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How to Choose a Poetry Contest

by F.J. Bergmann

Itís a given that most contests are fundraisers for the entities that sponsor them, or at least fund publication of the winning manuscript, unless they are lucky enough to be endowed with a huge hunk oímoney from a benefactor. Nonetheless, there is a vast range of prize/entry fee ratios, from Stunningly Lavish to Pure Greed—and a similar range in prestige, from Extremely Desirable to Embarrassing, What contests are worth entering depends on your experience and goals. Some poets are sucked into scams, like Poetry.com or the American Poets Society, because their epitome of bliss is ending up with a book—any book—with one of their poems in it, even if they had to pay through the nose for the privilege. However, an overview of the more respectable contests, i.e., those sponsored by university presses and literary journals, indicates that certain ethical practices have become standard.

Most contests run by reputable literary endeavors have an entry fee that is no more than 2% of the prize money—say, a $10 entry fee to a $500 prize. Sometimes entry fees are much less, or even nonexistent. Almost always, significant publication is involved as well. I personally donít enter contests whose entry fee is much more than 2% of the prize, unless other perks, like a subscription to their journal or a copy of the winning book, are involved.

Full-length-book-manuscript contests typically involve prizes of $1,000 or more and book publication, with distribution and promotion, royalties and/or a stated number of author copies as well. Sometimes a book tour or readings are arranged; however, it should be noted that public readings should not be viewed as a prize in themselves, Paying for a chance to read your work in public is equivalent to vanity-press publication; itís demeaning, rather than being an honor.

Chapbook awards usually have smaller prizes, rarely include royalties, and have correspondingly smaller entry fees. Contests for single poems cover a broader range, but normally involve only prize money and publication. A few contests do not include publication; you are subsequently free to submit the poem elsewhere—to journals, that is. An unspoken but salient rule: it is unethical to submit a poem that has already won a prize—no matter how small—to any other contest, even if the poem is unpublished.

Carefully examine contests that offer finalists publication only as a prize. If the press is a very good one this may be worthwhile, but I was disappointed, upon being selected as a finalist for a chapbook contest and offered publication, to discover that I would be expected to pay $6 per book for my half-price copies! The editor claimed that their chapbooks sold for $12, but the press was small, very obscure, and all its published authors were unknown as well. Given that their chapbook quality could have been easily duplicated at Kinkoís for $2 apiece, this did not seem worth it, especially in contrast to a previous chapbook award from the highly regarded Pavement Saw Press where, as co-winner, I got $250, national distribution of my chapbook, 30 free copies and more available for $3 apiece—half of the much-more-reasonable purchase price of $6.

No poet should ever have to pay a fee just to be considered for publication, even if the press pays royalties. For an editor to receive a fee for manuscript advice, when you intend to submit to a book contest sponsored by the press, is also considered unethical.

Publication is not necessarily an honor; there is nothing inherently wrong with having your poems on bookmarks, coffee cups, brochures and the like, but when an entry fee is required for consideration, in the absence of prize money, Iíd consider it a pure scam. If a non-profit or charitable group is involved, it ill behooves them to prey upon poets in this way. Poets should not support egregious competitions, even if the goals of the supporting organization are laudable. Encourage these folks to seek corporate donations, instead.

Judges should be named in advance (and it should go without saying that friends and students should be specifically barred from entering). This is an idea whose time has come. No poet wants to waste time and entry fees on a contest for which it turns out they are ineligible as a friend or student of the anonymous judge.

The Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) has undertaken a well-meant effort to implement a Code of Ethics for literary contests in the wake of Foetry.com and the scandals it exposed, but the means of actually enforcing the standards that everyone now claims to espouse is absent, sometimes idiotically so. Contests are not barred from allowing students of the judge to compete, for example, as long as this is disclosed in advance!

Contests that do not name the judge, are judged blind, and state that no acquaintances or professional associates of the judge will be allowed to enter are, by not naming the judge, making it impossible for entrants to self-police. They can only try to identify the ineligible after all the judging has been completed. Judges may not remember students, or be able to identify a poem as having been written by an acquaintance, but students donít forget their professors, and friends know who they are.

As far as style goes, while some idea of judgesí preferences may be gained by reading their books or Googling their work, I look more closely at what the sponsoring press or journal normally publishes—a press that devotes itself to experimental and concrete work is unlikely to send your collection of lyrical Petrarchan sonnets on to the final judge—and the reverse is probably also true.

A response date should be specified. Poets ought to complain loudly and vociferously to—and about—contests that do not honor a date by which winners will be named. Thereís no good reason to be indefinite about this; recently, I was pleasantly surprised (well, it was a rejection—but you know what I mean) to get a response from one contest within two weeks of submitting! Contests that canít generate prompt results and notification should be prodded to reorganize their procedures.

And that brings me to the aspect of entrant responsibility: very few of us can afford to enter every poetry contest that exists. If we limit ourselves to contests run according to ethical and reasonable guidelines, we are effectively boycotting those with unsavory or ill-considered practices. Further, it would have a profound effect if poets wrote to even one or two contests that do not meet these standards, and informed them, politely, why they chose not to enter. Blogging (I wax peevishly at Disorient Express), posting to listservs and forums, and writing articles (like this one) can have a salutary effect as well—go for it!

© 2007F.J. Bergmann


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