Of the eighteen books featured here, ten were published as the result of winning contests. But, as the ten poets will tell you, the letters informing them that they had won didn’t just magically appear. A winning collection usually comes from years of hard work and revision. Not to mention a small fortune in entry fees. “I spent money that I did not have on contests,” admits Sheryl Luna, whose Pity the Drowned Horses was published by the University of Notre Dame Press after she won the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, the competition for which, coincidentally, does not charge an entry fee.
Geoff Bouvier spent nine years writing the poems in his book, Living Room, and spent another six years sending the manuscript to twenty to twenty-five contests annually—over one hundred contests in all. He was named a finalist for fourteen of them, including the National Poetry Series and the Colorado Prize, before Heather McHugh selected Living Room as the winner of the American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize last year.
Duffin’s King Vulture was a finalist in several contests, including the Bakeless Poetry Prize, the Colorado Prize, the National Poetry Series, the Gerald Cable Book Award, and the Winnow Press First Book Award. It was a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award three times. “That could go on forever without yielding a book,” she says. “Having been a finalist is a rather useless currency, because the manuscript goes into the next contest without a history. Still, it means the work connected with somebody, somewhere.”
Laura Sims sent her manuscript to at least twenty contests before Practice, Restraint won the Alberta Prize, sponsored by Fence Books, a prize for which she had been named a finalist in a previous year. Dana Goodyear says she sent work to so many contests one year that one of the clerks at her post office “got into the mortifying habit of reciting verse whenever he saw me.” Goodyear didn’t win any of the contests she entered; instead, her book, Honey and Junk, was published by W.W. Norton.
While the majority of the poets spent years writing their books, and more years finding a publisher, a couple of them were, by their own admission, lucky. Corinne Lee wrote all but a few of the poems in PYX over a three-week period. She submitted to four contests, and, after being named a finalist for the third, a prize sponsored by Tupelo Press, she won the National Poetry Series.
But the path to publication was shortest for Catherine Wing, who, after spending four years writing the poems in Enter Invisible, received an acceptance from the first publisher she sent it to, Sarabande Books. “In the only moment of my life that has ever seemed even remotely like a fairy tale, the book was accepted the first time I sent it out,” she says. “As a result, I’m pretty sure I’m due for some karmic comeuppance: I’ll never win the lottery; I’ll never strike oil or gold; no prince masquerading as a pauper will ever fall for me.”
Of course, the story—or, in Wing’s case, the fairy tale—isn’t over once a collection is written and a publisher is found. The sometimes lengthy and complicated process whereby a manuscript is made into a book and that book is delivered to its readers can be a challenge that claims all of one’s attention. “I was taken by how difficult it was for me to focus on new work while thinking about or working through the mechanics of the book’s production and promotion,” says Andrea Baker. “I wasn’t really able to go forward with new work until the book had landed in my hands and seemed to be on its way in the world.”
Goodyear, whose book was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review in May, doesn’t worry about her new writing nearly as much as about the work that is already collected in Honey and Junk. “The strangest part about it, I think, is the sense that the poems have become fixed and concrete, and that, together, they form an object in the world,” she says. “Sometimes that thought unsettles me—I fret, and see flaws—but mostly the book’s existence seems like a stroke of incredible luck.”
If a poetry book’s existence is a stroke of luck, its ability to attract a readership—and compete against the thousands of other collections published each year—is nothing short of a miracle. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen. “The biggest disappointment is simply realizing that so few people actually read and buy books of poetry,” says Victoria Chang. “It seems like more people want to publish their own work than read the work of others. My fiction friends have it a bit easier. The general public is much more interested in reading their work. Poets, on the other hand, have to work hard to let people know about their books.”
All of the poets are working with their publishers to find their readers, and whether they are organizing their own book tours, placing ads in literary magazines, or sending out copies of their books for review, the process is ongoing. Without the high-profile publicity campaigns that serve many first-time fiction writers, however, it’s unlikely that the debuts of Barter, Gridley, and Wing, for example, will attract the kind of attention that was given to Lahiri, Packer, and Foer. But ask any of the poets and they will most likely tell you that it was never their intention to be the “next new thing” in contemporary poetry anyway. They are, it seems, more forward-looking.
And so are most of the publishers. Coffee House Press publishes five or six books of poetry each year, and, according to publisher Allan Kornblum, at least two of them are first books. In an ideal world, one of these would land on the best-seller list, but Lauren Snyder, the press’s marketing assistant, says Coffee House maintains its commitment to debut poetry for a different reason. “Publishing debut poetry is essential to the legacy of poetry itself. All the currently established poets started somewhere—they didn’t emerge from the womb carrying CVs loaded with previous publications. A handful of today’s debut authors will become tomorrow’s greats, and that glittering possibility is one of the joys of publishing.”
It won’t happen next year, or even the year after that, but who knows—maybe some day one of the recently published debut poetry books will get the attention it deserves, and future generations of poets will look for it up there on the top shelf, along with the well-worn copies of Prufrock, Harmonium, The Weary Blues, and Some Trees.