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.