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Poetry Contests Take a Lot of Abuse

A lot of negative things have been written about poetry contests.

But poetry contests are one of the few ways poets are financially rewarded for their work, or are able to put their work in front of a great number of readers. A legitimate poetry contest may offer a large prize—the only time any poet is likely to receive such a reward—and a contest is also a realistic way to have poetry judged alongside other poets' works.

Before you enter a contest, find out what you can about the sponsor. Try to read the work of previous winners. This basic research will help you decide if it's worth your time to send an entry.

Don't expect a poetry contest prize to make you famous. Very few poetry contests are important enough to enhance your reputation. If you want to enhance your "career" as a poet, having your work published in respected poetry journals will do much more for your reputation. The key word here is "respected poetry journals," which are extremely hard to break into.

So you're going to enter a poetry contest

Investigate carefully the sponsors of a poetry contest before entering it. The most unscrupulous contests are usually those who charge no entry fee. Of course this truth goes against human nature. We want to believe that the "free contest" really pays $50,000 in prizes. We ask, "Why pay an entry fee when big prizes can be won with no fee at all?"

But the truth is that every contest must be funded. If the funds do not come from entry fees, then they come from the sponsor. It would be a rare sponsor indeed willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for poetry prizes.

If a free contest offers $10,000 as a prize, ask yourself where the money comes from. Is it possible that no one ever receives these promised prizes?

One of the worst offenders in the field of poetry scams recently began to post "helpful information" for poets as to what sort of contests to avoid. According to them you should be wary of contests that require entry fees. This is utter nonsense and intended to mislead those who would rather not pay a fee. Almost every worthwhile and reputable contest in the world charges an entry fee. It's one of the ways the promoters help cover their costs.

Don't buy it!

Free contests often try to sell you something. The list is endless; medallions, anthologies, certificates, trophies, audio tapes. You name it. Of course each of these things will be emblazoned with your name, stroking your poetic ego. They will cost you a lot of money, too. Don't be a sucker. Some of these "contest companies" make millions of dollars each year from the egos of would-be poets.

Here's a simple checklist

You can use this checklist to rate any poetry contest. Total the scores that apply.

Question to Ask Point Value
Does the contest offer a huge cash prize ($2,000 or more) for a single poet?
Do the promoters market merchandise related to the contest? (Some contests publish collections of winning entries, but such anthologies should be free to winners.)
Does the contest offer total cash prizes over $1000, but require no entry fee? (The contest sponsor should explain how the prizes are funded.)
Is the contest continuous, all year round, with no deadline?
Does the contest place provisions on the payment of prizes? (ie you must attend an event, prizes are based on number of entries, etc)
Does the contest fail to mention by name who is judging it?
Do contest promoters ignore your questions about the contest?
Is there only a post office box (or email) address?
Does the contest specifically encourage beginners to enter?
Does the contest keep winning entries from being read by the public? (One of the most important reasons to enter a contest is to see how your work compares. You can't benefit this way if the winning work is not available for reading.)
Is this the first year of operation for the contest?


11 points or more: We recommend you not enter the contest.
5 – 10 points: Use discretion. Contests in this range may be legitimate, but need to be carefully investigated.
4 points or less: Should be okay to enter.

These are only guidelines. Every contest needs to be carefully assessed on its own merits.