Monday, October 15, 2007


Simon is carrying on a discussion about contests and Action Books etc here.

Action Books no longer runs a contest. There are many reasons for this.

Let me first say that we did run one contest a couple of years ago, which Tao Lin won with "you are a little bit happier than i am." The reason we ran it was in large part to fund the publishing of the books. This worked OK (but you don't make all that much).

As an added benefit we came in contact with many fine poets we have since collaborated with in various ways. In fact it was because we received so many manuscript we liked that we first decided to set up Action, Yes (where we've included a lot of these poets, for example Crystal Curry and Jason Appleman).

However, we decided that there were too many downsides with the contests. The first one was that we were forced to read in a way we didn't feel comfortable with - I like to read poetry more generously. A contest forces the editors to be very critical.

In part this type of reading - looking for errors rather than for interesting attributes - is in line with the common workshop method, and it is in part to blame for the abundance of unadventurous but perfectly manicured poetry.

This not how I like to read poems.

Simon touches on another problem with the contest (related to my point above): the publication becomes a method of validation. Almost all contests say " we're just looking for the best manuscript, independent of style." This is total B.S. You always have a taste, and that will determine which manuscript you pick. Contests ("this is the best") seem to have replaced critical discourse. Something is good because it's published, not because people like it and discuss it.

I much prefer running across work I love, by someone I may not know - like Sandy Florian's work (at a conference in Denver) - and deciding to publish it without the whole contest apparatus.

However, I don't want to sound too pious about this. Some presses need money, therefore they have contests. I'm OK with that.

Also, it takes too much time to read entries. That's why we dont' accept open submissions - to either AY or AB. Maybe if we were Wave Books and had a fortune, we would do that, but we have to make our living outside of the press (teaching) and we simply don't have time for that kind of engagement. That would be ideal, but we simply don't have the time.


Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

"Something is good because it's published, not because people like it and discuss it."

AMEN. I'm so sick and tired of "oh, have you read XXX? You should, XXX just had a book out!" That most certainly does not tell me WHY I should read the book!

I wonder though if it has something to do with the difficulty of the process, or perceived difficulty. As in, if it's published, it must be good because others are not published. People still think there is some mystique about poetry or writing in general, as if we're the holders of some ancient knowledge. Of course, that mystique would not exist among poets, perhaps.

But what other method could there be other than a contest? For a small press that is only going to publish a few books per year, it makes sense to simply take what you like. But if you're going to publish more books, where are larger presses going to get material from? I'd say maybe fewer books should be published, but that doesn't quite seem fair. Besides, how is a newbie (ahem) to get in the proverbial door if presses are constantly publishing people that are already published.

There are simply too many questions, Johannes. My evening will be caught up in this now.

Hope you and family are well-

2:55 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

"But if you're going to publish more books, where are larger presses going to get material from?"

The way they did in the past: listening to friends and critics, hearing word-of-mouth, going to readings, browsing the journals, and (indeed) browsing the slush pile from time to time.

"Besides, how is a newbie (ahem) to get in the proverbial door if presses are constantly publishing people that are already published."

This question is entirely disconnected from the question of whether or not to run a contest! But it is a question people think is relevant, and it's one of the reasons contests are so popular among "amateur" writers. "My neglected genius is being ignored by fools! Surely only by paying someone will my manuscript receive the attention it deserves."

I'm not saying you believe that, but there was a time when I did. Mostly when my writing was being ignored because it was not very good. As my work has gotten better, I have not had trouble reaching an audience without paying a gatekeeper.

3:59 PM  
Blogger Amish Trivedi said...

I apologize: my previously written response was eaten by the internet, so this one is in haste.

Basically, I agree with your argument on "the past". However, how does prevent it so that there is not simply a small circle of the same people being published?

I believe your examples, other than going through the "slush pile" all include an implicit level of establishment. How does one manage to give a reading unless they are at some level recognized? How often are journals "closed to submissions"? Where does one go to get their foot through the proverbial door? Aren't there talented people who don't have friends who can "put in the good word" for them, for example?

Yeah, you nailed me on the second point too. Of course contests are in their own way a refuge for those that think highly of themselves. And when they lose, it's never their fault, is it? It's always the system or judging. And while I agree they're probably write in this accord, losing in a contest should lead to self-reflection rather than anger at the "system".

No Simon, I don't think that way. If anything, my genius is greatly over-valued :).

I agree with you that overall, contests aren't the right way to go about it, but what's the solution? If journals and publishers open up to all submissions, they'll be flooded! In the case where a small press could use the funds, how are they to give up their time for nothing?

If wish the old way could work best. There's some degree of quality in there, I hope. However, there are probably some excellent poems we've never read out there because no one ever talked about the person who wrote them, or invited them to read or anything like that.

4:44 PM  

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