Recently, we received an e-mail from a frantic MFA student who had a big-time bee in his bonnet to get his hands on a copy of RMR. Seems he'd been assigned one of those mind-numbing reports for his poetry workshop. His mission: Drone about chapbook contests -- particularly those which feature the winner embedded in a literary magazine. At least that's what he told us. Could be he was a spy for the government.

At any rate, since we're no strangers to all things half-assed and last-minute, we obliged the poor guy. No charge, even -- but there was a catch. He had to disseminate the following screed to any and all who would listen. Did he do it? You'll have to ask the folks in State College, PA. But just in case you don't get to Happy Valley any time soon, here it is, in its glorious entirety (albeit slightly edited for readability)...


One thing of note on chapbook contests: Ours is free to enter. It's one of the only such contests (free entry, that is) I know about.

I mention that because I think it's worthwhile for us writers and editors to consider the repercussions of the "pay-to-play" publication model, which has a stranglehold on contemporary poetry in particular. Book contests, first-book contests, chapbook contests -- now lit mags are increasingly sponsoring contests for individual poems, stories, or essays. One could easily spend hundreds of dollars a year in pursuit of a "win" in one of the Big Fish contests -- even more than that if a little fish will do. To what end, though? To be read? Or -- more likely, I fear -- for a noteworthy line on a vita?

I certainly don't have a magic solution to the problem, but I think it's insidious and important. What does it say about us writers of contemporary literature? How much will we shell out in an effort to be published before we realize that we're just so many Wile E. Coyotes running madly in thin air?

I also wonder what it says about us as (non)readers of contemporary literature. If small presses and magazines can't support themselves through subscriptions and sales -- if we have far more submissions than we do subscriptions, and we do -- what exactly are we up to here? Almost by definition, that means more people are writing than reading. Why? And what, then, is the role for the contemporary literary magazine in such a landscape?

The Faux-Capitalist approach -- market-driven business plans aimed at increasing readership, for instance -- is just that: faux. Why? Because the real market isn't readers, it's writers.

Readers don't value us nearly as much as writers do. That's a fact. (Feel free to banty about the chicken-or-egg question of what's a reader, what's a writer, and where they intersect. To me, writing is best served if it aspires past onanism [i.e., writing for other writers], but that might just be me. PS...Raise your hand if the first place you look in a lit mag is the contributors section.)

Case in point: When I edited Black Warrior Review -- one of the older, more reputable lit mags around -- guess how many subscribers we had. About 350, give or take. Just under $5,000 gross income per year. We got that many submissions (350) in a month -- often more. With a yearly budget of around $20,000, my successors at the moderately cash-strapped BWR have recently instituted a wildly successful pay-to-play fiction contest, whereby the winner gets $1000 and his/her winning story published in the magazine. It grossed $9,000 last year. Can you blame them? Clearly, from a strictly quantitative perspective, that's a market to mine. In our system, publication is worth more to the writer than it is to the reader.

But do we realize there's some troubling morality at play in that equation? At best, it's built on circular logic: there aren't enough readers who want to buy all this writing so we're going to sell it back to the writers, who can then show university hiring committees that, indeed, they are significant enough writers to serve on a faculty that is charged with...creating more writers. Or at least they can teach the service courses the creative writing and literature faculty doesn't want to teach. (Don't look now, but isn't that us dropping towards the canyon floor faster than an ACME anvil?)

I say we, as lit mags, need to redefine our purpose. We should aim to serve, not solicit, writers. Why serve writers -- why embrace them as a constituency?

Because, damn it, they -- we -- need it and nobody else is going to do it but us. Because lit mags and small presses aren't mini-corporations; they're activist organizations. Because writers still have an important role in the body politic: to keep our culture evolving, to encourage good, provocative thought, and to inspire action -- directly or indirectly--based upon that enlightened thought.

Therefore, a lit mag's goal should be to publish and distribute work that would not otherwise see the light of day. To provoke thought. To provide an energetic, active, tangible space for said endeavors. And to do it in the most writer-friendly way possible. Free contests, openness to simultaneous submissions, and quick turnaround times are a few tangible ways to be writer friendly. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Please stay tuned to this space for another mailbag where folks rail against us for our own shortcomings in this regard. It's like the Dalai Lama says--we never said all this moralizing and compassion was easy. Necessary, yes. Easy, no.]

We need to rethink distribution and funding as well. Is
Ingram's anonymous, hands-off distribution model the right one to aspire to? And practically speaking, does it even matter if it is -- few lit mags can count themselves "lucky" enough to be taken into the Ingram fold.

I think our lit mags and small presses need to "think global, act local." Or hell, think local, act local. Every community has writers in it. Writers make a community richer, smarter, more thoughtful, more empathetic, more introspective. A lit mag can -- and should -- be a local nexus for the literary arts. One that both provides a supportive common environment for literary artists but that also stakes its ground within the larger community. Poets in the schools. Public readings. Community workshops. Reading groups...

How do you pay for it? Ask for money from people who actually have it. Write grant proposals. Get shrewd about in-kind services. Publish fewer issues, smaller issues, use the web to complement content as well as to augment sales & distribution.

Clearly I'm getting carried away in a Utopian fervor. And I'm not really sure what this has to do with chapbook contests -- other than maybe this bit of advice for you and your peers: Beware the literary-industrial complex! I'll go back to my padded room now...

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