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‘What Light’: The most populist poetry contest in town

Pity the poets. Theirs is a calling that rarely commands a salary; worse, to get established in the profession, they are often asked to pay others to read their work. If only the dentist operated that way.

Pity the poets. Theirs is a calling that rarely commands a salary; worse, to get established in the profession, they are often asked to pay others to read their work. If only the dentist operated that way.

Poetry publications regularly hold contests in which writers pay a “reading fee,” generally $10 to $25 a poem, for the pleasure of entering — and the likelihood of rejection. And those are the legitimate contests. Legions of scams prey on the hopeful newcomer with contests that are little more than extortion schemes.

Not so‘s “What Light” poetry contest. This one is free, local and the real thing, judged by discerning local writers and giving everyone, from the unknown to the lauded, an equal chance. Every week the site presents a new poem, and while there is no cash reward, there is the ephemeral glory of web publication, exposure to a multimedia audience of arts lovers and a welcome into an elite group of local verse visionaries.

“We keep all of our winners in the loop; everyone who’s ever won or been a judge becomes part of this writing community, and we encourage them to come out to our readings and continue to participate in poetry,” says Lightsey Darst, a poet and dance critic who produces the contest and screens submissions before sending them on to a rotating cast of judges.

Poet and University of St. Thomas professor Leslie Adrienne Miller recently judged, and says, “Since many poetry venues are geared toward a national audience, there are fewer ways for local poets to not only share their work, but to get to know younger and newer poets in our community. It’s also fast, free and more widely available than literary reviews, which require audiences to subscribe and be in the know about where to find good poetry.”

No ‘house style’ preferred
The only requirement for entry is that you live in Minnesota. Darst warns against being too regional, however. “We try not to have a house style, and we try to reflect the diversity of poetry being written in Minnesota — not just traditional Minnesota poetry, which tends to, oh, feature the Midwestern landscape, blended with themes of loss. It seems like that should be played out by now, but it isn’t. But younger people are writing more experimental poetry.”

One such experimental poem caused a bit of a sensation, with ripe language that included a titular F-bomb. Darst says the judges evaluated all of the words, however, and deemed it a winner. “What are you going to do? Modern poetry tends to run all over creation and be about anything. And use whatever words you have on hand. And hey, if you tell an artist not to do something, he’ll do it. He will,” she says. “For the record, I thought it was a great poem. It was really well done.”

The contest celebrates its third anniversary this month, and Darst says the number and quality of submitted poems is snowballing as the contest gains popularity and credence in the local writing community. Judges have included writers Ray Gonzalez and Wing Ping, and last year, the contest, which is sponsored by the Walker Art Center, Magers and Quinn Booksellers (the store also publishes the winning poets on its site) and the Wine Company, published a selection of winners on paper.

The “What Light” anthology features winners such as Minnesota Book Award-winning novelist Cass Dalglish; poet and teacher Margaret Hasse; Joyce Sutphen, who won the 2004 Minnesota Book Award for her third book of poetry, and Ryan Vine, whose work has also been read by radio host Garrison Keillor on another poetry competition of sorts, “The Writer’s Almanac.”

But that doesn’t mean you can’t win, too. “What Light” has been the first place to publish several unknown writers. Got something good languishing on your hard drive? Send it in; the next quarterly contest deadline is Feb. 16.

“What Light” third anniversary event, refreshments by the Wine Company and Lucia’s
When: 5-8 p.m. Feb. 17
Where: Magers & Quinn Booksellers, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
Phone: 612-822-4611