Thursday, July 29, 2010

Some Thoughts On Poetry Book Contests

The following was originally published on Blogalicious, Diane Lockward's blog on poetry, poets and books. Diane wrote this post on Poetry Book Contests in response to her experience judging the 2010 Word Works Washington Prize. You can find the original post here.

Entering poetry book contests often seems like a necessity if you want to get your manuscript published. But what an insidious process it can be. Not to mention expensive. And time-consuming. Before my first book came out in 2003, over a period of maybe six years, I entered the manuscript in dozens of contests. I spent several weeks each summer weeding out the weaker poems and substituting with what I hoped were stronger ones. I reconsidered the order of the poems. I redid the page numbering and the Table of Contests. I wrote out the checks. Then I waited months for notification.

The first time I received a semi-finalist spot was thrilling, more so the first time I received a finalist spot. But by the time I'd accumulated six of these close calls, it was getting stale. I felt stuck in place, always writing poems that could go into that book, unable to move onto the next book. Then I got lucky and found a home for my book, no contest involved. Since then my publisher has stuck with me for the following book and the forthcoming one for which I am hugely grateful. What a relief not to have to do the contest thing.

But recently I saw the process from the other side of the fence, i.e., I served as a first reader in a book contest. After reading through the pile of manuscripts, I put together some thoughts that perhaps someone out there might find useful before pulling out the next roll of stamps and the next batch of checks.

1. Do not overload the manuscript with poems. Too many is too many. I read one manuscript that had close to 100 poems! Now come on. The poet had simply failed to edit his own manuscript. Nor had he followed instructions in regards to number of pages. A collection that long has virtually no chance of being accepted anywhere.

2. I'd always heard that it was essential to have a strong first section. True! A weak first section discourages the reader from moving onto the second section. Weak first section and your goose is cooked.

3. After getting a really strong first section, make sure that the following sections are equally strong. You cannot get away with a weak section. Anywhere.

4. Be mindful of variety. This applies to subject, form, length. Too much sameness leads to boredom.

5. Work really hard on arranging the order of the poems. For many poets this is the most difficult part of putting together a manuscript. That's what friends are for. Ask a few poets whose judgment you trust to read the manuscript for order. Avoid the inclination to group similar poems together. Again, too much sameness leads to boredom. You want some kind of thread or threads running throughout, pleasing leaps from one poem to the next, surprises, and connections. Poor order was one of the main weaknesses in the manuscripts I read. You want a collection of poems, not a bunch of poems.

6. Here's another thing that separated the good from the not so hot: Diction, diction, diction. Why use boring words when there are so many good ones available? The language in the strong manuscripts immediately distinguished those collections.

7. Avoid excess baggage, e.g., accessorizing sections with numbers, plus titles, plus introductory poems, plus epigraphs. Keep it simple.

8. Don't go too highbrow with a bunch of unnecessary End Notes. Don't be pretentious. Nobody likes a stuffed shirt. If the information in the End Notes is essential, maybe it should be in the poem? or on the same page as the poem? I'm not saving never; I'm saying consider carefully the necessity. Likewise, avoid a bunch of ridiculous dedications of individual poems. I dedicate this one to Emily Dickinson, this one to my plumber, etc.

9. Remember that competence is not enough. The collection must stand out. The strong ones had something that was unique, that was special, that made them different from the others.

10. Good looks matter. Make sure your manuscript has a professional appearance. I was surprised to see manuscripts with the title uncentered, with dreadful fonts, with blurry pages. Don't crowd the pages, please! And please, in your Table of Contents, do not insert a hideous line of periods between title and page number.

Now here's the good news: If you have a good manuscript, you have a really good chance of winning. Don't send it out before it's ready, but when it's really ready, believe in it and send it out.

A Successful Miller Cabin Series Wraps Up

Tuesday was the final night of the 2010 Joaquin Miller Cabin Summer Poetry Series, and a great time was had by all! There were several new faces amongst the regular crowd, and we hope to see these young faces return in the coming years.

Our featured readers were Dan Albergotti and Jona Colson. Dan kicked the night off with poems rich in literary references, including a poem directed toward his nonexistent daughter, inspired by a Yeats poem. Curiously, amongst Jona's litany of poems was a p
oem called "Daughter", written about an (also nonexistent) daughter of his. The readers complemented each other wonderfully, and really made for a compelling night for the listeners!

The evening also saw the return of the Scooter girl from two weeks ago! We are glad to see that she made it out of the storm to safety, and even returned for another reading! Also in attendance was Charles Jensen who read earlier in the summer!

It is so great to have our past readers grace the audience with their presence!A big Thank You to everyone who made this series possible, from the organizers, the readers, those who donated funds, and of course, the all-important listeners. This 35th season has been a great one, and we hope to see you back in Rock Creek Park for the 36th!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Last night at Miller Cabin

Miller Cabin
Tuesday evenings at 7:30 at the Joaquin Miller Cabin in Rock Creek Park, Picnic Area #6, Beach Drive at Military Road Overpass. Sign up for opening reading at 7:15 pm. For more information and rain location, call Kathi Morrison-Taylor at 703-820-8113.

It threatened to storm last night, but the threat was not realized, and the reading was allowed to go as planned, outside under the stars at the Joaquin Miller Cabin!

A lively crowd gathered to hear poets Don Illich and Marie-Elizabeth Mali read.

Next week is our final installment of the Miller Cabin series for the summer! Don't miss poets Dan Albergotti and Jona Colson!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Café Muse: What a Turnout!

Once a month on Monday nights, two featured poets read at the Friendship Heights Village Center, with an open mic to follow

Last night, 68 people packed into every available corner of the Village Center room to hear the poetic stylings of E. Ethelbert Miller and Myra Sklarew.

Ethelbert began the reading with some baseball poems from The Fifth Inning, and continued with poems from an anthology, including both a short poem of his own, and a Langston Hughes poem about nature.
Myra began her reading by pointing out her heroes in the room, following this up with a series of incredibly moving and deep poems, some from her recent book, Harmless.

A lively open mic session with quite the variety of poems concluded the poetry portion of the night, but plenty of people gathered in clusters around the room talking for quite some time afterwards. Check out the Word Works Facebook Page for more pictures from the event!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Last Night at Miller Cabin: Thunderstorm Edition

Miller Cabin
Tuesday evenings at 7:30 at the Joaquin Miller Cabin in Rock Creek Park, Picnic Area #6, Beach Drive at Military Road Overpass. Sign up for opening reading at 7:15 pm. For more information and rain location, call Kathi Morrison-Taylor at 703-820-8113.

Just before the rain started to fall, nearly twenty people congregated beneath the roofed area at Picnic grove #6 to hear the poetic ministrations of Cliff Bernier and Judith Valente. The rain began to fall lightly at first, and the sky was dark, but the environment felt apt for Cliff's nature-inspired poems.
By the time Judith's reading was beginning, a flashlight was required just to read the poems, and by the time for her second poem, the storm had completely drowned her out. The executive decision to relocate was made, and a mad dash was made for the safety of cars - except for one young lady who, unperturbed by the storm, set off on her scooter (we hope she got home alright!) - and headed off to the American City Diner to finish up the reading. We lost very few people, and had a full room of brave, soggy listeners for the rest of Judith's readings, and for the open mic. An altogether exciting evening! Thanks to everyone who braved the elements!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Last night at Miller Cabin

24 people braved the 100 degree heat and vicious bugs to listen to the lovely poetry of Christina Beasley and Erin Murphy.

Christina gave such a fun variety of poetry, ending her reading with a quirky poem about a hedgehog. Each and every one of her poems is infused with incredible and creative uses of language.
Erin traveled from western central Pennsylvania, bringing her whole family along. She had a great sense of humor, providing fun commentary about her life and family between incredibly strong and truthful poems.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Café Muse: July Preview

A new month has opened, and with it comes a new Café Muse event! We will be meeting on Monday, July 19th (later in the month than usual, so be sure to mark your calendars!). The much-anticipated featured readers are:

Myra Sklarew, author of three chapbooks and six collections of poetry, including her most recent, Lithuania: New & Selected Poems. Sklarew is a Professor Emerita at American University.

Ethelbert Miller, who has authored 11 books, and edited four more. In addition to writing prolifically, Miller is a literary activist, a board member of several writing centers and libraries, and the advisory editor of the African American Review.

Tomorrow at Miller Cabin

Miller Cabin
Tuesday evenings at 7:30 at the Joaquin Miller Cabin in Rock Creek Park, Picnic Area #6, Beach Drive at Military Road Overpass. Sign up for opening reading at 7:15 pm. For more information and rain location, call Kathi Morrison-Taylor at 703-820-8113.

Our first July meeting at the Miller Cabin will be tomorrow, July 6. On the docket for the evening are poets Christina Beasley and Erin Murphy. The weather is promising to be hot hot hot, but we hope to see a big crowd anyway!

Christina Beasley

Erin Murphy

Miller Cabin

Last week at Miller Cabin, I inconveniently forgot my camera battery, but fortunately, Janelle Fernandez was able to send along this great picture of our readers and hosts!