Really Wrong: David Alpaugh on Poetry Book Contests

The fall e-Issue just went up last night, featuring selections of poetry from a pair of great books by Carol V. Davis and David James, artwork by Lois Gold, Andrew Kozma’s review of a suite of chapbooks, and a preview of the Winter 2008 issue. You can download it for free at the e-Issue page, or directly by clicking here (1.2 MB PDF).

The highlight, though, is clearly David Alpaugh’s essay: “What’s Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests?”

Alpaugh is an journeyman poet, with stops all over the literary map.  As both winner of a book contest (The Nicholas Roerich Prize from Story Line Press) and organizer of one, he speaks with authority on the subject.  Rattle published a pair of his visual poems in issue #30, but he might be best known for his influential essay “The Professionalization of Poetry,” first printed as a two part series in Poets & Writers in 2003.  That essay detailed the sacrifices poetry has made to become a viable profession within academia–the diluting of talent, the rise of esotericism, the praise of the banal.  In Rattle e.5, Alpaugh turns his attention from the university to the free market, exploring the opportunity cost of so much good intention–the founding of (yet another) poetry book contest.

I say “good intention” intentially, because, beyond the numbers, that’s the important truth that Alpaugh articulates so clearly.  It’s easy to paint those who run book contests as dishonest or greedy or self-important–maybe thanks to and–but in reality, every contest is a labor of love.  Every editor and judge thinks their contest is special, that they’re adding something unique meaningful to literature.  If it wasn’t a labor of love, they’d be looking for another job, one that pays more (or often just pays at all).

The problem is that book contests are convenient–that’s why there are so many of them.  No need for fundraising, or sales strategies, or PR.  By the time you’ve chosen the manuscript, it’s already paid for itself.  And since there’s no shortage of poets hoping to be published, and willing to pay the price of admission, the environment is primed for exponential growth.

When I first read the essay several months ago, I had a few counter-arguments.  Alpaugh argues that presses don’t take the marketing of their winners seriously, because they don’t have to–but I’d counter that no small presses take the marketing of their books seriously, because they don’t have the means to.  You know that when you’re working with a small press, the onus of finding an audience is on you.  You have to arrange your own readings, mailing lists, press kits…  I’ve only experienced this once, but everyone I know who’s published a book describes the same thing.  No poet is Stephen King with a PR rep.  Maybe the contest winners feel content to rest on their laurels instead of doing the legwork (they are, after all, Prize Winners!), but whose fault is that really?  And what contest-awarding press is going to tell their winner, “Don’t go out and market yourself, we don’t want to sell more books”?

But that was June.  In the time since, I’ve had a great experience with Red Hen Press–they’ve done a lot to help with the publicity of American Fractal.  What’s more, I’ve spoken about this with more former contest winners, and for several, all their press gave them, to quote one, was “a box of books with a letter inside wishing me good luck.”  I hadn’t realized this was so prevalent.  Presses have less of an investment in their contest winners, and it seems to show.

The only counterpoint I can still make is that, while I agree that the proliferation of contests do muddy the quantitative waters, I think they might be a boon to quality overall.  A small press, even a non-profit, has to always worry about just breaking even with a book.  And so they’re forced to look for books that will sell, rather than books that are actually good.  There are, of course, the perfect storms where each go hand in hand, but given the choice of a decent book by a writer with a ready-made audience, or a great book by an unknown, they’ll pick the merely decent book every time.  By subsidizing the winning book, poetry contests allow the presses running them to ignore any fiscal yardsticks–they already have broken even, so they’re free to just pick what’s best.

I think this might be a bigger problem than the problem with contests.  Whether you want to point to horrible poetry books by Jewel or Billy Corgan or Leonard Nemoy, or similarly dull books by already-established poetry stars, there’s a lot of bland poetry being published simply because of marketability.  Is that really what’s best for poetry, that a knack for publicity should be a trump card?  These days its Whitman every time–Dickinson’s only shot would be to enter a contest.

But even this argument hinges on the numbers game.  Out of 500 entries, is a contest guaranteed to receive a better book than that aforementioned bland poetry by a fading star?  I’m not so sure.  Having never run a book contest myself, I really have no idea–does the judge find dozens of books worthy of publication, or none?  If you ask, the judge will surely say dozens, but is that the truth, or kindness?

As difficult as it is to find fault wth Alpaugh’s central argument, it’s even harder to think of solutions to the problem.  As long as poetry remains on the margins of American life, poetry books need to be subsidized to exist.  The contest “losers” can subsidize the winner, or members of a poetry collective can subsidize each other.  Small presses can avoid this only with individual donations and grants, and that’s no easy task.

Evolution isn’t a complicated process, and neither good nor bad–it’s just what happens when stuff sits around in an environment for a long time.  A rock evolves smooth in the same way a bird evolves into wings.  The current state of poetry publishing is just what happens as poetry lovers tumble down the paths of least resistence.  It’s neither good nor bad, and won’t be changing any time soon, but it’s important to pause every so often and examine what you’ve become.

In any event, this isn’t the first time David Alpaugh’s held a mirror up to the poetry industry and asked a lot of provocative questions, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  It’s a good read, and a subject well-worth pausing on a Monday afternoon to think about.  So go read it.