Most poets with fewer than three books and a stellar international reputation rely on the book contests in order to get their collections published. This may not be the case in the future, as self-publishing continues to lose its whiff of desperation. The production values available to self-publishers have improved a great deal. At the same time, literary presses both academic and independent are operating with diminishing funds. Still, the contests are alive and well. I thought it might be interesting to BAP blog readers to have a fly’s eye view of the judging of the 2011 Washington Prize, an annual contest for a full length poetry collection awarded by The Word Works, a venerable independent literary press in Washington, DC. I sit on their advisory board.
Instead of hiring a poet to judge the finalists, The Word Works judges the prize by a committee consisting of board members and two invitees, all of whom are poets. This year’s panel, which I sat on, was sent the eleven finalists’ manuscripts about a month before we met in rural New Hampshire at a small artists’ residency called Toad Hall. We were asked to read each manuscript a few times, taking notes as to its strengths and weaknesses, then arranging our top five in descending order. I thought the quality of the finalists’ manuscripts varied wildly— from the unadventurous to the exquisitely polished. I spent the four hour drive to New Hampshire mentally preparing to stave off any potential campaign for one of the manuscripts that were in my bottom four or five. The manuscripts I thought were strongest (there were three) had the following qualities:
- Each poem, regardless of its length or position in the manuscript, was strong. There were no filler poems.
- There was a sense of connection, even movement, from poem to poem. For an excellent essay on the subject of ordering a manuscript, read this essay by poet and teacher Natasha Saje. http://dgvcfaspring10.wordpress.com/2011/07/17/dynamic-design-the-structure-of-books-of-poems-an-essay-by-natasha-saje/
- There was a balance between the writer’s stylistic strong suits and riskier poems.
- It was clear that the manuscript was engaged in conversation with not just earlier poetry but contemporary literature and culture.
- I was left with the sense that I knew something about the worldview of the poet or the speaker of the poems.
I speak only for myself (God forbid I should speak for the other apasionados on the jury!) and myself at this time in my career. I think it’s important to remember that even with a jury, there’s an element of chance involved in the selection of a manuscript.
We settled in mid-morning at a long conference table, each with our stack of finalists and notes, and took a straw vote. From the get-go the majority of us had given highest rankings to a particular manuscript. Five other manuscripts had received votes as well. We went through each of the finalists, offering our thoughts to Nancy White, (our Board Chairperson) who took notes. The Word Works is one of a few literary presses that gives feedback to each finalist (and some years also provides feedback to semi-finalists.) I’d begun to fantasize about a long walk in the woods during my free time that afternoon, followed by an even longer nap, when one of the judges said that the manuscript the rest of us felt was the strongest had not even been in her top five. Thus began more than four hours of poem-by-poem—and sometimes line-by-line-- discussion of the manuscripts. As painful as it felt in the last hour, I was aware of feeling that each of the judges was putting to use every bit of knowledge, literary and otherwise, we’d brought to the table.
Who was the winner? The manuscript that had won the straw vote: Mike White’s How to Make a Bird with Two Hands. White’s manuscript met all my personal/professional criteria and it did something I hadn’t seen done before—it blended a Zen sensibility with a postmodern worldview. His poems are edgy and restrained, entertaining and wise. Tomorrow I’ll continue this post with a brief interview with Mike White. In the meantime, here is his “The Contortionist’s Trick”:
Say there is a box
that can accommodate
half a person
and crawl inside
of a lifetime
(originally published in Poet Lore)