On Finalists Lists
published on December 3, 2022
There are, I am hardly the first to point out, numerous shortcomings of the contest model currently dominant in contemporary poetry, not least of which are the effects of poetry contests on the shape, structure, and content of a poetry manuscript—it is only possible, under the contest model, to think a certain kind of collection.
Related to this shortcoming are two others: the contest entry fee and the finalist list.
While presses maintain that entry fees help defray costs in an industry operating on slim margins, such fees nonetheless create dramatic barriers to entry for economically disenfranchised writers, further restricting the formal and thematic diversity of contemporary poetry. In an era of rising fees, moreover—most contests now charge over $30—many presses continue to shroud their editorial procedures in a veil of mystery, concealing the names of readers and judges and withholding any information as to how manuscripts are handled. Yet precisely because these fees are so high, writers have a right to transparency regarding who is handling their work and how they are handling it.
In contrast, the Milkweed/Copper Nickel Jake Adam York Prize, as I’ve argued elsewhere, remains a paragon of ethical publishing, not only disclosing the names of first-round readers, but ensuring that “no one was tasked with screening work by anyone s/he had published or knew personally.” Far different are those presses whose contest winners and “editors’ choices” are significant “names” in the poetry world—or, worse, are known by or familiar to editors and editorial boards.
To my mind, one of the more egregious practices in the contest model, however, is the publishing of finalists and semi-finalists, rosters that often read like a who’s who of emerging and up-and-coming writers. Ostensibly a means of recognizing work not selected for publication but which nonetheless showed merit, such lists in fact enable presses to capitalize on the cachet of writers who trust them with their work. “Look at these names we rejected,” such lists proclaim. “We must be an elite venue if we rejected them.” Though these lists certainly serve the interests of small and independent presses trying to make a name for themselves, they greatly disadvantage the writers named therein, now visible to potential future publishers as already rejected projects—“sloppy seconds” as one might put it. "Here are all the losers."
Rather than splashing a list of also-rans across the internet, such presses would be better served by privately notifying those writers who were indeed finalists or semi-finalists. These writers could then take it upon themselves to publish those results, if they so choose.
For an industry whose constituents pride themselves on ethical righteousness, on virtue, the actual material practices of poetry publishing remain woefully ill-conceived.