Erika Meitner, In the Poetry Contest Gulags: Project vs. Mix-tape Books

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes for a good book of poems.  And by ‘good’ I mean everything from a book that’s a satisfying read to one that’s so stunning it absolutely knocks me on my ass and makes me want to send a copy to everyone I know.  This is partly because I’m in the middle of putting together a new book of my own, and also looking at a few manuscripts for poet-friends.  It’s also because I’ve been reading a ton of recently published books in an attempt to pick a few for my MFA poetry workshop this coming spring.  But mostly my ruminations were inspired by the fact that I took on a formidable project this year:  screening somewhere between 400 and 500 poetry manuscripts for one of the largest and most aesthetically diverse poetry book contests in America.  I received one-third of the submissions to the contest (there were two other screeners too), which came monthly, starting in February of this past year, in beat-up white copy-paper boxes coated in packing tape, and took up most of my office.  I didn’t do it for the ten pounds of binder clips, or the money, despite the fact that this gig did pay—though not nearly enough to compensate me for the hours spent reading countless poetry manuscripts, and winnowing my pile down to a mere 15 by June to pass on to the next round of judges.

I took on this semi-Herculean task because I was curious to see what was ‘out there’ in the pre-sorted poetry world.  As an avid reader of very contemporary American poetry, I’m used to having my collections pre-filtered for me by presses small and large—which is to say that, like other poetry connoisseurs, I normally read published books.  Were there manuscripts out there that were bone-shakingly good, but weren’t getting published because of [fill in the blank with a difficult aesthetic or off-beat subject]?  I also screened all these books to make myself a better teacher.  As a faculty member in the MFA program at Virginia Tech, I serve as a main advisor and reader for students’ theses.  These theses (some with more work, some with less) will eventually become first poetry book manuscripts.  I wanted to see how my students’ work stacked up to the submissions.  I wanted to note, while I was mid-process, what made a successful submission and what made me toss a manuscript aside.

So that’s how and why, this spring, I found myself staring down a teetering stack of people’s poetic accomplishments (and hopes, and dreams), pages binder-clipped neatly together, manuscripts numbered so that each submission would remain anonymous.  I learned a few things really quickly:  most people front-load their manuscripts (aka, put their strongest 5-10 poems up front); many people are partial to really awful fonts (like Calibri or Arial or Gill Sans); generally, good manuscripts are not going undiscovered (as I later learned many of the manuscripts I chose had been pulled from the contest, as they had already won other contests and were slated to be published); and most importantly, I could only read about 20 manuscripts a day without slowly losing my will to live.  This was not because the manuscripts were poorly written—quite the opposite was true:  there were very few truly terrible manuscripts.  I was sure I would be able to eliminate many right away, but that just wasn’t the case; most were at least serviceable, if not totally fine, and nearly all included at least a few compelling poems.  And I had to choose between them.

When I told a poet-friend I was screening approximately a zillion manuscripts, she posited that as an initial screener dealing with sheer volume, I would be influenced by the apparent coherence of ‘project books’—that I would gravitate toward sequences of poems because they seemed automatically like books and it would be easier to trust them somehow, though both of us agreed that we, in general, as readers of poetry, prefer books that offer the reader a variance in sensibility and approach.  Which leads to my first (potentially false) dualism in here:  there are ‘project’ books, and there are ‘mix-tape’ books.  Joel Brouwer has a great post about this up (from 2009) at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Blog, and I’m stealing the “mix-tape” designation from Katrina Vandenberg’s excellent article in Poets & Writers called “Putting Your Poetry in Order: The Mix-Tape Strategy”.  In his post, Brouwer outlines the current wave of project books, and ultimately decides that this distinction comes down to a difference in process on the part of the poet; “Which comes first,” he asks, “the poems or the project?”  And Vandenberg offers truly helpful strategies for organizing a collection, ending with a warning: “Don’t get wrapped up in a book’s concept at the expense of its poems. We’ve all seen books so focused on a theme that their individual poems are as bloodless and forgettable as the songs on an Emerson, Lake & Palmer album.”

I am not a project-book poet.  Part of this has to do with my own peripatetic sensibilities—I want to write about what feels most compelling to me at any given moment, emotionally and intellectually, in a way that isn’t predetermined, and later, I’ll put together a book from these poems.  And while my poems often hash over recurring themes (women’s bodies, consumerism, sex, loss, Judaism, etc.), they do it via constantly shifting subject material and landscapes.  And while I admire project-book poets who set out to write their book with a predetermined idea (and downright love many project books), I often think of the difference between the two types of books in musical terms—do I want to produce a concept album, like Radiohead’s Kid A or The Flaming Lips’ Zaireeka, or be more of a stand-alone hit-generator, like REM or Lady Gaga?  Are the two categories mutually exclusive?  Not always, but most days they seem to be.  This brings me back (somewhat circuitously) to my friend’s question of whether or not project books have an advantage in the initial throes of the contest process.  And my answer is unsatisfying:  it depends.

While having a project can certainly make a manuscript easier to grasp and remember from the start (“Oh, the villanelles about the life of Joe Namath—I remember that one!”), as a screener, I had a much harder time figuring out whether or not a connected poetic sequence was working, or if I could trust it.  Many, many manuscripts suffered from the Emerson, Lake & Palmer problem—the author felt like they had to plow on with the concept, even when it had clearly outlived its artistic life-span by the 10th poem.  With heavily structured project books and sequences (whether they were chronicles of one speaker’s life, or studies of an idea or image or theme), you either buy into the project or you don’t—there’s not much middle ground.  And if you don’t, then the whole project tends to fall apart and you have to set it aside.  More varied books can withstand a few weaker poems without the entire concept of the book being called into question.  With more loosely structured books, there was always the possibility that I might turn the page, and find something totally different, shocking, or compelling.

By the end of my screening stint, despite my personal penchant for more eclectic books, a full half of my pile of finalists were made up of ‘project’ books:  there were books about dead girls or airplanes or gay lovers or Antarctica; there were books consisting entirely of prayers or lullabies or sonnets or erasures—and these were all insanely smart, tight projects.  One thing I didn’t count on though, before I started reading through my piles, was that I would be able to see distinct trends in subject material running throughout these manuscripts.  But there were.  And here I leave you with a brief (and incomplete) taxonomy of some themes and structuring devices that currently populate as-yet-unpublished contemporary American poetry manuscripts:

A) The Maurice Manning Tribute Project – a book-length sequence of poems, often written as a sort of novel-in-verse, that chronicles a young boy coming of age on a farm or ranch or in some kind of rural setting, some of which are more experimental in their syntax and dialect and ambitions, and some of which are not (most likely influenced by Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions; see also: Romey’s Order by Atsuro Riley).

B) The Adventures of Marie Antoinette’s Courtier – a ‘project book’ of sequential poems about (or in the voice of) an invented figure who lived in an historically significant time, but was not a person of note themselves, though they managed to observe important events in a mildly tangential way.  These manuscripts usually involved a love affair of some kind, and an untimely death.

C) The Eurail Pass Book (also known as the ‘I toured around Europe and all I got were these lousy poems’ keepsake) – features or includes poems about different (usually Western) European locales and the poet’s musings on (or experiences in) said locales (and their famous monuments or artworks), strategically placed throughout the manuscript to give a collection that is most often really about heartbreak some kind of geographic cohesiveness.

D) The Hallelujah Manuscript – a collection which arranges itself according to liturgical concepts (the order of a prayer service), a religious calendar, or a holy book of some kind (bible included), is usually Christian in outlook and content, and contains either heavy use of litany/apostrophe or deep philosophical treatises in verse on the nature of the divine.

E) The Signpost Sequence – a generally elliptical, voice-driven book that will feature a poem with the same title every 8-10 poems, to give the collection a sort of forced unity.
F) The Prozac Variations – all or most of a book that deals with the author’s own mental instability or that of a close family member, and usually involves at least one, but generally more, ‘in the institution’ poems and/or odes to specific medications.

G) The Frequent Flier Miles Project – a surprising number of manuscripts grappled (usually in experimental ways) with the act of flying on commercial airlines: the bland landscape of airports and planes, the act of travel itself, the ruminations the act inspires.

Some additional resources for those of you compiling first books:

“Dynamic Design: The Structure of Books of Poems” by Natasha Sajé, and a great list of basic organizing strategies for your manuscript, from Alberto Ríos.

Erika Meitner is the author of three books of poems—Inventory at the All-night Drugstore (Anhinga Press, 2003); Ideal Cities (Harper Perennial, 2010), which was a 2009 National Poetry Series winner; and Makeshift Instructions for Vigilant Girls (Anhinga Press, 2011), which was a finalist or semi-finalist at fifteen different book contests before Anhinga Press agreed to publish it.  Her poems have appeared in journals including APR, Tin House, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review, and on Slate.com, and she’s been anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2011 and Best African American Essays 2010.  She is currently an assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she teaches in the MFA program.  You can find her online at www.erikameitner.com.

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