've been fortunate in recent years, in that I've found a small press publishers who have been a good match for my poems, who have published books of my poems (small books, in small print ones), including one who has published multiple books of mine. I'm not getting rich or famous, but it's sure better than searching the wide sea for publishing possibilities.
If I hadn't had the luck of finding compatible publishers from time to time, I might be tempted (or more than I am right now) by the jungle of contests out there.
Or I might self-publish. For a couple of my books, I've kicked in part of the cost, and we've done it more or less as a cooperative project. Getting copies out to people is obviously a project by itself, and I never carry any illusions about making back a penny of the cost. I give away more copies that I sell for money, and that's fine with me.
Some years back I heard Diane DiPrima read here in Minneapolis, and after she read she took questions from the audience (it was a large audience in a large auditorium). At one point someone started asking a question, something about the "Beat" movement, and DiPrima immediately shook her head and said "No, no, there wasn't any Beat movement. We were just people getting together and reading our poems to each other and publishing each other."
She then suggested that it would be possible to start a literary movement with a very small number of people, maybe five people. Meet regularly, publish a photocopied newsletter or magazine, or do a website, do readings wherever you can find a place to do them, be creative about it, and don't give up.
I'm not trying to push what DiPrima said as a solution or final word, or that it's easy. Just thought it was an interesting way to think about it, and it matches my own experience.