I may still not know a lot, but I've had a lot of experience over the last year. I really wanted to write this post because of Sarabande's response to the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, which I got sometime last week.
When I was writing poems and getting my MFA for three years, ending May 2007, I didn't really know I was constructing a book. There are some students that write hardly any poems for whatever reason: they're shy, uncomfortable, some kind of minority and all kinds of stigma going along with that mixed with fear of course or that no one will care, are too busy drinking, are getting used to a new city, are newly married or not newly married and can't find enough time as they'd like to write. The list of excuses goes on and on. Some write few. Some write a poem a week and end up throwing out 75% or more.
I didn't know what I was doing when I got to VCU, and I'm not sure I still do, but again, I'm learning. I always asked people how to get stuff published, how to write cover letters, what to say. All of that. I spent a few hundred dollars on journal and magazine subscriptions to hold them in my hands, write down names of authors I liked, stack them on the bookshelf, see if I'd return to them. And when I thought I had work ready, I sent out. I send out a lot when I have work. To many places. If I believe the poems are good enough to be published and I'm happy with them, off into the world they go. Blitzkrieg. Carpet bombing. Whatever you want to call it. When a rejection comes, I add the name to the ongoing list and make sure to send them different work in, say, October, or March, or both.
But again, that brings me to the first book contests. I've been sending out my manuscript officially for a year, or it will be a year in about 10 days. I've sent the manuscript out to over 40 contests, and it's already cost me at least $1000. The first time I sent it out -- and of course it's changed a lot since then, as they always do if you take them as seriously as you say you do -- I was a Finalist for the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. I was a bit baffled because the manuscript was essentially my thesis with a few (some still included) poems I wrote in the beginning of summer / late spring after I graduated. I was encouraged by both friends and professors, had the extra cash to do it, and figured I should start, especially if I had confidence in the book, which I did, somewhat I suppose.
I'm not sure if it was a good or bad thing that I was a Finalist so early, but it did spur me to get a little nuts about sending the book out. Researching presses and past winners and past published books. Staying away from presses like Ahsahta and Nightboat since my writing is nowhere near what they're looking for, and staying away from presses that also have journals that have never liked my work enough to give me ink, much less publish. For example: The Journal, Pleiades, Barrow Street all have contests related to their magazine. I've gotten ink from Pleiades once, and every other rejection from all 3 have been form, at best. So why would I sent my first manuscript -- poems that have since been published all crossing their paths in the past -- to a place that has rejected me every time? Chances are my work's not right for a book if single poems aren't right for the magazines. Is it a guarantee that my book's not going to be picked if that happens? No. Is it smart, however, to send to those places? Probably not the smartest idea, no. But to try it just once and see what happens? Maybe.
The second interesting thing is the judging. Now Lynn Emanuel was the judge of the Crab Orchard prize last year. She saw my manuscript. Didn't like it enough to publish it, for whatever reason, since there could only be one. And that's that. So chances are, if I see her name again as a revealed judge, knowing she already rejected my manuscript once, maybe I shouldn't send to that contest. That brings me to back to the Kathryn A. Morton Prize.
I saw that Lynn Emanuel was the judge. However, I love many of Sarabande's books, not to mention they're a quality press, with both look and content regarding their books. I found out before I got the notice that Karyna McGlynn won, which was no surprise. I think she's been a Finalist for some other contests, and she's published (a lot) in amazing places. Usually with such a ubiquitously presented writer in just a few years, the time is soon for their book to be published. So that's why I sent. I didn't place, but I did get the "Dear Poet" notice with poet crossed off in place of "Dear Keith," and at the end "Please try us again next year!" was written. That's where I'm confused.
Call me a questioner, but did they do that for everyone? Poets who've gotten rejections back from Mid-American Review (every one of my submissions) I imagine know the little smiley face that Karen Craigo puts on all the rejections. Ink does not always equal a great thing, is I guess what I'm saying. Better than nothing, yes. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's had a discussion about this.
But should I send to the Morton Prize again, I'm thinking. If they really mean they liked my work, by the little scribble of green marker, without any kind of place or bid, then sure, I'll send again. But if that was their plan to write that on every submitter's, then that just kind of sucks and is really unnecessarily misleading.
And again, with the judges, a friend of mine, who's book's finally getting published after being a finalist and semi-finalist over 10 times in contests, got the unlucky news later that Mark Doty was the later-revealed judge a few of the contests where she ended up being a Finalist. Meaning: with contests that don't announce the judge, you never know who you're getting. She was unlucky. Doty didn't pick her manuscript as the winner for the first one, which is fine. But in 3 or 4 more contests where she was a Finalist, Doty ended up being announced as the judge, and he didn't change his mind, which makes sense. I'm not griping here, but stating an interesting fact and showing yet another layer of how unlucky and weird and complicated these things can be.
The fact that I've placed 3 times in the last year makes me pretty happy, considering I think it's taken me this long to really "find" the book. 38 out of the current 41 poems in my manuscript are published. Not to mention most of the ones I've cut are published also. Does that matter? No, it doesn't, as I've seen good books with 3 or 4 published poems out of every poem in the contents. But it boosts my confidence -- maybe even naively -- and makes me think the book is there. I know the book is there. After sending it out for a year, I've learned a lot, spent a decent amount of cash, and have a much better book than I did. Had I somehow how won the Crab Orchard contest a year ago and my book was going to be imminently published, I wonder if I'd have done as much work as I have NOT knowing it's going to ever be published.
But here's the rub: of course you never know. I still have Jason Bredle's words in my head: "Don't get stuck on the first manuscript or you'll never move on." Now I know what he means, especially since I haven't been writing as much new work as I want to. But the other thing I've been able to do in the last few months is finally look at it objectively. In one of David Wojahn's essays in STRANGE GOOD FORTUNE (an essay that all folks sending out their first manuscripts should read), he says something like, "Most first books are in two parts: one's about sex, and the other is about everything else." It's funny to see how that rings true indeed with many, but mine's thankfully not one of them. At least I hope not. Not only that, but like I said before, the book's here, this is the book, but I'm also not writing poems like this much anymore. I may be wrong in assessing myself as lucky for at least thinking that I've completed a book, but fuck it, I do consider myself lucky.
I can't find it right now, but Chase Twitchell of Ausable Press had this rant about MFA theses not being first books. Something akin to, and for most of us we stop listening at the needlessly pregnant baggage-inducing first part, "When I was at Iowa none of us ever tried to send out our first books..." etc. etc. One of my favorite books of the last five years, Brian Teare's THE ROOM WHERE I WAS BORN, was mainly, at least from what Wojahn told me, Teare's thesis, of which I believe David was the director. There are more than we think, and I think the words of Twitchell -- especially these days -- need to be thrown out the window. Yes, there a ton of theses that are bad for many reasons, some laid out in the beginning of this post. But I like to consider myself, if this sucker is ever published of course, one of those writers and former MFAers.
Good God this is long. So I'll stop here. I feel this whole thing's mainly for me. Maybe I'm wrong about it all or will be. Maybe I'm still too young and clueless. But a lot of this has been on my brain, and I needed to get it out. Like I said, it's been a year. I hope it doesn't take me five more for my first manuscript to hit the publishing world, but if it does, I'm game. But seriously, I hope it's not five years.