Poetry Contests: Acclaim or Scam?

Category: Publish Your Poetry

Chasing contests can also be one of the most expensive and least productive pursuits of a poet.

Poetry Contests: Acclaim or Scam?

Poetry Contests: Acclaim or Scam?
By: Don J. Carlson, Contributing Writer

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 a privilege to be honored by a prestigious publisher. 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 your entry fee or reading fee. Sales pitches come in many guises; and contests are certainly a favorite of marketers.


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.


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 just extends it over and over to entice more ‘donations’ to the reader’s fee. Some contest awards are paid out of a foundation and some are paid by the entrants.

See what publisher sponsors each contest. If you want to know about contests and their sponsors you may have to do a lot of research. You can check with The 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.

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 of the most prestigious 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.


You can learn more quickly through publishing than by starting with contests. 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 Bly might lose to an unknown. 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 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. 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 large degree.


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 writer’s magazines.

The likely prospects are the contests with the best benefits for the winners at the lowest fee and most likely to want your poems. It is wise to evaluate the contests by reading their affiliated sponsoring publications. Also, learn about their judges before counting out your money for fees. Many of the best 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. The likely prospects are the contests with the best benefits for the winners at the lowest fee and most likely to want your poems.


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. When I enter contests I read a number of contest guidelines over and over and cull out the ones that don’t appeal to me or that I can’t meet. A few extra minutes at this stage can be very helpful in your search for the right contest.


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.


Ask the instructors how to identify serious or bogus publishers and their contests. 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.


Don’t hesitate to read what has been written about contests by experienced knowledgeable people. Your library and bookstores are full of useful material. Use your search engines and bookmarked pages on the Internet. Bring up the topic on your favorite writer’s chatrooms or newsgroups. Just don’t jump into contests without preparing yourself for the scams that can turn you off and interfere in your attempt to gain recognition. There are a multitude of good reputable sponsors and contests. If you seriously pursue your craft you will find them and benefit from them as well as all your other poetic enterprises.

© 1999 Don J. Carlson