i. Why Do Poets Like Contests?
Do poetry contests appeal more to vanity or to
excellence. They are a way of turning over a decision about
your poetry to somebody thought of as more expert than
you. They are a way of seeking critical acclaim or an
endorsement that may include book publication. Sometimes
a contest is seen as a way to earn some money.
It is, of course, a privilege to be honored by a
prestigious press, and such honors are welcome to most
poets; but chasing contests can also be one of the most
expensive and least productive pursuits of a poet.
It is wise to spend a lot of time researching the
background of each contest before handing over an entry
fee or reading fee. Sales pitches come in many guises; and
contests are certainly a favorite of vanity marketers.
ii. Why Is There A Reading Fee?
Poetry contests often charge what is called a reading
fee. A reading fee, should go to the poet selected to read
and evaluate the entries. It is possible to estimate the total
paid to the reader if you multiply the fee by the probable
number of entrants. A hundred entrants at twenty-five
dollars per poet would provide twenty-five-hundred dollars
for the reader. The reader in such a contest should be of
sufficient stature to rate that kind of reading fee. Is it worth
twenty five dollars for someone to read your poem? It may
be if you get a written response that tells you something
important. If your favorite poet is judging a contest he may
still not read your poem. It may be screened out long before
it gets that far.
iii. Who Buys The Prize?
Some contests may offer enticements like a one
thousand-dollar prize as well as publication to the winners.
The cost of prizes may be included in the entry fee. Figure
how many entrants it would take to make up a thousand
dollars and you may get a clue to how long the contest will
run or how much competition there will be.
If you enter and then hear that the deadline for
entries has been extended, you may guess that the contest
really has no deadline and that it is just bait for a vanity
press. Some contest awards are paid out of a foundation
and some are paid by the entrants. If you want to know
about contests and their sponsors you may have to do a lot
of research. You can check with Poet's Market, and see
what publisher sponsors each contest. You can expect a
contest sponsored by a vanity publisher to be less
prestigious than one sponsored by a university press or a
mainstream publisher. The contest is likely to have
characteristics similar to its sponsor.
A vanity press which exists by the money it makes
from poets directly will be less desirable than a contest
sponsored by a foundation that collects nothing but poetry
and does not charge a fee but does deliver a publication
award to winners.
iv. Don't Be Enticed By Big Fees Or Prizes Alone
Some contests list big fees because big fees may
make the contest seem more important. It is not necessarily
so. An award from a significant contest is much more lasting
than an award from a vanity publisher's contest. Some
contests may be entered by invitation only, and have no fee.
Vanity publishers also may invite you to enter. Remember to
check out the sponsor's credentials.
Submitting to uninvestigated contests is expensive and very
chancey. There are some contests, like some publishers,
who will not like what you have to offer. It is important to
learn to identify these. You can learn much more quickly
through publishing than you can by starting with contests.
Editors are more likely to give feedback. Constructive
feedback is a clue that your poems have actually been read
and considered. Even hostile feedback means you have
connected with the editor. If a contest is offerd by a
publisher who has published a lot of your work, you may
have a much better chance of winning.
v. Add Up The Fees
For most writers the fee for a contest is an important
consideration. It is easy to find a lot of poetry contests on
the Internet or in writers' magazines. Evaluate the contests
by reading their affiliated sponsoring publications. Also,
learn about their judges before counting out your money for
fees. Many contests have no fees at all. If you intend to
submit poems to contests with fees, you may need to budget
your money for a few of the most likely prospects. These are
the contests with the best benefits for the winners at the
lowest fee and most likely to want your poems.
vi. Know The Judges!
Chances of winning are not based on excellence as
much as on the preferences of the judges. You should not
unnecessarily berate yourself if you do not win. If your
favorite ten poets entered a contest, only one of them would
win. Somehow, Shakespeare, Poe and Eliot might lose to an
unknown. But don't assume excellence is not good. It will
improve your chances.
In entering contests it is usually a good idea to
present your best work rather than trying to entertain the
judges. Knowing the judges can help understand what
poems have a chance in their contests. If you know the
names of the judges you should read some of their recent
poetry. Don't think you know a judge from reading a single
poem or book. The book may be an earlier work or one the
judge has outgrown. It may be a very small and
nonrepresentative example of his or her writing. If you can
read a recent magazine interview with the judge, you may
learn some cues as to which poems to submit. When you
know a little about the judge, you may decide it is better not
to waste your time and postage; or you might be greatly
encouraged to try. Check for articles in the Reader's Guide
to Periodical Literature in your library. If you are not
familiar with it, ask your reference librarian.
Remember that poetry is a very complex art, and
each judge will have preferences for certain devices and
techniques. Measuring an art form is always subjective to a
vii. Follow The Submission Guidelines
Always read the submission guidelines carefully
before entering a contest. You may find that there is a
condition you cannot meet. It is better to find this out before
you submit than to discover it after waiting two to six months
for a response. You will have wasted postage as well as
valuable time. Try to read between the guidelines. Every
word often contains useful clues. Read a number of contest
guidelines over and over and cull out the ones that don't
appeal to you or that you can't meet. A few extra minutes at
this stage can be very helpful in your search for the right
viii. Some Contests Come With A Fast Pitch
Some contests are just attempts by marketers to get
names for their mailing list or marketing pitches. Advertising
and promotions can be useful, but they can also side track
you from more productive approaches to promoting your
writing. After you have been approached by such a
marketing expert, you will learn to distinguish them from
serious promoters of poetry.
ix. Remember The Good Guys And The Bad Guys
Be aware that some contests are not intended as
opportunities for the writer but opportunities for the sponsor
to sell services or products to the writers. There are,
however, contests that are a service to writers, provided by
people who really do care about poetry and excellence.
Start to develop awareness of the earmarks of each of these
approaches and learn from other writers as well as from
your own experience. If you attend writers' workshops or
classes, ask the instructors questions about how to identify
serious or bogus publishers and their contests.
x. Read Books And E-Pages
Read any articles about contests written by
experienced knowledgeable people. Your library and
bookstores are full of useful material. Use searchengines
and bookmarked pages on the Internet. Look up Poetry
Scams and Poetry Contest Scams on a search engine. Bring
up the topic on your favorite writer's chatrooms or
newsgroups. Don't enter contests without preparing yourself
for the scams that can defeat you in your attempt to gain
recognition. There are good reputable sponsors and
contests. Seek and you shall find them, to your benefit.