Friday, January 25, 2008

Contest Shmontest

inspired somewhat by joe's post here, i want to go on record and say i'm done with contests. it's actually something i've been mulling over for a while now, knowing that they are a total waste of time but then feeling the overwhelming need to find an audience for my work and feeling that contests were basically the only way to do it.

but then i started thinking: i can't name a single book that has won a contest since that system became the dominant mode for book publication that i actually really enjoyed, not to mention that i found memorable. the best i could think of was the whitman prize, which has produced some respectable books (tony tost's first book, and joshua clover's).

i'm not an academic, nor do i want to be one. i like my modest copywriting job. i often find time to write at work and the ridiculous things people say there, and that i say and have to write, are poetic gold. besides, i'm thinking about poetry constantly. i don't need no stinking teaching job to enable that.

so why bother with contests? far as i can see, all they are worth is helping poets land jobs at universities. and with more and more contests coming about every year, the value of "winning" and the attendant "prestige" diminishes.

i might update this post with further thoughts later, but for now i'm going to focus on "alternative" methods of publication...more chapbooks, perhaps self-publication, but above all, WRITING!!! the future is wide open.


Blogger Morgan Lucas Schuldt said...

I've come to the same conclusion, Justin. Which was the reason why I sent you my chapbook. Even though you might feel like there's no consistent outlet for your work right now, don't overlook your press as a way to right that wrong for others. I still think how generous you were to accept Otherhow, and how easy the whole process can be if we believe in the work at both ends.

January 29, 2008 at 3:27 PM  
Blogger Ana Božičević-Bowling said...

Hear, hear. Find me a contest whose products are as consistently exciting as the Kitchen Press chaps.

January 30, 2008 at 7:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Justin -- I've been grousing on this matter myself for awhile and round about mid-2007 decided I would be done with the system as well. You are completely right that the "products" of the system are -- by in large -- far less impressive than the books that "break out" on their own.

My guess with the previous ms. -- the one I sent out in 2006/2007 is that with a little more persistence (some say that twenty-thirty contest entries is about what it takes) it would get into print -- but maybe I should simply be writing better?

Another reason is simply nepotism and fraud; foetry did uncover this in the "major" contests (Iowa, etc.), and I've heard my own backchannel stories. There's an extent to which those on the "outside" (meaning, not acquainted with the judge) are subsidizing the inner circle.

Finally, I think the system just really needs to die. It is really corrupting an important part of the process -- wherein the publisher takes a chance on a poet and hussles to make the book sell. If 50%, 100% of the printing costs are already covered before the book is even sent to stores -- what kind of incentive does that provide to a publisher to find the best?

Anyway, I'm planning to write up an open letter for folks to add their name to sometime in the near future. I'll drop you a line.

January 30, 2008 at 10:24 AM  
Blogger Poetry Bear said...

hi all,

thanks for the support and kind words. i do appreciate them immensely. it's those kinds of things that help keep me going.

with my first ms i took the carpet-bombing approach and submitted various versions of it to about 70 contests (near as i can figure) over a two, two and a half year period. it was a finalist once, but when i recieved a copy of the book that did win i was very happy mine did not.

i've been sending out my second ms for roughly a year. i got an offer to publish it as an e-book, which i was grateful for, but ultimately decided i wanted it to appear as an actual book or not at all. i don't know how many contests i've submitted it to, maybe 10 or 15, but when it came time to submit to some of those same contests for the second time, i just couldn't bring myself to do it, for reasons i've already pointed out and also that simon discusses.

and to one of simon's points: a friend of mine was recently telling me about seeing steve martin discussing his new book on charlie rose. martin talks about how other comedians used to ask how to get on snl, if he could introduce them to lorn michaels or get them some sort of break. martin claims what he'd say is he didn't know how to get them on. all he could tell them was to get so good at their craft that people simply couldn't turn them down. then things would start happening for them.

the perhaps overly-ideal nature of that aside, that is where my head is these days. i know my second ms esp is very good, but maybe it should be better. but the truth is i'm sort of personally done with that project. i love it. i did what i could. it's time to let go and move on.

now i'm working on a new project, and in a round-about way discussing some of these very issues (i did in a sense see my last ms as an anti-contest book and thought it would be a great coup to win one with it, esp as it is titled A Million in Prizes).

With this new project i'm differently and more consistently asking: what makes a book? what are the relationship potentials between a single poem and a collection of poems. i'm more in spicer's camp of the serial poem and not as interested in writing one night stand individual poems, as he called them. at the same time, though, i am writing individual poems meant to stand on their own AND become something greater than their parts in a book). (spicer would have been celebrating his 83rd b-day today, if only he could have laid off the brandy and milk!)

anyway, thanks again kids. some of you i will see very soon at awp. simon, please do send me that letter when you get it together.


January 30, 2008 at 12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Justin -- I can't find your e-mail. Drop me a line at simon[at]

January 30, 2008 at 2:38 PM  

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