Two or three people, with healthy bodies and the right sort of receiving brains, could turn the whole tide of human thought, could direct lightning flashes of electric power to slash across and destroy the world of dead, murky thought. Two or three people gathered together in the name of truth, beauty, over-mind consciousness could bring the whole force of this power back into the world.
–H.D., Notes on Thought and Vision
There’s been a fascinating discussion going on the last few days over the Buffalo poetics listserv. It began when Noah Eli Gordon posted a notice about the 2010 Subito Press Book Competition. Richard Owens, mentioned in my last post, responded to this notice by writing:
for years now i’ve watched poets (many of whom identify themselves with radical politics, “progressive” thinking, non-normative practices) do nothing more than reproduce the logic of market systems and commodity culture by participating in (or, worse, organizing) poetry competitions engineered expressly for the purpose of roping in cash and fostering a competitive rather than cooperative cultural environment (&, yes, competition and cooperation are in _no_ uncertain way mutually exclusive).
but fair competition is a good thing, right? like, if only we could weed out a few greedy apples then market-based economies (cultural and otherwise) would be beneficial to all, no? and who doesn’t want to win?
Rexroth was spot on when he wrote: “If offered a crown | refuse.” Charles Ives was spot on when he sd: “Awards are badges of mediocrity.” [The post goes on, but this is the relevant portion for my purposes.]
What followed from this was enthusiastic agreement from a number of listservers, including John Latta, Pierre Joris, Gloria Frym, and others. Gordon then responded by noting that a) he is not affiliated with the Subito contest; b) he does run his own press, Letter Machine Editions, which has seen him go over $5K in debt; he then recalled c) a long list of contemporary poets who presumably have street cred with the folks on the listserv (Nathaniel Mackey, Elizabeth Robinson, etc.) who have won book contests; and he closed by writing:
- Maybe these people would shun contest now, but that’s because they’ve had the opportunity to establish themselves in some (& not always so) small way through having won one. This is why I think Pierre Joris‘s comment about them being scam affairs comes from a place of privilege. Although I respect all of the many years he’s put into poetry, teaching, translation, etc., it’s just not that easy, as Amish Trivedi notes, for a young poet to break into the scene. Yes, I’m an advocate for starting your own press and journal, both of which I did. But for folks not lucky enough to live in a city with a large, active poetry community, or to study at a school like the University of Buffalo (as Richard did), with its instant community and funding for student-editing projects, it can be a daunting thing. Yes, creating alterative market systems is one answer. I think we all think Sub Press is pretty amazing. But the problem is much deeper than the tiny market systems of poetry. One can’t up & move to NYC to be a poet these days without being somehow independently wealthy. That wasn’t always the case, tho.
As hinted in Gordon’s response, several younger poets had chimed in along the way to wonder what beginning authors are supposed to do to “break into the scene.” C.J. Martin, one of the publishers of Dos Press and Little Red Leaves, suggested that Owens was being a bit too harsh — “Walk it back, man. No Salt? No Kelsey St. (I think they had a fee recently, though this might be wrong)? No Ahsahta? No Omnidawn? No Nightboat? This is a major erasure.” Tyrone Williams then added, “Like others I have found this conversation rather interesting but like a few here, Chris especially, I’d like YOU to offer what you might see as a politically responsible publishing model. To be blunt–what is the source of funding for damn the caesars? I know lots of people who use their own funds and state grants to support their presses but those models–siphoning capital–presuppose participation in a labor market and government subsidy model that has its own, shall we say, political problems..”
OK. That’s a lot of back-and-forth, and I’ve boiled down the long discussion thread considerably. What seems to be at work here, following from Owens’ initial objections, is the following layered response:
1) Contests are not ideal, but young poets need some entry point into the scene, a way to make a name for themselves, etc. (Noah Eli Gordon, others such as Amish Trivedi);
2) It’s disingenuous for some to be against contests, when a number of known and respected poets have used them as a springboard, in part, to get where they are now (Gordon);
3) In any event there are respected, legitimate presses that use contests as a way to promote themselves and raise money to put out important work by contemporary poets (C.J. Martin);
4) It’s disingenuous to criticize fundraising by contest when your press is receiving top-down, institutional funding that has its own problematic associations (Gordon, and much more explicitly, Williams).
With respect to the first point, I must admit I have no objection to the abstract idea of contests. I’m a competitive guy. I like the idea of winning. When I was in high school, my creative writing teacher, Mr. Chute, encouraged me to enter many local and school-sponsored contests. I did pretty well — won a fancy dictionary, which I still used up to a couple years ago, won some money, won some neat-looking certificates. The encouragement I took from that is probably what propelled me to continue working and studying poetry and writing during the bleak years to come.
The problem comes in when, as Owens points out, the contest becomes tied to a bottom-up way of funding the venture itself. To me, this is no different than a pyramid scheme. You collect money from a vast number of entrants, 90% of whom have no shot to win the contest. They are absolutely funding the prize kitty, publication of the book, and possibly more publications besides. Assuming the contest draws upwards of 100 entries, that means an intern –probably an already overworked and underpaid graduate student — is responsible for being the first set of eyes on 600-800 pp of manuscripts. Which in turn means quickly scanning the first five, maybe 10 pages of your manuscript before putting it on the “reject” pile. Is that worth your $20?
What about point no. 2? Yes, a fair number of poets have won contests and are now ‘established.’ But looking, for example, at Ahsahta Press, I notice that my old friend James Meetze has won the 2010 Sawtooth Prize for his manuscript Dayglo. Meetze already has a full-length collection and several chapbooks out. He teaches in the University of California system. He also founded Tougher Disguises press, which in its time published books by Peter Gizzi and Clark Coolidge, among others. Needless to say, Meetze is not a new poet coming out of nowhere. I would venture to add that most of the contest-winning poets Gordon mentions were roughly in the same boat at the moment they won: relatively young poets who nevertheless already had a strong publication record. That’s why I say that 90% of the neophytes wading into these contests have no chance. They simply don’t yet have the chops.
No. 3: I agree with C.J.’s assertion that there are very good presses that engage in the contest gig. They should not be rejected out of hand. Some of the books published by this means are worthy, even important, and the authors as well as the readers who discover them are no doubt grateful. However, this just shows how insidious the culture of the pyramid scheme can be. We accept it without pause when it comes to the model of capitalism. It doesn’t much surprise us when entire towns are destroyed by Goldman Sachs via financial schemes set up to fail, and the outrage is not such that we’re willing to actually change anything substantial in the way the market works.
Just for the record: I understand that there’s a big difference between a corporation callously scamming billions of dollars and a small press trying to fund itself through a writing contest. I get that. And I know Janet Holmes at Ahsahta — I know that she genuinely enjoys running the contest, but I also know that overworked grad students do help with the screening. The point is, once you accept that the principle is the same, i.e., that a large number of folks with no real shot at the prize are paying for the benefit of the very few, then you can’t make exceptions based on the perceived legitimacy of the contest and press as a whole. Either the whole thing is corrupt, or none of it is.
How then do you fund a small press? This leads to point no. 4. I find it lamentable, not to say laughable, that Noah Eli Gordon has run up $5K+ in debt running his. It’s true that there is some institutional funding available for those, like Owens and myself, affiliated with large universities which, against all odds, continue to show an interest in supporting such ventures. This bit of support will undoubtedly dwindle in years to come, as endowments and budgets in the humanities shrivel and disappear. However, my press has been up and running since about 2000. Owens began DTC before coming to UB. Neither of us got seriously in hock doing so.
Likewise, successful and relatively high-profile presses like Skanky Possum, Effing, and Interbirth. All of these sprang from the vision and energy of individuals, not funded by any outside sources. The models are disparate: Effing creates relatively inexpensive handcrafted books at somewhat high volume (several hundred per title), Interbirth does relatively expensive, artisan-style books at much smaller volume (50-100 per title); both attempt to break even by selling enough to offset production costs. And both, to my knowledge, thanks to the tireless efforts of Scott Pierce and Micah Robbins, respectively, have succeeded in doing so.
As to the sticky question of accepting institutional funding, there is one key difference: it’s top-down. It doesn’t suck the blood of struggling young poets to pay for the publication of slightly less struggling poets. Moreover, in the case of a publication like DTC, not to mention the whole history of student-produced presses going back to the mid-90s journal Apex of the M, the vision of the press is left to the individuals operating it, not subsumed into the institutional apparatus a la the something-or-other University Review. Not to say that those big “review”-type publications don’t also have their place, but there’s a huge difference in terms of the quality and frequency of the work being published.
The bottom line is that I believe poets seeking to break into the “scene,” whatever that means, should spend a minimum 10 years giving to that scene by doing one or several of the following: publishing a small press (chapbook and/or journal series), hosting a reading series, otherwise building community by engaging with a group of like-minded poets who both challenge and encourage you (again, via a reading series, weekly discussion, group study, exchanging and critiquing each other’s work, etc.). Call it an apprenticeship, if you will.
You may find that it’s not for you. You may find that you lose money, lose friends, grow frustrated with the egos involved and the very slim margin for error. In that case, though, perhaps poetry isn’t for you. Perhaps you need to seriously consider your motives for getting involved in the first place. Simply jumping in and expecting or needing to be published is the mindset of the capitalist weevil looking for immediate gain. You are ripe for the contest scam, and the contest scam could not thrive without that mentality.
Hence, the H.D. quote at the very top of this post. The scam would have you believe that you need a cadre of anonymous (or famous) judges to underwrite and legitimize your efforts. This is a lie. All you need are three or four like-minded individuals with a passion for the work, for your individual minds and efforts and energies to play against. Every important movement has been launched this way. Granted, there’s a bit of myth-making involved, but it’s not a terrible stretch to say that the various ‘-isms’ of the early 20th century involved a handful of people in each case — Imagism, Surrealism, Dada, etc. More recently, poetry movements such as the Language School and, yes, Flarf, began with a small group of individuals bouncing ideas and poems around. You don’t need the huge apparatus of a contest.
If you put the time in, withstand the bullshit, and grow to love this “apprentice” work, you will “arrive” on the scene in some fashion. People you respect will know and respect you. And you will be a better poet for it.