Category Archives: The Writer's Life

The Contest Season…Season of Love

When I closed the online submissions manager for the 2012 Washington Prize from The Word Works, having just trolled through hundreds of entries to make sure no one left incriminating acknowledgments pages or bios embedded, having emailed a few poets who forgot to submit their reading fee, having double-checked with readers to make sure they were ready to tackle a new bundle of aspiring books… I sat and wondered how we do it.

At the AWP conference this year, the strange plight of poetry in America was driven home again. More attendees than ever. More tables groaning with hot-off-the-presses writing than ever. Poets stopping by our booth to discuss their work, to browse and buy ours, to ask about our contest. Poetry readings so numerous the head spun, so audience-dense the heart beat with hope…

And yet. Almost all poets and most publishers of poetry work for free, funding our passion with other day-jobs. Tiny numbers of Americans read what we produce. Presses and journals go out of business every day. The media assures us the book itself is dying.

But poets keep writing, and poetry publishers keep looking for new work, keep trying to connect the writers to an audience.

Denise Duhamel quipped in a Rattle interview once that poetry is the last true art form because we can’t sell out. The reason for that? Nobody’s buying. So we can pursue our art in a pure environment, uncorrupted by filthy lucre, by the temptation to bend our art to the market.

At the “Write This” festival this spring in Troy, NY, one publisher pointed out that in some ways this is a wonderful time. If you love poetry, just start a press. Just start a journal. Just start a reading series.

We all nodded wisely: set your own standards. Contact the poets you love. Choose your medium. If you don’t have a rich aunt and can’t snag any of the rapidly shrinking grant money, what about POD? chapbooks? an online ‘zine? broadsides? a reading series? a coffeehouse night? an open mike? Nominate yourself, step in, and give away all the time and energy you want, in the name of the greatest art form known to our species. The angels will love you for it. The poets will love you for it.

Your neighbors may find you bewildering and your family may roll their eyes at the postage, the toner cartridges, the late nights, the disappeared weekends… But you know what you’re doing, and you’re doing it out of love.

This is my shout-out to the many volunteers who keep poetry alive and yes, even thriving. The writers, the readers, the editors, the judges, the promoters, the teachers, the students. At the moment, I’m especially grateful to all those who work so hard on the Washington Prize, a process I’ve been shepherding for a few years now. Twenty people give their time–days and days–to read and reread manuscripts, critique them, to slowly over the months narrow the pool until just one book emerges as “Da Winnah.” It takes a village to publish a book of poems, and I’m forever in debt to the denizens of this particular hamlet.

Wherever you live, there are similar people at work. Say thanks from me, would you?

Leave a comment

Filed under Publishing News, The Writer's Life

Richard Carr’s House of Poetry

By Barbara Ungar and Nancy White

After thirty years of writing poetry without publishing a book, Richard Carr, age forty-six, won a poetry version of the Triple Crown: three book prizes within a year—The 2007 Vassar Miller Prize from University of North Texas Press, the 2008 Gival Press Poetry Award, and The Word Works 2008 Washington Prize—with a fourth book also accepted Backwaters Press. How did he do that? Since then, he has gone on to publish more books, and looks not to stop anytime soon; check out his stunning ONE SLEEVE from Evening Street Press (2011).

As friends comparing notes in 2008 after our first stints as contest judges, we were amazed to find we had, in two separate “blind” contests, chosen the same writer. We asked Carr to discuss with us his decades of writing and the changes that finally propelled him to a new voice, a new focus—and to his astonishing publishing spree. In retrospect, his life looks like X-treme Poetry Boot Camp, a recipe for producing intensity. It’s also a series of choices and “saves” that aspiring writers could benefit from studying.

Like most poets, he began early, in solitude, as a teenager. He wrote in his room in a big Victorian house on the edge of town—Blue Earth, Minnesota, out on the prairie. “It had windows looking west across a pasture and into the woods, but no heat. I remember sitting on the end of the bed, looking into the dresser mirror, writing poems—about trees, I think.”

Reflection characterizes his writing for the next twenty-five years, when, he says, “between periods of failing in and out of school, I looked into mirrors and wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems, whole books of poems, some long, some very short, and they were free verse poems, or rhyming, or spatial, or anything and everything, and some were miniscule and some were grand, and all were written looking into the mirror.”

Always a bit of a renegade, as a math major, Carr cut class to read Milton in his dorm room—aloud, the complete works, in three languages— and as an MFA student he feels he studied philosophy more than poetry. The son of career professionals, he describes his own work history as “patchy, alternating between computers and dishwashing, teaching and bartending.” Although he grew up in a house full of books (reading everything from Dante to Tolkien, Japanese poetry to science fiction, Greek tragedies to Blake and Bly), in his 20’s and 30’s he cultivated a motorcycle-riding, bartender Zen persona. And kept reading. Everything.

In 1993 he landed a book deal—“a collection about trees and pastures and looking into mirrors”—but to his dismay and even embarrassment (hadn’t he, as anyone would, told all his friends and family the thrilling news?) that fell through when the press went out of business.

Next at Bowling Green he took the MFA path, but didn’t cotton to it. “I was not ready to take advice, and since I didn’t connect very well with my teachers, I came away with no professional contacts. I take the blame, however. I frequently went to class drunk. One time, while offering an intoxicated critique of someone’s poem, I tipped over backwards in my chair—got up, kept talking. Sometimes I make a humorous anecdote about that; other times I am simply horrified.”

But there were mentors over the years—Jonathan Sisson and Bill Coggin— and Carr remembers their talks with gratitude, also noting “the big impact that a few well placed bits of practical advice can have, not to mention the vote of confidence.”

In and out of school and his many jobs, he always wrote poems. And then the watershed, a midlife crisis at thirty-nine: “The usual, I guess: broke up with my longtime girlfriend, lost my job, my home, my family (on her side), half my friends, a Steinway piano, a very large motorcycle, my precious, precious power tools, and pretty much everything else.”

Perhaps now we come to the culprit, addiction. Overall, decides Carr, “Probably the real hindrance to having earlier success, in writing or other career efforts, has been addiction—drugs and alcohol—and depression, combined with social incompetence and pathological shyness.”

In the wake of his losses, “without work, and especially without relationships,” Carr couldn’t find his footing. “That was the worst feeling, that existential barrenness. I was completely empty, directionless, derelict and, for a depressingly long time, heartbroken. Living in a motel room on the highway at the edge of town, I drank and smoked heavily—lifting a lifelong habit to smoldering, volcanic heights—until my money ran out.”

Salvation beckoned when two friends stepped in, offering work and a place to stay. Carr got a grip. “I quit drinking and smoking—at the same time, cold turkey.” He moved back to Minnesota, began teaching as an adjunct in the Minneapolis area, and most importantly, he chose poetry. “I cut myself off from almost all social activity, and made space around myself, big space, living alone, walking daily, writing daily.”

He calls it “the big turning point in my life—my Twin Towers crisis—which required me to decide who I am and what I want. I chose poetry. Finally. Poetry has been the one constant in my life, and I have finally committed myself to it. I have no other intention, no other worldly objective, but to write poetry. Other interests and activities will come and go, as they always have, but I mean to build and dwell in only one house now, only the house of poetry.” Indeed, when Ungar met him in Minneapolis to continue this interview, she was reminded of the focus, isolation, and intensity of Emily Dickinson.

In the next four years following his recovery, he wrote five books of poetry. And the poetry erupting from this new life was, truly, new for him. Instead of being driven by the depression which has haunted him and “which drove me inward,” he began “really for the first time looking outward consistently, carefully, and sympathetically.”

“I quit looking into mirrors—and started writing about other people, and then as other people, starting with the son of a famous (fictitious) mixologist in MISTER MARTINI, followed by HONEY, written from a young woman’s perspective, and culminating in the full-on persona poems in ACE. I can only speculate, really, but I think these three manuscripts rose in the contest ranks because they are coherent, complete collections that tell a story.”

Denise Duhamel, who’s never met Carr but agreed to write a blurb after reading the manuscript for ACE, confirms that narrative cohesion helps create the book’s appeal. She also sees his work as part of an invigorating trend of “genre-blurring and poets taking on larger projects.” Beyond narrative, elegance of form charges the book, she says, and she “was really drawn to the grittiness of the characters.”

The adoption of a “truncated sonnet” form (a free verse structure of two quatrains, with optional final couplet) caught Ungar’s eye, too; Carr calls them microsonnets, each serving as a chapter in the development of HONEY.

Carr’s ability to weave a tale hooked the panel awarding The Washington Prize. “It’s that rare thing in poetry,” said one judge, Steve Rogers, “a page turner.” As a fellow judge, I (Nancy White) agree. All the finalist manuscripts contained poems that compelled utterly, but only one manuscript, as a whole, had that grip on the reader all the way through.

Is the secret, then, the triumph of “Negative Capability” and narrative over the author’s ego? Carr elaborates: “I wouldn’t write anything at all if it didn’t help me understand myself and my predicament in the universe. My ego is still there; I remain reflective. And yet by walking in someone else’s shoes, I am suppressed, to a degree, and the resulting poetry is less self-conscious, self-pitying, self-regarding—all of which mar my earlier work.”

In the end, “maybe waiting is not such a bad thing.” After all, he says, it’s not the early influences, or which MFA program is chosen, or the presence or lack of mentors: “Poets still make themselves, as they always have, through reading and practicing.”

And how does publication feel, now it’s finally come? “I didn’t know it until I got it, but I needed that validation, someone outside of family, friends and colleagues to say, ‘Your writing is good; it’s important; it should and will be published.’”

First the word from Backwaters Press; they wanted STREET PORTRAITS. “A certain amount of hooting and hollering” naturally ensued. Within days of Carr’s signing a contract with Backwaters, The University of North Texas Press called. When he heard that Naomi Shihab Nye had selected MISTER MARTINI for their Vassar Miller Prize, it seemed “a poetry deity had reached down from the heavens and touched my forehead with her finger. I felt the jolt of it, a rush of happiness as though I had received a blessing that could never be taken away or turned to ill use or diminished in any way.”

MISTER MARTINI came out in April, 2008, and in May the phone rang again. Gival Press calling, to say Barbara Ungar had chosen his book HONEY. This time, says Carr, he was speechless. “Ask the editor and publisher Robert Giron—I barely managed ten words.”

He likens the experience to a time he got lost hiking in the Swiss Alps. “I lost track of how far I had gone, what route I had taken. I halted, but a powerful urge to go forward—my curiosity to see the top, the true summit—pulled me upward as though there were a rope around my neck constricting while I hesitated. Suddenly I felt afraid and alone, and for a long time I couldn’t decide which way to go. Likewise with HONEY. I was bewildered.”

Two months passed. In August, Karren Alenier phoned Richard from the judging table in D.C. “On the other end, it wasn’t just the editor or publisher—it was the whole editorial staff! I could hear everyone in the background. They cheered! They applauded! It was like a surprise party and I was the guest of honor. That was really gratifying.”

Carr clearly feels a sea change in his relationship to the world, one he’s still adjusting to. “All my publishers have been hugely generous and enthusiastic regarding my work, and for me, that’s a big part of getting published. Holding the physical book in my hands is a delight, but the esteem of editors and publishers is beyond bounds. I didn’t understand that at first. It becomes their book too, and your hopes are their hopes, and they love the poems truly, much as you do, and no one else is going to have this kind of relationship with your book. It’s intimate, like family.”

Considering that in his poems Carr prowls the dark alleys of family-forged, family-twisting pasts, that’s a satisfying resolution to his story. Of course he moved right on to writing books five, six, and beyond; of course he plans to keep writing. But in spite of his fabulous rash of acceptances, he sees no silver bullet, cautioning fellow contest-entrants “not to copy a certain style or form or procedure.” He himself had to “let go of youthful themes and forms,” but each writer develops uniquely. His only certain advice we have heard before: “to persevere, to focus on the thing you love, to hang on, be strong, abide.”

Carr’s story may reinforce the fantasy that “getting discovered” lurks just around the corner. But it also highlights that, as Duhamel says, “all writers are wounded in some way, or maybe more attuned to loss.” It’s what we make of the loss and the waiting that matters. Just the right smelting of self and other, of story and form, of study, perspective, practice, history, discipline, reading, perseverance, and passion—and sure, it could happen to anyone.

We still suspect it helps to be talented, too.


Filed under The Writer's Life

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

Watching the August days scroll past, I think about last spring when, a la Scarlett O’Hara, I vowed to write a mountain of poems, to start a website, to find a publisher for book #2, and to do some custodial work on behalf of poetry.

Keats had a thing for them...

Keats had a thing for them...

As this soggy and work-filled summer careens to its inglorious conclusions, I wonder where the hours went. Interestingly, a lot of them went to po-biz instead of to my own poems, or teaching-related work instead of my own poems, or family responsibilities instead of my own poems. But the poems kept coming, luckily, else I’d have to step down from some worth-while projects. This daffodil picture? Remember spring? Yeah, I had big plans, including to weed my garden daily.

Instead, I went out last week amid the reeking green of our sodden New England August and pulled up all my tomato vines, blighted, poisonous to all future generations. I bagged ’em and Steve hauled ’em to the dump. It reminded me of what it’s like to abandon a draft; begun in electric-eyed inspiration, that high all writers know, but somehow later evolved to a useless knob, maybe ugly, maybe embarrassing, maybe even dangerous. Such a flawed poem could drag down a manuscript, sour a magazine to your name, make your poet friends snicker behind your back. Well, that’s the fear, anyway.

So what have I accomplished this summer? The Washington Prize contest process is finished, the announcement of its winner sent off to Poets & Writers; the second book did find a publisher and is due out next spring; and maybe a hill (not the dreamed-of mountain) of poems managed to dig themselves up, shake themselves off, and turn themselves over to my custody. We’ll see if I can keep them corralled.


Filed under The Writer's Life