Saturday, April 26, 2008

 

My comment here on April 10, that the William Carlos Williams Award

wasn’t your usual exploitive, pay the readers’ fee & hope your manuscript gets picked, book contest. Those contests always appall me, and I feel as badly for the winners – whom nobody ever takes seriously – as I do the losers who fund such ventures

has predictably taken some heat. TC’s presumption of my “armchair of established success and canonicity” may be amusing (I don’t see anyone offering me a teaching job, TC), but the question is serious enough to deserve being looking at more closely.

What does being the winner of a book contest tell us about a writer? That he or she got their work published outside of a literary community, predicated presumably upon anonymity. Unless the award itself is an extension of an existing community. Or unless the judge or judges did things that would make Foetry.Com steam & sputter.

Consider the best known of these awards, the Yale Younger Poets, and the piece I linked to last Monday from the Houston Chronicle about Fady Joudah winning the current round. The article states, reasonably enough, that

previous winners include such iconic figures as John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, John Hollander and W.S. Merwin

without quite noticing that not one of these figures is under the age of 78 and that maybe more recent winners have not gone on to such iconic status. But it’s worth remembering that anyone who is 78 began at a time when the number of publishing poets in the United States was in the low hundreds, not the tens of thousands. Further, if these four poets didn’t come out of the same community, exactly, the world they arose from was small enough: as undergrads they attended Harvard, Radcliffe, Columbia and Princeton, in that order, and all were picked by W.H. Auden (who asked Ashbery to submit a manuscript, rather than picking one that had been sent in according to the rules).

If the Yale hasn’t had the same status-bestowing impact in recent decades, it’s not necessarily a sign that the quality of the writing selected for the award has eroded. If anything, I think the quality remains quite high. Louise Glück may not be my kind of poet, and she may have been the quietist (in every sense of that word) poet laureate ever, but she does know what she’s doing. The problem is that the School of Q no longer has anything like the monolithic control of publishing it had in the early 1950s, and in a more diverse universe these books have a much harder time reaching an audience.

There is an important & complex relationship between audience and community. Think of any press that is well edited and has a personality of its own: Subpress, Copper Canyon, Pressed Wafer, Adventures in Poetry, Omnidawn, Roof, Apogee, O Books, Atelos, Chax, Cuneiform, Flood Editions, Singing Horse, Faux Press, Meritage, Burning Deck – the list is long (if not exactly endless). To the degree that all these are well edited enterprises, their lists themselves can be understood as a series of literary communities. A book by somebody I’ve never heard of before from one of these presses comes to me with a context that may help me to understand what the writer is trying to do. In marketing, this gets called brand equity, but in the low-level economics around poetry it really has to do with the degree that any well-run press is itself a concrete manifestation of an aesthetic community. It can be a geographic one, like Pressed Wafer, which tends to print the very best of Boston, or simply an aesthetic one. Just coming from one of these presses directs a book toward a community of readers, a range of sympathies and expectations. As a poet, you can’t ask any more of a press.

Contests, however, tend to do rather the opposite. Unless the judges stay in place year after year and only pick work from a narrow range of contestants – two things that actually made the Yale award meaningful – the list of winners over the course of a decade or two is going to be scattershot at best. So let’s say a contest does these things – what does it mean then for any entrant who is not already a part of that community? What about all those entries to the Yale that were not by John Ashbery?

In this regard, what is probably the best book competition currently in the U.S., the National Poetry Series, excels to the degree it does because there usually is some rational connection between the individual judge and the press which ultimately commits to publishing the winning manuscript – this may make it the competition most likely to run afoul of Foetry, but it ensures that the resulting book has some chance of reaching an audience primed to appreciate the volume’s virtues. Donna Stonecipher is an excellent poet for a Coffee House Press book & would be, whether or not she had been chosen for the role by John Yau. Rodrigo Toscano fits well with Fence Press whether or not he was chosen by Marjorie Welish. I don’t how much say the presses have in picking who will judge the volume they publish, but hopefully it is a lot. Yet it’s worth noting that, because the series has tended to shift at least one press each year and has multiple judges with different aesthetics doing the choosing, there is almost no brand equity, to use that term again, in being a National Poet selection. Even though its web site promotes all 150 books that have come out through this series since 1979, while the Yale doesn’t bother to keep a complete list of winners online. What matters more – that Ange Mlinko’s Starred Wire was a National Poetry selection or that it was an excellent book? Exactly.

But most contests aren’t the National Poetry Series nor even the Yale Younger Poets. Judges are cycled through too quickly, there’s no aesthetic focus, the resulting book series has little if any connection to an audience. One of the five books that I eliminated from the William Carlos Williams Award for utter incompetence was itself the “winner” of such a contest, one I’d never heard of before. The absolute number of such contests is daunting – the back pages of Poets & Writers are cluttered with them, a phenomenon that never fails to remind me of the ads for escorts & adult massage that bring up the rear of so many “alternative” weekly newspapers. Or consider Winning Writers – if you’re a contest junky, this is pure smack.

What the growth in such awards really is responding to, I think, is a new problematic in American poetry, one that I frankly did not have to put with when I began publishing books in 1971. If there were only a few hundred publishing poets in the 1950s, by 1970 that total had swollen to some number over 1,000, but not so dramatically over it that it was difficult for a new poet to get heard.

My first book, Crow, was published by Ithaca House, a student-run press bankrolled (oh, more like piggy-bankrolled) by Baxter Hathaway, a major figure in the writing program at Cornell for many years. The person who selected my book – who asked for it – was David McAleavey, who was getting his PhD at Cornell and whom I knew from our days together at Berkeley. The printing was funky, the pages aren’t exactly aligned perfectly, but it got read and generated a number of correspondences with other poets, among them Bob Perelman. My second book, Mohawk, was published by another Ithaca House poet (remember what I said about how presses become communities), Ray DiPalma, then teaching at Bowling Green in Ohio. My third book, nox, was and still is the only book I’ve ever had published that resulted from me sending a manuscript out cold, in this case to Rosmarie Waldrop at Burning Deck. But I knew who she was from the various little magazines where we’d appeared together and I presume that she knew my work from them as well. In sending her the manuscript, I was asserting my belief that I belonged in that community of innovative writing Burning Deck brings to life.

My fourth book, the one that really transformed how much attention I got as a poet, Ketjak, was published by Barrett Watten. Watten was still in high school when I first met him, and I was only just out of it. I wrote Ketjak while we shared a flat on Potrero Hill in San Francisco. It went through a single print run & then was out of print for over 20 years. But after Ketjak was first published, I was in a position to publish anything I wrote. When TC writes of my “armchair of established success and canonicity,” this is literally what he or she is writing about. Editions of 300 to 1,000, mostly done by personal friends. But it’s much more direct and effective than any other road to market, because these presses reached exactly the audience my poetry needed to reach. Much much better to have a book from This Press than from Yale.

Today, however, there are at least ten thousand publishing poets working in the English language in & around North America. Unless all the MFA factories shut down at once, that number can be expected to double in the next decade. And there are more books of poetry published – roughly 4,000 a year. The 150 books I got to wade through for PSA was less than five percent of the ones I could have gotten (another way of looking at it would be that just submitting a book for an prize like the PSA Williams Award puts one up ahead over 95 percent of what is out there). These numbers too will grow. If you think it’s Babylon now, just imagine what it will be like in another ten years.

The enormous growth in the number of practicing poets has some interesting consequences, not all of them bad. Rachel Blau DuPlessis likes to talk about what Philadelphia was like in the bad old days when “the scene” for post-avant poetics consisted of her, Toby Olson & Gil Ott. Then a magazine like 6ix came along, and other folks like Eli Goldblatt moved to town, then Bob Perelman & I, and all these young people either showed up or – more importantly – didn’t go away. The scene in Philly now is absolutely better than, say, SF in the early 1970s – more poets of more kinds doing more things & with more events. If you can’t find people who share your interests in Philadelphia, it really is a statement now of personal isolation, not the thinness of the scene.

Yet I think for a lot of young writers, in particular, especially those coming out of MFA mills (and especially the programs that don’t quite “get” contemporary poetry, which is to say most of them), I think the transition to becoming a practicing writer can be a daunting, even crushing task. It’s when most people stop writing. They find that the context they had for poetry in school no longer exists in the “real” world and don’t know how to build one out of whole cloth. These are the people for whom contests exist, and it’s why I think they’re ultimately damaging. For one thing, the odds are preposterous. For another, unless they actually know the work of the judge, and know who the judge is, there is no way to ascertain if there is any reasonable expectation of even being competitive. They send in their money and their manuscript, they hope and they can feel crushed if they lose, sometimes again & again & again. Where if they would just get together with their friends and publish one another, they would be making enormous headway much more quickly. And their books would be reaching the right audiences. Which is (again) why it’s far better to have a volume published by Pressed Wafer, if you’re a New England poet, than in the Yale Younger Poets Series.

Even the Williams award, which is for already existing books by small, nonprofit or university presses, has some of these problematic elements, which is why I was so ambivalent at first when they asked me to judge this award. What does it mean to not win this award, especially to the 18 other poets whose books I found to be completely wonderful? Does it mean you’re a loser? In fact, every one of these people is doing luminous work. They’re brilliant & challenging. But they just didn’t win. One could say something quite similar about the 50 poets who were in that next pile (it turns out that there were 69 poets writing 70 books there, as one writer had books, both quite good, nominated by two different presses). I would not want to discourage any of these people, even slightly.

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