How to Find the Poetry Contest that is Best for You
Targeting the right publisher for your kind of work is the key to improving your poetry contest odds and advancing your career as a writer. If you were looking for a job, you wouldn't mass-mail your resume to every listing in the classifieds, yet too many beginning writers will pick up a contest directory and do just that. Fortunately, it's possible to bring some rationality to this confusing process by following a few simple guidelines.
First, you need to read widely and perceptively enough to understand where your work fits into the diverse landscape of contemporary poetry. Decide what's most important to you about winning a contest—prize money, prestige, wide readership, editorial feedback, or making connections with other writers. Competition is a two-way street; the hundreds of contests out there are also contending for a share of your entry-fee budget. Learn to recognize the signs of a contest that's unreliable or doesn't offer good value for your money and effort.
Understand your style and experience level
Poetry is so idiosyncratic, and its practitioners so opinionated, that I hesitate to divide writers into only a few "schools" or "movements". However, for purposes of this article, I'd like to mention three broad categories of writing, which I'll call traditional/formal, narrative free verse, and experimental. It's rare to find a contest that's equally open to all three.
The best way to explain these distinctions is by example. Here are three quite different poems on spiritual themes.
In the traditional category, Judith Goldhaber's "Mea Culpa: A Crown of Sonnets" won the 2005 "In the Beginning Was the Word" Literary Arts Contest from the Lake Oswego United Church of Christ. Goldhaber writes sonnets with the ease of contemporary speech, using images from the world we live in today, not only the Shakespearean and Romantic vocabulary to which the form often tempts us. In my mind, this makes her quite an original writer, but she wouldn't be considered "experimental" because she adheres strictly to the form. Her sonnet sequence straightforwardly takes on the age-old problem of evil and free will:
...I spread my wings and fell into the sky,
beating those wings and rising towards the sun
in ecstasy. It's true, I am the one
who did this thing, and I cannot deny
I gave no thought to who might live or die.
To tell the truth, when all is said and done
I'd do it all again, and yield to none
my right to live my life as butterfly.
So, mea culpa! Guilty after all!
"I am become death, destroyer of the world,"
said Oppenheimer, as the dark cloud swirled
above the swiftly rising fireball
at Alamogordo, when he lit the fuse:
you've seen the headlines and you've heard the news.
Nigerian poet Chris Abani's "The New Religion" represents the best of narrative free verse. Lesser examples of this form can resemble prose chopped into short lines, without any poetic techniques like metaphor or non-realist imagery. Understandable on first reading, yet rich with questions that linger, Abani's earthy phrases awaken us to smell, feel, and savor the meaning of the Incarnation:
...The body is a savage, I said.
For years I said that, the body is a savage.
As if this safety of the mind were virtue
not cowardice. For years I have snubbed
the dark rub of it, said, I am better, lord,
I am better, but sometimes, in an unguarded
moment of sun I remember the cow-dung-scent
of my childhood skin thick with dirt and sweat
and the screaming grass.
But this distance I keep is not divine
for what was Christ if not God's desire
to smell his own armpit?
At the experimental end of the spectrum, we have Christian Hawkey's "Night Without Thieves", an excerpt from his collection The Book of Funnels (Wave Books), which won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. This poem doesn't have a narrative line that one could summarize, instead using more subtle tactics to hint at gospel concerns—the offbeat use of Biblical rhetoric ("yea unto those..."), and the promise of liberation from our fears and our narrowly rational ways of thinking:
The day is going to come—it will come—put on your nightgown,
put on your fur. And yea unto those who go unclothed,
unshod, without fear, fingering the corners
of bright countertops
and calmly, absentmindedly, toeing the edges of clouds
drifting in a puddle. Put on your deep-sea gear,
your flippers, and walk to the end
of the driveway.
It will come. Be not afraid to chase large animals.
Who publishes what
The most prestigious and lucrative contests are typically run by university-affiliated literary journals and presses. These publishers want to see that entrants are familiar with developments in contemporary poetry, and that their work has a modern feel to it. Ambiguity, irony and restraint are favored over Romantic sentiment and epic pomposity, and innovation may command higher marks than accessibility. For amateur writers whose poetic education ended with the classics in high school, this will require some catching up.
Outside the culture of academia, some small presses have a more populist flavor, seeking work that is complex enough to be satisfying, yet speaks in the voices of ordinary people. Standouts here include Perugia Press, Pearl Editions, Main Street Rag, and Steel Toe Books. My impression is that British contests are less "academic" in their tastes than American ones.
Traditional formal poetry tends to be segregated in journals specifically devoted to that aesthetic. Some publishers that appreciate classic verse include Waywiser Press, The New Criterion, Measure, and The Lyric. Contests run by local and amateur writers' groups may also be more open to old-fashioned styles and themes.
Researching the tastes of different literary journals has never been easier, thanks to the Internet. I do encourage people to support their favorite journals by buying a subscription, but I recognize that it's not practical to buy every magazine where you might submit your work. Subscribe to poem-a-day websites like Poetry Daily or Verse Daily, which reprint samples from the best independent and university-run small presses.
Know your priorities
Why do you want to win a poetry contest? (If the answer is "To become rich and famous," you're working in the wrong genre.) Different contests have different strengths. Here are some examples of the tradeoffs you might consider.
Let's say you're shopping around a poetry book manuscript. Wherever you're published, you'll have to do most of the marketing yourself. If you're a professor who can assign the book to your class, or you're hooked in to the local poetry community and could easily set up readings at cafes, libraries and bookstores in your area, you might not mind a smaller cash prize in exchange for more free copies of your winning book. Twenty copies is average, 50+ is above-average. Two well-regarded, long-running contests offering 50+ copies include Main Street Rag's Annual Poetry Book Award and the Gerald Cable Book Award.
On the other hand, if hand-selling your books is more of a challenge, you'd be better off entering a contest with a larger prize that you can spend on marketing efforts, such as postcard mailings and online advertising. Some major literary publishers, such as Tupelo Press and Kore Press, offer above-average publicity for their writers through their email newsletters, but keep in mind that they're extremely competitive.
Many contests for single poems will publish other entrants besides the top winner. This can be quite a perk if the contest is sponsored by a prestigious journal. New Millennium Writings and Atlanta Review are among the top-tier literary periodicals that publish a good number of finalists from their contests.
Web publication and other benefits
Web publication may not have quite as much cachet as an appearance in an established print journal, but I believe that the gap will close in the next few years as economics force more periodicals to go virtual. Online publication also offers the potential to reach a larger audience. Whereas most printed poetry journals report a circulation of a few thousand at most, an online poem can be distributed more widely, for free, with a link in your email newsletter, website, blog, or Facebook page. (Serious authors should have at least one of the above.)
Some contests invite winners and runners-up to read at an award ceremony. These can be wonderful opportunities for networking and book sales, not to mention the thrill of connecting with a live audience. Writing can be a lonely vocation. Coming face-to-face with appreciative readers is one way to recharge your creativity. Look for contests sponsored by writers' groups in your area, where you could make useful long-term contacts. Here, the tradeoff is sometimes lower prize money and prestige, in exchange for a more solid local fan base.
The Academy of American Poets provides state-by-state listings of events, literary journals, writing programs, poetry organizations, and more. The National Federation of State Poetry Societies also has a links directory, though it may not be as up-to-date. Visit the "Literary Societies and Associations" page in the Resources section at Winning Writers to find more specialized groups.
Avoid low-quality contests
Once your poem is published, it's ineligible for most contests. Only send your work to publications where you'd be proud to have it appear.
A contest's prize structure can clue you in about the sponsor's level of professionalism. I generally advise writers not to enter a contest whose fee is more than 10% of the top prize. I'm also not a fan of contests where the prize is a percentage of fees received. Without a guaranteed minimum prize, you're bearing too much of the risk that the sponsor won't adequately publicize the contest. I've seen some good small presses get in trouble because they relied on next year's fees to fund last year's obligations, instead of putting aside the prize money at the start.
Consider the look and feel of the contest's website. Avoid sites with multiple typos, grammatical errors, and cheesy clip art. Are the names of past winners hard to find? Don't let someone publish your book if they're going to let it fall into obscurity. A site with a lot of outdated information might indicate that the publisher doesn't devote a lot of attention to their business; lacks the technical skill to promote your work effectively online; or would be hard to reach once you had a contract with them. This is especially a problem for poetry book and chapbook contests. A technically savvy, responsive publisher is worth much more than a prestigious but elusive one.
Don't be dejected if rejected
Finally, let me say that I have mixed feelings about contests as validation for one's writing abilities. I remember how ecstatic I was to win my very first poetry award (an Honorable Mention from Cricket Magazine, at age 12)—I don't think any subsequent prize has given me a greater rush! Some of our poetry contest winners at Winning Writers, whose work has never appeared in print before, tell us that now they feel like a "real writer." So I wouldn't want to minimize the joy of debut publication, or the ego boost that can help an emerging poet make a serious commitment to her writing.
However, you're going to get a lot more rejection than validation, and internalizing others' opinions of your worth will lead to writers' block or fearful, unoriginal writing. Don't be "tossed about by every wind of doctrine" (Eph 4:14). Become a good enough reader of your own work to know when it's successful on your terms, and remember that even Shakespeare and Dickens don't suit every taste. The more innovative you are, the more passionate your critics and your fans will be.
Keep these guidelines in mind and you're sure to spend your time and entry fees more wisely!
Copyright 2009 by Jendi Reiter. Reprinted with permission from Utmost Christian Writers. This article first appeared in their "Poet's Classroom" series for June 2009.
Categories: Advice for Writers