Writing Contest: Seen from the Inside

I published my first book through a writing contest. After a year of rejections (maybe 50? maybe 100?) I received the magic phone call: “This is Barbara Goldberg,  from The Word Works. I’m calling to tell you that you have won this year’s Washington Prize.” I was speechless. Dear, wonderful Barbara couldn’t help pouting just a little: “I was hoping you would scream,” she admitted.  I coudn’t; I could barely breathe.

You think it will never happen. And then it does. There’s a long gap between my first and second books, and many kinds of satisfaction that came my way during the intervening years, but nothing will ever match the high of that one day. Out of almost 600 entrants, my book was chosen. I was…The chosen one!

Many years later, I approached The Word Works president, Karren Alenier, for advice about starting a small poetry press. She urged me, instead, to join the ranks of The Word Works volunteers by serving as a judge for the Washington Prize, then to look around for how I might get involved in their long-established organization.  A glimpse from the inside? I said yes.

That first year of judging was fascinating, to say the least. The twelve finalist manuscripts were dang dog-eared by the time I showed up in DC for the day-long meeting to choose one winner. That year was unusual: we were almost unanimous in our selection of Richard Carr’s Ace, and I was awarded the honor of making the call to let him know he was about to be published. Oh! And he’d receive a check for $1500, which would perhaps replace what he’d recently spent on postage, ink, paper, etc., in his life as a poet.

Carr, like myself, was speechless. In fact, he had to call me back because he was having trouble marshalling his thoughts. But that’s another story! (We were his fourth book publication acceptance in the course of a single year, after 20 years of waiting.) Richard and I worked together on the manuscript, and the fine and striking book came out in 2008.

I became more and more involved at The Word Works. I joined the board, served as editor, and in 2010 became president (to give Alenier a rest!). During that time, I ran the process for, helped judge, and edited the Washington Prize winner. Here’s some of what I’ve learned:

  •           No contest survives without volunteers. Even the ones supported by university presses are now gasping for breath as budgets are cut and the arts suffer. The readers, editors, and even judges (who are paid peanuts, if anything at all)  serve purely out of their love of poetry and keep the entire process moving forward. When you send in your manuscript, your fate is in the hand of folks much like yourself. For better or for worse, Famous Judge (if that’s how the process concludes) only sees the manuscripts forwarded by at least one round of screening. At The Word Works, we have two rounds of screening: first and second readers successively narrow the pool to about a dozen books.
  •           Personal taste does have a role to play, for better or for worse. Still, I have been impressed at how often one of the readers, whose taste I’m familiar with, forwards a book that is nothing like his or her own style or preferred school of poetics. This is reassuring, isn’t it? I’ve seen an experimental poet forward narrative work; a confessional poet forward very philosophical formalism; a writer of colloquial persona poems promote the most imagist, mysterious book in the pile. Keep in mind that your book is highly unlikely to be read in two successive years by the same reader; it’s well worth submitting more than once.
  •           The beauty of it all: a good contest reads “blind.” No reader knows who anyone is. You can have three books out already or you can be just starting out; male or female; in your teens or your eighties: no one knows for sure. At the final judging session, we sometimes indulge in some wagers about the writer’s gender or age–but only after we know which book we’ll be publishing. And please note: we’ve often disagreed and so each of us has been dead wrong. We’ve learned from that: never assume! Once I am returning manuscripts, I do look at the author information page. Why? Sometimes I’m rejecting someone I know, and I want to include a note. Also I want to get a sense of the breadth of our submissions geographically. Lastly, I do want to see what kind of publishing history our entrants are presenting. I do it because it’s interesting.
  •           Sending out those “No…Sorry…” letters is one of the hardest things I have to do all year. I know from personal experience how hard it is not to take that “no” …personally. So at The Word Works we provide some feedback to all semi-finalists and finalists who request it. As far as I know, however, we are unique in this regard. And I know why! I give most of the month of August every year to this project. But then the thank yous start arriving: “I said to myself that if it didn’t win this time, I would stick this ms in a drawer and forget about it forever. Now I have ideas for revision and the energy to keep going.” I know that book, which was a semi-finalist, will see print eventually. It’s grueling to find a publisher, but it’s going to happen if that writer sticks with it. The book had some snags, but it was original, powerful, full of juice.
  • This year six manuscripts were withdrawn because the writer received an offer of publication elsewhere. This was especially striking because not one of those manuscripts had made it to the semi-finalist round in our contest process! See what I mean about individual taste playing a role? And perseverance? I look forward to seeing those books in print, and I’m grateful for the number of small presses out there who are also getting poetry out into the world. I guess my advice to poets looking for a home for their books is not to rely on contests alone; troll websites like P&W or SPD to find out who’s publishing poetry, check the individual websites, find out who accepts unsolicited work, check out their authors online to see if there’s any sympatico vibe–and SEND.
  • It’s true that I do see more than one book in the submissions that I’d love to publish. What to do? Find more money. Find more volunteers.  Start another contest. Start an open submission period. Find a rich aunt. Befriend the heirs to Microsoft. I have many ideas, but only so many hours in the day. Over and over I come back to this thought: thank god for the many poets who have decided to donate some time in order to help the publishers of poetry keep the wheels moving during this time when there’s no money IN poetry. As I’m sure you know, that’s what those perishing fees are all about.

If you want to learn more about what “works” and what doesn’t, vis a vis rising up out of the slush pile, the best thing you can do is become one of those volunteer readers. The new readers I solicited in 2009 to help out all reported back that it was an enlightening experience. Each one began to view her or his own manuscript(s) in a new way. Three of them have since had books accepted–one by…you guessed it…a prestigious national poetry book contest.


Filed under Publishing News, The Writer's Life

5 responses to “Writing Contest: Seen from the Inside

  1. Great post, Nancy. And good advice on becoming a reader. It’s a tough business, that’s for sure! I’m glad you told about both your experience (only one year!) and Richard Carr’s experience (20 sounds more like it!) because it’s just impossible to say when or where it will happen.

    • nancywhitepoetry

      And so hard not to get discouraged as you wait, wait, wait. The only solution is to write, write, write at the same time, I think. More than one poet had her second book published before her first, or third book accepted before the second found a home.

  2. Very interesting reading, Nancy. I’m such a naif in the world of poetry, and it’s useful to get a glimpse from inside. late last year I started submitting individual poems to journals again after at least a decade, and I’ve been encouraged by results, but it still all does seem a mysterious black hole to me, even though i have one spot on te other side via TNB.

    I did submit a slapped together full volume entry for the Yale Younger Poets comp last year, but that was because I figured it was my 40th birthday, and thus my one chance. Of course it went nowhere, but now, with advice and guidance from a few friend I’m putting together a properly constructed, coherent manuscript that i hope will be ready for the submissions gauntlet by early next year or so. I expect I’ll be coming back to this post then for repeated insight and encouragement. If a poet of your caliber has had to endure maybe 50 or 100 rejections, I’ll see if I can sew myself the hide of an elephant.

    Be well.

    • nancywhitepoetry

      I always have to resist the urge to roll my eyes when someone says something like “I’ve had ten rejections!!!” I mean, they are just getting started! It’s true that some poets are so well known that they no longer do any simultaneous submission because their acceptance rate is so high, they’d spend half their time letting journals know that poems they’d sent have now been taken elsewhere… But most of us are down in the trenches. Yes, that elephant hide is necessary! Let me know if you find a good supplier… And best of luck to you!

  3. Hi Nancy,

    Good article! It’s interesting to know the inner workings of the contest. I didn’t know when I submitted that comments were available to finalists and semi-finalists – I would have taken advantage of that for “Between Gods.”

    I would love to be a volunteer reader if it is ever needed – reading always helps my own work. Also, I’ve started a poetry blog if you have a chance to read it here: http://donnalewiscowan.wordpress.com/. “Between Gods” comes out in March and I’m so excited!

    Hope to meet you at some poetry events!

    Take care! Donna

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