Last December, I received an urgent text from my father: CALL ME. My father, like most fathers, normally reserves the use of brief text messages in ALL CAPS for important news or emergencies. Since he’s retired now, well into his 70s, and his wife has been diagnosed with terminal bladder cancer—a cancer that should have been caught much earlier and should have been curable with simple resection—I assumed the worse, something health-related and horrific.
When I phoned, my father told me about an advertisement he’d seen for a poetry contest, a Christian poetry contest with a small fee and cash prizes. Instead of counting my inevitable winnings, I imagine my brow furrowed as if I’d just heard the compensation package for an adjunct teaching position. I thought immediately of Poetry.com and similar scams, suspecting that if I were to enter such a contest, the only plausible response would be solicitation of money that I, like so many emerging poets, just don’t have right now.
Google and a few anonymous netizens confirmed my suspicions. I thanked my father, skirting the issue of whether or not I’d enter by explaining how many other contests I needed to enter and stressing the necessity of book publication.
“Those are the only contests I enter now.”
And I sighed. A sigh meant not to be heard.
“I need to get my manuscript published to have any shot on the job market.”
I then launched into a tedious explanation of the academic job market, detailing the qualifications of those who were landing coveted jobs teaching creative writing and those who teach five classes on a hotdog, ramen, and generic cola budget. I must have explained just how winding, wending, and expensive the entire process can be. How the contracting number of jobs means that hiring committees at schools so small they may be imaginary now require applicants to have a book published by a “national” press. How applicants must develop pedagogical expertise in Composition, Literature, Creative Nonfiction, and, if at all possible, time travel. How we need to fly to the MLA conference—even if we pay with an overstretched credit card—to be herded into hotel rooms while avoiding the winged monkeys and remaining on the lookout for the Tin Man’s heart.
No wonder it takes time to realize that the wizards controlling our fate are mere women and men.
I’m not at all sure my explanation was clear or factual enough to help my father understand, but he told me to think about it and to keep working hard.
Then we talked about football.
About a month later, the book contest rejections, photocopied form letters announcing the winning title and perhaps a handful of finalists who wouldn’t be published, started rolling in. Sometimes the letters include a beaming author photos of the one person from 300, 800, or 900 entrants whose manuscript made its way to the final judge and beyond. Sometimes the letters include information about next year’s contest including the expected fee, which runs around $25, and the all-important deadline. In my mailbox, there were two from Ohio, two from California, two from Texas, one from Illinois, and one from Indiana. Sometimes that $25 gets you more than a form rejection. Sometimes if you include an envelope with postage you’ll also receive a copy of the winning manuscript. Sometimes you’ll receive a subscription to a literary journal associated with the contest. I have four or five such subscriptions coming to my house, though to be frank I tend to lose track.
There are, to be fair, a handful of independent book publishers that have open reading periods, sometimes without fees. Presses like Black Ocean, Milkweed, and even McSweeney’s craft beautiful books often of better quality than what the contest winners of university press prizes find in their mail. Yet from the perspective of many hiring committees (and perhaps many other such committees) the “best” presses now use the contest model to find any poet not already on their list. Consequently, if you need a manuscript published—even one with a score of publications at mid-tier, university-affiliated literary journals—you feel as though you must drop $25 per entry, even if the odds that you will receive a personal response rather than a photocopied announcement are exponentially worse than the odds of an applicant being accepted into Harvard’s Medical School (according to U.S. News, 4.1%).
Given such dismal odds, rampant rumors of malfeasance and nepotism should come as no surprise, even if Foetry and its epic, sometimes conspiracist, exposés on the connections between contest judges and prize winners has become a minor footnote to the history of literary publishing. My assumption, perhaps naïve, is that the vast majority of contests are now—if not wholly transparent—at least mindful of conflicts of interest and work assiduously to avoid them.
Nonetheless, some announcements still make my hair stand on end like that of a feral black cat surrounded by dogs—even when I do not submit to the contests in question. Indeed, recently Bruce Bond, a tenured professor at the University of North Texas, who already has nine well-regarded collections to his name, won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. That same week, the Cleveland State University Press also announced the winner of their Open Competition: Lee Upton, a tenured professor at Lafayette College. This will be her ninth published book of poetry.
Of course, I recognize that the vagaries of the publishing industry likely put both Upton and Bond in a position where they were once again without a contract and forced to play the contest game, imagine their books continuing to go unpublished, or turn to an independent press. Moreover, I’m willing to assume that the contests were run fairly, but what chance do mere mortals have when Bond, Bruce Bond, submitted a book of sonnets? Why shouldn’t the Tampa Review, upon recognizing the work as Bond’s, turn ever so slightly away from ideals of fairness to the many, many anonymous poets who dropped $25 in an attempt to get their first, second, or third book out there? Bond’s book will surely sell better, right? Imagine an industry where those who have been successful enough to begin contemplating what their Selected Poems might look like still shell out $25 and take part in a contest. What has the publishing of poetry come to?
Let me be clear that I fault neither Bond nor Upton, nor I suppose, the presses that may have simply seen an opportunity. Every system is subject to abuse, and here, it is crucial to be mindful of the position in which university presses now, somehow, find themselves. Financial pressures—particularly in a political environment where invaluable services like food stamps, unemployment, and Social Security are being cut—lead many university-affiliated presses to search for new streams of revenue to compensate for funding their home universities may be unwilling or unable to provide. What is peculiar, at least within an American context, is the notion that such funding is necessary and that sales alone can no longer support the viability of a press regardless of the quality or timeliness of the material they publish. So perhaps we should not be surprised if, when faced with production and distribution costs, a press might turn to contests to generate revenue. Even if this is just enough revenue to facilitate the “reading” of the 900 manuscripts that arrive and to cover production costs. In other words, I want to make abundantly clear that the process and conditions under which the production of poetry takes place are not, per se, the fault of the editors who work for presses that are perennially understaffed and overwhelmed. Indeed, given an avalanche of manuscripts by people who very dearly want and need to be published for their professional well being, how could you not be tempted to turn to the work of someone you, as an editor, already know? How could you possibly give each and every manuscript half the care and attention that we expect of college students when they first encounter contemporary poetry in an academic setting? Perhaps most importantly, how do you ensure that the next book is not the last the press publishes?
From my perspective, as a poet attempting to land a few pages carved from several years of work into the hands of a less-than-ravenous reading public, everything about the process feels onerous. To the point that I sometimes swear to read books from such and such press only if they arrive via library, gift, or review copy. To the point that I’ve frequently wondered whether I might be able to garner more readers via one of the many self-publishing services or, better, via the middle-class friendly wonders of the Internet. Indeed, the notion of giving my poetry freely to others is deeply appealing, whereas the notion of paying for the publication, however nominal the amount, summons images of those fat anthologies from World Poetry Movement where one must pay to see one’s “prize-winning” poem in print. In fact, since I began sending my manuscript to contests, I’ve probably paid out more cash than the “amateur poets” who fall for Internet-based poetry scams. All with the understanding that what is most compelling about those scam poetry anthologies—the unrelenting democracy of a project that documents the difficulties, pains, delights, and joys of lives lived—is precisely what is redacted, elided, and otherwise cut from a publishing experience with a more traditional poetry press.
Like so many in the poetry community, I find myself playing an elitism lottery. But it is a most peculiar form of elitism.
What then should I tell my father the next time he texts me urgently to tell me about a contest I can’t contemplate? Should I explain that I am amenable only to certain forms of exploitation? Or that I happily supported presses that I admire during a winter when I couldn’t afford new tires for a car that badly needed them? Or should I simply tell him that a prize like that, as opposed to a book contest, won’t salve the half-glimpsed desperation that follows, like an H.P. Lovecraft monster, those of us who would prefer to teach without being contingent?
Perhaps I just need to walk away.
Book contests are now profligate. Presses that formerly had open reading periods now charge for the privilege of having your book read. So the cost to any potential poet has become more and more astounding. It may one day be subsidized by a well-taxed prize of something like a grand and a few book sales—assuming one is luckier than a beagle who, through the vagaries of quantum mechanics, finds herself transported to a Texas chili competition while all the cooks are simultaneously taking cigarette breaks.
What those costs ignore are just who those people submitting to book contests might be, just how much work and dream is fused into those explosive fifty pages, just how many people might be forced to walk away from the possibilities that poetry affords simply because they can no longer rationalize the fees that precede the rejections. Many of those people are, of course, adjuncts and graduate students who still, against almost all that is rational, believe that their next choice to “support literary publishing” will be the one that takes them further into the fatty folds of that hibernating bear…or, perhaps, its jowls.
This is a symptom not of a community that is dying but of a community that has been forced, metaphorically speaking, to eat its young. Or, as a former professor once wrote in a letter of recommendation, this is a community focused on “training the young to read its work.” It is, in short, a maze of gate keeping that will lose us poets. Imagine, for example, how John Clare might fare now. How many Miltons might be made mute and inglorious simply because of fees?
Surely, there is a better way.
After all, in the United Kingdom, poets are asked to query with a sample batch of poems. They are not asked for payment. In fact, the United States is the only nation that has developed such a labyrinthine and expensive path toward publishing while still maintaining the cultural elitism that makes publishing through the burgeoning community of independent presses and micropresses an anathema to many hiring and tenure committees.
Thankfully, emerging poets have not yet been asked to pay for a single submission of a batch of poetry. We have not yet seen for-profit companies inserting their services into the long, storied, and difficult process of getting one poem to sing in front of the eyes of, perhaps, a thousand readers. That clearly would be immoral and would suggest that poetry is neither concerned with the truth nor with broadening the possibilities of who might contribute to its ongoing historical conversation. That clearly would imply that someone who must choose between paying the gas bill and eating lunch has no place in the utopia of letters. That clearly would spark fire-spewing arguments about moral obligations and financial necessity. That clearly would suggest that the community is not so far removed from its New Critical pinnacle of protecting culture from Others as I—and many others—have believed.
And that, clearly, is precisely what’s happening. But there is minimal anger. Let the adjuncts, the graduate students, the visiting professors pay what they do not have to publish those who will have stable, well-paid jobs if they don’t publish another word. Who cares if they find themselves thinking, I can simply eat a little bit more ramen?
Or maybe there is another way. What if we recognized that it’s only poetry after all and funneled the money that would have gone to this prize or that prize somewhere, well, different?
I have books that need to be published. I’m planning to submit myself to the contest machine through the end of the year. If I’m less lucky than a Harvard Medical School applicant, so be it.
Next year starting in January, I’ll only send manuscripts to venues that don’t charge or from whom I can receive a slightly more expensive than normal subscription. I’ll track those contests that I would normally submit to, and rather than submitting, I’m sending that money to Doctors without Borders.
Les Kay holds a PhD from the University of Cincinnati’s Creative Writing program and an MFA from the University of Miami. His poetry has appeared in a variety of literary journals including Whiskey Island, Sugar House Review, Stoneboat, Menacing Hedge, Third Wednesday, Santa Clara Review, The White Review, PANK, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Michelle, three dogs, and their collective imaginations. His chapbook, The Bureau, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications.