Monday, January 10, 2011

Blog Request: Are Poetry Contests Actually a "Poetry Lottery?"

Quote from a friend who is a poet:  I'm getting out of the contest route; it's the poetry lottery.

When my friend commented on entering contests, he was feeling annoyed he hadn't won yet.  He defined a lottery as "any scheme for the distribution of prizes by chance."    While I understand his frustration, I disagree with the word "lottery."

Now while I admit wholeheartedly that much of winning is luck and timing, I don't feel poetry contests are lotteries because you *can* do better by being a stronger writer.  You can do better by having an excellent manuscript.

I know when I buy a lottery ticket at the store I will not have better odds of winning because I 
1) did my hair that morning 
2) smiled at the cashier and used manners  
3) paid with a crisp dollar bill instead of one of those faded one 
4) pronounced the word "lottery ticket" correctly and used interesting words to ask to purchase one.

When you submit to a poetry contest, you can do better or have your manuscript chosen as a winner because: 

1)  You write great poems.
2)  You put care into manuscript and it is free of errors.
3)  You followed the guidelines for the contest.
4)  The order of your manuscript is interesting and makes sense.
5)  You wrote great poems.

I think if you decide to go the contest route here are the first questions you should ask yourself--

1)  Are my poems strong enough?

***If you're not sure, ask someone you trust who will 1) not harm your artist's heart and 2) tell you the truth.  OR submit your work to journals to see if anyone accepts it-- another good sign your work is well, working.

2)  What is my vision for this manuscript and it is complete?

****If you don't feel your manuscript is complete, you may want to save yourself some $$ and not submit it.  If you're not sure if it's complete, send it to a few of your favorite contests and see how the editors respond.  Was there a personal note? Was it a finalist?  All good info to help you know you're on the right track.

3)  Does this press have a similar aesthetic in what they are publishing to what I'm writing?

****There some great indie presses publishing some edgy, funky, alternative, experimental work.  This is not what I am writing, so I did not send my manuscript to them.

4)  Am I ready to have this manuscript published by this press?

****I've been surprised to have people tell me (after they've *won* a poetry prize) they are not sure they want the press that chose their work to publish it.  

"But you submitted it to them," I say.  

Well, that was before I thought it was good enough to be taken!  I didn't consider that I'd win!

So a few things to consider as you submit.

And while I don't believe poetry contests ARE a lottery, it can feel like one.  It can feel like you will never ever win.  I have felt this.  Other better poets than myself have felt this too.  But they've kept submitting, either to contests or open submissions.  Even when they have been a bridesmaid again and again.  

It's not always easy. 

Don't believe the Poets and Writers stories where a writer said, "I just submitted it to two presses..."  Writers are notoriously forgetful or fast and loose with the facts.  We can be the unreliable narrators.  We have egos and soft hearts that don't want to remember the rejection, but there was and there will be.  

If someone is telling you getting a book published is easy, don't buy that cow because it's really bull.

So some final thoughts on entering poetry contests--
No, it's not a lottery.
Yes, it's competitive.
Yes, it's possible.
No, it's not the route for everyone.
Yes, it can feel good to have a prize-winning book right from the start.
No, not all books that go on to greatness have won book awards.
No, contests are not the only way.
Yes, you too could be a winner.

More on this topic coming this month (along with my favorite contest recommendations...)



  1. Great post. I was shocked to learn from an editor recently that there were poets who withdrew their winning manuscripts! So I'm glad you are reminding poets here not to enter unless you are prepared to win!!

  2. Wow, I can't imagine withdrawing after winning!?

    These are good tips--I only send my manuscript to a few contests a year (since its so expensive) so I try to research pretty thoroughly before sending it out

  3. I usually refer to contests as the "lottery." I just think it's ridiculous to keep spending money on contests. If you don't win the first 10 you enter, submit during an open reading period, or self-pub. I know a friend who spent thousands before finally winning a contest.

  4. This was very informative and helpful information, especially to a poet who is just starting out in the game. Thank you.

  5. A friend of mine was part of the jury in a poetry contest. He told me there was a poet who was much better than the others, but she lived too far away, in another country, so she couldn't be there for the prize ceremony. So they gave the prize to a "less good" poet, and she only got a honorable mention. After that, I could no longer trust poetry contests.
    By the way, I have two poetry blogs, one in English and other in Portuguese:


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