Judging other writers' work is, at best, strange. The act feels something like peering into people's front windows as you walk down quiet streets at nightfall. You see the good, the bad, and the just plain embarrassing. For five years, I served as an editor at a Washington State poetry press. Every year we held a chapbook contest and chose one lucky book as winner. That meant hundreds of other poets were left disappointed. Did we pick the best book? How did we know which was the "chosen" one? Might a different group of editors have chosen a different chapbook? Yes. Absolutely.
So when entering a chapbook contest what are the things to be aware of? What might help you have the best chance of having your book win publication? My 10 top pieces of advice. After reflecting on these simple ideas, I believe they work equally well when applying to writing conferences or grants.
1. Persistence. Persistence. Persistence.
More often than not the book we chose as the chapbook winner was a manuscript that we'd seen before. Not the same exact manuscript but one that had been worked on: a few new poems and a a few weaker poems taken out. The advantage was that we came to know this book and so each year (sometimes three years or more) we could see it getting better. Know that sending to the same contest (if it is one you really want to win) year after year can be an excellent strategy.
2. Follow the Rules.
Most contests provide solid guidelines in terms of number of pages of poems, one poem per page, no plastic sleeves, etc. Following these guidelines puts you ahead of the pack. Editors are looking for a way to whittle down their reading load; a badly formatted manuscript could be tossed away without being read.
3. Create a Theme that Provides Coherence
This idea of a "narrative arc" some topic or experience that holds your book together is preferable to most editors most of the time. Having said that, I'll add that since all the poems came from your pen and your consciousness, this should not be too hard. One poet wrote about his work in the health profession, one poet wrote obliquely about the loss of her mother and a lover, one poet wrote about her past in a religious order. Not ever poem came under this theme but enough of them did that they provided cohesion to the manuscript.
4. Ordering your Manuscript is an Art.
It is also a delicate balance. I worked with one poet who had a half dozen poems about her uncle in her manuscript. They all covered similar territory concerning family and identity. However, the book was not meant to focus on this uncle and so by including so many poems about him (even good poems) the became off balance. In another case, the book had too many different topics ---- all good poems --- but the result was more of a crowded ship than a clear map of experience. There are 101 ways to order a manuscript and each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. My advice is to go to your bookshelves and take down the poetry books you love best. How are these poems scaffolded? What creates the pleasure you feel? Go beyond the poems themselves. Keep a journal of what you find. What are the consistent themes?
5. Know the Press Before You Press Send
Not all chapbook contests are created equal. In several cases, the press has a specific design for the chapbook winner and therefore you will have to abide by that design. In one famous case, the press rescinded its offer of publication after many mishaps with the writer. You can read about the case here as a cautionary tale. In other words, do some research: look at past copies of winning books at your local library or bookstore. You can even email a past winner or two to see if she was happy with the press. Publishing your first book is a euphoric event but not if it is with a press you don't respect.
6. Think about a Book Doctor or Outside Editor
Soliciting outside help for your book in terms of line edits, ordering for a narrative arc, and proofreading is more common than ever before. Prices can range from a few hundred dollars to a couple of thousand. Many poets are happy to work as editors and so you should approach someone whose work you respect. I am one of many poets who offer these services. Check out a range of options here. I've worked with writers (fiction writers and non-fiction writers, as well as poets) on their chapbooks, their residency applications and individual poems or essays.
7. Keep Track of Your Expenses; Start a Poetry Account
Sending out manuscripts, making copies, paying reading fees ---- it can all add up. One way to take some control of this is to open a poetry bank account. Decide how much money you want to spend on this endeavor. One way to think about this is in terms of how much money you might make from your other writing gigs (freelance articles, teaching workshops, editing) so that you create an ebb and flow for your creative work. Another way is to see how much you spend on espresso drinks per month. Would that be better used on your poetry? However you decide to do this, you will have a physical documentation of where your poetry money goes. It can be liberating to look at your art from an economic perspective; it can also be sobering.
8. Research, Research Research
I mentioned researching the presses you send your manuscript to for consideration but there is so much more to learn. The chapbook is very different from a full manuscript not merely in the number of pages of each but because of the more artistic possibilities in a chapbook. This quote is excerpted from a blog post by Erica Mena who is a little bit in love with the form.
Another thing I love about the chapbook is the ephemeral quality of it, as a physical object. A lot of chapbooks are small, handmade objects that are out of place in bookstores. I can only think of a handful of bookstores that even consider carrying chapbooks, and even then they are sort of hard to spot, as spineless as they often are. Of course, that’s usually enough to intrigue me when I’m browsing, but I imagine they get overlooked more often than not. They’re often made in extremely limited editions, numbering in the hundreds or less. Since most literary title distributors won’t carry chapbook-only presses, they’re awfully hard to find, at least comprehensively. All this lends a kind of mystique to the form, and a certain pleasurable sense of illicitness. -- Erica Mena
9. Think About Publishing Creatively
Say you've exhausted yourself sending out your manuscript to a few dozen contests over as many years. Perhaps your poems don't fit the current trends. Maybe you write in blank verse or every poem is a sestina. Using form might be a harder sell to a contest that could be looking for more commercial aspects or simply the judges are younger or older and therefore might have a different aesthetic. These poetic differences are extremely hard to define. We want to believe that an excellent manuscript will find its home. However, sometimes that home may look different from what you imagined. Perhaps you have a friend who is a visual artist. Has she ever created an art book? Think Anne Carson's book, Nox, where the book is a box. Or perhaps an art exhibition at a local gallery would serve as a publication. There are 101 ways to self-publish and in doing so have more say over how your poems appear in the world.
10. Don't Get Discouraged!
I have heard dozens and dozens of stories from poets on how long it took to get their first book published. I've heard everything from two years to twenty years. I've never heard of anyone whose book was taken first time out. Know that every time you send your work out you have another opportunity to make it better. Publishing will happen for you; there are 1000 ways to publish your work. Get started with a list of what would be your dream scenario. Now start working towards it.