I’m starting to think about where and how to publish a chapbook, and I thought I would think it through out loud and share what I’m learning. If it helps somebody else, that’s wonderful and if not – I find that writing things out really helps me clarify my own thoughts on the matter. The standard caveats apply, of course; I’m no expert – I’m muddling through this for the first time myself – and obviously if you’re thinking about publishing a chapbook you’re going to want to do your own legwork, but maybe my questions for myself will trigger some questions of your own, or a I’ll mention a press you hadn’t come across and want to investigate further.
It seems to me the first question regarding publishing a chapbook is, should I enter contests or not? That’s one you really have to answer for yourself, but in my opinion a poet should ask herself the following big picture questions:
- Is my manuscript ready to go? Really ready? Really, really ready?
- Where am I in my life-cycle as a poet and where do I want to go next? Would winning a contest help me with that goal, and if so, how?
- Are the costs worth the potential rewards?
It can be a little hard to imagine that there’s a downside to entering contests. If you have faith in your manuscript (and if you don’t have faith in your manuscript you shouldn’t be sending it anywhere yet, contest or otherwise), what’s to lose? You could win, and most contests come with a cash reward, a print run, and bragging rights. What’s not to like about that? And if you don’t win, you’re out your entry fee but there’s no harm done and your entry helped support a contest that contributes to a healthy poetry community. I’ll confess that my own first reaction is that contests are a win-win situation – if you set a budget and stick to it – so why not?
And I think that gut reaction is exactly why a poet needs to ask the big picture question Where am I in my life-cycle as a poet and where do I want to go next? Would winning a contest help me with that goal, and if so, how? For me – and remember, this is just me thinking out loud about if I want to enter contests or not – that’s the key question. When would winning a contest be particularly helpful, helpful enough to be worth the entry fees and the waiting for results and keeping track of all the various rules and regulations and submission requirements? (I don’t know about you, but I find the practicalities of trying to get published – cover letters and proof-reading and submitting and submission tracking – take up an awful lot of time and occupy too much space in my head so I definitely consider this part of the cost of a contest.) Bragging rights are great, but are bragging rights alone worth several hundred dollars in entry fees?
Here’s when I think contests would be particularly helpful:
- If you’re getting ready to apply to MFA programs or other advanced programs, and if the results will be out in time to include on your application package, being the winner of a chapbook contest could be pretty nice.
- You’re applying for a fellowship or residency (I suppose that falls under the above).
- You’re looking for academic jobs.
- You’re already half-way through a full-length manuscript; having an existing publishing track record, as a contest winner no less, might be helpful shopping the next project.
It seems to me all of that is a way of saying, if you’re in a position to genuinely take advantage of the momentum winning a contest might provide then contests could be especially worthwhile. The more prepared you are to take the next step, to see where you want a contest to take you, the more worthwhile it becomes. Of course, not everybody can win a contest and probability dictates that most entrants won’t, so the benefits of entering a contest are only potential benefits whereas your costs are set. It will never be bad to be a contest winner so the question each writer has to ask is if the potential benefits are worth the certain costs.
If you’ve thought about the big picture issues and you decide to enter contests, here are a few more questions to consider:
- What’s my budget? Fees vary from contest to contest; my limited research at this point shows a lot hovering in the $25.00 range. And don’t forget about postage costs: like fees, page limits vary from contest to contest, so your manuscript could be 16 pages or it could run up to about 30. Once you’ve finished your really, really ready to go manuscript, print it out on the paper you will be using for your entries, include a cover letter and any other pages of documentation required (for example some contests want two title pages, one containing identifying information and one with no identifying information), and bring it to the post office and find out how much postage will be. That is part of your costs. Personally, I think a poet should set a firm budget first and then see what contests look interesting; there’s the danger of “oh, just one more, it’s only $25.00″ and before you know it you’ve sunk a lot more money in contests than you thought you would.
- What are the simultaneous submission policies? Is entering this contest going to lock up the whole manuscript and for how long?
Now you’re down to the nitty-gritty and you need to ask some specific questions about the contests you’re looking at:
- Do I meet the eligibility requirements? (Age, gender, race, residency or citizenship status but also if the contest is limited to poets who have not yet published a book or chapbook.)
- What are the possibilities regarding simultaneous submissions?
- How is the contest judged? Are entries read blind? Does the organization adhere to the contest code of ethics established by the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses? Basically, are the contest’s policies transparent?
- Is there a named judge? Am I familiar with the judge’s work?
- Is this a new contest or does it have an established track record? Who are some of the past winners?
- If winning comes with obligations such as giving certain readings or attending a ceremony, can I fulfill those obligations? (Probably not a big issue for most people, and more likely to be a condition of book prizes than chapbook prizes, but still worth looking into. Writers living abroad especially need to think about these things.)
- How long will it take for entrants to be notified? Will all entrants be notified or only the winners? Do I want to have my work out for that long?
- What is the prize? What is the print run and distribution plan?
- And finally, set up a tracking system to keep track of what contests you’ve entered and when, who judged them (if known), fees paid, and expected notification date if known.
Poets & Writers includes a special section on writing contests every year in the May/June issue; this year’s issue should be on the newsstands now so if you’re at that stage with your work (in any genre) you should run out and pick that up. And as always, search engines are your friend.
I’ll be posting on and off as I continue to look into my options. Happy submitting!Goals goals, on writing, Poetry | Comment (0)
Here’s just a sample of what I’ve been reading on the net lately. Some of it’s recent, and some of it is from a few years back, but recently discovered by me.
At Plume, “Deceiving the Gods” by Ellen Bass.
At the always wonderful Linebreak, “Because” by Michelle Bitting.
Up this week at Heron Tree, “To a Hymn Book” by Jeff Hardin.
From the current issue of Pebble Lake Review, “Saliferous” by Hala Alyan.
Also from VQR (fall of 2012), “What Is The Wholesale Price of The Traveler’s Vade Mecum?” by Sandra Beasley.
And from a 2010 issue of Rattle, “On Loved Ones Telling the Dying to ‘Let Go’” by Reeves Keyworth.
Enjoy! What are you reading these days?Poetry roundup | Comment (0)
My poem “Winter Passage” is up at Heron Tree this week. I really like the Heron Tree format: they publish one poem a week and it’s featured all week. New poems are published each Sunday and previous poems are available in the archives. Check them out!Poetry, Shameless self-promotion | Comments (2)
Every year the sirens catch me by surprise. They shouldn’t; it’s a well-established ritual that Switzerland tests the warning sirens of the civil defense system every year at 13:30 on the first Wednesday in February. But it seems to me that the public service announcements reminding people of the annual test are less prominent than they used to be, or maybe it’s just that way out in the village. Things are easy to miss out here. So yesterday as I was finishing up in the kitchen and the boys were playing a hockey video game (neither of them have school or Kindergarten Wednesday afternoons) I thought I heard sirens. I ignored it for a few minutes, thinking it was background noise on the video game – the stadium sounds incorporated in the game are full of sirens and horns when somebody scores a goal – and then I finally asked the boys to turn the volume off for a minute and there it was: the rolling ascending and descending tones of sirens. Then I looked at the calendar and the clock and remembered: testing the General Alarm.
We live a bit outside the village; the alarm is hard to hear out here but I did hear it. But they don’t take any chances out in the farming village, and part of the general alarm system out here involves a fire truck driving out to the more remote houses. They drove by, siren going, and turned around in my in-laws’ driveway and then, presumably, continued on to the other farm a little further down on the other side of the main road.
For us the testing lasted half an hour. In areas of the country with a number of dams – the Ticino, for example – there is then a second testing of the Water Emergency Sirens. These warning sirens make a different noise from the General Alarm. I’ve never heard them, because they’re not used where I am, but I understand it’s a series of 12 long tones.
Should the General Alarm sound at other than the expected time, residents should turn on the TV or radio for more information; you should also notify your neighbors to make sure they heard it. If the Water Alarm sounds unexpectedly – evacuate immediately.
Over the years I’ve known a few people who flat out hate the siren testing (and yes, they’re no fun when they wake the sleeping toddler from the afternoon nap, but it’s only once a year) but for me it’s one of those quirky, wonderful things I’ve come to love about the Alpine Fortress. I mean, they sent a fire truck out here, just for the six of us! You’ve got to love that just a little bit.
I found this YouTube video sample of what the siren testing sounds like around the Zürcher See (lake of Zürich). Turn your volume down if you’re at work, you might startle somebody!Switzerland | Comment (0)
As I cull poem after poem from my chapbook, I’m drawing strength from these lines by Annie Dillard (in The Writing Life).
The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin.
I had thought my chapbook was about an event in the narrator’s life, but it’s not. It’s about the aftermath, and all the poems about the event are just background in my head. Only the aftermath poems matter.My process, on writing, Words to swoon over | Comments (2)
How set yourself spinning? Where is an edge – a dangerous edge – and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
I’ve had a poem accepted at Heron Tree – it’s not up yet; I’ll be sure to link to it when it goes live – but this isn’t about that. It’s about the earlier version of that same poem that a different journal passed on (and I’d like to thank those editors for passing on it; they were right, of course) and the revision that made the difference.
It’s a tricky thing getting that notification back from a journal: sorry, we’re unable to use this piece. So far, in my short experience in sending out work for publication, the rejection letters/emails I’ve received have almost always been of the form rejection variety. I understand that and don’t begrudge editors one bit for not commenting on the whys or hows of the rejection process – editors are busy, generally unpaid, doing their best to keep up with what I understand to be a steady increase in the number of submissions they receive. They can’t comment on every piece and I don’t expect them to; it’s wonderful when it happens, but I understand why it’s not common practice. Once or twice I have received feedback from an editor: one editor commented that the particular poems she read aren’t for her but she liked the voice and would I please send new work in the future (taking the advice of Kelli Russell Agodon from this post, I did submit again and sooner rather than later) and once I received the comment that a translation of a Swiss phrase I used in a poem would have been helpful. But for the most part, I’m never sure why a particular journal passed on a particular work.
I always take a hard look at my poems after a rejection letter. Generally, after looking the poems over, I still believe in them as they stands and assume that they just weren’t right for the journal for whatever reason but not that the poems are on their face artistically unsound. I’m so slow about submitting my work that I rarely send out something that hasn’t been worked over and over (which sometimes can be the problem, I suppose, if I edit the poor thing to death, dousing the initial spark that set it off in the first place). Sometimes I do see that I sent the piece out one draft too soon: I’ll see a place where I could push a little harder; a word that could be fresher or more precise (perhaps use “vestiges” rather than “traces” or the other way around); an image that isn’t working. And sometimes, I can see that I was just holding back.
That’s the case with this poem, and I’m not sure why I didn’t see it in the earlier submission. (Well, that’s the Holy Grail, isn’t it, to read your own work as clearly as your best critique partner reads it? Clearly I’m still on the quest…) The earlier version used lovely language but it was…reserved. Careful. The revision brings the narrator more clearly into focus, and the narrator has something at stake. I’m even willing to say that Imight have something at stake in this poem now. I thought there was something at stake in the earlier version, I must have believed that or I wouldn’t have sent it out – I generally don’t go off half-cocked when it comes to my work – but looking back at that version now, I can see how it skirted the issue. It leaned heavily on language to disguise the fact that it was still keeping its secret; the revision (I think) lets the reader see past the language to the truth.
This goes right to the heart of my writing resolution for the year: to take greater risks in my writing, greater emotional risk, to go as I said in my writing goals post “closer to the edge and to stay there a beat longer than is comfortable.” I think the later version of this poem does that, and I think that’s why it was picked up this time around. Now, to learn how to recognize that sooner.
Now, to learn how to climb the trail to that dangerous edge.My process, Poetry | Comments (3)