Before you lick the stamps for that envelope, and slip your newest poetry manuscript into it to head off to a book contest, read David Alpaugh's canny investigation of the whole book contest biz. It's part of the new issue of Rattle, as a free download. (Scroll down to see the link to a pdf.)
Among Alpaugh's many trenchant observations, this really made me think about why the readership for poetry is shrinking:
It is routine practice for contests to throw in the winning book as a consolation
prize for non-winners. In most cases losing poets constitute the main readership
for award-winning books! May I suggest that they are perhaps the least likely
critics to receive the book favorably?—that many of them begin reading with a
question that would not be asked by readers of a traditionally published book?
(How could Judge X possibly choose these poems over mine?).
Combined with the almost suffocatingly academic pall that has been cast over the art form by the machinery of MFA Programs, ever hungry for new paying students, and you have a pretty good explanation of why no one in America takes poetry serious except the poets. It is engineered to leave the rest of society out. Those who dare to write outside the Academy's criteria for good work don't win contests, sell few books or don't get books published at all. You have only to receive a few of these consolation prize books to realize how what a monotone the whole of American poetry has fallen into.
Alpaugh speaks to the causes of this monotone:
"Finally, and perhaps most worrisome, book contests subtly corrupt the art by
substituting the petty goal of winning for the grander one of writing original poetry.
Contests have their unwritten conventions which, if followed, will increase
likelihood of success. Study as many prize-winning volumes as you can; adjust
your style and content accordingly; and you may find yourself in next year’s winners’
circle. Poetry book contests privilege serious poems over humorous ones; pathos over
wit; “sincerity” over virtuosity; they eschew satire and persona; and devalue
variety in favor of consistency of theme, form, tone, and “voice.” A swerve into
the ineffable in the last few lines of each poem will keep your work “open” and
“risky” in conformance with current MFA workshop practice. Prefacing poems
with epigraphs from fashionable poets (usually in translation) will let the judge
know that you are or aspire to be professionally hip."
The rest of the article is even more thought-provoking, and often wildly entertaining. Alpaugh's wit serves his argument well, as the whole business richly deserves parody.
(Thanks, David, for permission to quote the above!)
But yeah, I'm still going to enter a few contests. Pleiades and Nightboat are among my fall deadline picks, because of final judges and staff whose work I like. I'm going to be choosy, though, and send only where I suspect I'm welcome. Why submit a book to a place that has only sent me form rejections? The average $20 fee + $4 postage is too steep to mess around with.
I think they should lower the contest fees, or maybe more of us will get more selective -- or, as some of my colleagues are doing, opt out. Self-publishing is becoming more and more interesting an idea, thanks to the new services. You have to promote your own books anyway!