“We regret to inform you . . .”
I’ve just submitted a chapbook of poems to a contest. I know I probably won’t win. So, why bother?
It goes beyond the lottery ethos of “you can’t win if you don’t play.”
There is, of course, the chance of winning. This particular contest had fewer than 200 submissions last year, so the odds aren’t bad. The contest winner is awarded a residency as well, making the investment of $25 seem more worth it.
As I worked to put the chapbook together over the last week, however, I saw that there were other benefits.
I drew the poems for the chapbook from a manuscript in progress, one that’s taken a back seat to the happy task of preparing my collection of short stories for publication next year by the University of Alabama Press.
I’ve been feeling that it’s time to get back to those poems, and this was the nudge I needed to open the folder where I’ve stacked all the poems I’m considering for this book. I started out by deciding to include what I judged to be the fifteen or twenty strongest individual poems for the chapbook. I like different poems on different days, but I found ten that I felt really good about. Then I noticed that with a few additions I’d have some nice groupings that would hold the chapbook together both structurally and thematically.
With my larger conceptual work done, I turned to the individual poems, most of which needed minor revisions. I looked at the notes I’d made on hard copies, sat at the computer, entered changes, removed a couple, and made more decisions. Done, done, done.
When I first finished a graduate program in creative writing, I sent manuscripts out all the time because I thought that’s what you were supposed to do. Among other contests, I occasionally submitted work to the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, and then suddenly one day I was no longer eligible, no longer a “younger poet.” I thought about all the money I’d spent sending manuscripts to contests, to no avail. The SASE postcards acknowledging receipt of manuscripts came, and then the “we regret to inform you” letters a few months later. It was time for a new plan.
I decided to research individual presses that looked like a good fit for my work, sent out some letters, and was able to connect with a press based on that research. For this manuscript, which has different concerns from the first, I have a dream press picked out, a publisher I’ve come to admire over the last few years. When I send the query letter I’ll be able to explain exactly why I want my book to be published by them. It may not work, but it feels better than the randomness of contests.
Which brings me back to why I submitted to this one: the deadline, Dec. 31st, came at a time when I needed a push to get back to work I had set aside for a time. I was forced to think freshly about the poems in this new manuscript, consider the audience for them (the judge was named on the contest page), and, finally, engage in the act of faith of sending poems off into the dark, hoping they find readers—a replication of the act of writing in itself. Even if, as is likely, I don’t win, I’ve still gotten a lot of good out of the process, which was worth the price of admission.