The Rumpus Interview with Mary Rosenberg



Five years ago, a new poetry contest entered the scene with relatively little fanfare. The Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Annual Poetry Prizes had no affiliation with any established literary organization, and offered a multitude of large monetary prizes for a comparatively small entry fee. Their website was a low-tech affair, and simply said they were looking for “lyric poems celebrating the spirit of life.” Few people knew what to expect, but this year, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund awarded 54 poets nearly $160,000, and the number of entries each year climbs higher and higher. The Rumpus spoke with Mary Rosenberg, who helps manage the contest and who also serves as first reader for all the entries.

The Rumpus: I’ve been thinking about where to begin with this conversation, and I keep coming back to the impact the prizes have had on the world of poetry, particularly among younger poets, in just five years. Your foundation has given out upwards of $650,000 in that time frame. Did you ever imagine this project would get this big in so short a time?

Mary Rosenberg: The simple answer is “No.” We had no idea we would have so much money to give away, nor that our entry numbers would go up as they have done – from 156 in our first year, to almost 1200 in 2008. But, of course, Barr and I are delighted and I’m sure Marvin would be likewise.

It’s also very encouraging to us to know that we can help so many people. At the beginning we had to decide whether to offer one huge prize or spread out our money to give smaller amounts to a greater number of people. Given that poetry judging is so subjective, I think we felt hesitant to award the whole amount to just one person (though we would be willing to award up to $25,000 if we felt an entry was worthy of that much): but I’ve been concerned that the smaller sums might not be enough to allow a writer to devote him/herself to  a period of carefree work, which was what Marvin intended. Talking to recent winners, I’ve been assured that it does. Even $1,000 (minus taxes!) can help financially – and there’s also the boost in confidence which winning a prize bestows.

The Rumpus: How did you come up with the structure of the contest, especially the age cutoff and poem length requirements?

Mary Rosenberg: The first year, after the Dorothy Fund was officially established in August 2003, the competition was somewhat scrambled together. We had no real idea how much money we had, how to advertise, how many entries to expect: and the conditions of our charitable status demanded that we should make our first awards by March 2004. Barr (Marvin’s son) and I had quickly to decide on an age limit for entrants, how many poems could be entered, how long, how many copies, etc.  – all completely new territory for us. In the event we were delighted to receive 156 entries, given such minimum advertising and so short a time before our entry deadline. We chose an age limit of under 40 because of Marvin’s emphasis on helping “young” poets. We thought by age 40 a writer would have developed a good sense of his promise and ability, but still had years ahead to produce more work. We chose November 6 as our entry deadline because it was Marvin’s birthday – and February 5 as our announcement date because it was Dorothy’s birthday. Last year we had to advance our entry deadline to allow ourselves more time to handle the increasing number of entries.

The Rumpus: Do you mind talking about your selection procedures?

Mary Rosenberg: I’ve tried to retain a selection process that involves several points of view because I believe this is the best  way to avoid too much subjectivity.. We had two judges – plus me! – in our first year, and we’ve had four or five judges (usually five)  – plus me! – every year since. The process of judging works as follows: I select those entries I feel are worthy of further consideration and are closest to what we are looking for in terms of a lyric poem (we’d like to stress the word “lyric”) celebrating the human spirit.   These entries are then sent out to our judges in overlapping bundles, so that most entries are looked at by two different judges. Each judge chooses the ten or so he thinks best from his particular bundle  and the top choices from each judge are then distributed among all five judges. Out of these, by discussion and evaluation, we make our final selection. Happily  we are free to offer several “firsts,” several “seconds” and so forth, which makes our task a little easier than if we had to choose one “best.” Even so, it’s a wrenching task, choosing one and rejecting another: and I do lose some sleep over the “borderline” cases.

The Rumpus: It sounds like you’ve had some growing pains. I’m interested in the sorts of things you look for personally when you’re reading entries. The site says that you’re looking for “the finest lyric poems celebrating the spirit of life.” How do you keep that in focus when you’re plowing through 1200 entries?

Mary Rosenberg: That’s a really challenging question – and I’m not sure I’d ever be able to give you (or myself) a totally satisfactory answer.  Better minds than mine have struggled to define what exactly is “poetry” and I’ve thought long and deeply about it without clear answers. However, that’s  not what you’re really asking. I have the initial responsibility of deciding which of 1200 entries even goes out to the judges. So – what am I looking for when I sit down with 1200 entries to read through?

First let me say that I don’t want to be too specific. I don’t want anyone reading your article to try to write in conformance with what they believe may be anybody else’s particular taste or individual formula for success. Every reader/judge will bring his or her personal predilections to the poem, and every reader/judge will be looking for something different- which is why I have several judges,  each of them  willing to listen to the comments of others on the team and, if necessary, to modify their own individual tastes and judgments accordingly. Almost every judge I have spoken to agrees that he can respond to a poem one way the first time he reads it, and quite differently when he re-reads it later – which is why I read every poem I believe worthy of serious consideration at least twice, sometimes three times, and send most entries out to at least two different judges. To avoid judging the first poems I read without any surrounding perspective, I always go back later to see where they fit in the larger picture: as I read more, I begin to develop a sort of standard of quality and can more easily  assess whether my first impressions need to be revised up or down.

I instinctively look for the good things in each poem, even though it may not hang together as a whole, even if the writer lacks any real control of language and is offering no new perspective on the world – which indirectly tells you immediately some of the things I am looking for.  Several poems eliminate themselves  either because they are badly written in terms of spelling and sentence structure (no real feeling for language) or because they don’t read musically, as poetry surely should–we’re not looking for poems that read like prose broken up into short lines on the page. Some are clearly too long to be defined as “lyrics” – we’re  not looking for epic or narrative poems. Others are what have sometimes been called “Hallmark poems”, too trite and sentimental to sound genuinely from the heart.

Ideally we wanted the brevity, simplicity of language, freshness and sincerity of what we thought of as “lyrical” –  plus beauty of sound (the traditional devices of rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, assonance, etc.),  depth of meaning (actually I prefer the word “thought” rather than meaning) and emotion (something worth saying and deeply felt), and the harmony of all three – sound, thought and feeling:  an emotion or a thought that you feel couldn’t have been presented in any other words or in any other form. But, of course, even the greatest poets don’t achieve this kind of inevitability all the time: and we are looking for promise as well as achievement. Whether that makes our job easier or harder, I’m not sure!

So – what I am personally looking for in these poems is what I find in my favorite poems among the acknowledged “greats”  of the past, something I think perhaps all great art offers its readers/ hearers/ viewers: some quality that makes me think and feel differently about familiar objects and conventional attitudes; something that catches my imagination and stays in my mind. This will usually involve a fresh, creative use of language and imagery (as Emily Dickinson puts it, “a certain slant of light”) and a musical structure appropriate to what is being said.

valleyAbout this matter of structure:  Marvin and I belong to an older generation, a time when poetry had a recognized form – stanzas, quatrains and the like. I still prefer poetry that has a shape to it rather than the free verse style of today: but we have to move with the times.  So I look – or listen – for some kind of inner shape to a poem, that that may be formed by repeated internal sounds or rhythms instead of – or as well as – by a traditional pattern of end-of-line rhymes or regular rhythmic beats, as in blank verse.

So I’m looking for something that reads naturally and fluently and has its own inner harmonies. Something that is more than just words on a page, but has a necessary shape and pattern of sounds that  add to the total impact of the poem, without which the words would lose their significance and the poem its value.  I like simple language and evocative metaphors, and I suppose I prefer understatement to overstatement – though those are personal choices, not necessarily shared by all my judges .

The next part of your question concerns the phrase “celebrating the spirit of life” or “the human spirit.” Marvin was very fond of the quotation “Nothing human is alien to me”, and I think we wanted to find some statement that allowed the greatest possible scope to our entrants in terms of subject matter. Marvin’s personality was naturally upbeat and  optimistic, but he was also sensitive to the darker side of life. The human spirit shines in both areas. Whatever our entrants choose to write about we want the truth and sincerity of personal experience, sadness without sentimentality, and creative originality in use of language and imagery.

The Rumpus: You seem to get a great deal of joy out of managing this contest. What are the long term plans for the foundation and the prizes? At the rate you’re growing, you can expect to be a fixture in the world of poetry for some time to come, I suspect. Have you given any consideration to expanding beyond just prizes, perhaps into publication of anthologies of the winners or of collections by people who embody that spirit you are looking to celebrate?

Mary Rosenberg: I want all our entrants to know that we treat their work seriously and with respect. Each year I write (short!) personal letters to some thirty or so non-winners, offering encouragement and telling them how close they came to being selected. Inevitably there are some borderline cases I have to exclude, the ones I sometimes lose sleep over, and I feel they deserve a personal letter. Then there are the young entrants. Each year we receive about 20 submissions from people under 20 – and I want to give them special encouragement as the potential poets of the future.

Of course we have discussed other possibilities – reserving a part of the competition for really young entrants, say under 25; offering special grants for specific purposes – attending a conference, publishing a chapbook, visiting a particular library, state or country for research into a project; producing a published collection of our winning poems. But always we are bound by the laws conditioning a charitable trust and by Marvin’s stated preference for a competition. Were he still alive he might well be receptive to new ideas: but, as things are, we are bound by his original wishes.  We also fund the other competitions named on our website – the Anna Davidson Rosenberg prizes, established in memory of Marvin’s mother, and two prizes at the University of California. These are administered for us by the Jewish Community Center in San Francisco and by the University of California at Berkeley, where Marvin taught and which both Marvin and Dorothy attended. So for now we will be going on “as is”: though, if the number of our entries goes up much more, I will need to find help for the initial reading and weeding out. We’ll have to wait and see.

I’d also like to say that we appreciate any feedback we get from  winners and entrants. All our judges know what it is to send out a piece of work and see it rejected. We aren’t the hard-hearted monsters we may sometimes seem. It is a real boost to me when someone writes in to say they are grateful for being personally noticed, whether as a winner or not. Encouragement is what it’s all about on my side: faith and persistence on theirs.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →