How to Win a Poetry Contest
by Nathan Harms
Okay, the title is a bit misleading. I can’t guarantee you’ll win a poetry contest, no matter what advice I provide. On the other hand, poetry contests themselves can be misleading. Many contests prey on gullible and inexperienced poets, and many so-called “contests” aren’t really contests at all, just thinly veiled attempts to separate you from your cash.
But it’s worth your time to consider the subject of contests because there are so few other opportunities for poets to be rewarded or recognized for their work. The main opportunities for poets are three, each of which has its own pitfalls and benefits:
1. Publication in magazines or journals
2. Publication in poetry books or anthologies
3. Entering and winning poetry contests
Publication in a Magazine or Journal
This is the easiest route to publication, whether for the beginner or experienced poet. Having your work accepted for publication is rarely “easy,” but publication in a small magazine, newspaper or poetry journal is achievable for almost any poet willing to work hard and study the market. The key here is to understand how your poetry fits into the needs and style of a chosen publication. You also need to be persistent in your submissions. Don’t quit after a single rejection.
Publication in magazines and journals is also the best way to gain credibility with publishers and the poetic community. It will be difficult to have your work considered for publication in a book unless you have significant previous publishing credits in magazines and journals.
While it’s affirming to have your work accepted for publication, you will rarely receive a significant payment for your poetry. Many magazines—even respected publications—pay nothing for the use of your work except for free copies of the issue in which your work appears. You will need to be satisfied in the knowledge that your work is being read and appreciated.
Christian poets have a specific market available in the area of Christian publications. Use a Christian writer’s market guide (available in print or on-line) to seek out publications that use poetry. Be sure to peruse each magazine (or Internet market) and verify its needs before submitting your work. If you do your homework your chances are excellent. If you are paid for your work, consider it an extra blessing. Many Christian and secular publications pay little or nothing for poetry, although you can expect a free copy of the issue containing your work.
Publication in a Poetry Book or Anthology
If you’re a poet looking to enhance your reputation or gain credibility, this is your best possibility. Contrary to popular belief you will not likely reap financial rewards for book publication. Most poetry books in Canada are published with the assistance of government grants which provide only enough funds to pay for printing. If your publisher is willing to pay you an advance of $500 for a complete book of your poetry, consider yourself fortunate indeed. Or perhaps you’ll be one of the few industrious poets willing to jump through hoops and gain a government grant for yourself!
Most poets who are accepted for book contracts have acquired a reputation by publishing in magazines and journals, and/or by networking with the poetic community. It takes time to do this. There are a handful of Christian poets in Canada whose work has been published by mainstream publishers. Take the time to find and contact them to build connections that will benefit your writing and your publishing potential in the future.
If you should decide to self publish a volume of your poetry—and provided you have a proven market for the books—you can realize a substantial financial profit. But self publishing usually fails to enhance your reputation or credibility in the poetic community. You need to decide which is more important to you at this stage of your development as a poet.
Be wary of “anthologies” which promise to print your poem and offer to sell you copies of the anthology with your work in it. Genuine publishers of anthologies may not pay you cash for your poetry, but they will give you free copies of the anthology. You must never pay for publication of your work…or to see your work in print.
Entering and Winning a Poetry Contest
Imagine the thrill of knowing that your work has been chosen by impartial judges as the best submitted to a contest! Imagine receiving a cash award, publication and recognition for your excellence. These are the obvious benefits of winning a poetry contest. Noteworthy contests also add to your credibility in the poetic community and increase the likelihood that you’ll be considered for a book contract in the future.
Depending on the specific contest, your poetry may be in competition with other poets of equal excellence. The contests which offer the largest awards often garner a lot of interest and many entries. Your work will be put to the test. Check out special categories of the contest. Is it for “Christians only?” Are there categories for unpublished poets or younger poets?
Some contests claim to be “free,” but these are often deceptive—you’ll be asked to purchase something. Your work will not be used if you fail to make a purchase. Some contests charge exorbitant fees (I’ve seen them as high as $100). Some contests are intended as fund raisers or profit machines, and have no interest in the quality of entries.
Christian poets may find specific opportunities available via Christian organizations or publications. For example, Utmost Christian Writers Foundation runs a number of contests for Christians only, offering thousand of dollars in cash prizes.
Do Your Research
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