Categories Sapling Archive

Title as Invitation: poetry contests as dinner party by Laura McCullough

Publication Date: Issue #115 — February 7, 2012


Sapling is pleased to bring you the first in a two-part series on manuscript construction from Black Lawrence Press author Laura McCullough.

LauraBlack Lawrence Press published my collection of poems, Speech Acts, and in 2013 will publish a new collection, Rigger Death & Hoist Another. In between these two, my book, Panic, won a Kinereth Gensler Award and was published by Alice James Books, and I also began a three year term on the editorial board of the press. Over the last couple of years, I have participated in a number of manuscript screenings and selections and have also taught some workshops in manuscript construction. Recently, I completed a new poetry manuscript, Molecularity & the Science of Light, which took several years to cohere. It remains to be seen if this book will find a home, but the larger point I wish to make is that I have spent a lot of time considering what makes a collection of poems a book and considering the ways in which manuscripts have to compete for attention in the selection process, and though there are many components to consider, one is the importance of titles.

It is the unfortunate state of things that most poets have to send to contests. It is also exciting that there are so many contests. Many fine books are published every year, and this, too, is a good thing. But there are also many fine manuscripts that do not find publication; this is underscored by the many acknowledgment pages I’ve seen in manuscripts with good pedigrees, yet they didn’t become books.

If you are sending your manuscript to contests, you’re going to spend some money. If you’re not actively reading poetry, not participating in some way in the contemporary literary world, it is pretty likely a waste. Is this because there is some “Po-biz” club? An MFA mafia? Just as in any industry or discipline, there is some cronyism, but that’s not the problem. I have seen many manuscripts that suffer from not indicating through their strategies, maneuvers, and effects a clear sense of what is happening in contemporary poetry (which is rangy and wild, aesthetically various!) even if the work in some way is working against the current. A manuscript may be filled with “deep feeling,” may even rely on a love of the canon, but reveal an insulated “hobby poet” behind the curtain. As example, one cannot, most likely, pull off something I saw once in a manuscript: fully a third was a section called “In Homage to Blake,” and, as expected, the poems were written in such style. Blake had his day; why would a contemporary press wish to publish a simulacrum? Similarly, I have heard editors and publishers talk of having a hit book only to then receive scores of manuscripts from authors claiming their work is similar; who wants to publish what they have already published? Editors and publishers are looking for new voices, work that mines new terrain either formally or in terms of content, work that startles and claims poetic authority.

Which may seem like a paradox. It’s hard to get truly innovative work published, but it’s also hard to publish work that relies too heavily on what has been done. So what can an author do in a manuscript to make it stand out in (or at least stand up against) a pile of, say, 800 manuscripts sent to a given press for a contest?

There are several things I have come to see as important concerns, but one of the most important is the title. That is the first thing screeners or editors see. The title you have selected may sound good in the quiet of your office, but imagine it in a list of hundreds of others. Will it stand out in some way? Is it too literal? Boring even? What expectations will it set up in terms of aesthetics that will be reflected in the poems? Will the reader want those expectations met, or wish them to be confounded? Already, you must be thinking about audience.

I mentioned that the current landscape in poetry is rangy, and it is. On the positive side, your readers—not only the readers you necessarily hope will read your book after it is published, but the readers who are the gatekeepers to publishing opportunities—are other poets, and they take poetry very seriously indeed. They are passionate; they are steeped in history, hopefully, but also very much in what is happening now. They want to discover a fabulous manuscript. On the negative side, they may have rigid aesthetics, be biased toward one school over another. Perhaps they eschew the domestic, don’t believe in narrative or the self as a real agent anymore. Perhaps they loathe experimental, elliptical, or innovative poetry. Perhaps they are neo-formalists. And there are many gradations to all of these and more. For the record, I have supported manuscripts across many aesthetic camps; I am looking to be won over by an author’s mastery and effects, whatever their aesthetic. To be simple here, I want narrative-lyrics that include intensity of language and are open to the music of syntax and rhetoric. I also want language poems that are brave enough to sidle up to the heat of sentiment and human stakes. Poets with sonic flares shouldn’t just prove their prosodic skills, have not just surface exuberance, but quirk and smarts and heart. I want to be in the presence of a book of poems that no one else could have written in that way but that author.

But I digress. If a dozen people see your title, you want to be aware that many people may be put off before they turn to the next page. You don’t need to dazzle, but you need to impress. For example, titles such as My Wife’s Cancer or Failed Summer set up an expectation of domestic narratives that will be highly literal. I would want to see the poems then do the opposite. If a manuscript was titled Sex Toys, I’d be hoping for no sex in the poems. Consider what your title says about your book and how it might read if it were in a line-up of a thousand other titles and that is all anyone could see before deciding to look at your book.

Next is the contents page, and this is similar. Scan your poem titles. Are they all highly domestic: “Day at the Beach,” “My Mom’s funeral,” Cooking for Two”? You can bet the language poets who are screening will have portions of their brains turn off. Similarly, if all of your titles sound like this: “Cl-awe, 9147, –ish,” “Blood Cloud Orange,” or “Orangutang my Monkey Marriage Japan,” you are setting up other expectations. Or perhaps you are a neo-formalist, and all of your titles include these indicators of your prowess: sonnet, pantoum, villanelle, etc. Nothing is wrong with any of this!! Except that you will alienate certain readers. So either know the aesthetics of the press you’re sending to, or think about ways to invite as many kinds of readers to the table of your work by offering something towards everyone. Think of it as a dinner party and some of your guests have allergies. What would you do to make sure they were able to eat something?

Does this sound overly pragmatic? Does this injure your personal integrity? Only you can decide this, but I see it as an issue of understanding audience and setting a welcoming table.


Laura McCullough’s poetry collection, Speech Acts, is now available from Black Lawrence Press.  A new collection, Panic, is available from Alice James Books.


Laura McCullough‘s book of poems, Rigger Death & Hoist Another is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press. BLP also published her collection, Speech Acts. Among her other publications is Panic, published by Alice James