Contest Manuscripts: Behind the Scenes at Tupelo Press

Posted on December 3, 2020


The doorkeeper’s feet are seven armlengths long

five oxhides for his sandals

ten shoemakers worked on them

–Fragment of Sappho (110) translated by Anne Carson (If Not, Winter, Knopf, NY 2002)

Why are these lines, fragments of lines—all that remain legible on a papyrus, a song of Sappho—sitting here atop this short piece on what happens to the (contest) manuscripts submitted to Tupelo Press?

Those three truncated lines of Sappho become indelible in a single reading. They offer up a certain transparency (piercing), a certain reverberation (overtones, echoes, resonance), a certain immediate apprehending of what, for want of a better, more specific word, let’s call “beauty.” These fragments—a lyric—not only suggest, but also handle so authoritatively what Gregory Orr in his brilliant book Poetry As Survival calls “the flux and chaos of feeling.” (U. Georgia Press, 2002).  [Handle: grasp, seize, touch, carry, manage, deal with, be responsible for, manipulate, control.]

A manuscript is itself both a handle and a threshold. It occupies a liminal state in that exotic, rarefied, arcane culture constituted by the writers and potential publishers of poetry. Which is to say that each submitted manuscript exists in a transitional state, offering itself up for a kind of initiation ceremony in which, as with other ceremonies that mark transitional states (marriages, funerals, bar mitzvahs, crownings, beheadings, carving the Thanksgiving turkey), ordinary social rules are suspended, and the submitted pages are asking to undergo a profound change in identity.

The ritual reading process guides each of these manuscripts through this symbolic “space” of potential transformation. At the threshold, where manuscripts are read, as Gregory Orr might say, “linguistic, imaginative, and emotional energies are vastly heightened.”

Every manuscript is an offering, each reading a ceremony. This, then, is how I think of the process of reading manuscripts here at Tupelo Press. Even if there is no trumpet fanfare, no gathering of the Court, no large, loyal dog at my side (there is a large, not-so-loyal cat), no glass of sherry in my hand, there is something fully ceremonial about the process.

Reading each manuscript is an event, informed by the knowledge that every submission constitutes someone’s lifework, and that each is the product of solitary hours: months, years of solitary hours, and the manuscript is freighted with this work, this history, the workings of the imagination, the repeated gathering of inner forces, the summoning of the unconscious and countless invocations of the muse. The weight of time itself collects in those pages, just as time has collected in the papyri of Sappho, enhancing each fragment by the physical diminishment of the very ‘page’ on which it appears.

You may remember that Jorge Luis Borges called the universe a book, and said that he imagined paradise “in the shape of a library.” (Borges, “Poema de los dones,” in El Hacedor (Buenos Aires: Emecé, 1960). Our job—the job of every publisher—is to create the denizens of those libraries, the physical artifacts that survive the generations.

Here at the Tupelo Loft in the NORAD Mill in North Adams, Massachusetts at the confluence of Mt. Greylock and Mt. Prospect and Mt. Pine Cobble and Mt. Williams, we are currently reading for the Dorset Prize, a poetry competition open to poets writing in English anywhere in the world. We get submissions—both online and hard copy–from Nepal, from India, from New Zealand and from France, from Australia, Canada, Germany, Ireland, England and Scotland, Russia and Israel and Japan, from China, Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Mexico, Uruguay, Spain . . . and just about everywhere else on the globe. Also, of course, and mainly, from within the United States. There is no way in which this kind of diversity is not thrilling.

To start the process, each manuscript is “logged in,” which means it’s entered into our database, the cover pages, bios, cover letters, and all other identifying materials detached and filed, and as well the acknowledgment pages, those too, removed and filed.  The manuscripts are numbered consecutively, as received, then put in stacks to be read.

What then happens to those manuscripts, exactly:

1.     Who reads them? Kristina Marie Darling, our Editor-in-Chief does, and I do, with a lot of help from several of the most experienced and widely-published poets in the land. We don’t use interns. Why not? Because our aesthetic is our stock-in-trade, and for better or for worse, I’m in charge of that aesthetic. We get around 1,200 submissions for the Dorset Prize, depending upon the year, and it takes two or three months of pretty steady reading, December through February, to complete the task.

2.     Is our aesthetic a knowable thing? Well, yes, of course it is. Any poet who reads, closely and attentively, any five books we’ve published in the last three years will know what we like, or at least, have a useful sense of the parameters of our tastes.

3.     Does it matter when the manuscripts come in, i.e., closer to the start or closer to the end of a contest period? No, not at all. It’s only the work itself that matters.

4.     Does it matter whether manuscripts are submitted in hard copy or electronically? No, not at all, though these days, most come electronically, through Submittable.

5.     Do cover letters count? No, not for contests. We don’t read them. Or anyway, not until after we’ve sent a dozen or so finalists off to our judge. Then, because we’re curious, once a contest is over Kristina and I read the cover letters. But in contest situations, cover letters are detached and filed. (This is not the case, however, during our open July reading period. I love reading cover letters, and as the open reading period in July is not a contest and not anonymous, I love to get a sense of the person behind the poems.)

6.     Why do we ask for an acknowledgments page if we don’t look at it? Excellent question. There are three reasons:

  • Because we do look at them after the contest is over.
  • Because we’re curious (see above) about where our submitters are publishing, and what those published poems say about the editorial aesthetic at various literary journals and magazines.
  • Because sometimes, not so rarely, actually, we “take” a manuscript or two out of the contest stacks just because it appeals to us, and when we do, we like to know where those poems have been, and we like to know that the poet has been doing the hard and essential work of building a readership for her/his work.

7.     What happens during the actual reading process? We read closely. If we get that sensation I described above, something similar to the feeling I get from reading those lines of Sappho: i.e., that there’s something indelible going on, that there’s an authority in the voice, that real ideas reside in the poems, that the poet is in full control of the craft of writing poetry, that there are overtones, echoes, resonance in the lines, that I’m finding the work memorable, that I’m making discoveries because the poet has made discoveries, well then, in however many pages it takes to convince myself that what’s found there is something special, I mark that manuscript in some runic way and put it aside for further reading.

8.     How far will we read into a manuscript before deciding whether or not it makes the “next round”? It could be twenty pages. Or thirty. Enough to know that we’re in the hands of an exciting imagination.

9.     What separates the manuscripts that get marked for further reading from the ones that do not? Craft. Ideas. Resonance. Control. Authority of voice. Whether or not the work is “memorable.” And more often than you might think, the consistency of the work across the manuscript. Many, if not most manuscripts have several fabulous poems. Few manuscripts are made entirely of fabulous poems. Which is just one reason why I encourage submitters to enter manuscripts of around 52-64 pages. I would venture to say that in every contest submission period there are always two or three hundred manuscripts by poets to be reckoned with.

10.  What about titles? Good titles help. Bad titles don’t help. If I get a batch of otherwise great manuscripts with awful titles, I might ask the judge to ignore the titles, but I’m sure that this direction results in raised eyebrows.

11.  What’s the best preparation for writing and submitting a manuscript? Read everything. Read some more. Read systematically. Write many, many craft annotations of poems. What’s a craft annotation? I’ll cover that in another blog post. But for now, when you read, ask yourself, “What exactly is going on in that poem with respect to two or three elements of craft.” Read voraciously in other disciplines. Memorize a good dozen poems so that you absorb them. At least one W.C. Williams, at least one Wallace Stevens, some Emily Dickinson, at least one Shakespeare, and so on. Memorize a few contemporary poems that speak to you. Figure them out. Do this work. There is no substitute for it.

12.  What about order? What about  “arc”? Normally we don’t get to those considerations until much later rounds, meaning, when we’ve gotten to about 100 “surviving” manuscripts (about 4 rounds into the reading process), then we start to consider closely questions of order, questions of internal coherence, questions of overall strategy.

13.  How do we get from 100 manuscripts to 12 finalists and about 20 semi-finalists? We read them over and over and over again. We discuss. We argue.  We look at order. We look at strategy. We think about the “project” that motors the manuscript. Then we put the “book” down and let it percolate. See what draws us back. It’s that “memorable” quality at work again. We look for collections of poetry that we can’t live without. That doesn’t mean there aren’t poems – often many poems – in other manuscripts that we can’t live without. But (see above) there’s a vital difference between manuscripts with many memorable poems, and a fully memorable manuscript.

14.  Is the reading process really anonymous? Yes, it really is anonymous. An astute reader of our lists will notice that more than half of the previous winners of the Dorset Prize have been first books. I love that this happens. You might remember from my first or second blog entry (on order) that I said it’s the work that matters. And only the work that matters. I still mean it.

15.  How does it happen that a manuscript that was a semifinalist one year doesn’t “make the cut” the next? Yes, that sometimes happens. Because we’re always reading each manuscript in context with all the other entries. Because we’re human, and because our tastes and appetites change. Some years I find myself loving the more experimental work. Other years I find myself drawn to more “traditional” ways of writing. But, as anyone who has spent some time with Tupelo lists will attest, our tastes are quite catholic—meaning I’m drawn to all sorts of poetry—so long as it’s fabulous, transcendent, life-altering work.

16.  If my manuscript doesn’t make the cut, is there any point in resubmitting? Good question. It would be hard to remember even a single manuscript that’s won a contest here on the first try, and several of our winning manuscripts have submitted many times. The idea is to create and submit a (forgive) “competitive” manuscript. But that said, there’s very little point in simply resubmitting a manuscript that you’ve not paid close attention to in the intervening year: revising, re-entering and re-imagining the work, finding those discoveries that a poem will yield up over time to the patient writer. And at the very least, you’re getting an intensely careful and attentive reading of your work.

17.  What steps does Tupelo Press take to ensure that our contest judges are fair? We’re as rigorous as can be about this. See our ethical doctrine here. We find that judges will bend over backward to be fair and ethical. The work of judging a poetry contest is hard and exciting and rewarding, and I’ve never encountered a judge of any one of our contests who wasn’t in it for the discoveries to be made.

18.  How do I get to have one of those manuscripts that’s chosen for publication even though it didn’t win your contest? Answer: fill your work with that “flux and chaos of feeling” that Greg Orr writes about, and make us have to come back to it over and over and over again.

19.  Do we sometimes miss the boat on great work? You bet. We have many times passed on manuscripts that we wish we’d taken.

20.  Do other independent literary presses have identical processes. No. Each press has its own process, just as each has its own aesthetic. I tend to think that each one us is alike in the way that Tom Lux puts it (about writing poetry) in his ars poetica, “An Horation Notion”: We do the thing because we love the thing.

Posted in: Poetry