No, no, no; or, Why Do I Keep Agreeing to Be a First-Round Reader; or, More on Doubt

I’m first-round-reading again for a poetry contest, and it’s usually very informative (I’ve written several blog post about lessons learned). But this time feels different. I think it’s because I myself am doing no writing, and have received a rejection every day for a week from work I’ve sent out. So as I encounter manuscripts I think are weaker than others, they seem to become a mirror of my own fears about my own work. Which is working me into paroxysms. 

All the manuscripts are competent. All have merit. But my job is to choose only up to 5— out of 25+ manuscripts — to move on to the next readers. So that’s a lot of manuscripts to say no to, and I have to, in my own mind, identify why I’m moving them into my No pile. I have to have good reason. But I can’t always articulate it, and that’s got me agonizing over my assessment prowess. And then as I articulate it I begin to question not only my own assessment but also my own work. Aargh.

For example, one manuscript: again, perfectly fine poems, but the thought occurred to me that too many of the poems seemed, and this is the word that popped into my head: “solipsistic.” But wait, I said. What the hell do I mean by that? That’s a terrible word.

As I’ve already talked about in the past in this space, I use a lot of “I” in my poems. Is that solipsistic? 
But wait, here’s another manuscript that I’ve shuffled into my Good Maybe pile. And look: a ton of “I” poems. So what is this other manuscript doing?

It seems like the Maybe manuscript is using the “I” to look through the speaker self at the world, but the No manuscript poems seem to stop at the speaker self and never really get beyond. 

So which kind of “I” poems am I writing? Oy. 

In the end, also, the No manuscript had an awful lot of poems talking about writing poetry or the act of seeing, which ended up calling attention to the speaker rather than the act. Note to self: don’t write poems about me writing poems. 

Here’s another one I put into the No pile, and my reasoning was that it felt, and here’s the word that came to me: “overwritten.” Okay, what on earth does that mean? Ridiculous word.

My analysis of my own analysis of “overwritten”: Too many multisyllabic words, overly lyrical descriptions, overly lofty tone, and for all that readerly work, insufficient poem payoff. OH MY GOD, EXACTLY LIKE MY POEMS!! 

This process may kill me. Or indeed I may never write again. But I’m certainly going to think twice before I agree to be a first round reader again, I swear.

Another Round of Notes from the First Round

It was time again for my task as first-round reader for a poetry book contest. Once again I approached with self-doubt and angst. Once again, I learned some things to apply to my own work.

The twenty-five or so manuscripts I looked at were uniformly pretty well-written, which tells me that people are taking the time to learn something of the craft of writing (or at least reviewing the rules of grammar) and the art of poetry.

But I found that several of these full-length manuscripts felt more like solid chapbooks with other stuff stuffed in around them. This is interesting and a useful cautionary tale. I need to examine my own current full-length ms to make sure I have truly a full group of good poems and not a core of good ones and some bubble wrap.

A corollary to this is that it seems like collections are getting longer and longer. And I’ve noted in an earlier post that contest rules are asking for mss that are of higher and higher page count. I just don’t think this is a good thing. I want a book of poems to be a small world I live in, roaming around, revisiting streets and vistas. I don’t want to wander forever in strange terrain. Too many times I’ve encountered collections that after a while make me say “Enough already.” This is not good for poetry, already fighting an uphill battle for readers. Too many poems invites too many weak poems. I favor shorter and stronger throughout. Whack ’em with some good stuff and go.

“Ahem ahem”: I found that, no lie, 80% of the manuscripts were chock full of epigraphs: epigraphs for the ms as a whole, for sections, for individual poems. And 98% of the time the epigraphs added nothing to the experience of the poem. Why why why do people do this? It seems like a lot of throat clearing and paper shuffling. Unless they provide some vital context, I just don’t see the point. I began to resent this imposition on my time. They’re unnecessary ruffles. Think of Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. If you want to use someone’s line in your work, have at it; just give them a nod in an end note. But epigraphs? Enough. Stop hiding behind someone else. Just start the poem, poet.

I also found often that I didn’t understand people’s line break decisions. I tried counting syllables or beats, in case I was missing a form or something. But an awful lot of the time the line breaks seemed suspiciously random. (I’ve written about line breaks before: Line Item) So I need to go back and stare down my line breaks, justify them to my now line-break crabby and hyper-vigilant self.

Finally I read a couple of mss that were interesting in content but in the end never transcended their own material. I talked about this a little bit last time with regard to essays. Where is the emotional center and how is my vision being shifted? The same goes for poems: experience has to launch to something beyond itself. Otherwise a cigar is just a cigar. And where’s the art in that?

All I Have Is Empty Pockets Now; or, The Submission Fee Dilemma

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have a full length and a chapbook length collection of poetry submitted out hither and yon for rejection — I mean, for publication. (I mean, “publication!” — positive thinking requires exclamation points, don’t you think?) Then just recently while thinking about a recent poem I wrote, I realized it sort of fit with a few other older poems that I still like. And they fit with some other drafts of poems that I’m interested in. And suddenly, I think I have another chapbook!

I greeted this realization with a groan. I can’t afford to have another chapbook!

I’m spending hundreds of dollars on the two I have, each contest, reading fee, sucking at my pocket.

How much is it worth spending on any one manuscript? To torture myself, I totted up how much I’ve spent on the full length manuscript, which started its life as a chapbook, which I also sent out a bit as I was working it outward into full length. A lot of money. At what point do I give it up as good money thrown after bad, a lost cause?

At some point (soon!), I will focus on sending only to publishing companies with free open calls. But I know I can’t do that until about half the poems are published, according to conventional wisdom. But that’s getting expensive too! My list of target lit mags to send to is rapidly diminishing as I refuse to pay reading fees. (Yes, yes, I know the arguments for supporting lit mags with reading fees, and yes, in theory I support the idea, but in reality, it’s budget busting. I buy individual print-based magazines and books at the bookstore.) So I need to do some research and revamp my lit mag list.

If one believes, and I do, that part of the equation of being a writer is having a reader, and if one suspects, and I do, that a more well known publishing company offers the opportunity to have your work read by more readers, or reviewed toward that end, and possibly put you in touch with a wider range of other writers who may inspire or offer collaborative or other kinds of interesting opportunities, then to some degree I have to do this forking forking-out dough to get my work considered.

Or, at least, I think I do.

But for how long? How much? Or do I rethink the whole enterprise?

I’ll pay someone to tell me.

New Notes from a First Round Reader

It’s that time of year again, and I am wading through the entries. Here’s how it works with this publisher: They amass a cadre of first round readers for this full-length poetry manuscript prize, then randomly assign 20-25 titles to each person. Our assignment: Find only a handful to recommend on to the second round readers. The few, intrepid second round readers then choose one or two from their piles to recommend up to The Final Committee, who hash it all out in some hidden corner of the world until the white smoke rises on a new winner.

Here’s the thing: I have an aesthetic. There are kinds of poetry I am highly unlikely to connect with.  There are topics I tend to be bored with. That being said, although I thought no more interesting work can ever be generated at this point, for example, about dead parents, I have found yet a new and inspiring take on the subject. I am always happy to be surprised, happy to be contradicted. I know I have a perspective on poetry that will inevitably exclude collections that others might fall upon gladly and lift to the heavens. I am, at least, aware of my biases, and there are times when I have the sense that a collection might be considered of high merit by someone other than me — in such cases I might throw it back to the editor to suggest someone else read it, or I move it forward in the hopes I’m somehow on track with that intuition, even if the poems themselves are not of great interest to me.

But mostly I just accept that I like what I like, and I’m doing the best I can to remain wide-eyed and open-minded. Ish.

That the publisher has identified a group of readers with varied aesthetic I believe is true, as there are years when the winner is a manuscript I would probably have passed over. This terrifies me, but should be of some comfort to you. When I, yearly, confess my terror to the publisher that my narrow view will fail to catch the Next Great Poet, the publisher waves me off with aplomb, assuring me that they know that good work will be passed over, but that good work also will rise. And there’s always next year.

If your collection is one of those that might fall outside the pie-slice shape of my taste in poetry, I now and publicly apologize. But contests are a crap shoot. You get the first reader you get. That’s why persistence is key. You might send the exact same manuscript to this contest next year and get a more sympathetic reader. It’s just the game.

So, please, I beg you, as a first round reader who knows my limitations, try, try again.

Post-script: Some notes:

– If the instructions say to take out the Acknowledgments, then TAKE OUT THE ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. That you’ve had a poem published in Poetry is not likely to make me more likely to move your work forward.

– Insert page breaks between your poems. Do not just hit return until a new page appears.

– Don’t do fancy formatting with titles. All that work happens when your manuscript gets accepted and goes to layout, and you’ll just have to strip out the fancy stuff anyway. Don’t underline them or bother to italicize them or indent them or such unless you have some particular reason for doing so.

– As I’ve said in previous posts, make sure every poem kicks ass. The more poems you put into a collection, the more likely it is that you’ll include ones that aren’t as strong as others, which weakens the collection. Remember, there are a lot of poets out there, and a lot of people doing good work, and I’m only supposed to forward a handful of the manuscripts, so in the end, I’m looking for reasons NOT to move your manuscript forward. Don’t give them to me.

Previous posts about this experience:…und-reader-redux/…sts-depresses-me/

No Good News: Notes from a Second Round Reader, or Why Judging Poetry Contests Depresses Me

This is a continuation of previous posts called Notes from a First Round Reader. This year, by reason of computer glitch and miscommunication which led to a slight sense of desperation on the part of the publisher, I was asked to be a second round reader. This time I’m to review a dozen or so of the manuscripts that have filtered up from the First Rounders. I’m to pick two or three to be sent up to the Powers That Be. I am one of four people with this task. Terrified with power, I quickly sweep through the first several poems of each manuscript. I more slowly read several more poems in each manuscript. Damn. There is not a damn thing wrong with any of these. If I were to encounter any of them between the covers of a nice looking book, I’d be perfectly content. None of my snarky “Really?”s, none of my “What the…?” or “Are you freaking kidding me?” These are all fine manuscripts. DO YOU KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS? Not only am I going to have trouble picking three, it also means that I now even more profoundly understand the competition when I send my own manuscripts out.

In the face of a dozen perfectly fine manuscripts, I must now try to identify factors that raise a few above the crowd. Now I’m searching for innovative, imaginative approaches — to language, to subject matter, to perspective or approach. I’m looking for something special, new (or, new to me), something to make me say Wow. Mere thoughtful autobiography is not enough, however lovely; musings on motherhood not enough, however, witty or gritty; that death comes to us all — insufficient; the way herons drag desire across a marsh, no; inexplicable juxtapositions of nonsensical utterances however whimsical, nope. I’m looking for guts and invention, for idea and blood.

And all the while I’m nursing a terrible sinking feeling that my poems do NOT yet have that something special, my collections are NOT yet innovative, inventive, or addressing something particularly compelling or in compelling ways. I HAVE TO UP MY GAME. Oh. Large sigh. Damn you, fine poets. Can’t you just go write fiction?


Notes from a First Round Reader Redux

I found myself quibbling quite a bit with Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual book, but I couldn’t help but think recently about his plea for clarity as I was once again enmeshed in my first-round reader duties for a poetry book contest. Wow, I got some really good manuscripts — fresh, creative reading pleasure. Of my pile of 15 this year, 3 asserted themselves right away but many of the rest were strong maybes. Of the maybes and the no pile, several were just too hard to figure out what the heck the poet was up to.  The maybes were at least being unclear in an interesting, energetic way that at least had me thinking the fault in comprehension and appreciation was mine. But in the end, if I can’t come away from a poem seeing the world differently in some way, or maybe not even the world, at least the world of the poem, or maybe the world of poetry, then what am I doing? If I the reader can’t hear what you the poet is saying, then has a poem been actualized? I’ve always resisted thinking of the reader when I write, but I did find myself sympathetic to Kooser’s call to have some regard for the reader, whoever your ideal reader might be. And now after this year’s reading experience, I may need to rethink my own approach. Maybe the reader is a necessary ingredient in the making of a poem — not in the initial impulse, as that would put a damper on it that energizing utterance. But as one part of the editing process, maybe this idea of considering the reader isn’t a bad one. This is a difficult exercise, as, of course, I know what I mean, so how do I go about imagining a reader who is NOT like me, and who may NOT know what I mean when I say the “rooster garbages the snow as a motocross,” or whatever. It will take a different kind of act of imagination. And how will I know when it’s worthwhile to make the reader take a leap with me? Sometimes those readerly leaps are what make reading poetry worthwhile. Hm. So much to think about.

For my earlier Notes from a First Round Reader, see here:…t-round-reader/


Size doesn’t matter. Or does it…

It seems like it used to be that a full length manuscript of poems was 48 – 60 pages, or am I mis-thinking that? Now I see contest after contest that requires at least 60 pages. My manuscripts seem always to fall at around 52 pages. Would adding 8 pages of poetry make it a stronger collection? Why the 60-page minimum? Why a minimum at all? Is more better? I tend to be a minimalist when it comes to editing, paring and paring down to core. But I know in theory anyway that that’s not always the best approach for all poems or all manuscripts. Rarely, however, do I think a poem or manuscript needs more; more frequently it needs more focus or more depth. If that means more actual text, well, that’s what happens along the way. But I find with my own work, anyway, better focus or depth doesn’t usually result in more. My current manuscript at 52 pages seems like a reasonable balance of sections and rhythms. I could probably find a handful of additional poems that fit. But should I? I fear that I’ll just be padding for the sake of making an arbitrary page count. I guess a more useful approach would be to take this as a challenge to write ten more solid poems addressing some of the themes of this collection. Oy.

Notes from a First Round Reader

For several years I have served as a first round reader for a national poetry book prize. This means that the publisher has some faith in my astuteness and sensibilities as a reader of poetry such that they will entrust to me the job of nosing through piles of submissions to identify the five or six or so that should go on to the second round readers (who will identify a few to move up to the final committee). I read anywhere from 20-35, depending on the number of entrants and the number of first round readers. Here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way:

Faced with up to 30-35 manuscripts, my process was to read a handful of poems at the beginning, two or three in the middle, and two or three at the end. In this way I quickly sorted the mss into three piles: Yes, No, and Maybe. If I was not captured steadily by the poems I read, the ms went to the No pile. If every poem I encountered held something of interest, it got a yes. If there was promise but some unevenness in my response, it went to Maybe. I then reviewed each pile to check my response a second time rereading the first poems I’d read, and reading some more. I almost never moved a No to Maybe of Yes, but occasionally moved a Maybe to Yes. Then all the Yesses got a complete scrutiny to find the handful I thought should go to a second round reader.

Here’s what I’ve found:

– The first poem is very important. And the next few. And the ones in the middle, and the ones at the end…oh, heck, every single poem is important. Not one poem can be a throwaway or a filler.

– There are really competent writers writing boring work, and there not very competent writers with really interesting ideas. The Maybe pile was the most heartbreaking because it contained these two cohorts. I learned that I have to bring together the best of my art and craft with a really good idea.

– Themed collections are no better than unthemed. It has been trendy to create themed collections, and they are often fun to read, but I did not find myself choosing them over a more random-seeming collection. My choices were all about the quality of the poems on the whole. A collection didn’t necessarily have to cohere, as long as every poem was fresh and interesting.

– Imaginative + vivid + fully felt = winning combination. By imaginative, I mean evidence of a lively mind at work. By vivid, I mean something special in the language (my preference) or the form or the approach. By fully felt, I mean some emotional gravitas. Any one of these without the others was not enough.

– The sensibility of the press is important, but may be broader than one might think. The contest I read for tends toward lyric poetry, does not tend to produce l.a.n.g.u.a.g.e-y work, and generally could be considered to be conservative in its tastes. But it also has published some somewhat more experimental work. It has been my own sense, and I have heard this echoed by other readers, that we are each aware of our prejudices about the kind of poetry we like, and we deliberately try to keep an open mind, and to find reasons to say Yes to a collection rather than No.