Confessions of a Contest Junkie
If you have any vice or addiction in your life – and we all have something – you probably already know that what you are hooked on is bad for you. You already know how you justify your fix. You know how you feed your high. And yet, you cling to your degeneracy, denying it is a problem. Your enablers support your actions and claims.
My vice? Poetry contests. And the system itself is my enabler— a system which has encouraged me and so many others through the hope that maybe something will work
In the poetry contest system there are winners. Judges whittle submissions down to a select few, a single one of whom sees a poem, a chapbook, or an entire book lauded. The winners add another publication to their record. The press or journal heralds the winner and their own selection skills. The win takes on a life of its own, serving as the launch pad for a career or a stepping stone on the path to tenure. Pierre Bourdieu points out that perhaps this initial social capital gain is accidental before it leads to other things, but that’s for another time.
There is nothing inherently evil in this process. No one is bilking hardworking young artists out of their final precious dollars for no chance at reward, though that argument has been made numerous times in the last decade, from a contretemps on the Buffalo Poetics listserv when Noah Eli Gordon posted about Subito presses contest to, of course, Foetry, a group of then- anonymous internet users who decided in the mid-2000s to investigate presses and contests, publically revealing information about judges and how contests were being run. The positive that has come out of Foetry is a rule about the relationship between judges and entrants— usually something in the neighborhood of not being a student or friend of a judge within a certain time frame.
The presses and journals that run these contests are themselves working to survive in a marketplace with an unbalanced scale: large numbers of submissions, far fewer sales. This small number of sales alone cannot support the publication of a range of contemporary poetry with all the costs of labor, materials, and time. Your $30 contest fee becomes the backbone of expanding publication, ensuring that readers throughout the poetry community can access the winner’s work.
The system, however, has a limit. For the contest entrant, the submission is not just a submission. It is the product of hours, if not years, of work and edits and previous contest entries. The natural inclination to preserve one’s work and oneself is not wrong, but perhaps leads to an investment in that work beyond what should be the case. This is not wrong— obviously one should be in love with what one is doing—but there seems to be a kind of Ikea effect around writing.
I have a manuscript I have been sending out since 2012. The first time I submitted it to a contest, it was a finalist. I was hooked. That little high of almost winning pushed me to submit it again. And again. And again.
For most poets, this is not an issue. A few submissions, a few rejections, and you move on to the next work. Or you submit the piece to far more contests and only remember it has not won when you check Submittable in time to submit work somewhere else. There’s a kind of deniability that has to go into the process, otherwise no one would every submit anything. One must always be in love with the work they are doing, even after they start getting rejections. Once you fall out of love, it’s time to move on.
For me – and others – that finalist manuscript sent me into a spiral of submissions. Spurred on by a well-meaning circle of colleagues, editors, friends, and family, I submitted a 2012 manuscript over and over again. I worked on new manuscripts and wrote more poems, but I continued to focus on that finalist piece, convinced if I could just get one more hit it would be enough. I knew I should quit. I knew I should focus on the next manuscript and submit other work. But I had become so focused on the chances of that finalist manuscript that I continued to hope that the next risk I took would pay off.
When Noah Eli Gordon advertised Subito Press’s contest on the Buffalo Poetics list, there was a backlash. An angry, more established poet argued that the contest system cheated young writers of their money and offered no benefits. I countered then that contests were a means for young writers to enter the poetry business. Obviously many things have changed since the mid-2000s. But then and now there was a sort of expectation of the contest system, that it would be a means for a large number of young writers to launch their poetry careers. And in a world where the market forces drive a contest system that both offers hope to poets and funds the publication of someone’s poetic work, how else can a young poet seek out publications?
Despite my description of the contest system as an addiction, I am not here to make a moral or ethical judgement on anyone’s actions. I am, however, curious about questions of capital, labor, and expectations in the poetry world. We often devalue the labor of others, while prizing our own effort. We emphasize our own creative labor ahead of the work of presses, journals, and their editors. And with these valuations, we begin to expect that presses will handle their own costs without passing them on to us as creators.
These expectations are flawed. With a relatively weak market for poetry sales and a glut of producers vying to sell, presses find themselves stuck in the middle, attempting to justify their costs and prices. Presses create social capital (things like prestige that aren’t tangible, but they still follow people as they move through the industry) or, at the very least, provide for its generation. Social capital alone, though, will not sustain presses or put food on the tables of the laborers involved. And why should it when so many are willing to pay simply to have their work considered? To feed their contest fix?
And labor – even the labor of love that is the creation of a poetry manuscript – is not inherently valuable. At least, it is not inherently more valuable than the labor involved in the publication of those same creative works. The current contest system simultaneously supports and refutes this idea: the costs associated with contests support the labor of publication while the tantalizing hope of that next contest pushes poets to value their own creative labor more highly than the labor of publication. There is always a new reader, a new judge, another press to try.
Ultimately, this new system also encourages entrants to elevate the finished product above the creative process. This elevation itself is a reflection of the broader world within which the contest system exists. While there may be an idealized form of publication that writers and publishers strive towards, that system continues to exist within a larger capital-oriented system. We value, even fetishize, the publication because it makes the creative process somehow more tangible and quantifiable, to poets and non-poets alike. The labor – creative and otherwise – that supports that publication is in many ways rendered invisible.
I am learning to understand these nuances. I know now that I should evaluate my own work as a process, not simply a final, published product. I have come to understand that maybe it is okay if that manuscript goes back into a drawer or gets destroyed. Perhaps the lesson of creation is more important than a tangible product. Even if a manuscript remains in a drawer instead of on a shelf, perhaps the process has pushed me forward in new ways, enhancing my work, and strengthening my creativity. Then, of course, I go back on my own thinking, my own logic and say to myself “No one cares about what’s going on in the process— you need to publish.” Sometimes the demons beat everyone, I suppose.
As I write this brief essay, the finalist manuscript remains unpublished, perhaps because it should be. But, of course, I keep sending it out there, thinking the very next time will be the time that it lands, catches someone’s eye and becomes something more than a pile of papers driving me slowly crazy. In my new work, which is also forcing me to consider the older work and whether or not I should just stuff it in a digital attic somewhere, I’m more aware that I should enjoy this process of writing and reading and researching— that I should be loving it. I’m aware more of these things because I know now what will happen when I really begin submitting it for others to read and evaluate. This is, of course, part of the process, part of the game of being a writer and there’s no sense in being shy or demure through that process. Be bold— submit, don’t worry about all the dynamics. Ultimately, one must play the game in order to be part of the system.
In facing my own vices, I was forced to weigh the value of production against that of the creative process. Beyond that, I was forced to question if I was chasing that publication high at the expense of considering and learning something more from those editorial judgements on my work. I understand better now how that works— the publishing is a high, a temporary one. It’s doing the work that is the real satisfaction— reading, researching, writing— these are the things that drag you out of bed at four a.m. all hopped up.
You may see this essay as my apology, my plea for you to forgive presses that you may see as making money off of the labor of creative others. I see this essay as a discussion of the realities of my addiction. It is my chance to pull my fingers out of my ears and to force myself to consider my work, my process, and myself as a poet. I will not stop writing. I will not stop trying to get published. I will not even stop participating in the contest system. But in taking a step back and considering what drives the system, my place in it, and what I hope to get out of it, I am facing my vices.
Amish Trivedi writes poems and reviews. He is the author of Sound/Chest and his work has appeared in New American Writing, Kenyon Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. He is a Ph.D. student at Illinois State University.