Contest-ing Race, Activist Judges, Numbers Trouble?

things have been hectic over here with school and a few achiote press projects, but i did want to respond to pam’s comment (below) and i do hope other will chime in if you have a chance 🙂

first, pam writes: though I don’t think National Poetry Series can really be fairly compared to Cave Canem or Kundiman or Andres Montoya. these orgs/contests are explicit in their charter to promote writers in their respective communities and are therefore activist by definition.

this is, of course, true. my point in the comparison was to exaggerate one possible consequence suggested by ethnic judges choosing non-ethnic writers. this also points to my reference to (clarence) major, who was the judge of the cave canen prize who did not choose a winner (nothing was good enough i suppose–tho i dont know the circumstances). so even in an org/contest that is supposedly ‘activist by definition’, aesthetics trumped identity. or, perhaps, aesthetic activism trumped identity-based activism.

the reason i find this annoying is that i would wager (tho i havent done the numbers trouble) that 95% of all poetry contests in the united states are judged by white poets. would you agree with this number? has someone already looked at this? of course, there are still many ethnic writers who would submit to these contests and win them–but i know many folks just won’t submit to a contest judged by a white poet, even if the aesthetics might relate. so when ethnic judges do judge open contests it creates a interesting phenomenon. no doubt, more ethnic writers will submit to this contest. no doubt, the judge’s choice will be more scrutinized.

think about the 2009 Walt Whitman Award, judged by Juan Felipe Herrera. i know there was a lot of buzz about that year’s award because it was the first time since 2002 that the contest was judged by a writer of color. and is it any surprise that the last ethnic writer chosen was also in 2002 (komunyakaa chose sue kwock kim)? anyways, what i want to note is not that herrera chose a latino poet (J. Michael Martinez–who wrote the dialogue mentioned in the post below), but that Martinez’ book was a finalist from the year before. apparently, his book was the first that won the year after he was finalist. so clearly, his work is amazing–but why didnt it win the year before? and what wouldve happened if herrera chose a white poet? is it so much different than major not choosing any winner?

pam also writes: the expectations of NPS are different. ideally the playing field there should be wide open, separate from allegiances to identity-based communities. in reality of course, the field is never totally open and other allegiances (collegial, style- or aesthetics-based) come into play. historically each judge/press supposedly represents a particular “aesthetic,” and the resulting selection supposedly represents the “aesthetic diversity” of poetry from that year.

the NPS is strange to me. here’s their statement of purpose from their website:

The National Poetry Series is a literary awards program which sponsors the publication of five books of poetry each year. The manuscripts, solicited through an annual Open Competition, are selected by poets of national stature and published by a distinguished group of trade, university, and small presses.

The specific purposes for which this organization is incorporated are:

— To add in a meaningful way to the number of poetry books published each year, making possible books which might not otherwise be published by providing both financial support and assistance in the process of manuscript solicitation, selection, and promotion.

— To support poetry and increase the audience for poetry by heightening its visibility among readers, broadening publisher involvement with its publication, and increasing booksellers’ willingness to display and promote it.

— To give American poets of national renown in the identification of emerging or less well-established poets.

— To provide the conditions and mechanisms for a group of trade, university, and small press publishers to work together on the promotion and marketing of five poetry books each year, thus providing a structural model for collective literary publishing ventures.

this does not necessarily suggest “aesthetic diversity”…but the NPS does present a kind of “publishing diversity”, which does lead to some aesthetic diversity & sometimes ethnic diversity. and i wonder how the participating presses are chosen? why not alternate presses every year?


more on the rest of pam & barbara’s comments soon.


12 thoughts on “Contest-ing Race, Activist Judges, Numbers Trouble?

  1. CORRECTION: Major Jackson did not judge the Cave Canem prize. That would have been the poet and novelist Clarence Major.

  2. thanks anon! that's the second time i mistyped! arg. it's now corrected 😉


  3. Interesante, Craig.

    For the record, Elizabeth Alexander was one of the judges the year I won the Laughlin but when I spoke to Susan Stewart, one of the 3 judges, she told me their interest was based upon my various uses of language and poetic form,

    Anyway, Hongo is judging the Levine Prize this year, and I know this is compelling at least one poet of color I know to submit a ms. I don't know think this is entirely based upon ethnicity, but rather, the aesthetic and political concerns this poet interprets Hongo to hold/espouse. So in many ways, yes it is about perceptions of activism, aesthetic more so than identity based.

    Speaking of which did you see there was recent Tinfish write-up on some person's blog (I'll email it to you once I find it), in which Susan talked about being aesthetically/politically concerned, vs. identity based. She cites us two and a couple of other poets in this discussion. When I think about it in terms of our work and our mutual publisher, it makes sense, where ethnicity happens to come into the picture, after the poltical/aesthetic.

    word ver: ranti !

  4. hey b,

    i really like the judging format of the laughlin–3 judges! the whitman should adopt this format. when did it become so natural for every contest to have a single judge?

    i have no doubt their interest was based on your various uses of language and poetic form…but no doubt not all judges are able to appreciate such things if you know what i mean.

    q: when was the last time a latino was part of the judging pool at the laughlin? when was the last time a latino won (or how many)?

    cool, will have to let some of my PI friends to submit to the Levine this year.

    will have more to say about the intersections of aesthetics, politics, and identity in another post.

    haha my post was totally 'ranti!'



    Hey C, here is the list of awardees and judges. The panels of judges have been diverse. Not sure who here is specifically Latino; in fact, my year, there was apparently someone who contacted the Academy to tell them, "Finally, you have awarded a Latina," only to write them back and tell them I'm not Latina after all.

    Re: "but no doubt not all judges are able to appreciate such things if you know what i mean."

    So this goes back to aesthetics, right? And how they are linked to political concerns.

    "ranti" indeed! Mee too.

  6. yeah, i dig the diversity of the panels–not sure who is latino either, but maybe francisco knows–haha that's so funny and sad.

    did i tell you on pennsound i'm listed as 'samoan'. 'finally a samoan on pennsound!' etc

    yeah, it def goes back to aesthetics but at least to me doesnt separate completely from identity–anyhoo, more on this later!!! stop trying to bait me 😉 hee hee


  7. just as a disclaimer, I don't have the same level of personal stakes w/regard to poetry contests as y'all b/c of genre. so I'm mostly just commenting from a spectator and/or related colleague kind of standpoint.

    Craig asks:
    and what wouldve happened if herrera chose a white poet? is it so much different than major not choosing any winner?

    I'm kind of baffled by the year no one won the Cave Canem prize. the website states that the prize is "dedicated to the discovery of exceptional manuscripts by African American poets"– did the judge not think any of the manuscripts were exceptional and deserving enough? but the funding was there, the publisher was ready, so why not chalk it up to an off year and select the best of the bunch to give a young poet the opportunity? so yes, I think this is quite a bit different from a poet of color selecting a white poet as prize winner, since in the latter case a book of poetry is still getting published using the available resources.

    perhaps you're hinting at the notion of withholding? I'd agree in the case of C. Major–the prize was reserved for an African American poet and he elected not to award it to one. in the hypothetical case of Herrera, I'm not so sure. was that prize automatically symbolically reserved for a Latina/o poet on the basis of Herrera's ethnicity and political/aesthetic positions?

    no doubt a lot of people are thinking that Natasha Tretheway, having won a Cave Canem prize as well as the Pulitzer, should have given back to the community by awarding NPS to an African American poet. these questions and this kind of scrutiny will always be there. and hmmm, I didn't know that about the stats of the Whitman award.

    but i know many folks just won't submit to a contest judged by a white poet, even if the aesthetics might relate

    even if the aesthetics might relate? then why not enter? I'm baffled.

    I'm not saying anything new here, and like many on all sides of the discussion, I'm kind of fed up with the oppressive notion of identity and how it both is and isn't tied up with politics, depending on who's wielding the term and what's most convenient.

    personally, I think prizes are a good thing for industry benchmarking and for providing a publishing opportunity for some poetry manuscripts. but I don't put much stock in them as vehicles for activism or aesthetic valuation, except on a superficial symbolic level. in other words, for me it's not so much that a winner has won a prize, but what they do with it, what they say in their writing and in their activities, on or off the page. it's more meaningful to me that, say, Claudia Rankine teaches on the faculty of Cave Canem than that she addresses overtly political themes in her poetry or awards prizes to poets of color whenever she's asked to be a judge. just as it's more meaningful to me that you review widely and publish an astonishing range of chapbooks through Achiote, or that Barbara writes about politics in and around ethnic poetry on the Harriet blog. I wouldn't care who you awarded your prizes to.

    (tellingly, my word ver looks almost white indie and twee: "patuddle")

  8. Hello all, a couple of points: Pam, re: the non-awarding of the Cave Canem Prize, I agree. There is/was an obligation to select the best African American poet who'd submitted, given the org's mission. I also think that Juan Felipe Herrera was under no obligation to select a Latino/a poet for the Whitman, but took it upon himself to politicize his position as a Xicano poet who was a Whitman judge. Similarly, Tretheway was under no obligation in her position as a NPS judge. I can't say one way or another what is the correct thing to do; I can only say that I would more likely act as JFH did if I were in this position.

    I realize I am growing more and more ambivalent about identity politics and poetry, even as I teach and review the work of poets of color which I think of as political, all the time, and make it a point to do so, so Craig, I'm not trying to "bait" you as much as I am just forwarding my particular set of concerns as an "ethnic" poet, or poet of color engaging in what Rigoberto Gonzalez would call literary activism.

    Wow, that paragraph was kind of circular. Sorry. is the Tinfish post I was telling you about.

  9. yay for comments!

    hey pam, def more invested here…as the poetry industry moves more towards contests it concerns me that there is very little diversity in terms of who's judging. but maybe this is a good thing too as it forces many more to turn towards cave, kundi, montoya and ethnic-specific/focused publishers.

    agree with what you say about cave that year. the similarity i see is that in both cases no new book by a writer of color is published. kind of a roundabout way to say that.

    the awk thing about herrera as judge was that there were two white poets who emailed me and asked which latino poet do i think herrera would choose? wtf. i never assumed herrera would choose a latino poet (not 'auto symbolic'), but i def felt that many ethnic writers had an advantage in being chosen.

    but now writers of color will have to wait til 2015 before winning the whitman again.

    the sense i get in terms of not submitting even tho aesthetics match is the feeling that the judge 'wont understand where i'm coming from' in terms of racial content. but i think it's more of a general defeatist feeling.

    i love your last paragraph!


  10. hey b, def agree with first paragraph.

    haha i didnt mean 'bait' in a bad way, just that i want to comment on the broader issues in a new post.

    gonna go read the Tinfish post now 🙂


  11. As far as I can tell, no Latin@ poet has ever served on the James Laughlin panel.

    A forthcoming AWP book prize is poetry is going to be judged by Alberto Rios. And a forthcoming AWP nonfiction book prize is going to be judged by Luis Alberto Urrea.

    The next final judge for the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize is the Cuban-American poet, Silvia Curbelo. Deadline: January 15, 2010

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s