Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Poet Stacey Lynn Brown recently posted about her horrible experience with a poetry book contest. I'll just quickly summarize: After having come close 19 times and having won once only to have the win rescinded when it was discovered that Stacey and the judge had gone to the same high school, just as she was ready to give up, finally, finally came the phone call telling Stacey that her manuscript had won. A contract was signed and Stacey looked forward to her first full-length collection. Things went downhill fast. She and the publisher disagreed on many issues. This contentious situation ultimately resulted in the publisher withdrawing the offer to publish and asking for a return of the contest prize money. Stacey engaged an attorney and prevailed. That is, she did not have to return the money and the rights to the book were returned to her. But she's still out one book and all those nice dreams she had.
Since the name of the press is now readily available at various blogs, I'll just say it's Cider Press. Now I've had a rather nice relationship with this editor and her journal. She published a poem of mine some years ago and then featured me on a women's website—a nice bio and write-up and three poems. Later she published another poem. Then last year she wrote a very nice review of my second book. The journal, Cider Press Review, is attractively done with perfect binding and a glossy color cover.
Several years ago the publisher and her partner decided to expand and begin a book contest. They engage a reputable judge for the contest. This past year's judge was Tony Hoagland. The upcoming contest judge is Lucille Clifton. The prize is the typical $1000 and 25 copies. Although the press does not have a distributor, the books appear to be nicely assembled. I have Anne Caston's Judah's Lion, the 2006 winner, in front of me right now. Although I find the cover unappealing, the inside looks fine to me. So it seems really unfortunate that things fell apart so badly this year.
Since I've heard / read only one side of the story, I can't make a judgment. But surely there's much to be learned from this story.
The whole thing makes me very grateful for and appreciative of my own publisher who is wonderful to work with and very accommodating. But once I had an altogether different experience and I learned a lot from it. Back in 1997 I entered a contest, not a manuscript contest but a single poem contest. The prize was $100 and a chapbook. Great! But not for long.
I was asked to go to the home of the woman who was acting as editor and publisher for the group that had sponsored the contest. It was on a freezing cold day, the roads covered with ice. She lived on a hill. I parked at the base of the hill in a restaurant parking lot and walked up the hill. As soon as I knocked on the door, the woman told me I had to move my car, so back down the hill I went, furious. When I entered her house, I could not believe the disgusting mess. The kitchen was something out of a Stephen King horror story. Piles of newspapers, books, garbage. Four cats, one of which took an instant dislike to me and repeatedly sunk its claws into me. Model airplanes and stuffed monkeys hanging off the ceiling pipes. One cat with a hairball in its throat.
I'd brought a sheaf of poems with me so that we could assemble the chapbook. It was soon clear that the woman wanted much more authority over my poems than I wanted to give her. But we selected 25 poems. They were put on a disk and I was asked to proofread. Tons of mistakes! I fixed them. Not a problem, but she seemed miffed that I hadn't made some of her suggested changes to individual poems.
Then she asked me to return to her house to select the cover paper. When I arrived, she showed me a hideous lime green. I asked what other colors she had. No other colors. A wasted trip and lime green was the color. I then waited for the publication of the chapbook.
Another part of my prize was a reading with a well-known poet. A few days before the reading, the woman asked me to again return to her house so I could pick up some copies of the chapbook. When I arrived, my heart plunged to the floor as I learned that on her own authority she'd deleted 10 poems from the collection, most of them my best poems! The font size was so small as to be almost unreadable. Some poems stopped midway down a page, then continued on another page. It was an abomination.
On the night of the reading, I was handed a box of chapbooks. I quickly passed them to my husband and told him to get them out of there. I didn't want to sell them or give them away. I was completely ashamed of them. Mortified to have anyone see them.
My husband later suggested that since I'd legitimately won the chapbook I was entitled to have the collection I wanted. So we paid for it to be redone at a local print shop. I knew someone who worked there and was given a good deal. I restored the missing poems, chose a lovely linen paper, and added black end pages with silver sparkles. The result was something I could feel proud of. Was my chapbook then a self-published work? I don't know. I do know that the story had a happy ending.
Poetry Daily had already featured one of the poems when it first was published in Beloit Poetry Journal. They'd also planned to feature a second poem from the same journal, but had delayed doing so. By the time they got to it, the redone chapbook was done, and Poetry Daily was very nice about featuring that, too. I sold a bunch as a result. (Spring Church Books was carrying the book.) Then Garrison Keillor spotted that second poem and featured it at The Writer's Almanac. Sold a bunch more. Then in 2003 when my first book came out, Keillor featured the same poem again. Later he used the poem in his anthology, Good Poems for Hard Times. Then he read it at the Dueling Anthologists reading with Billy Collins at the 92nd St. Y in NYC. By the way, that was one of the 10 poems the woman had deleted from the chapbook!
I hope Stacey's story, too, will have a happy ending.
If you're wondering whatever happened to those lime green chapbooks, I destroyed them. All but two. Those I keep to remind myself that things can go wrong, that it's essential to know who you're dealing with, and that sometimes the book you want isn't the book you want after all. Put your work into the hands of people who will take good care of it. There was no way I could have examined earlier chapbooks from that woman as there weren't any. Nevertheless, I advise anyone with a manuscript to be selective about the contests you enter.
Come back tomorrow for the other side of the Cider Press story.