Since Stacey Lynn Brown told her horrifying story, the poetry blogosphere has been afire with responses. The most interesting to me, because it makes such salient points, is Reb Livingston’s. Just one excerpt from a long, quote-worthy post:
If you used that $250 (which in many cases is a much higher number) towards a creative project, either publishing your own work or another poet you admire, you’d be much much better off. If you spent over $500 on contests, know you could have published your own or someone else’s book for that amount — and that includes distribution and a short run of copies. You could have started your own press. You could have gotten with three other poets and created a publishing collective.
Now, I haven’t spent more than $75 on contests this year, but I’ve been sending to chapbook contests, which are less expensive to enter. But contests do seem to be the dominant paradigm under which poetry publishing operates. And it’s funny that most of us have fallen in line, because most of us don’t benefit from the contest structure at all. I don’t blame the presses, most of which are ethical, because it makes sense for them to run these contests. Even Red Dragonfly Press (introduced to me through Collin Kelley’s blog), a small letterpress chapbook press whose list of authors include Dorianne Laux and Marianne Boruch, doesn’t take unsolicited manuscripts right now, and their website states that they’re contemplating starting up a contest.
But if it makes sense for presses, does it make sense for poets? Why do we do it?
- The obvious: everyone wants to be a “winner”. The prestige may be illusory, but the allure exists, no question.
- It can seem the only way to get published. Even some presses with open reading periods still require a reading fee. And there are far more poetry contests than there are open reading periods — and the number of hopeful poets dwarfs both.
I don’t know where the solution lies. My friend is publishing her first chapbook with a lovely small press here in Shelburne Falls, and another friend belongs to just the sort of poetry collective Reb describes. But I know that I don’t want to be a publisher — I’m already a bookseller, my negative bottomline can’t afford more. And a publisher doesn’t just publish, good ones, anyway: they market, distribute, handle accounts.
But I think the gist of Reb’s post carries beyond just publishing & contests. As poets & readers of poetry, we need to do more to support the poetry community at large, to help it grow and sustain itself without having to resort to contests. Buy more books! And I like to think that my work with the Collected Poets Series also counts. But above all, buy more books!