The Contester: Editor Offers a Contest Alternative

by Kevin Nance

News and Trends

Posted 11.1.07

November/December 2007

Two years after Bin Ramke retired as editor of the Contemporary Poetry Series (CPS), effectively closing down the twenty-five-year-old series that had published four books of poetry annually, acquired through two contests, the University of Georgia Press is making a fresh start with a new editorial partner who has his own ideas about the best way to publish poetry.

Next spring the press will release the first four titles in the VQR Poetry Series, selected by Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) at the University of Virginia. They are Field Folly Snow by Cecily Parks, Boy by Patrick Phillips, The History of Anonymity by Jennifer Chang, and Hardscrabble by Kevin McFadden. With the assistance of the VQR poetry board, each year Genoways will select four manuscripts by poets who've been previously published in the magazine, relying primarily on his own taste and his network of contacts. VQR will contribute two thousand dollars per book to defray the University of Georgia Press's costs.

"The idea is to publish your work in a prominent place and catch the attention of an editor," says Genoways, a thirty-five-year-old poet who succeeded Staige Blackford as editor of VQR four years ago. "If that happens, and I start seeing more of your poems in other magazines, at a certain point I'm going to ask to see a manuscript."

It is an old-fashioned model that harks back to what Genoways calls "the grand old poetry series," such as Donald Hall's at Wesleyan University Press in the late 1950s and early '60s. "One could have said at the time, ‘He's primarily recruiting and publishing his friends,' but those friends turned out to be people like Robert Bly, James Wright, and Philip Levine—all the major poets of a generation, to my mind," Genoways says. "So it makes sense to say, ‘We're going to trust a single editor's taste and see what happens.'"

It's a distinctly different approach from that of the CPS, which, like most publishing programs that rely on contests, charged entry fees and used a multitiered system of screeners and guest judges to winnow hundreds of manuscripts. Although the series produced many books by distinguished poets—Martha Ronk, Terese Svoboda, and C. D. Wright among them—it was discontinued when Ramke retired in 2005. His decision to step down was influenced in part by the controversy that was stirred up when Alan Cordle, of the now-defunct Web site Foetry.com, raised questions about the actions of one of the CPS's guest judges. (As readers of this column already know, in 1999 poet Jorie Graham recommended a manuscript by Peter Sacks, whom she married and joined on the Harvard University faculty the following year.) That, along with similar allegations of favoritism elsewhere, led to calls for new ethics guidelines for literary contests nationwide.

"It was certainly one of the clearest, most documented examples of what are the darkest fears of a lot of young and aspiring poets," Genoways says. "I'm on record as not approving what Foetry did—it was often reckless and dealt with innuendo rather than facts—but in the case of Georgia, they really had the facts. There were improper things going on there in that instance, and it clearly showed how the contest system was broken."

The University of Georgia Press, too, sees the need for a new model. "When we got Ted's proposal, we jumped at the opportunity," says the press's director, Nicole Mitchell. "It was a way for us to align ourselves with one of the country's premier literary reviews. We admire what Ted has been able to do with VQR in recent years, so it seemed like a natural alliance." After the events of two years ago, Mitchell adds, it's also a way of "moving forward with our poetry."

Genoways is aware, of course, that his choices, not to mention his relationships with the poets he selects, will be placed under a microscope—McFadden and Chang, for example, live in the editor's hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, and he describes Phillips as "a very close friend"—but Genoways says he's ready for the scrutiny.

"I may select books by friends of mine, but there are also friends of mine who would like to be published in the series who won't be," he says. "For the series to be what it needs to be, I have to put my editorial judgments ahead of anything else, and if that means giving short shrift to friends, sorry."

Ultimately, it will be up to readers to judge for themselves whether the contest system or the more traditional series concept espoused by Genoways is the better publishing model. But with no submissions, no entry fees—indeed, no contest—there's little chance that the VQR Poetry Series will incite the kind of suspicion that plagued the CPS in its later years.

"I hope by the choices always being mine, people will find a consistency, something reliable they can rest in as readers," Genoways says of the new series. "In any case, the system can't be rigged, because it's simply the work that I read and respond to."

Kevin Nance is a critic-at-large at the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Each year Genoways will select four manuscripts by poets who've been previously published in the magazine, relying primarily on his own taste and his network of contacts.”