Sunday, May 07, 2006

Bluestem Poetry Award and its Demise

Bluestem Press at Emporia State University has announced that it has ended the Bluestem Poetry Award, a contest for full-length poetry collections. Phil Heldrich, a friend of mine, used to be instrumental in the operations of the press. He left Emporia a couple of years ago for a tenure track job elsewhere. Apparently, the problems that he mentioned regarding funding escalated in his absence although there could have been other forces at work, too.

During the eighteen years that the press was in existence, it published a few good collections. I can recommend Elizabeth Tibbetts’ In the Well (2002) and Matthew Spireng’s Out of Body (2004). My own creative writing students responded well to Elizabeth Tibbetts’ poems when I brought a few into class one night. Her poem "Coming Home" generated a lot of discussion because of its depiction of married love, especially the line, “and driving home to you and our new refrigerator.”

Except for 2001 when the press lacked funding, I worked as a preliminary judge for Bluestem’s annual poetry contest from 1999 to 2004. Each March, UPS delivered three large boxes of manuscripts to my door. I worked my way through the two hundred or so manuscripts, eliminating some fairly quickly, and eventually narrowing my choices down to three semi-finalists. Each preliminary reader, I think there were four of us, had his/her selections sent to the judge, someone like Mark Cox, Jonathan Holden, or Vivian Shipley, who would make the final selection.

The judging was blind, and none of the manuscripts contained the author’s name on the title page. Some of the writers managed to slip in their names elsewhere in the manuscript, however. As a poetry editor at Cimarron Review from 1995 to 1998, I also recognized some of the poems that I had selected. This recognition didn’t guarantee selection because I had to think of each collection as a whole.

I kept a record of those manuscripts I selected during my five years as a judge. It wasn’t until 2004 that the final judge agreed with me and selected Matthew Spireng’s Out of Body as the winner. When I saw the announcement in Poets & Writers, I vaguely recognized the name of the collection and had to doublecheck my notes to be sure.

A good number of the manuscripts that I selected have been published elsewhere and a few of them have won prestigious prizes as well. I selected Virginia Chase Sutton’s Netting the Gaudy Pearls in 1999. Her collection was later published by Chatoyant in 2003 under the title Embellishments. I selected Deborah Cummins Beyond the Reach in 2000; her collection was published by Bookmark Press in 2002. That same year I also selected Sherry Fairchok’s What They Wanted Me to Bring Back; her collection appeared as The Palace of Ashes in 2002. A portion of Paula Sergi’s Rooms We Could Live In, which I selected in 2003, appeared in 2005 as a chapbook from Finishing Line Press. Sheryl Luna’s Pity the Drowned Horses, which I chose in 2003 as well, was published in 2005 by U of Notre Dame P.

I haven’t heard about all of the manuscripts that I recommended during my tenure. Some of them may still be published somewhere at some future date.

Working as a judge was great fun. I feel proud of having made some good choices during my tenure. I have also played with the idea of creating my own chapbook contest, but the logistics prevent me from creating my own press and chapbook contest. Teaching and family take up the majority of my time at the moment. Grading essays even gets in the way of my own writing.