First Poetry Book Contests: The Count

February 8, 2011

What’s your magic number? Go on. Tally it all up. Mine, this year, is 21. As in: 19 contests. 2 open submission periods. Not one more, and not one less. The number could be higher (and for some of my friends, it most definitely is). But, well, for me 21 sounds right. The multiple of 3 and 7, two prime numbers, somehow “do their dance” until they become another number.

Do you see what I did there? I discussed what I am doing in a totally arbitrary way. I broke down the number of contest entries—both submitted and yet to be sent—in a way that sounds like a puzzle or a tongue twister but that somehow makes sense to the part of my mind that is ignited by mathematics. This has absolutely nothing to do with poetry, with writing, with the business of what we do, with getting my own little manuscript somehow published and sitting on the shelves of your local bookstore. This has nothing to do with the fact that it’s MY (precious?) poetry and MY (beloved?) book and MY (stubborn?) belief in what I do.  As silly as it might seem, I did it anyway. It settles something in my stomach to break down the numbers in this way, and it makes me forget about the voice inside me that says, “Your future! Your future! This is all about you, about fulfilling this dream you have. It’s about sharing what you have to say! This is about a book!!!” It makes me forget about an anxiety that can rip apart my ability to focus on all of the other areas of my life and that is something that so many of my friends and colleagues are also enduring.

When I break the business of contests down, it’s not about my book. It’s about numbers. It’s about math. It’s about something that is far less personal to me than every word, image, metaphor, line break, and ounce of hope, searching, passion, and desire that fills every poem on every page of my book. It’s about giving myself distance and making it easier for me not to obsess so much over what contests I have already sent to, how much money I have already spent, what decisions have been made and what responses I have already received.

And let me tell you something. It’s necessary. Finding a way to gain distance from a process you’re so incredibly immersed into matters. What I wish to say is not that you, who also happen to be trying to get YOUR book published, break down your numbers like I am, but that you find a way to get distance from your manuscript. And from the uncertainty, time, and “lady in waiting” nature of book contests. We’ve already thought about the intention of the book, about staying in the present and believing in what it is that your manuscript does and says, about just jumping off the cliff and even sending the manuscript out. But I also want to suggest that giving oneself distance—finding ways to depersonalize the experience of submitting the manuscript (and emptying the bank account)—speaks to the ways that we as writers can “take care of ourselves” in the process. We’re not saints, martyrs, or mercenaries whose sole existence is for the manuscript we hope to publish. We have school, and jobs, and classrooms to teach, journals to edit, gym classes to go to, first dates to go on, winter boots to buy, roofs to fix, children to raise, movies to watch. In short, we have lives to live that exist beyond our manuscripts and the hopes we have poured, willingly, into their fate.

Here’s What Happened to Me

When fall semester ended, I shoved myself off the grid. I slept, I went to the gym, I traveled, and I took the time to take a deep breath and just say “no” to doing any and all work that seemed to tilt its head in my direction. In the middle of these precious few weeks “off,” I knew that while there were a bunch of book contests with upcoming deadlines, I didn’t have a deadline until February 15 (read as: I did not choose to have a deadline until February 15). I chose distance from submitting to contests with upcoming deadlines—even though they were with reputable presses whose books are generally gorgeous, even though I liked the work of recent winners. I decided that the 21 places I was sending my work to for the 2010-2011 submission year somehow felt right to me, had already been budgeted, and were all at presses that might work quite nicely for me. Adding more contests and open reading periods would make me obsess more over press websites, or would make me dive—all-consumingly—into the aesthetic inclinations of judges, such as research of their recent contest activities would reveal, or would make me wonder, obsess, and worry even more over my manuscript and what it takes to print and send it than I had already bargained for.  I had already chosen my sweet number, 21, and anything added would mess up a sense of balance and distance that I have come to value. So I turned my count—my magic number—into my own little mathematics game. And it made me smile. And it made it that much easier for me to print out my manuscript and prepare envelopes to the two deadlines I have this month.

(And hey, listen: that’s not such a good way for me to honor everything that I have thought about with my book’s intentions and sticking with the publishers I think will be awesome matches for what I have to say, and jumping into that extra worry is definitely not a good way to take care of myself as a writer seeking publication.)

What’s your count? Did you also say “no” and shrug your shoulders at some contest opportunities and say “dude, ok, enough is enough”? What will you do to gain some necessary distance from your manuscript and the crazy contest world?

A complete list of contest deadlines can always be found on the Poets & Writers website. That said, book contest deadlines for this month include:

  • Kundiman Poetry Prize/Alice James Books, judged by the Kundiman board and AJB. February 11. ($25)
  • First Book Prize/Cleveland State Poetry Center, judged by Matthea Harvey, February 15. ($25)
  • National Poetry Series/Coffee House, Fence, HarperCollins, Penguin, U Georgia Press, judge not disclosed, February 15. ($30)
  • Kathryn A. Morton Prize/Sarabande Books, judged by Marie Howe, February 15 ($25)
  • AWP Award Series Donald Hall Poetry Prize/Pittsburgh Press, judged by Dorriane Laux, February 28. ($15 AWP members, $30 everyone else)
  • American Poetry Journal Book Prize/Dream Horse Press, judged by JP Dancing Bear, Feb. 28 ($25)
  • Modern Poetry Series/Fence Books, judge not disclosed, February 28 ($25)
  • Sawtooth Poetry Prize/Ahsahta Press, judged by Paul Hoover, March 1 ($25)
  • Washington Prize/Word Works Press, judge not disclosed, March 1 ($25)

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