Interview About Main Street Rag’s Poetry Book Award

Picture of M. Scott Douglass

Author: M. Scott Douglass

What makes Main Street Rag a unique part of the publishing community?

We may be the only American independent small press that is also a bindery and production house. We produce our own books and have produced magazines and books for hundreds of other publishers as well.1

What are Main Street Rag’s contests? How long have you been running the contest? What motivated you to start the contest?

We started with a chapbook contest in 1999 and added the Poetry Book Award in 2002. I was never a big fan of poetry contests. As a runner up in several (back in the day), I started viewing them as literary beauty pageants, but I had authors asking me to do chapbooks, so I gave it a try, found out designing was pretty easy. So, our initial motivation for the chapbook contest was to find quality manuscripts to publish outside of our circle of friends.

The Poetry Book Award was a whole different ball game. By the time we’d started this contest, we’d already invested $150K in printing and binding equipment. We needed to have something to feed the beast. Bookstores are more amenable to selling full length books than they are chapbooks, so this seemed the logical next step. Get some notoriety, attract more authors, turn the wheels of commerce.

I also had a bit of a bridesmaid chip on my shoulder. Realizing that I probably did not fit others’ criteria as what would be labeled “award-winning,” I figured there were other poets out there whose work may not appeal to places that were offering contests, but may appeal to me and the readers of our literary magazine. And what would it hurt to try? Hell, it’s only money.

What sort of qualities do you look for in a manuscript or piece of work that you are considering for publication or for becoming a finalist in the contest?

Top on the list has to be a unique voice, a unique perspective, someone who has something fresh to say. I’m not big on trudging through the same turf over and over again. We get a lot of mechanically well-crafted manuscripts that don’t jump out for one reason or another. Most often it’s because the author’s voice or subject matter seems to be mimicking someone else’s work

Do you have a specific aesthetic preference? How would you describe that aesthetic?

I say I do, but I’m really pretty eclectic. We’ve selected and published free verse, formal, prose poetry and mixtures of the three. I’m not a big fan of forced rhyme, but—as one of the final judges for our contests—I don’t see much of it. Our preliminary judges are among the best qualified anywhere. Most of them are former contest winners and runners-up, all have earned (at least) an MFA, some have doctorates. Instead of asking students to cull through our submissions, we ask teachers. Anyway, most of them have a general idea of what we’re looking for—that’s why they were asked to help judge. That’s why I don’t see stuff like forced rhyme when it comes my time to read.

What is the most exciting part about running your contest? What has been most challenging?

The most exciting part is the moment after we’ve selected a winner and runners up. The last piece of pizza is gone, the beer is gone. It’s time to make the phone calls. Telling the winner and hearing the response, that’s golden. Even talking to the runners up is exciting since we’ve offered as many as 15 (from one contest) publication even though they did not win and that’s what many of them are really after anyway: publication.

Most challenging, hmm.

I can design a cover in a few minutes to a few hours, set most poetry books up in less than an hour, but even when you do those things well, the hardest, most frustrating thing is bringing this product that you believe in, that the author believes in, in front of a world that is being inundated with fast food marketing. Sometimes, no matter how good the product is, you can’t get people to pay attention to it. They are already numbed by the avalanche of marketing which lands in their email box, their smart phone, their TV. And sometimes it’s almost like a political race. You may have the best candidate, but it’s the candidate with the most money who usually wins. I think that’s what’s most frustrating for me.

What is the next exciting thing happening at Main Street Rag?

We’re just finishing up designing our fall titles. It’s the first time I’ve had a full season’s worth of releases done and ready for press this far in advance. We’re very excited about the 2012 MSR Poetry Book Award winner, Shortly Thereafter by Colin D Halloran. It’s due out in October and I think it’s one of those titles that folks will have to sit up and pay attention to.