In recent years I’ve been a screener for several national poetry book contests. It’s been a great experience to read hundreds of manuscripts from many talented poets. Some have moved me, some have challenged me to think, some have broken my heart with their music, some have even done all three. Regardless of how I have responded personally to each manuscript, they’ve all taught me a few lessons.
Lesson 1: Wait, But Not Forever. One of the things that strikes me most about reading for first book contests in particular is that so many of the manuscripts seem unfinished. There are a lot of strong voices in a contest, but often the books themselves aren’t ready. I’ve been guilty of this myself. I’ve submitted poems too early, and even sent my manuscripts out the door before I was sure about them. On the one hand, I think it’s important to wait until the work feels finished. It’s a drain on both the writer’s energy and checkbook to send things that aren’t ready. On the other hand, preparing to submit is part of what motivates me to edit.
Lesson 2: Err On the Side of Simplicity. If a book is titled Sinister Vanguards of the Lace Robes for Bitter Souls, and includes clip art on the first page and the poems appear in three different fonts, that tells me the writer doesn’t trust their words. I understand that some of those choices represent care on the author’s part to present their work in a certain way, but what sways me are the poems. I can’t say that I’ve been guilty of clip art in manuscripts, but I’ve definitely asked my book title to do a lot of work. The title of my first book used to be much longer and the contest judge was the one who suggested cutting it back to one word. About fifty percent of people I know who’ve won a book contest have either changed their title or had a title change suggested to them by their publisher or judge. I don’t think all book titles need to be short, but they also don’t have to contain all the book’s major themes, key images, and the author’s favorite color.
Lesson 3: Don’t Frontload. I know that it’s a common piece of advice, and surely you want a strong poem to lead off the book, but I read more than just the first few poems. I hate realizing that the first 3-5 poems that got me excited for the book are the best the poet had to offer. Make every poem a knockout. After all, you have to read these poems for years to come—why include filler? I’ve published poems I don’t like that much now, but at the time, I believed in them and they represented the best I could do. I also know that other people love poems that I’m slightly embarrassed about now, so who’s to say? I suspect that people know which of their poems are stronger than others because so many of the best ones appear in the front of a manuscript.
Lesson 4: Momentum. So you didn’t win, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have a fantastic manuscript that has a couple of new fans. Many of the books I’ve championed in past years didn’t win the contest I screened for, but they did win others. Others I’m still waiting to see in print, but I’ve become an admirer of many poets because I was lucky enough to read their manuscripts. Keep sending out—contests, open reading periods, whatever you choose, believe in your work and get it into other people’s hands.
I’d also recommend the poet Erika Meitner’s insightful blog about screening poetry manuscripts for book contests.