“Dear Alphabet. Dear Spark:” Kristy Bowen and her major characters in minor films

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Kristy Bowen’s poetry reads like an arpeggio sounds, with flurried phrase and dynamic image. She has cracked her own code for the essentially eclectic. Her most recent collection, major characters in minor films, delivers the goods again, but reaches deeper into new themes and territory for the poet. Emotive, unapologetic narrative sprouts from unexpected structures throughout, crazy gluing pop culture and unique imagination to form wry, yet thoughtful beauty. These are places where Ryan Gosling, bus rides, celluloid moons, and cats collide and coexist in the aftermath, making complete sense as the disparate becomes the inseparable.

Sara Biggs Chaney, author of Ann Coulter’s Letter to the Young Poets, admitted, “I want to be best friends with the ‘I’ of (major characters.) She’s hilarious. She’s heartbreaking. She’s more than a little bit dangerous.” Donna Vorreyer claims major characters’s “language moves like a camera, cutting from image to image, leaving impressions that form intriguing fragmented narratives of love, intrigue, mystery and damage.”

Without further ado and further description, Sundress will now take you backstage with Kristy Bowen to shed light on how these major characters found their way into the not-so-minor book.

Jacob Cross: In “open letter to the muse,” a perfect beginning to the collection, you write “on good days, you’re a mad scientist. On bad, a vain girl with a scalpel.” I love this division on inspiration and craft, because it’s what so many writers struggle with on a draft-to-draft basis: the joy of creation through revision versus the dread of slicing apart tidbits, so to speak. How do you balance these two extremes, the “good” and “bad” days? 

Kristy Bowen: Since my writing tends to happen in spurts, I tend to do all the slicing and dicing as I go, so perhaps I create more like a scalpel wielding mad scientist than either/or (it wasn’t always like this). I can usually wrangle a finished draft within a couple passes and if I can’t I usually just step away for awhile. I think it helps to have other creative distractions when things just don’t seem to be flowing or working properly. I can always turn to editing projects or visual projects and then come back to the thing that’s troubling me with a fresh mindset.

JC: Before we go much further, could you describe a bit of your reasoning behind the organization of the different sections/chapters that make up the book? Some, such as “dimestore operetta” and “past imperfect” feature a wide range of forms, where as “I hate you James Franco” and “celluloid moon a love letter in 13 parts” showcase singular wedges of prose poetry. Did these overall differences help determine where the pages fell into place?

KB: I tend to like to work on shorter series of poems, sometimes one or two at a time, so they naturally form themselves into sections. Every once in a while those smaller projects somehow clump together thematically or tonally over a few years to form a larger book—I had some great ordering assistance from Erin Elizabeth Smith to determine what order the sections would be in and how they flowed into one another. I also tend to vacillate back and forth between forms, so some groupings are consistent and others vary depending on when I wrote them. The two newer sections (the moon poems and the James Franco letters) were solely prose, which I’ve favored over the last 5 years or so. Lately I’ve taken a turn back towards lineated poems, though.

JC: Your work is exquisitely exciting because it’s as eclectic as it is focused. As varied and unpredictable as the refreshing language can become, there is still a grounded feeling in poems like “language theory” or “worse case scenario,” a feeling of flash narrative. In other words, is this feeling of a present story a sign a poem is home when writing it: that the story element builds up from so many unexpected architectures, like say, in the board game Jenga? 

KB: I started out as a fiction writer, so story and narrative are very central to anything I’m writing even if it doesn’t appear that way at first glance. Granted, I don’t always know that story when I sit down to start something, but sometimes the fun is in letting that story develop in bits and pieces that form a whole. major characters in minor films as a whole tends toward more lyric “l”-based missives than some of my other books, but there are still narrative threads than run through them, even if they are just purely autobiographical (or sometimes semi-autobiographical at least).
I like that word “architectures”—sometimes it feels like poems are just these small frameworks that hold a story.

JC: Speaking of blocks, you use refrain phrases in free verse in a visually pleasing way, also adding some pretty cool connotative rhythms, such as in “Autobiography” and “no girls were harmed in the making of this poem.” In the latter, “no,” “can’t,” and “won’t” stand out if you stare at the poem as visual art, suggesting a flowing development in the agency or status of the female identities “not” in the poem. 

My question: how organically do these repeated phrases come about? Are any of them remotely purposeful from the earliest stages?

KB: I think probably more than anything visual I tend to work with things like this in terms of sound. I tend to compose poems out loud, so sound and those repetitions become part of the way I speed a poem along toward its ending. Those repetitions and consonance make that happen in a way that delights me when I can do it successfully. I guess in general I work more toward aural variation than visual, (but I guess they have the same effect just in different ways.)The visual manifestation seems somehow more intuitive to me (i.e. I can’t always explain why a poem looks the way it does). I also love visual poetry though and the possibilities therein. We’ve chosen a number of vis-po books to publish at dgp, so it’s probably influencing me without me even knowing it.

Kristy Bowen Author Photo

JC: In “dimestore operetta,” the word “mother” seems like an emotionally charged vein running through the core of some of the pieces: the mother in “fictions,” a mother being beckoned to in “bad touch,” and a female hunter described as either sister or mother in “how to re-imagine your life through mythological characters.” Could you expand on the meaning behind this and some of the other ways your themes engage with women today?

KB: I think the entire book creates/reflects this strange pressure cooker of a female world that is formed by things like made-for-TV movies, pop-culture, the art world, celebrities. Also the intersection of these things with the more domestic world of women, whether it’s mother, daughter, wife, mistress. The book does seem to encompass/be encompassed by this “girl-shaped” world—where the frame of reference is that of daughter/lover/interloper, but at the same time as artist/muse/creator and the friction you find in that co-existence, both good friction and damaging friction.
JC: Did you know James Franco was at the Chicago Humanities Festival in May of last year? Did you also know that he discussed his book of poetry, Directing Herbert White? In short, he claimed it was him finally tapping his time in Hollywood for literary “subject matter.” You’ve dealt a lot of blows through verse to his celebrity, but what would you like to say here concerning Franco that you haven’t said? 

KB: I always say JF has gotten sort of even more douchey since I finished that project in late 2011 with all of his nonsense and that terrible book of poems. I think what is cool about James Franco is that he is so very meta and very aware of his own absurdness. I don’t really hate him (or even know that much about him beyond what I’ve gleaned in passing), but I do sort of cringe at the cult of celebrity and how that effects something like the poetry world (i.e. how magazines clamor to publish ‘names” over quality, which believe me, as an editor aware of the gains to be had by doing so.) Still, in the end, those poems aren’t really so much about JF as a person, but more so as a concept from which to jump off into explorations of my own anxieties as a writer and as a creative person in general in a field with a very small audience (as opposed to Hollywood and it’s very big audience.)

JC: Where do the poems on Franco in major characters in minor films fit in the grand scheme of the collection? Are they a counterbalance? Some of them are less an attack on him than they are succinct scenes and deeper moments, such as the “kids in the park” piece on page 49. I could see how these would mesh well with the other poems in major characters. Your voice is poignantly consistent, no matter what shape the stanzas are.

KB: When Sundress published the JF poems as an e-chap a couple years back, my sister wrote me saying that this was the only series of poems I’d written that sounded most like me. I started the whole thing as a joke. It wasn’t intended to be poetic or fancy in any way, so they are very conversational. Like if you and I were sitting in a bar, this would be what I’d be rambling on about. When I’m “poeming” I tend to get wrapped up in images and rhythm and an attempt to be poem-like. The concerns that developed in the series echoed a lot of what was happening in the first section of poems that deal with the whole muse vs. artist debacle women wind up in, as well as the pop-culture subject matter in other sections, so it seemed like they were a good fit in the book as a whole.

JC: “meteorological facts about the midwest” is flippin’ awesome. The disjointed, punchy prose poem really escalates and vanishes as fast as it arrives. Tell us about this one if you would, whatever you have to offer on it. Also, any Midwest weather stories you’d like to share?

KB: I grew up in the countryside near Rockford, Illinois, so tornadoes were always a possibility. There were many nights me and my sister would be woken up to head to the basement where we huddled until the all clear. There was always this creeping sense of fear and at the same time excitement when the warnings would come across the TV or radio. Weird freak lightning storms and greenish skies and microbursts that would send patio furniture flying. The closest I ever came to what may or may not have been a tornado I didn’t actually see (some friends and I were in a vehicle parked under an overpass and just dirt flying everywhere and a cop pulled over pointing at the sky.) I’ve also seen the wind pick up event tents in the South Loop like they are blocks and move them like 4 feet.

JC: Are there any release parties/readings/events we can look forward to from Kristy Bowen? Also, what’s your next written endeavor likely to be? Too soon to tell?

KB: I’m doing a release reading for major characters on April 3rd at Quimby’s bookstore. I’ll also be reading the week before for The Kettle Blue Review and the week after at the AWP conference in Minneapolis with Sundress. In November I finished a full-length project out now that is sort of about mermaids (both actual and metaphorical ones.)

[Editor’s note: A few of these poems appear in Till the Tide, a separate mermaid-inspired anthology also from Sundress.]

What I’ve been working on now are several small series centered around the apocalypse that will eventually be a manuscript. Also a book-length project about a creepy roadside motel and a murder.

JC: Let’s be real: we should end with your cats. How wonderfully goofy are they? Or are they the stern, brooding type? What’s their favorite thing to do?

KB: I have way too many of them, as I say in one of the James Franco pieces, (5 actually), so they’re a mix. The oldest are a pair of gingers that sometimes resemble the twins in the Shining (I actually tried to name them after them, but the twins do not have names.) My tuxedo Max is cool and aloof and I try way too hard to get him to like me. The two youngest named after writers, Zelda and Ezra, are super sweet and more dog-like than cat-like. They mostly spend their time living in my home without me while I work to pay their rent. I’ve always said I would have a huge menagerie of animals if I didn’t live in the city—dogs, rabbits, horses, goats—but for now, it’s just cats since they are fairly independent and low maintenance.

major characters in minor films is available now for purchase at the Sundress Store.

I*HATE*YOU*JAMES*FRANCO is available as a free e-chap at the Sundress website.

A writer and artist, Kristy Bowen is the author several written and visual projects, including girl show (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) and the shared properties of water and stars (Noctuary Press 2013). She lives in Chicago, where she runs dancing girl press & studio and edits the online litzine wicked alice.

Jacob L. Cross lives in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. He studied creative writing and publishing at the University of Illinois Springfield, where he served as editor of The Popcorn Farm Literary Journal. His work has been featured in Still: The Journal, The Alchemist Review, and elsewhere. More recently, his poems are due for release in Clash by Night, a poetry anthology inspired by the punk staple, London Calling. He enjoys hiking with his wife, traversing Zelda dungeons, spoiling his dogs, and half-priced sushi.

Interview with Sundress Author, Melanie Jordan

I had the pleasure of interview Melanie Jordan about her debut poetry collection, Hallelujah for the Ghosties, now available from Sundress Publications.

Kate Belew
Editorial Intern


Kate Belew: The Ideas of both home and childhood seem to be important themes within your book Hallelujah for the Ghosties. How do you see these two ideas working in your poems and what do these images mean to you?

Melanie Jordan: Well, I had a really great childhood, a great home; of course, many craft books talk about this, but childhood and adolescence are so rich, they’re almost unavoidable. The choice is whether you’re going to be up front about that armature or filter it through some more “adult” lens. Are you writing “In the Waiting Room,” or are you writing “Adolescence II”? Are you writing from a more extrapolated set of images, or are you grounding so concretely that it’s a transparent biographical callout?

In my case, I’m doing some of both. My speaker is a little more disaffected or amnesiac. I grow tired of transparent biography, but I grow equally tired of writing removed from a human, so I’m still working that balance out.

It’s true that so many first books reflect on home and family in whatever way, and I was hellbent that I wasn’t going to write a collection like that. Not because it’s “bad” but because I wanted to do something different, and I was still wrestling with how those poems might be received or interpreted. I think, even if you move toward a third option, obscuring the biographical armature entirely, you’re still writing about those experiences that filled you up.

KB: Other than other poets or writers, what or who was the biggest influence on your writing?

MJ: Expected as it might be, visual art jumpstarts me–paintings, sculptures, photos, glassware. The first time I saw or heard of Henry Darger’s work, I saw it hanging in those giant sheets, double-sided, in a museum. I just stopped dead in my tracks, with no context, mouth open. I don’t say this to sound pretentious, but museums for me are holy spaces, like libraries. I also mean museums devoted to other kinds of artifacts: the anthropological, the historical. I’m an armchair anthropologist and naturalist. I love mummies and reptiles and all sorts of forensic mysteries.

A collection, a devoted space to art and artifact, opens up a different space, mentally and emotionally. I can meditate there, even with other people around. I’m just blown away by old things that connect to lives. Perfume vials from the Titanic, freckle cream jars on Nikumaroro, ancient Egyptian sandals, a petri dish full of salmonella, a prehistoric sea turtle skeleton, a diorama of a Neanderthal funeral—those things light my imagination.

I can also remember being in high school, with the old-school VHS player, pausing and rewinding movies just to hear lines delivered a certain way by my favorite performers. Too, growing up at a remove from but with the knowledge of a certain East Tennessee way of speaking—certain inflections and words from the old-timers—just turned me on to language, to my own fascination with weird words and uncommon ones.

hallelujah copy

KB: This collection is lacted with maps, states, state lines, and distance, how important to your metaphorical landscape is your physical landscape?

MJ: This is a tough one. I’d like to think my immediate environment is irrelevant to some bigger impulse to write poems, and maybe it really is, but as I’m getting older, I’m way more aware of space and how it impacts me. I’m getting crotchety about natural light, for example. Most of the writers I know have been migrants, tooling around in pursuit of the poem, the job, the relationship, whatever. So I think I’m one of those, even though I was raised in such a stable environment that it still seems strange to be unsettled every few years.

I went through a phobia about flying (brought on by a horrific flight during two converging storm systems over Texas) that really wrecked my natural inclination for travel. I was embarrassed and horrified by it, but it also made me return to an old love of road trips.

It made me sit still for a bit and to try to process and work from one spot and not to depend on travel to unstick me, which is what I think a lot of us do. I didn’t want to have to be “entertained” to write, but it’s just unavoidably true that a change of scenery will light that fire. You’re right, though—distance is always there, and it always hurts.

KB: Why a Hallelujah for the Ghosties?

MJ: As a worldview, this line from Vic Chesnutt’s song “Stupid Preoccupations” strikes me right. I’m indebted to him, because it bundles together so many of the poems in the book, many of which revel in the imperfect or awful. They don’t wallow, I hope, but they acknowledge different kinds of monsters: the delicious horror-movie kind but also the less monstrous ones, the spirits of lost and distant loved ones.

Also, so many monstrous things lurk in us and in our relationships, “under the boiling seas,” as Vic says. All that stuff is below the surface, but it’s no less beautiful and odd, often, than the palm tree or the aria. So the hallelujah a form of gratitude. It’s also just funny—if you know Chesnutt’s songs, they’re wry and crazy, witty, a little self-deprecating. So I’m piggybacking there, paying homage to his song, which is really a toast to all of our ghosts and peccadillos.

KB: The speaker in your poems stays up late What do you do when you can’t sleep?

MJ: Whatever you call daydreaming at night. I read, I enjoy the quiet—no demands, no rush. I think. It’s the only space I have in which I can be still, which is wholly mine. I think a lot about people I know or miss. I read. I play games, which is similar to walking or working out in terms of the brain being able to clear itself, reset.

That’s it: I reset. I remember hearing Jorie Graham say once in a lecture that longer lines write themselves into the subconscious, that those lines come late at night like that, and I tend to think that’s what I’m doing up late, whether I’m writing a poem or not. I used to write almost exclusively between 11pm and 3am, though that seems to be changing.

Jordan back cover blurbs copy

KB: We see a lot of common mythological and historical characters in this manuscript. Can you tell me how these archetypal stories have influences your own work?

MJ: Well, I know it’s a conversation we’re still having, whether Western figures of classical mythology and so on are relevant, but Medusa’s been with me a long time, since graduate school, at least. I got into Ovid’s version of her story, the awful irony of the goddess turning her great beauty monstrous after she was raped—and that was considered only fair!

So many women writers identify with Medusa: Plath, Bogan, Patricia Smith, Carol Ann Duffy; that list goes on and on, and I just discovered a whole book of Medusa poems last week, by Melissa Dickson. In my book, Medusa was originally Lot’s wife, but that just didn’t feel right—I don’t have a connection with Lot’s wife.

Medusa, though? She’s irresistible—her duality, how she retains her dignity over and over in the face of the monstrous feminine, how she becomes the ultimate talisman of power on the face of a shield. As for some of the others, Sobeknefru ruled Egypt very briefly, but we still have a record of her, and we think she wore both male and female clothes as ruler.

She’s a lady Ozymandias (Ramses II), for me, the acknowledgment of a bit of usually-unsung history that shows us a little different version of the stories we usually know. I’d say the same for Venus and the costumed woman who appears near the end of the book.

KB: How did you first know you were a poet? And what did you do to develop your distinct voice into what it is today and in this collection?

MJ: I spent a lot of time writing in a voice that wanted to be Woody Guthrie, a 50-year old male coalminer, or Tom Waits. At some point, I had to stop what was ineffective mimicking and come a little closer. That’s always the challenge—stepping a little closer, being there, being more open, and more immediate on the page.

To even hope to get there, I had to become really baroque and perform what Rodney Jones used to call “virtuoso shit.” He was probably the first person to identify it and to tell me to cut it out when it wasn’t effective. I was making the kind of move that could be resonant, but burying the move in a heap of similar moves.

It took a long time, but I began to pull back on it in places until I could wield it a little better. But that process was a macrocosm of the overwriting/contraction model we practice on a single poem.

I’ve no idea when I knew I was a poet. I can tell you that I spent several days one December while I was in elementary school copying poems from one of those “treasuries” out in longhand. I liked the incantatory, the weird, stuff that can capture a kid: Alfred Noyes, Poe, Dorothy Parker, even Basho, I think.

Later, I distinctly remember checking Richard Shelton and Alice Walker’s poems out of the Putnam County Library. Not too shabby, considering I was just guessing, just picking things up that interested me, without any sense of Poetry with a capital “P.” But I was still fighting the label in undergrad, doubting and hand-wringing and all that.

KB: Do you have any last advice for aspiring poets?

MJ: Read living poets. Find a voice you adore, and stalk that poet.

Read dead poets—you’ve got to know what you’re up against.

Copy your favorite poems out in longhand. Seriously.

Find teachers who know everything about poetry. Go there.

Trade work with the best readers you can find.

Do what you do, even if your best friend, your great aunt, and Professor Q don’t “get it.”

You can buy Melanie Jordan’s collection from Sundress Publications here: https://squareup.com/market/sundress-publications/hallelujah-for-the-ghosties-by-melanie-jordan-pre-order


Melanie Jordan’s chapbook, Ghost Season, is available from Ropewalk Press; her work has been published in the Iowa Review, Birmingham Poetry Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poetry Southeast, Third Coast, DIAGRAM, Southeast Review, and others. She studied Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga before receiving her MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and her doctorate from the University of Houston. She currently teaches Creative Writing, literature, and composition at the University of West Georgia. Her debut collection, Hallelujah for the Ghosties, is now available from Sundress Publications.

Kate Belew is an editorial intern at Sundress Publications and a student of Poetry at Kalamazoo College where she studies with poet Diane Seuss. She interns with the reading series at The Kalamazoo Book Center, and received the Nature in Words Fellowship at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute where wrote in the woods all summer. She has been published in journals such as The Minetta Review, Collision Literary Magazine, and Cliterature. When she’s not writing she’s dancing, hula hooping, or reading tarot cards. She is a firm believer in duende.

Every Book Prize You’ve Ever Entered


Note: Winner does not receive actual trophy.

Thank you for your interest in the It’s Awesome To Win and It’s Awesome to Lose Book Prize from the University of Pobiz Press. We take pride in our reputation for being the most transparent book contest in the publishing world, so please carefully review the following information to learn about our manuscript guidelines, ethical standards, and reading/judging process.

  • Authors who wish to enter our contest should familiarize themselves with our catalog. We encourage you to buy at least three books in each genre we publish.
  • We accept submissions in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, graphic narrative, and multimedia sculptural affirmation. Please note that we are not interested in translation, genre, or social issues.
  • To preserve anonymity, all submissions are read blind. We endeavor to avoid our colleagues to the point that we cannot recognize their work without first and last name attached. Current students, former students, close friends, spouses, lovers, and housekeepers of the judge are allowed to enter, but to ensure fairness, we keep the judge drunk on whiskey throughout the process.
  • Manuscripts should be stripped of all identifying information prior to submission. Entrants with immediately recognizable names will not be disqualified; instead, we will personally remove the information and pass their manuscripts to our judge, unread.
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  • We are neither copy editors nor designers and therefore expect winning manuscripts to be of the highest, publishable quality prior to entry and accompanied by print-ready cover art converted to CMYK color space at a minimum of 300 dpi.
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  • Entry fees operate on a sliding scale relative to the likelihood of the title being made into a movie, selected for Oprah’s Book Club, or awarded a high-profile prize by a panel of anonymous judges who, for professional reasons, identify as cis white men.
  • Nonfiction fee of $45 includes $25 entry fee plus $20 for printing your electronic entry.
  • Fiction fee of $55 includes $35 entry fee plus $20 for printing your electronic entry.
  • Poetry fee of $55 includes $45 entry fee plus $10 for printing your electronic entry.
  • Graphic narrative and multimedia sculptural affirmation fee of $105 includes $55 entry fee plus $50 for printing your electronic entry.
  • 51% of entry fees go toward the cost of the judge’s whiskey; 23.7% of entry fees are converted to small bills and used to fan our interns when they get overheated while carrying manuscripts from our office printer, 22.3% of entry fees fund future “investments”, and 3% of entry fees are spent on publishing and marketing our books. As you can see, we are committed to transparency.
  • You may enter more than one manuscript. Each manuscript, however, must be accompanied by a separate entry fee, as well as an additional $20 overproductivity fee.
  • Each entry entitles you to a 5% discount on a title in our catalog and thrice-weekly updates via our intern-staffed mailing list, from which you may unsubscribe for a modest fee.
  • Authors at any stage in their careers are welcome to enter. However, we are more likely to select winners with Oscar-winning performances and/or established audiences of wealthy patrons.
  • Semifinalists will be notified via Twitter; finalists will be notified via carrier pigeon. In the event that over 50% of our finalists are graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and/or residents of a New York borough, our interns will rank manuscripts based on the authors’ dexterity with shuriken and tequila limes.
  • Winners will receive ten copies of their book, the option to purchase copies from Amazon at a 55% discount, and anywhere between $100 to $500 in prize money, depending on anticipated royalties and the continued support of CEOs who cannot scan iambic pentameter. Winnings will be distributed biennially.
  • All authors are required to presell a minimum of 150 copies of their books, at least 100 of which must be purchased by individuals who are not friends or family of the author. Each presale must be accompanied by a notarized statement of relationship witnessed by a seventh son of a seventh son. The presale requirement may be waived if you pay 80% of the printing costs for your book.
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Thank you for your support of the University of Pobiz Press. We look forward to receiving your entry!


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Les Kay holds a PhD from the University of Cincinnati’s Creative Writing program and an MFA from the University of Miami. His poetry has appeared in a variety of literary journals including Whiskey Island, Sugar House Review, Stoneboat, Menacing Hedge, Third Wednesday, Santa Clara Review, The White Review, PANK, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Michelle, three dogs, and their collective imaginations. His chapbook, The Bureau, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications.

T.A. Noonan is the author of several books and chapbooks, most recently The Midway Iterations (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015) and The Ep[is]odes: a reformulation of Horace (Noctuary Press, 2016). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Reunion: The Dallas Review, Menacing Hedge, LIT, West Wind Review, Ninth Letter, and Phoebe, among others. A weightlifter, artist, teacher, priestess, and all-around woman of action, she is an artist-in-residence at Firefly Farms, home of the Sundress Academy for the Arts. Additionally, she serves as the Vice President and Associate Editor of Sundress Publications.

F*ck This! I Quit…Kind Of: On Poetry, Contests, and Opportunity Cost by Les Kay

Last December, I received an urgent text from my father: CALL ME. My father, like most fathers, normally reserves the use of brief text messages in ALL CAPS for important news or emergencies. Since he’s retired now, well into his 70s, and his wife has been diagnosed with terminal bladder cancer—a cancer that should have been caught much earlier and should have been curable with simple resection—I assumed the worse, something health-related and horrific.

When I phoned, my father told me about an advertisement he’d seen for a poetry contest, a Christian poetry contest with a small fee and cash prizes. Instead of counting my inevitable winnings, I imagine my brow furrowed as if I’d just heard the compensation package for an adjunct teaching position. I thought immediately of Poetry.com and similar scams, suspecting that if I were to enter such a contest, the only plausible response would be solicitation of money that I, like so many emerging poets, just don’t have right now.

Google and a few anonymous netizens confirmed my suspicions. I thanked my father, skirting the issue of whether or not I’d enter by explaining how many other contests I needed to enter and stressing the necessity of book publication.

“Those are the only contests I enter now.”

And I sighed. A sigh meant not to be heard.

“I need to get my manuscript published to have any shot on the job market.”

I then launched into a tedious explanation of the academic job market, detailing the qualifications of those who were landing coveted jobs teaching creative writing and those who teach five classes on a hotdog, ramen, and generic cola budget. I must have explained just how winding, wending, and expensive the entire process can be. How the contracting number of jobs means that hiring committees at schools so small they may be imaginary now require applicants to have a book published by a “national” press. How applicants must develop pedagogical expertise in Composition, Literature, Creative Nonfiction, and, if at all possible, time travel. How we need to fly to the MLA conference—even if we pay with an overstretched credit card—to be herded into hotel rooms while avoiding the winged monkeys and remaining on the lookout for the Tin Man’s heart.


No wonder it takes time to realize that the wizards controlling our fate are mere women and men.

I’m not at all sure my explanation was clear or factual enough to help my father understand, but he told me to think about it and to keep working hard.

Then we talked about football.

About a month later, the book contest rejections, photocopied form letters announcing the winning title and perhaps a handful of finalists who wouldn’t be published, started rolling in. Sometimes the letters include a beaming author photos of the one person from 300, 800, or 900 entrants whose manuscript made its way to the final judge and beyond. Sometimes the letters include information about next year’s contest including the expected fee, which runs around $25, and the all-important deadline. In my mailbox, there were two from Ohio, two from California, two from Texas, one from Illinois, and one from Indiana. Sometimes that $25 gets you more than a form rejection. Sometimes if you include an envelope with postage you’ll also receive a copy of the winning manuscript. Sometimes you’ll receive a subscription to a literary journal associated with the contest. I have four or five such subscriptions coming to my house, though to be frank I tend to lose track.

There are, to be fair, a handful of independent book publishers that have open reading periods, sometimes without fees. Presses like Black Ocean, Milkweed, and even McSweeney’s craft beautiful books often of better quality than what the contest winners of university press prizes find in their mail. Yet from the perspective of many hiring committees (and perhaps many other such committees) the “best” presses now use the contest model to find any poet not already on their list. Consequently, if you need a manuscript published—even one with a score of publications at mid-tier, university-affiliated literary journals—you feel as though you must drop $25 per entry, even if the odds that you will receive a personal response rather than a photocopied announcement are exponentially worse than the odds of an applicant being accepted into Harvard’s Medical School (according to U.S. News, 4.1%).


Given such dismal odds, rampant rumors of malfeasance and nepotism should come as no surprise, even if Foetry and its epic, sometimes conspiracist, exposés on the connections between contest judges and prize winners has become a minor footnote to the history of literary publishing. My assumption, perhaps naïve, is that the vast majority of contests are now—if not wholly transparent—at least mindful of conflicts of interest and work assiduously to avoid them.

Nonetheless, some announcements still make my hair stand on end like that of a feral black cat surrounded by dogs—even when I do not submit to the contests in question. Indeed, recently Bruce Bond, a tenured professor at the University of North Texas, who already has nine well-regarded collections to his name, won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry. That same week, the Cleveland State University Press also announced the winner of their Open Competition: Lee Upton, a tenured professor at Lafayette College. This will be her ninth published book of poetry.

Of course, I recognize that the vagaries of the publishing industry likely put both Upton and Bond in a position where they were once again without a contract and forced to play the contest game, imagine their books continuing to go unpublished, or turn to an independent press. Moreover, I’m willing to assume that the contests were run fairly, but what chance do mere mortals have when Bond, Bruce Bond, submitted a book of sonnets? Why shouldn’t the Tampa Review, upon recognizing the work as Bond’s, turn ever so slightly away from ideals of fairness to the many, many anonymous poets who dropped $25 in an attempt to get their first, second, or third book out there? Bond’s book will surely sell better, right? Imagine an industry where those who have been successful enough to begin contemplating what their Selected Poems might look like still shell out $25 and take part in a contest. What has the publishing of poetry come to?

Let me be clear that I fault neither Bond nor Upton, nor I suppose, the presses that may have simply seen an opportunity. Every system is subject to abuse, and here, it is crucial to be mindful of the position in which university presses now, somehow, find themselves. Financial pressures—particularly in a political environment where invaluable services like food stamps, unemployment, and Social Security are being cut—lead many university-affiliated presses to search for new streams of revenue to compensate for funding their home universities may be unwilling or unable to provide. What is peculiar, at least within an American context, is the notion that such funding is necessary and that sales alone can no longer support the viability of a press regardless of the quality or timeliness of the material they publish.  So perhaps we should not be surprised if, when faced with production and distribution costs, a press might turn to contests to generate revenue. Even if this is just enough revenue to facilitate the “reading” of the 900 manuscripts that arrive and to cover production costs. In other words, I want to make abundantly clear that the process and conditions under which the production of poetry takes place are not, per se, the fault of the editors who work for presses that are perennially understaffed and overwhelmed. Indeed, given an avalanche of manuscripts by people who very dearly want and need to be published for their professional well being, how could you not be tempted to turn to the work of someone you, as an editor, already know? How could you possibly give each and every manuscript half the care and attention that we expect of college students when they first encounter contemporary poetry in an academic setting? Perhaps most importantly, how do you ensure that the next book is not the last the press publishes?

From my perspective, as a poet attempting to land a few pages carved from several years of work into the hands of a less-than-ravenous reading public, everything about the process feels onerous. To the point that I sometimes swear to read books from such and such press only if they arrive via library, gift, or review copy. To the point that I’ve frequently wondered whether I might be able to garner more readers via one of the many self-publishing services or, better, via the middle-class friendly wonders of the Internet. Indeed, the notion of giving my poetry freely to others is deeply appealing, whereas the notion of paying for the publication, however nominal the amount, summons images of those fat anthologies from World Poetry Movement where one must pay to see one’s “prize-winning” poem in print. In fact, since I began sending my manuscript to contests, I’ve probably paid out more cash than the “amateur poets” who fall for Internet-based poetry scams. All with the understanding that what is most compelling about those scam poetry anthologies—the unrelenting democracy of a project that documents the difficulties, pains, delights, and joys of lives lived—is precisely what is redacted, elided, and otherwise cut from a publishing experience with a more traditional poetry press.

Like so many in the poetry community, I find myself playing an elitism lottery. But it is a most peculiar form of elitism.

What then should I tell my father the next time he texts me urgently to tell me about a contest I can’t contemplate? Should I explain that I am amenable only to certain forms of exploitation? Or that I happily supported presses that I admire during a winter when I couldn’t afford new tires for a car that badly needed them? Or should I simply tell him that a prize like that, as opposed to a book contest, won’t salve the half-glimpsed desperation that follows, like an H.P. Lovecraft monster, those of us who would prefer to teach without being contingent?


Perhaps I just need to walk away.

Book contests are now profligate. Presses that formerly had open reading periods now charge for the privilege of having your book read. So the cost to any potential poet has become more and more astounding. It may one day be subsidized by a well-taxed prize of something like a grand and a few book sales—assuming one is luckier than a beagle who, through the vagaries of quantum mechanics, finds herself transported to a Texas chili competition while all the cooks are simultaneously taking cigarette breaks.

What those costs ignore are just who those people submitting to book contests might be, just how much work and dream is fused into those explosive fifty pages, just how many people might be forced to walk away from the possibilities that poetry affords simply because they can no longer rationalize the fees that precede the rejections. Many of those people are, of course, adjuncts and graduate students who still, against almost all that is rational, believe that their next choice to “support literary publishing” will be the one that takes them further into the fatty folds of that hibernating bear…or, perhaps, its jowls.

This is a symptom not of a community that is dying but of a community that has been forced, metaphorically speaking, to eat its young. Or, as a former professor once wrote in a letter of recommendation, this is a community focused on “training the young to read its work.” It is, in short, a maze of gate keeping that will lose us poets. Imagine, for example, how John Clare might fare now. How many Miltons might be made mute and inglorious simply because of fees?

Surely, there is a better way.

After all, in the United Kingdom, poets are asked to query with a sample batch of poems. They are not asked for payment. In fact, the United States is the only nation that has developed such a labyrinthine and expensive path toward publishing while still maintaining the cultural elitism that makes publishing through the burgeoning community of independent presses and micropresses an anathema to many hiring and tenure committees.

Thankfully, emerging poets have not yet been asked to pay for a single submission of a batch of poetry. We have not yet seen for-profit companies inserting their services into the long, storied, and difficult process of getting one poem to sing in front of the eyes of, perhaps, a thousand readers. That clearly would be immoral and would suggest that poetry is neither concerned with the truth nor with broadening the possibilities of who might contribute to its ongoing historical conversation. That clearly would imply that someone who must choose between paying the gas bill and eating lunch has no place in the utopia of letters. That clearly would spark fire-spewing arguments about moral obligations and financial necessity. That clearly would suggest that the community is not so far removed from its New Critical pinnacle of protecting culture from Others as I—and many others—have believed.

And that, clearly, is precisely what’s happening. But there is minimal anger. Let the adjuncts, the graduate students, the visiting professors pay what they do not have to publish those who will have stable, well-paid jobs if they don’t publish another word. Who cares if they find themselves thinking, I can simply eat a little bit more ramen?

Or maybe there is another way. What if we recognized that it’s only poetry after all and funneled the money that would have gone to this prize or that prize somewhere, well, different?

I have books that need to be published. I’m planning to submit myself to the contest machine through the end of the year. If I’m less lucky than a Harvard Medical School applicant, so be it.

Next year starting in January, I’ll only send manuscripts to venues that don’t charge or from whom I can receive a slightly more expensive than normal subscription. I’ll track those contests that I would normally submit to, and rather than submitting, I’m sending that money to Doctors without Borders.


Les Kay holds a PhD from the University of Cincinnati’s Creative Writing program and an MFA from the University of Miami. His poetry has appeared in a variety of literary journals including Whiskey Island, Sugar House Review, Stoneboat, Menacing Hedge, Third Wednesday, Santa Clara Review, The White Review, PANK, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Cincinnati with his wife, Michelle, three dogs, and their collective imaginations. His chapbook, The Bureau, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications.