Sometimes writers of color have to go to great lengths to achieve success in this poetry world. We have to work twice as hard to find publishers, readers, audiences and to receive awards, prizes, and jobs. We suffer from severe TOC anxiety and over-anthologize to compensate. And when we don’t get published in Poetry, when mainstream journals tell us they are afraid to review our books, when the only time we ever win prizes is if the judge is the same color as we are–we feel disempowered.
How to deal with these feelings?
Let me tell you a story about a promising young poet: when I completed my MFA in 2006, I was so excited because I had an edited manuscript: 98 pages of groundbreaking, ambitious, immortal poetry. I was certain I would win every contest I entered, so I only entered one: the Walt Whitman–The Barbaric Yawp of all first book contests. I sent in my manuscript and waited. To no surprise at all, I received a letter months later alerting me that I was a semi-finalist, that the winner would be announced soon. They were just being coy, I mused. Even though I had never read the judge’s work, I knew that someone with such a serious name as “August Kleinzahler” would immediately recognize the serious genius of my work. “Vermont Studio Center here I come!” I said into the mirror.
When the next letter came, I was shocked! Not only did I not win, but I wasn’t even one of the finalists! I remained a lowly semi-finalist. How could this be, I pondered into the mirror. My knee-jerk response: Kleinzahler must be white! I bet the winner was white too! I felt so oppressed that I never, even to this day, entered another book contest. I was so angry I didn’t even bother to read the winning book or to find out anything about the winner or judge.
I share with you my very confessional story as an example of what not to do when trying to get your first book published–and this applies to all writers, not just writers of color.
So what did I learn:
1) Never submit to just one contest. If I could do it all over, I would’ve submitted to at least 4 contests that have a good reputation. Don’t ever think your work is so bad-ass that you don’t need other options.
2) Familiarize yourself with the judge’s work and background. A judge is always more likely (though not guaranteed) to choose a manuscript that speaks to their tastes. There is also a racial component to this: a judge is more likely to choose a poet from a similar ethnic background. It’s can be gendered as well: a judge is more likely to choose someone from the same gender. And yes, one’s sexuality can also come into play. You can’t change this, so be smart and economical about it.
3) Don’t ever assume that you know why your manuscript was not chosen. You don’t know who all the screeners are and you don’t what goes on in the mind of the judge/s. Don’t assume they are stupid or mediocre just because they didn’t choose your brilliant work. Don’t assume they are racist or biased in any way just because they didn’t choose your work that is so great that it transcends race and gender.
4) Let yourself fully feel the pain of rejection. Cry onto the pages of your brilliant manuscript if you need to. This will thicken your skin because I’ll tell you that being a poet means living with rejection (a “double rejection” for writers of color).
5) Become Anis Shivani.
According to Anis Shivani’s website, his manuscript MY TRANQUIL WAR and Other Poems was a semifinalist for the 2010 Noemi book Award and a finalist for the 2010 Bright Hill Press Poetry Book Award. Congrats to Anis! The manuscript sounds a lot like my first book, actually. Which is just to say, it sounds groundbreaking and pure genuis:
“This debut collection, seeking a publisher, represents a unique voice in American poetry, free of solipsistic obsessions and critically engaged with the most important aesthetic, political, and social developments of the recent past. Broad stylistic variation–from formalist restraint to found poetry–reinforces the sweeping historical concerns, which are, however, unified by the search for individual identity in various periods of conformity.” (from Anis’s website)
He was probably as shocked as I was that he didn’t win either of those contests (though I am a bit surprised that he would even bother sending to more than one contest…and to any other contest besides the Whitman). He’s obviously more humble than I am. But like me, he was probably angry that he wasted his hard earned money sullying his radiant manuscript in the corrupt American contest industrial complex, where mediocre MFA students pawed at its holy pages, and idiotic judges who, despite their serious sounding names like “Terrance Hayes” and “Yusef Komunyakaa,” failed to see the blinding light of poetic immortality.
I admire and applaud how Anis dealt with his feelings of disempowerment.
Whereas I played the race card, Anis raised the stakes and went all in with his article: “POETRY BOOK CONTESTS SHOULD BE ABOLISHED: WHY CONTESTS ARE THE STUPIDEST WAY TO PUBLISH FIRST BOOKS.” What’s genius about this article is that he does such a good job convincing me that the poetry contest system is partially responsible for “A halt to aesthetic progression,” “an encouragement of mediocrity,” and “a corruption of the poetic process itself.” I am with you, Anis.
Plus, it’s the Huffington Post, so it must be true, right?
Here’s what you have to know about us writers of color: We are clever and resourceful and fierce and relentless. Do not f*ck with us. Anis is one of our best and brightest. He, after all, “represents a unique voice in American poetry.” What is so unique? His plan: to convince all us immortal poets that the contest system is beneath us and therefore we won’t enter them because we are too immortal for that. A brilliant way to get rid of the competition. Anis, I think the 2011 contest season will be quite a tranquil war for you indeed.