I also find it sad that I read so many young poets are constantly changing their manuscripts after not placing in a contest. When everything is so oversaturated and so many contests are run by committee, taking your losing to mean anything is dangerous. Having been a screener for contests, I can say that I've seen so many manuscripts look overlabored. You need to let go of your manuscript. There's only so much you can do.
Unless you have a bad title. Here's an embarrassing confession: for years I sent out my manuscript and never placed. I called it the dumbest, dullest things! Aesthetics of the Damned was one. Hoaxes and Scams was another.
As soon as I called it Blind Date with Cavafy (all the poems were basically the same ones that appeared under the other titles), I started being named a finalist. And I won pretty quick. After many, many years of bad titles. This is my theory: most screeners, most poets are insecure in making aesthetic judgments. The mention of Cavafy made it clear that I knew something about poetry. The humor of the phrase "blind date" juxtaposed with the literary allusion signaled I was a poet. I am very embarrassed to admit this, but I think it's true. There's so much out there, and most people are tentative, they need clues that they're giving the right book the award. That isn't to say this is why I won, but I did notice that I started making it past the initial rounds much more often. Choose a smart title. Most titles suck. They're boring and pretentious and vague.
In my experience, titles are hard. I like my chapbook title (Breach) but poem titles frustrate me. As for the (soon, soon...) full-length collection, I think I know the title, but once I start shoving poems together it may not work anymore.
There are lots of ways to come up with titles:
~~use the title of one of the poems in the book (which puts a lot of pressure on that poem, eh?)
~~pull out a key (or not so key) phrase from one poem (which still spotlights that one poem, but not so blatantly)
~~title that serves as a key to somehow unlock the "meaning" of the book
~~title that names the overriding story or thread or tone of the book
How do y'all come up with titles?
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Spent a couple hours at Panera today, drinking too much coffee, eating a Dutch apple/raisin bagel (toasted, with low-fat cream cheese), and reading (Lucia Perillo and Major Jackson, to be specific). Drafted two poems, one of which may be a keeper, then had to pull over in a parking lot halfway home because another one was banging on my brain. I love it when that happens.
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Really wishing I could make it to AWP in January, but it seems highly unlikely given the price of hotel rooms in NYC. I truly can't afford to spend three weeks' salary (or more) on a conference, even though I think it would be lots of fun. Sigh. I am, however, going to keep an eagle eye out for cheap airfares, and try to sneak out to Provincetown in the early spring for a long weekend -- March or early April or so. I really want to see a North Atlantic right whale (super endangered species; there are maybe 330-350 of them living) and they hang out just offshore that time of year.
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Two weeks from Monday, classes begin at the university here. Much as I complain about the lack of parking, newbies going the wrong way on all our one-way streets, and impossibility of getting a table at Panera, I secretly love it when the students return. All those new young faces, all those fresh starts. It reminds me that you can always start something new if you need to. And it reminds me of how thrilled I was to arrive in town as a bright-eyed freshman back in 1979 (god I'm old), and those first months of discovering so many of the things I still love about this town.