Why & How to Enter Poetry Contests

Stay in the submissions world long enough and you’ll hear plenty of people say, “Don’t enter contests.” In my opinion, there is some truth to this. One must always be wary of scams. It’s also easy to put your hat in the ring before you’re ready (i.e. fancy residencies I applied to with delusion at 22).

But I do think that entering contests can be useful for poets, depending on their goals. Why?

You should be submitting all the time. You may have seen this great article about aiming for 100 annual rejections. This approach to publishing may be for you; maybe it’s not. I’ve tried different approaches over the years. In 2018, I’m aiming for 100 rejections. As of mid-June, I have 24 rejections (28 pending and 10 acceptances), so 100 rejections is definitely, uhh, a reach goal. Last year, I had 11 rejections for the whole year (26 submissions overall). The 100 rejections goal is keeping me motivated.

Fearless submitting quells imposter syndrome. I use the same system to submit to journals, chapbook calls, collaborative projects, residencies, contests, etc. Obviously, you never completely know who your work will speak to. At this point, I’m trying to cast my net wide. Looking at all submissions the same way has helped me quell some of my imposter syndrome. It’s also produced some cool results: this year, I’m collaborating with a sculptor and had a couple pieces picked up by an anthology.

Visibility. I love doing readings with other poets. One way I’ve been able to make readings happen is to get my work in front of people over and over. Submitting widely is one way to do this. The more literary journals I read, the more I discover and recognize some of the same names. Stevie Edwards is one really amazing poet I found out about through her individual published poems.

Sometimes, you win. For most contests, you can’t win if you don’t enter.

But isn’t poetry just about creating art? Yes. If you spend too much time on submissions, you run the risk of ignoring the writing. You need to decide for yourself how to balance “Po Biz” and the actual writing of poems.

My Strategy for Poetry Contests

Some of this advice was shared in a class by my professor Julie Marie Wade, who’s won many a contest. I’ve added some of my own advice, though, so if it doesn’t ring true, blame it on me!

Here’s one way to deal with contests:

1) Before you enter contests, publish through general calls for submission. This one’s important. I published in journals for five years before I began regularly submitting to contests. I don’t know if that’s too long or short a time, but it did give me a sense of what was “publishable.” It also gave me time to read a bunch of journals.

2) Send the same packet of poems to multiple contests. Many poets recommend sending the same set of poems to multiple journals. I think that it makes sense to have a special set of poems to send to contests. It also means that when you have a poem picked up by a journal, you won’t have to remove it from consideration in contests where you paid heftier fees.

3) Track your expenses (and write them off on your taxes). This is what my girlfriend calls “IRA talk” and it’s not the most exciting part of being an artist. But I will make a quick note: as a poet, you can declare professional expenses on your taxes. I have plenty of day jobs, but I’m also a self-employed writer, so I write off things like poetry contest fees, books, etc. on my taxes. (You can also write off expenses like your desk space, part of your internet bill, depreciation of your computer, mileage on your way to readings, etc.) I am certainly not qualified to give you any professional advice about this.

A Few Notes About Money

One of the flashy parts of contests is their cash prizes. I recently won my first contest. Wonderfully, the prize comes with publication and a $500 award. I spent $20 to enter this contest, which at face value, seems like a lot of money to spend when you don’t know the outcome.

I entered this contest in December. According to the spreadsheet I keep, I’ve spend $245 on poetry contests since then. This means I actually made $255, which in theory I could spend on future contests.

Many have said it before: if your goal is fame or fortune, trying to achieve that through poetry is a fool’s errand. No one (or very few) can support themselves on contest winnings, but if you have the right strategy and already publish regularly, it’s likely (I think) that you will make your money back within a year, plus a little extra on top.

Contests & Classism

We need to talk about who has the money to enter contests in the first place, and also about the inherent classism in anything in art that requires a fee. Many journals stay afloat because of the revenue generated by their contests, but we all need to have a longer conversation about social location and exposure. Whose work gets published and whose doesn’t? Sarah Schulman spoke exquisitely in a recent speech about how quality and reward are not correlated.

I have many qualms about Po Biz and contests and journals and the machine of it all. What are the ways that money influences the work we do and don’t do as poets?

My bottom line: as a poet, contests may be a useful part of how you get your work into the hands of readers. It depends on how long you’ve been publishing and your hopes for your poetry. It’s up to us who do have access to contests to understand how we’ve benefited from the un-level playing field, and how we can do our part to subvert those undue privileges.

What do you think about all of this? Let me know in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Why & How to Enter Poetry Contests

  1. I think that if you’re not in the academic world, contests aren’t a good use of your money. For a while, I only entered contests that offered subscriptions with the entry fee. Now that I’ve published my own book (using income from my day job) I doubt I’ll ever enter a contest again.

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