MB: We currently publish three books of poetry a year. One is the winner of the annual Akron Poetry Prize, and the other two are either books by continuing authors (such as John Minczeski’s A Letter to Serafin or Alison Pelegrin’s forthcoming Hurricane Party), or editor’s choice selections usually taken from the pool of prize submissions.
We’ve also recently started the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics, which is a separate series aimed at publishing volumes of criticism. Our first title, The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics, debuted in January. This series seeks to give contemporary poetics a home in print. So much intelligent writing takes place online, which is wonderful, but I also feel as if it deserves promotion in print form.
NA: Do you pick the winner, or do you have guest judges some years?
MB: We have a guest judge every year, and I am dedicated to choosing a very different sort of judge every year. Last year we had G.C. Waldrep, and this year we have Natasha Sajé. I am someone who grows weary of seeing the same judges everywhere, so I try to think beyond the obvious choices. I also think it’s important for a press to reflect and support a variety of sensibilities, so switching up the judges helps.
I personally read every single manuscript that crosses the transom. If I recognize a manuscript as being by an acquaintance or a friend, I pass it along to an outside reader or two. I’m a friendly person and feel a great sense of affection toward so many people in the poetry world, and I believe it’s best for me to have many eyes on the manuscript, in the interest of fairness. We pass the finalists, and sometimes the semifinalists as well, along to the judge, and then the decision is out of our hands.
NA: How would you describe your job as a series editor? What are the rewards and challenges?
MB: I would describe my job as dreamy. I have always loved to read, and I have the sort of mind that tinkers with whatever it’s reading, so editorial work is a perfect fit. In the summers I read poetry manuscripts all day, and I never become bleary-eyed or disenchanted. The poetry manuscript will never become anything less than a work of art for me, and no matter how many hundreds of manuscripts I read, I will never forget how emotional the thing itself is. These submissions mean so much to their creators, and I want to treat them with tremendous respect, even reverence.
The largest reward is being able to promote poetry, and help writers move forward in their lives (both within and outside poetry) thanks to the support of the press. I was not a cheerleader in high school, but I certainly am now when it comes to promoting my authors and their accomplishments. I also just love to read new poetry, and to identify trends in the manuscripts I read. One year there were a ton of ghazals. Then there were lots of abstract epistolary poems. We always, always get multitudes of bird poems, too.
In terms of the challenges, there’s really just one: having to decline manuscripts. It absolutely breaks my heart. Every year I want to publish ten, or even twenty, of the manuscripts we receive. When the rejections go out, my heart just drops. Beginning this year, we are hoping to be able to send more personalized responses to folks who do not win the contest. We recently transitioned from SASEs to notifying via website post, and I’d like to at least be able to send some emails to people with particularly promising manuscripts.
NA: You also edit a poetry journal, Barn Owl Review. Has being an editor of a journal and a series editor changed your writing? Has it changed how you submit your own manuscripts?
MB: Oh, absolutely. Sometimes I completely forget to send my work out, but when I’m editing I get the energy back again. I guess I’m so excited to read other people’s poems that I want other people to read mine. And that is how I view a submission, with kind of a: hey, thanks dude. It bothers me when editors are put off by submissions. To me, it’s like getting really good mail, or like my mom passing along a catalog dog-eared to the page of a blue sweater, thinking that maybe I’d like that sweater for my birthday.
Editing poetry books makes me ultra-aware of the structure and sequence of manuscripts, except my own. I can help my graduate students with their theses, and my undergrads with their chapbooks, but I need outside help to sequence my own work, and I’m afraid I will always be a bit helpless there.
NA:Are there common mistakes that poets make when submitting their work to contests? To journals?
MB: Following the directions can really help. Requesting to edit the manuscript while it’s under consideration will likely hinder. I’m also not a fan of extensive dedications in manuscripts, unless they’re somehow intrinsic to the work itself. Thanking every auntie and former workshop-mate isn’t necessary until the book is in print (if then). I should also note that while some writers think that every single poem should have appeared in a magazine prior to submitting, I do not feel that this is necessary. I am a little concerned when a manuscript acknowledges a litany of magazines that disappeared in the eighties, as if the collection has been gathering dust or rejection slips for decades.
For journals, I think it’s crucial to read the magazine first, or at least look at the sorts of poets the magazine has previously published. At Barn Owl Review we are truly eclectic, but there is a type of poem that we admire. We hope future submitters will buy a copy and see what we like. We are a dinky nonprofit with a shoestring budget, and it’s all about the poems.
NA: Tell me about the poetry books the University of Akron Press published this year. What do you admire most about these books?
MB: I’d love to take a moment to recognize our three newest titles, Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie by Joshua Harmon, Hurricane Party by Alison Pelegrin, and American Busboy by Matthew Guenette. This list exemplifies what you can expect from Akron Series in Poetry books. These are edgy collections that offer a keen commentary on place, and contemporary life, but with an exceptional awareness of voice and a sense of play throughout. All three books are different, but unified by the way they push expectations while still connecting with readers. Information on all three books, and our many other fine titles, can be found here. Our books are ideal for course adoption, and our authors are available for interviews and readings.
NA:Sometimes great books of poetry never reach the public. How does the University of Akron Press help promote the books it publishes?
MB: One of the great things about being a university press is that we have national (and international) distribution, as well as the means to print post cards for our poets, send out review copies, and enter the book in contests. Additionally, we have an active presence online and in social networks like Facebook and Twitter. We also have a super cool blog called An Akronism, where you can find articles about the press, its rather awesome home (in historic Quaker Square), and its various projects and events.
As mentioned earlier, I also serve as cheerleader for all of our poetry authors, and try to promote their projects whenever possible. That is one of the best parts of this job—shouting the good news from every rooftop I can find.
Here’s information on the annual Akron Poetry Prize. Submissions welcome from 5/1/11 through 6/15/11 (postmark).
Barn Owl Review’s website is here.
Mary Biddinger is the author of three poetry collections: Prairie Fever (Steel Toe Books, 2007), the chapbook Saint Monica (Black Lawrence Press, 2011), and O Holy Insurgency (Black Lawrence Press, 2012), and co-editor of one volume of criticism: The Monkey and the Wrench: Essays into Contemporary Poetics (U Akron Press, 2011). She teaches at The University of Akron/NEOMFA, and edits Barn Owl Review and the Akron Series in Poetry. She blogs at the wordcage.
Nin Andrews received her BA from Hamilton College and her MFA from Vermont College. The recipient of two Ohio Arts Council grants, she is the author of several books including ,The Book of Orgasms, Spontaneous Breasts, Why They Grow Wings, Midlife Crisis with Dick and Jane, Sleeping with Houdini, and Dear Professor, Do You Live in a Vacuum. She also edited Someone Wants to Steal My Name, a book of translations of the French poet, Henri Michaux. Her book, Southern Comfort, is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press.