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It's not the fault of the people, so much as the institutions. Any profession organized like the current poetry world would be prone to the same nepotism and other flaws. The current system of poetic publishing doesn't have any checks and balances built into the peer review mechanism of its major publications.* And institutional corruption, though distinct from personal corruption, is still a form of corruption. I'm amazed more poets don't get mad about it.

* My name links to a modest proposal to remedy this. I would have linked it above but your comment software appears to block links in the comment body.

Robert Nagle

First, I am of the more-prizes-the-merrier approach to things (and actually am working on a project along those lines).

Online forums have come up with good algorithms for moderating and ranking; perhaps group moderating and voting can identify quality in a way that doesn't allow too much gaming of the system. The main challenge is whether group assessment tools favor the bland and uncontroversial instead of the truly original and striking.

Foetry notwithstanding, I think that the big publishers (in all genres) wield enormous clout in creating buzz for an audience. I worry more about that. That's why it's good to see that groups of bloggers are taking it upon themselves to award prizes to overlooked novels.

Why do people enter stuff into these contests? Because these people know of no other or no better way to promote their stuff. Look at poetry for example. It's hard to hear about good poetry, even in the blogging world. How to announce your genius to the world? Ah, the eternal question.

David Milofsky

You're right and then again, you're not. It's true that very few small presses could go on without some kind of support, either from an institution or fund-raising of some kind. Having been an editor of two well-known literary journals (Denver Quarterly and Colorado Review) for more than fifteen years, I believe I know this field more intimately than most, including Cordle. At CR we ran two series: the Colorado Prize in Poetry and The Series in Short Fiction. The poetry prize was a contest, the other was not but was supported primarily by fund-raising I did for the series. In our naivete we assumed that while poetry doesn't sell, fiction does, and over time the fiction series would support itself. It turned out that neither series sold well and though I'm no longer editor of the Review, the decision was made last year to discontinue the fiction series. I regret that but it underscores what you're saying about the ability of quality fiction or poetry to support itself. The poetry prize continues and is one of the ones that's been featured on the foetry website, much to my dismay. Although Jorie Graham (the anti-christ of foetry) was our poetry editor, she didn't run the poetry contest and I can't see how you can support the idea that all such contests are "inherently suspect." The fact is that if there weren't any contests poetry would simply not be published in this country. There's no market for it and, sadly, poets don't buy books, though they complain loudly about the lack of money, reviews, etc. No one works as an editor of a literary press for anything other than love of the form. It is a thankless job, complete with ill-considered criticism, complaints, and even the odd death threat. At the same time, literary journals have a time-honored place in contemporary literature. Writers like Flannery O'Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Michael Chabon, Jorie Graham, Richard Ford and on and on, got their start in literary journals. Among our subscribers were literary agents and editors who regularly wrote to me about people whom we'd published. Of course some of them are worthless and I suppose some editors are corrupt. But the wild charges thrown around by foetry and repeated by others supposedly more responsible and unfair and damaging, both personally and to our shared enterprise. I've said things like this before in print and have probably gone on too long but even though I'm out of the game now, it just pisses me off to see these lies and half-truths repeated. Thanks for letting me sound off.


Without contests poetry would not be pubished, period? That seems rigorously false, since not *every* book published is the result of a contest. I buy plenty of books that are not contest winners.

Poets do not buy books? Another oversimplification. I buy dozens of poetry books a year and know many others like myself who do the same.

David Milofsky

Jonathan, you're not reading what I said. I didn't say poetry wouldn't be published without contests but without literary magazines, many of which are supported by contests. And it's nice that you buy poetry books and know others who do the same, but your comment's just not supported by facts. Ask any poetry publisher how many copies he/she sells and if it's more than 1,000 it's a rare book indeed. Mass market publishers publish very few books of poems for this reason, leaving it to university presses and small presses, who come and go. An oversimplification? My many years in this business tell me it's not. Rather it's the sad truth. More power to you if you actually buy a book of poems every so often. Not too damned many other people do.


Sorry, I took the sentence "The fact is that if there weren't any contests poetry would simply not be published in this country." to mean no contests = no publication. Not all journals run contests. Poetry would continue to be publshed without contests--a good deal less of it, which would not be a bad thing necessarily. Small presses do a much better job than "mass market publishers," because they are more connected to their readers and don't need to sell as many copies.

David Milofsky

You're probably right about that, but only partially so. If you check, you'll see that many fine small presses have simply gone out of business because of poor sales and others have severely limited the number of books they publish. Having been a small press publisher, I agree that they generally (not always) do a better job of connecting with and serving readers and writers. But there are enormous problems with distribution and publicity that small presses are simply not staffed to handle, thus lack of sales and lack of profit that could be used to publish more poetry and short fiction. There is a certain bottom line that must be met no matter the size of a press (in our case it was around 750 copies) in order to meet the costs of publication. Most of our books never got there and not, as Dan might say, because they weren't good books and shouldn't have been published. I was very proud of the poetry and fiction we published but the ineluctable fact was that it never paid its own way. Without fund-raising, grants and contests we couldn't have done it and I believe this is true of most small presses. You're right that not all journals have contests but if you looked at the number of journals that have died for lack of support in the last ten years I think you'd find it sobering. For me, the most disappointing thing about my experience as a publisher was discovering that despite publishing beautifully designed books by wonderful writers, we couldn't make our costs because of a failing market.


Magazines have gone under; small presses too. Unfortunate, perhaps. Yet there are still numerous magazines (look at Poet's Market to see how many) and numerous books of poetry published every year, more than anyone could buy or read. I think what Dan may have been suggesting is that reducing the number of contests would bring supply down closer to the level of realistic demand.

I've seen poetry contests in magazine where the winning poems seem worse, or at best indistinguishable from than the regular old poems that might be published in the same magazine. I see the point of the contest as a fund-raiser, but it doesn't seem to add any aesthetic value to the magazine. I'd rather just submit to the magazine for free than pay for the right to win a fairly meaningless prize.

David Milofsky

It's not an either/or situation. Most magazines don't link submissions to entry fees, though some do. We used to get something on the order of 6,000 submissions a year, which indicates that people are certainly writing poetry. Kind of pathetic to consider though that only a handful of mags have a circulation of more than 1K. The problem for poetry publishers is trying to make those two numbers a closer match. If your point is that people are reading and writing poetry, we have no disagreement. And small presses and magazines do come and go, though I wouldn't use Poetry Market as a very reliable source. But the number of poetry contests (book contests, I mean) is really more an indication of the difficulty of staying in business, as the Virginia guy seemed to be saying.

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