Tupelo Welcomes Your Submissions, But Alan Still Has Questions

An Open Letter from Alan Cordle.

This just arrived in the Scarriet inbox, and I’m still confused. Initially, Jeffrey Levine drew up the most ethical guidelines of them all, yet he still slipped up terribly, and hurt a lot of people. I also don’t get the  “non-profit” angle. So the Tupelo Press gets 1,000 manuscripts at $25.00 each, that’s $25,000 for each contest, right? So how can this be called “non-profit,” even when you subtract $3,000.00 for the prize?

And did Tupelo Press actually manage to match that $30,000.00 matching grant this year? I know some people offered to contribute to the fund if Jeffrey Levine would just clear up some doubts about his ethics, but I don’t think he did. Also, why do you only get $3,000.00 now for winning a Tupelo prize, whereas it used to be worth $10,000.00? Yes, things are getting more expensive as Tupelo says, but nothing like that much more. It makes you wonder how they managed to pay that astonishing sum when they were first just getting started?

And what happened to Jeffrey Levine’s sister-in-law, Margaret Donovan, I think her name was, the advertising executive who used to be Tupelo’s Managing Editor? Why is she no longer an officer at the Press?

It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was, of course, Foetry.com that pressured contests into specifying in their Guidelines that no “former students” of the judge are eligible.   It’s hard to believe, but there was even a time when  Foetry.com was derided for insisting upon just this, and now it’s routinely part of all poetry-contest guidelines.   “The Jorie Graham Rule,” it’s called, for obvious reasons.

Tupelo Press Guidelines

I’m still confused about the Tupelo Press Guidelines. This is what they say. “Readers” reduce the 1,000 submissions to 175, but as to who those “readers” are we are told nothing by Tupelo.    The “readers” also put comments on the manuscripts they like, and then “the editors” take the roughly 175 manuscripts and reduce the pile to 25 which are “ranked” for the Final Judge along with the supporting arguments from the “readers” and “anonymous” editors, so it’s hard to know who is who when it comes to responsibility for following the guidelines.

It could even be argued that the Final Judge makes no judgment at all, theoretically speaking.   For if the 25 manuscripts presented to the Final Judge are “ranked,” no. 1, no. 2, no. 3, etc., “editors” have essentially picked “the winner,” haven’t they, and the Final Judge, who is in the employ of Tupelo as well, presumably, is under no obligation to do anything more than automatically choose No. 1 as the winner of the contest.

What bothers  me is that there are no clauses in the Guidelines that address the relationship between the poets who submit their manuscripts and the “readers” and “editors” who are so crucial in choosing the winner.

Still, in perfect keeping with the published Tupelo Guidelines, couldn’t a personal friend, even a spouse of a “reader” or an “editor,” submit their manuscript to the Dorset Prize competition and “win”?    The Final Judge, who does not personally know the wife, let’s say, of a Tupelo editor, and who receives the manuscript anonymously, sees that the manuscript is ranked No. 1 out of the whole slush pile sifted by the “editors” before him. So what’s wrong with that?

Well, Bin Ramke selected winners at Georgia who were known only to Jorie Graham, and in at least one well-documented case who hadn’t even entered the contest. And, of course, there was that other well-documented case of someone else’s otherwise unrelated almost husband who still managed to win and is now also a professor at Harvard.

Yes, I do worry that a published, well-known poet who submits to a Tupelo contest, and is known to a “reader” and/or “editor” at Tupelo, will have the same advantage.  The “anonymous” character of the judging is suspicious, isn’t it, since the Tupelo editor winnowing the manuscripts down to a “ranked” 25 can “know” the poet who is submitting, and Tupelo can have an overriding wish to declare “a known poet” the winner? Isn’t that exactly what was also done year after year by Graham and Ramke at Georgia? Indeed, there’s nothing in the Guidelines that says the Tupelo editors can’t directly let the Final Judge know which manuscripts they (the Tupelo “editors”) “admire.” It doesn’t take a corporate lawyer to set that one up!

Colrain Manuscript Conferences & Crazyhorse/ Tupelo Press Graduate Program: Matters Arising

I’m also concerned about the students who have paid such a lot for the intimate editing services offered in both the Colrain Manuscript Conference retreats and the Crazyhorse/Tupelo Press Graduate Programs — they even advertise what a large number of their graduates get published. Hasn’t the work of these poets been discussed in fine detail by some of the same people who will winnow down the field in other contests? Does it say anywhere that these “students” are ineligible for the contests, because it ought to, shouldn’t it?

The only interdiction is they can’t be a personal friend or student of the Final Judge. But the Tupelo or other editors can easily make sure that all 25 or so manuscripts the Final Judge reviews are submissions by 1.) their friends, 2.) well-known poets they are keen on recognizing, and 3.) their own Colrain/Crazyhorse students.  So it becomes a fait accompli, doesn’t it? The 999 other contestants who have paid their $25.00 fee, or more, and including you and I, won’t have a clue that the game has potentially been rigged as described above—even while observing the rules set out in the guidelines.

And don’t forget that Joan Houlihan, the director of the Colrain Manuscript Conferences, was published by her colleague in the business, Jeffrey Levine, just as she was defending Jeffrey Levine and Bin Ramke in Poets & Writers — and of course trashing Foetry.com as “losers.” (A lot of us are still waiting for her to address that horrendous indiscretion, and until she does, it’s likely to go on haunting her.)

Also Robin Beth Schaer, the On-Line Editor at The Academy of American Poetry, was shortlisted for a Tupelo prize just weeks before Christopher Woodman was banned for mentioning Joan Houlihan’s P&W Letter about Jeffrey Levine in a comment on the Poets.org Forum. (Robin Beth Schaer appears to be no longer in the job, whether because there was an actual or perceived conflict of interest will probably never be known. The Site Administrator also resigned during the scandal — she was quietly reinstated after all the threads involved were deleted and there was no one and nowhere left on Poets.org to discuss the matter.)

And of course, Carol Ann Davis, the editor of Crazyhorse,  was published by Jeffrey Levine just as Carol Ann Davis announced a new course, The Crazyhorse/Tupelo Press Publishing Institute graduate program at the College of Charleston – taught by Jeffrey Levine. The program also selects the Tupelo Press First Book Prize, and awards yet another $3000.00, and of course, gets you the cred that will really get you the job — which explains why you bite the bullet of the bill!

Ouch, that last one is particularly gratuitous. We addressed it in some detail on Foetry.com, but apparently students still continue to sign up for it, which is disturbing.

Do Jeffrey Levine and Joan Houlihan Care For Poetry?

Of course Jeffrey Levine  and Joan Houlihan care for poetry, and both believe they are working hard on behalf of the art—I don’t deny that. But obtaining money from, or for, poetry is simply not an act in which the end can ever justify the means. Faith must finally reside in the public’s reception of that poetry, whether one is a poet or an investor. If you are producing a product no one wants, put it out there with private money. If you have to defraud part of the public to put that product out there, you shouldn’t be putting it out there at all.

Alan Cordle


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