Since I wrote about slams and haiku contests in my last posts, I thought I should add a little about poetry contests. I think competition is great in poetry, but poets need to beware when they enter one!
The Iowa Poetry Association (for whom I have judged) is a member of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, which has members in 35 states. Literary magazines and other organizations also conduct legitimate contests, but there are also more dubious contests to watch out for. Wind Publications maintains a list of some of the worst offenders, contests that will award publication to anything remotely resembling a poem and sell leather bound copies of books with thousands of ‘poems’ to unsuspecting ‘winners.’ Offers to attend conferences or for other merchandise usually follow. Their goal is clearly to make as much money off amateur poets as possible before they learn their lesson.
Even some of the legitimate contests have been plagued with ethical issues. Though most magazines aren’t trying to scam your money, judging has been criticized as unfair. So the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses developed a code of ethics for literary contests. Look for member magazines or for contests that follow this code, or where the judges are announced in advance and are known writers. Also consider the cost of the contest (free contests often are after your money once you are ‘awarded a prize,’ but relatively small reading fees are normal for contests). When weighing the cost, consider what your contest fee buys: a copy of the winning book or a past winner? a subscription to the magazine? Consider the prestige of the contest and the final product that is produced. If you wouldn’t want to be in the anthology or magazine, or if you wouldn’t want your book to look like the others the contest has produced, then it’s not worth entering. Consider the distribution of the product. Are their books or magazines readily available?
Search the web to see if others have had a good or bad experience with a contest, but remember the shady ones are good at changing their name frequently! Search on their website or submission information as well as their name. Often that isn’t changed. If the same website is used for 10 different contests, there’s a good chance it isn’t legit.
I have a love/hate relationship with all contests. They are part of what makes poetry publishing possible in the United States, and they can legitimately bring new poets broader recognition. I wish, though, that more people bought poetry and we didn’t have to rely on contests to subsidize the poetry industry. That’s wishful thinking, though, and as I said in my last post, the idea of poetry competitions has been around for a long time. Just be careful when you tread in those waters!