Poetry Competitions = Poor Writer By Behlor Santi

Are you a poet who wants to spend hundred of dollars on a fruitless quest to be published?

Are you a firm believer in the conventional wisdom that you “must” be published in the university lit journals to be considered a serious writer?

Are you willing, even, to risk your life for literary fame? Poet and non-fiction writer Catherine Rankovic named her essay “Death By Poetry.” She didn’t name her work facetiously. After mailing one poetry manuscript to 66 first-book competitions sponsored by university and small presses, she received her 66th rejection-and attempted suicide. Her essay chronicles her recovery from depression, her decision to stop writing poetry for fame, and the gender and class politics behind which manuscripts get accepted by the big boys and girls in academic poetry.

“It’s too bad,” says Rankovic, “but just about the time I became a mature poet-in the late 1980s-publishers became obsessed with the bottom line.” Big New York houses stopped publishing original poetry collections, leaving the job to university and small presses. Since most poetry collections don’t exactly put Random House and HarperCollins in the billionaires’ club, the decision to not publish and promote them makes financial sense. Why publish something that the public doesn’t buy?

Yet the big publishers’ decision meant nothing but problems for the likes of Catherine Rankovic. In addition to the manuscript she mailed 66 times, she mailed other manuscripts to other first-book competitions, entering 150 competitions in total. Each competition charges an average of $20 per manuscript, although many writers submit more than one manuscript to increase their chance of winning. Since the vast majority of presses can’t afford to pay winners from their own budget, they use reading fees to pay the winner and to use as advances against royalties. The winner receives a prize and a “standard” contract that, many times, could put the naughty editors at upstart online magazines to shame. Many contracts are so vague that winners walk away with a pittance and confusion about their rights…rights being a taboo word in this genteel environment.

All editors have their biases, quirks, pets-you can plainly see them in the articles or books they publish. Yet most mainstream magazines and books are freely available in stores, libraries, and online. Many times, you don’t have to pay a single cent to find out what a particular market wants. Yet in academic poetry, much pretension is made about how “unbiased” judges are in competitions. Sure, such and such judge prefers formal poetry about the Holocaust-but pay your $20 and send in your manuscript anyway. Of course that judge may very well prefer to pick winners from his own MFA program or workshops.

Yet you, sitting in the heartland or the inner city with no connections, should send as many manuscripts and checks as possible. In an article for Poets and Writers Magazine, entitled “The Culture of Competition,” contest administrators admitted to depending on the checks of bad poets. All the moon in june rhymers, the bleeding-hearts with sappy verses about dead puppies, and the Ginsberg wannabes cursing about their skinny hipster lovers-they are wanted, not turned away, by the people running the poetry competition racket.

Catherine Rankovic worked as a writer and editor for magazines and newspapers before receiving her graduate degrees in writing. Currently, she’s a webmaster for one division of Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, and also teaches creative writing on campus and at other local colleges and workshops.

Rankovic believes that poets can’t make a living on poems alone. “Don’t waste your time trying,” she bluntly states. “Write salable prose alongside of poetry. Most poets teach at colleges. However, if you plan to teach you much get at least an M.A. degree.”

While Rankovic remains part of academia, many poets and writers take a less formalized approach to making a living as artists. They take advantage of print and online publications, personal websites, open mics, and private workshops to promote their work and bring in the money so they can continue to create. Something as simple as an email signature can lead message recipients to personal websites and online poems. Another writer can see your work, profile you in an interview article, and provide you with free publicity for your poetry collection.

Raymond Hammond, editor in chief of The New York Quarterly, calls poetry “an inward journey.” Poets in the academic subculture oftentimes force themselves to write poems, creating work of weak quality. Instead, let’s create poems like slow-cooked meals, poems from passion, anger, sadness-poems of high standard. Revise the poem to your satisfaction, and when you’re ready to send it out, find the best publication. Expect to be paid whenever possible. Other people in the literary community should respect your craftsmanship, your emotions.

Below are nine paying markets that you’ll won’t find in the academic poetry press. Enjoy.

Artemis Magazine
Ian Randall Strock, editor
Pays $.50-$1 per line for poetry

BABYBUG Magazine
Paula Morrow, executive editor
Pays $25 minimum

Sandra Kasturi, poetry editor

Note: Closed to submissions until January 1, 2005
Pays $7 per poem

Children’s Better Health Institute
Note: Please submit ms to appropriate magazine editor

Pays $25 minimum

Note: Submit to editor in chief
Pays $10-$15 per poem

The Mennonite
Gordon Houser, associate editor for features

Pays $50 to $75 per poem

Over The Back Fence
Sarah Williamson, editor

Pays $25 for poetry

Strange Horizons
Harold Bowes and M. R James, senior editors

Pays $20 per poem

In the end, improving the state of poetry depends a lot on you, the poet. Think beyond lit journals, consider yourself an artist and a businessperson. You should live life fully, write about your life fully, and not starve.

You don’t have to play (and pay) the poetry competition game.

Behlor Santi lives in New York City. She’s single, writes for a living, and can be reached at brooklynwriter2002 (at) yahoo.com. She’s friendly. Honestly, she is.