What's Really Wrong with Poetry Book Prizes?

Last September, I chimed in on David Alpaugh’s provocative essay, “What’s Really Wrong with Poetry Book Contests.” The problem is economic — book contests are an easy way to get poets to subsidize their own publication.  You can think of it as a publishing co-op, something like Cahuenga Press, only instead of a dozen people getting together and publishing one of their books every year, a thousand people are sharing the costs, and most of them won’t live long enough to see their year in the sun. The entry fees are what pay for printing, publicity, etc.

Alpaugh points out is that this publication system is too effective — it’s become the only viable way for a press to exist, so everyone is doing it, and there are hundreds of “prize-winning” collections published every year, with no incentive for the presses to stand behind the books beyond that initial claim.  There were some points I disagreed with, but overall it was an interesting critique of the poetry publishing industry.

With American Fractal, I stuck a toe in the water, and entered maybe a dozen first book contests, before deciding to go the direct route with Red Hen Press.  It was a tough decision at the time, throwing in the towel on the pipe dream of becoming a Yale Younger Poet, but I thought that once I made it, I was done forever with contests.


Red Hen must have added my address to some mailing list, because now that the book is out, I’m being bombarded with calls for submissions — not for book contests, but for book prizes.  The New York Book Festival, the San Francisco Book Festival, the 2009 Beach Book Festival, and on and on.  Each “festival” or “award” is open to applications in dozens of genres, from cookbooks to poetry.  All you have to do is send a copy (or three) of your book, and the $40 entry fee.  Winning authors receive a $1,500 prize, and a flight to New York to read at their center stage.

Does this sound familiar to anyone?

Apparently entry fees subsidize the entire world. Wanna be a Pulitzer Prize Nominee? Go for it — you can nominate your grocery list; just send a check for $50 to Columbia University (PDF).

I always thought the Pulitzer Prize was run by a charitable foundation, a committee who surveyed books and essays and photographs, and chose the best each year.  I always thought all these state book-of-the-year awards I keep seeing in bios actually chose the best book by an author of that state, not just the best author to pony up a $50 entry fee.  Wow, was I naive.

To be fair, some book prizes are run in the open-ended way I always imagined.  There’s no nomination process for the LA Times Book Prizes — they just have a panel who picks books.  But the more I Google, the more this genuine a setup seems rare.

There are a million book prizes you’ve never heard of, and god knows how many people submitting books to them. If book contests entrants are subsidizing publication — which you can easily argue is a good thing — then one must ask, what are book prize entrants subsidizing?  Publicity?  A small stipend?  Am I missing something?

What’s worse, now I have to start deciding all over again whether or not to enter any of these.  I know I’m not going to win a Pulitzer Prize, but I want to not-win because I’m not-famous, and my book’s not-all-that-special — not because I never entered.  And what about the smaller book prizes, where I might actually have a chance?  Subsidizing a bit of publicity and a small stipend is annoying, but getting some publicity and a small stipend isn’t all that bad.

Damn you.

16 Days

That’s how long I lasted.  I wanted to try writing a post every weekday, and I could barely keep it up for half a month.  Megan always talks about trying to set attainable goals, and I think I did a bad job.  How do the real bloggers do it?  Don’t you get tired? Don’t you run out of things worth mentioning?

Well, I think a more realistic goal is three posts per week.  Sometimes four, but never less than two.  What do you say?


Now that we have that cleared up, anyone in the LA-area should come to one of my two readings next week.  If you’re a southwestsider, come to the Coffee Cartel in Redondo Beach on Tuesday 2/24.  1820 South Catalina Ave.  Larry Colker graciously hosts.  I read there a few years ago, and I have to say, it was one of the best experiences I’ve had reading in LA — a large and attentive regular crowd, and a nice venue.  I’m looking foward to it.

Even more, though, I’m looking forward to reading with Holly Prado and my friend Nicole Bestard at Skylight Books on Friday 2/27.  It will be a shorter set, divided amongst 5 readers, but it’s going to be fun!


Before I head off to bed, here’s a quick thank you to Donald Mace Williams for leaving American Fractal a very nice review on Amazon.com.  The book description is so clinical and the blurbs so fancy — not to mention being ranked among “pure math” textbooks — that I was starting to worry that it appears too off-putting.  And Don came to the rescue.  The truth is, it’s a very accessible book — you don’t even have to know what a fractal is to enjoy it; the math is just one structural/thematic layer.  It’s a book to enjoy, not to be intimidated by.

If anyone else who’s read the book wants to write a quick review, I’d be just as grateful.  Looking at that page, I noticed Patricia Smith’s brilliant Blood Dazzler only has two customer reviews — I’m halfway there!

Why do I have to be so competitive?


Speaking of which, I spent the last two afternoons trying to balance Rattle‘s annual budget.  It’s one of the few chances I get to measure success in a tangible way, so I take full advantage, comparing expenses and income versus previous years, and charting it all out.  Here I’m being competitive with no one, really, but myself, and maybe that’s the best way to do it.  I don’t want to mention real numbers, but let’s just say it’s been a pretty good year.

Not that we can sniff out even a single wayward molecule of fiscal solvency, but we get a little bit closer every year, and maybe my lifelong dream of having a poetry magazine that pays for itself at some point in my lifetime isn’t impossible after all.  Hell, I’m only 28, right?

AmFrac's Wordle

There are definitely more important things to talk about, like continuing the discussion on gender in poetry, but what the heck, let’s take a turn toward the self-important.  No one’s going to be interested in this, except me and maybe my wife.

Last month, Robert Peake turned me onto Wordle.net — a really neat website with a script that turns any block of text into a word cloud (i.e., a visual representation where the more frequent a word is used, the larger it appears).  Anyone with a book or thesis or novel or any large body of writing they’ve worked a long time on will immediately be driven to enter their own work and see how their themes and linguistic ticks turn out as word art. (If you don’t click “Save to Gallery,” no information will leave your computer…so if you’re worried about the text leaving your hands, use Printscreen to get the images, don’t save it.)

I couldn’t help myself. Here’s American Fractal‘s wordle (click to view full size):


As you can see, the heart of poetry is still the simile. If you check out Peake’s wordled manuscript, you’ll see the same massive “like” (the program automatically removes small articles like “the”).  I wonder if you’d be able to find any book of poetry that doesn’t have “like” as the most common word.

Beyond that, though, I think you can see the themes emerge pretty clearly. I won’t go into detail, though, because you don’t care, and I’m in a rush.  But it’s interesting to compare it to the wordle for Rattle #30. Notice how, with 100 or so different authors, no themes or quirks really step forward (click the image to view full size).


Note From Jim

James Longenbach was my first poetry professor, and probably my best.   He’s also hands-down the best writer on poetry today, in my opinion — writing eloquently not just with a passion for poetry, but with compassion for it, too.  If I ever teach a creative writing class, The Art of the Poetic Line will be on my syllabus.

I only took his workshop as a sophomore at the University of Rochester because I wanted to be a biochemist who wrote SF novels on the side, and thought I should learn to inject some poetry into my prose.  Eight years later, here I am, so obviously calling the class inspiring would be an understatement.

Anyway, I sent him a copy of American Fractal with bated breath, and this email just now made me very happy:


from: James Longenbach
to: Timothy Green
date: Fri, Jan 23, 2009 at 12:51 PM


Your gorgeous book just arrived in the mail today–what an achievement! The first poem (as far as I’ve gotten so far) is gorgeous, utterly, beautifully paced. I look forward to settling into the whole spread once this semester gets under control.

Till soon, I’m sure–


AmFrac Cover

Swamped with no time for a proper post.  You’ll know why soon, but in the meantime I wanted to put this up.

It’s made up the background art for this website for a couple months, but the cover for American Fractal is finally official. The breathtakingly intricate image is by Stacy Reed.  The big thumbnail doesn’t do it justice. Check it out (click the pic for a larger version):

click for a larger version