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Author Topic: I have my opinion  (Read 57645 times)
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alan
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« on: May 01, 2005, 10:23:40 AM »

You, readers, may form yours.

Scott Cairns, who edits this prize series, and I have had a pleasant exchange of emails in the first of my new attempt to be a kinder, gentler Foetry.  I appreciate his willingness to talk with me, and to answer questions honestly.

He carefully explained the screening process, but this is how we differ in our vision:

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I decided a long time ago (the first year I did this, actually) that no one would ever win because we were friends, but also (and this is where you and I probably part company) that no one would ever lose because we were friends.


Now here is my honest concern: Cairns studied at Utah alongside this year's winner, Michael White, whom I know.  Cairns also studied at Utah alongside Kathy Fagan, who won a few years ago.  If Cairns has made this conscious decision not to exclude manuscripts of friends, how do we know how many friends make it to the finalist pool?

Michael White says he never met the final judge, Paul Mariani, but was Michael White unfairly privileged to remain in the pool?  Should we remember that White colluded with Strand in previous contests, or keep this as a different matter?  Are there connections between Cairns and the other people in the finalist pool?

Cairns says,
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. . .  this is an opportune moment for you to fine tune the criteria, reflecting a more realistic sense of 1) how small the poetry world is, and 2) how the degree of relationship-- acquaintance, colleague, friend, student, lover, spouse, etc.--might yield a respective degree of conflict.


So, I'm putting a call out.  What do you think about our discussion of the Vassar Miller specifically?  And we've heard the "small world" argument many times here.  Is the poetry world so small that any degree of relationship is too close?
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"You especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it -- don't cheat with it.” -- Ernest Hemingway
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Alan Cordle
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« Reply #1 on: May 01, 2005, 10:32:51 AM »

To the suggestion that the world of poetry is a small one:

I would point that there are 3,500 creative writing programs in this country. You can obtain numbers from AWP on how many MFAs have matriculated since 1970. Would an estimate of 150,000 to 250,000 be off the mark? Given that there are that many writing program graduates and that the average number of submissions to the major poetry contests (AWP, Yale Poetry Series) is 1,000 or more the poetry world is a small one only if you do not move out of your own literary circles. There are plenty of ways to enlarge that small circle. One way would be to eliminate the eligibility of anyone connected to or who has had a relationship with the judges.

I would also point out that the world of private finance (where I work) is a very small world. The world of brokerage in Boston, New York or London is a small world. And yet there are ethical considerations that are binding within the financial industry. Eliot Spitzer brought this to the fore when he set out to clean up the mutual fund/brokerage/investment community. Why should we accept that the standards for teachers (TEACHERS – because the MFA degreed student normally goes into a college/university to teach) are lower than those for people who buy and sell corn, wheat or hog futures or stocks at the stock exchange (I have nothing against brokers!). Shouldn’t American universities and the teaching community have higher standards? Aren’t artists and writers charged with piercing the veil of the human condition to reveal the mysteries of life, to challenge the status quo, to seek truth and beauty? To say that ethical standards disappear because the community is a small one was not a convincing argument for Eliot Spitzer. In fact, there are higher standards for judging contests at dog shows, Olympic ice skating and American Idol (actually cross that one out re the recent expose of connection of Paula Abdul to contestants) than we have generally seen at some of the literary contests run by American universities.

To the suggestion that writers have always helped each other (Pound and Eliot; Auden and John Ashbery at the Yale Poetry Prize).

The literary world at the beginning of the twentieth century in America was very small compared to today. And indeed writers have always helped each other. There is an honorable tradition in that. But back then the geographic distances between writers (William Carlos Williams in NJ; Wallace Stevens in Hartford; TS Eliot in England; Pound in Italy) were great. There was no such thing as an MFA and there were not groups of professional writers huddled together in a single department at a university. Thus the closing of geographic distance has created an atmosphere in which interpersonal politics becomes more important and it also means that writers who disagree are more fearful of speaking out for fear of employment and advancement. American poetry is overpopulated and the pressure to publish is relieved by the creation of the poetry contest system in which poets pay a fee to have their manuscript considered in a “contest.” And that is what is different about the “writers helping each other out” aspect: you can’t (or shouldn’t) help your friend, colleague, lover or former student at the expense of 1,000 other writers who are paying a fee to enter a contest they expect to be judged fairly.

The problem with lack of oversight of the literary contest system.

 How is it then that there can be literary contests in which basic consumer laws are not followed and in which the judges are never announced (at Georgia until an Open Records Act request outted the judges and their connections to the winners)?

I e-mailed the director of the University of Iowa Press and spoke by telephone to the attorney for the University of Iowa and they both said they did not see a conflict of interest in accepting money from writers for a national literary “contest” in which the publisher is the University of Iowa Press, the screeners for the contest are graduate students in the Writer’s Workshop (who may have actually just studied with the new UI graduate who is now submitting their Workshop thesis product the screeners had a hand in shaping in workshop to the contest), the judges are teachers, graduates or otherwise affiliated with the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and the winners (recent numbers are six of the last eight winners in the fiction and poetry contest were affiliated with the University of Iowa) are former graduates, teachers and/or current employees. The last four winners of the fiction and poetry contests were 100% affiliated with the University of Iowa (graduates, former teachers, current employees). The attorney at Iowa sent me a list of judges for the past five years and the judges were all current or former teachers or graduates of the University of Iowa.

But our students are the best or the manuscript that won was the best.

A common refrain from the University of Iowa Press director. The question is if the UI writers are so good why are they afraid to leave town to publish their manuscripts? Why should a recent UI graduate be allowed to walk down the street from the English Department to turn their manuscript over to the UI Press? How can common sense not prevail at a place like the Iowa Writers Workshop where you don’t submit a manuscript to a contest run by your own university and judged by the people you just spent two intense years studying with in a small writers workshop in a small community in Iowa? There are higher standards at 7-11 and Pepsi than at UI. If 7-11 and Pepsi run a contest they bar their current and former employees from entering. This is standard practice. There are enough literary contests that it should be standard that writers submit to contests they have no connections to.

Lastly, why are writers submitting only to contests run by people they know? If true (the Mark Strand issue) then Michael White has never published a book with anyone (or the assitance of?) he doesn't know. Why ar professional writers not willing to go outside of the small circle of comfort they know?
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Steven Ford Brown
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« Reply #2 on: May 01, 2005, 12:24:21 PM »

It has happened enough times when you see a group of writers who have graduated from the same program tend to flock or gravitate towards one poetry competition, usually run and/or judged by someone from their alma matter. Why all gravitate towards the same when there are so many other competition choices: National Poetrry Series, Walt Whitman, AWP, Alice James, Fence, Tupelo, Zoo?

All it takes is a few choice wins and or book publications to keep you in good graces with tenure committee.
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Chuck Vegas
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« Reply #3 on: May 01, 2005, 04:23:03 PM »

I entered ten contests last year, but despite having graduated from one of the older MFA programs, I did not know a single judge, nor did I have any connections to the schools/presses running them. Of course there are various reasons for this beyond the size of the poetry world:

1. I am not the networking type. I've been to AWP once (Portland, 1999), and spent all my time at the book fair and with friends.* I've been to the Oxford, MS Festival of the Book twice - ditto. I know plenty of writers - successful ones - but I don't galavant off to conferences to schmooze.

2. To the best of my knowledge, none of my teachers judged any book contests last year, but I did not call them to find out either.

3. My work has evolved into something very different from what it was when I was in the company of more writers, which means I'm now submitting to magazines and presses where I had not established any personal connections in the past.

So, despite maintaining contacts with writers whom I actually like as people, I am pretty much "out of the loop" as far as po'biz is concerned. I like it that way, but I recognize it is a disadvantage as well. But if I am published via a contest next year and discover in the end that the judge is someone I know, will I turn it down? Probably not.

*It seemed that Dana Gioia was in every room I walked into, to the point where we had a running joke that he must have doubles.
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lillylangtry
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« Reply #4 on: May 02, 2005, 04:39:14 PM »

Cairns studied at Utah alongside this year's winner, Michael White, whom I know. Cairns also studied at Utah alongside Kathy Fagan

These sorts of connections seem like a stretch to me. How do you know they studied "alongside" each other? I've barely met half of the people in my poetry program, but we would still be listed as contemporaries. Also, it's been about 20 years since these guys all graduated-- would their work be similar enough to what they were doing in grad school for it to be recognizable 20 years later?
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alan
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« Reply #5 on: May 02, 2005, 04:43:03 PM »

Quote from: "lillylangtry"
Cairns studied at Utah alongside this year's winner, Michael White, whom I know. Cairns also studied at Utah alongside Kathy Fagan

These sorts of connections seem like a stretch to me. How do you know they studied "alongside" each other? I've barely met half of the people in my poetry program, but we would still be listed as contemporaries. Also, it's been about 20 years since these guys all graduated-- would their work be similar enough to what they were doing in grad school for it to be recognizable 20 years later?


Because Scott Cairns and Michael White said so.
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"You especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it -- don't cheat with it.” -- Ernest Hemingway
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Alan Cordle
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« Reply #6 on: May 02, 2005, 07:36:07 PM »

Makes me even bluer than usual.

I like Cairns.  

Alas, Vassar Miller needs a Jorie Graham rule.  What would it hurt?
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lillylangtry
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« Reply #7 on: May 02, 2005, 08:48:56 PM »

Quote from: "alan"
Quote from: "lillylangtry"
Cairns studied at Utah alongside this year's winner, Michael White, whom I know. Cairns also studied at Utah alongside Kathy Fagan

These sorts of connections seem like a stretch to me. How do you know they studied "alongside" each other? I've barely met half of the people in my poetry program, but we would still be listed as contemporaries. Also, it's been about 20 years since these guys all graduated-- would their work be similar enough to what they were doing in grad school for it to be recognizable 20 years later?


Because Scott Cairns and Michael White said so.


I guess what I'm asking here is how you, or Cairns & White, define "alongside" each other.

I'm not being contrary, honestly, I'm just wondering exactly how close you're implying they are. In a poetry workshop you see about five of anybody's poems a semester. So did they workshop together for a few semesters 20 years ago, or is there a closer friendship implied here?
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Will Smith
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« Reply #8 on: May 02, 2005, 08:56:12 PM »

Quote from: "lillylangtry"


I'm not being contrary, honestly, I'm just wondering exactly how close you're implying they are. In a poetry workshop you see about five of anybody's poems a semester.


You get college credit for that?
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lillylangtry
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« Reply #9 on: May 02, 2005, 10:34:22 PM »

Quote from: "Will Smith"
Quote from: "lillylangtry"


I'm not being contrary, honestly, I'm just wondering exactly how close you're implying they are. In a poetry workshop you see about five of anybody's poems a semester.


You get college credit for that?


Not sure what you are asking. We get credit for writing & revising.

But maybe I should clarify?
We have ten or so people a workshop, five poems each, so we go through about fifty poems a workshop per semester. Each poem gets about 20 minutes. So workshops are pretty time-consuming and in-depth. At least where I go to school.

I'm not a big fan of workshops. After about 2 I had my fill. But they are useful for some things.
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« Reply #10 on: May 03, 2005, 01:57:12 AM »

I tried to riase some issues before which I think apply to literary contests. Having been in many, many workshops you are focusing on the number of poems viewed in a workshop rather than the relationships that develop between writers while in the workshop. Workshops within any community tend to be small and relationships develop between writers, especially when as PhD candidates they spend a substantial number of years together. The question was posed as to why writers who attend certain programs together tend to congregate around certain literary contests and judges? Why is that? Given the number of literary prizes why is it that White always seems to pop up at a competition judged/run by someone he knows? Why are Iowa graduates submiting in such large numbers to the University of Iowa Prize. If Cairns or White or Fagan wish to post and clarify this it would be great. Fagan was also at Columbia at the same time as Daniel Halpern who selected her first book for the National Poetry Series.

I don't think it is fair to make suggestions that might be unfair to someone but as has been noted many times it's not like people are posting on their websites, "I cheated." The intersting thing is that when Foetry.com first started many people came to the site with the attitude that these kinds of questions were not supoosed to be asked. But when thousands and thousands of dollars are invovled and sytematic cheating has been exposed in a number of contests it is simply the process by which these thigs are now vetted. If Cairns, White or Fagan wish to step forward and give us the specfics (the dates they attended the respective institutions) then we can connect the dates. Knowing that Halpern taught at Columbia for a certain period would allow us to confirm that Fagan was there at the same time as Halpern and should not have been eligble to  enter the NPS competition or at least her manuscript should have been disqualified from selection.

As director of a series (the Vassar Miller Prize) supported and funded and published by a state institution (tax dollars, public money form submissions by writers nationally) Cairns is obligated to answer whatever questions there are about the series, the way it is run and any conflicts of interest in the series. This is standard procedure for any non-profit involved in public activities, especially if that non-profit is solicting money from the public to support its activities.
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missblue
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« Reply #11 on: May 03, 2005, 10:00:30 AM »

Come on, Scott.  Why not just implement a Jorie Graham rule?  It's a good Christian thing to do.  You know, do unto others...

p.s.  You must have been in some lazy workshops, Lil.  My workshops always had at least ten poems written in a semester.
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lillylangtry
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« Reply #12 on: May 03, 2005, 10:13:33 AM »

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Tourbillon
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« Reply #13 on: May 03, 2005, 10:47:29 AM »

Lilly,

The answer, in my opinion, is that poetry contests, by their very definition, are somewhat lame. That is, they are little revenue producers (scams) and are easily abused by their creators to further the academic careers of their friends and loved ones.

It's healthier for the art of poetry to found your own magazine(s), publish your friends (no contests!) and stay away from the Academic MFA culture. If you're still called to teach, then transmit the literature, history, philosophy etc. of the past and keep the practice of leading workshops to a minimum.

By the way, are the other people in your MFA program spending time on foetry.com? As far as I'm concerned, that's more interesting than seeing Bin Ramke get flogged in the marketplace.

Thanks,

Tourbillon

Quote from: "lillylangtry"
Quote from: "missblue"
Come on, Scott.  Why not just implement a Jorie Graham rule?  It's a good Christian thing to do.  You know, do unto others...

p.s.  You must have been in some lazy workshops, Lil.  My workshops always had at least ten poems written in a semester.


Not lazy, just very thorough, sometimes annoyingly so. My last workshop actually did around 8, but we are moving at around 5 for my current one. We will have to turn in 8 poems at the end of the quarter, but the workshop rarely gets to them all.  

I just wanted to point out that I'm very interested in asking questions about contest policies. Some of them seem pretty shady to me, to be honest. But as someone who is actually doing an MFA I'm a little worried about connections being made that might possibly be false or more tenuous than claimed. I, frankly, haven't seen any of my workshop member's poems outside of workshop. So I know it is possible to do graduate school with people and not have these deep & lasting connections that seem to be implied.


and re: why people from the same program often apply to the same contests--I think when people do the contest route they usually send manuscripts out to dozens of contests. & they usually pick contests that are judged by people who are sympathetic with their style. You wouldn't send Billy Collins as L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poetry manuscript. You've got to send where you have a chance of even getting into the final cut.

But that's not a complete answer to the question. I don't see any problem in asking people to come forward & more fully explain how they judge a contest.
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missblue
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« Reply #14 on: May 03, 2005, 11:10:23 AM »

Lil,

Funny you mention it:

Lyn Hejinian, I believe, chose a Billy Collins poem for her Best American Poetry.  

Why narrow poetry down to a little plot with <your name> on it?
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