I don't know how many of you are poets who enter book contests. (For those who don't: it's a convenient system for paying strangers to throw away your manuscript.) If you are, you've probably heard of Foetry, a Web site (run, appropriately enough, by a group of anonymous muckrakers) that finds behind every poetry contest a web of nepotism and conspiracy: judges awarding publishing contracts to their own students; workshop buddies selecting each other for Best Poet. After spending a few minutes in this heady atmosphere of paranoia and accusation, you might start thinking that poetry publishing depends on personal relationships as much as it does on the quality of the work. That's crazy talk!
Some of the accusations are serious and seemingly true, some overblown. (One editor is said to have awarded a prize to a poet whose [anonymous] poems he recognized from a workshop they had both taken together. So a poet recognizes the work of another poet. And?) Perhaps, though, the most well-grounded problems might be solved by a simple application of the Magic of the Internet.
What I mean is this: these days I am preparing a scientific paper to submit to the American Journal of Epidemiology, which requires that all submissions be blind. (I don't know how it works yet, but I imagine you provide an e-mail which the automatic system, but not the first readers, keep track of.) Why can't all poetry submissions, not just for contests but for journal publication as well, be handled in a similar fashion? If Foetry, or the Academy of American Poets, or Poetry Magazine/The Poetry Foundation wanted to do a public service, they could present a beta version of such a system. Poems would be submitted without any names or addresses, which would then be provided only upon acceptance.
The main objection would be the one currently made by many editors against e-mail submissions: they're already flooded, so why make it any easier to send them poetry? If that's the case, think up some bureaucratic busywork to go along with the poem. Require the submitter to fill out a trial-subscription form for the magazine or journal she's submitting to (the form would be on-line, but separate from the submission system -- that is, the busywork would have to be completed, but its information wouldn't be connected to the submission). Or -- if we're thinking scandalous thoughts -- why not charge a submission fee, of, say, a dollar a poem?
If we had truly anonymous on-line submission, coupled with some small hurdles to keep the volume of submissions manageable -- while that wouldn't guarantee good poetry, it might keep out some more of the bad stuff.