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Reasons to enter (or not) poetry competitions

Do you send poems off to competitions? If not, why not? OK we all know it’s ‘a lottery’. Nevertheless most of us would admit it’s exciting to actually win something. Or is it?

I often debate this with poet friends and in particular the reasons not to enter comps. Let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments!

Reasons to submit to competitions

1) A competition win gives you instant visibility and credibility as a poet
2) Winning a competition is a terrific confidence-boost
3) There’s good money to be won
4) Pamphlet (or book) competitions are the only way to get published
5) It’s supporting a poetry publication or organisation that I like

Reasons NOT to submit to competitions

1) It’s expensive / I can’t afford it

Actually these are two separate arguments.

For some, it’s the principle of paying to enter a competition that grates. The fact that it takes hours and hours of work to even put a competition together, let alone promote/ judge and deal with all the related admin, is by-the-by.  In competition publicity the emphasis is usually on the material benefits of winning, or the prestige to be gained – how much you win, whether it includes publication, who has won it before and what they say about it, etc.

Perhaps if competition organisers were to appeal more to the altruistic side of people’s nature – in how, by entering, they will be supporting the work of the publication or organisation concerned – their might be less grumbling. Rather as charities do – where your money goes, how it’s spent etc.

And nobody should be shy about the fact that the poetry judges get paid – they are poets who are earning a living from their work, and we’re hardly talking Premiership wages. Are they supposed to read 3,000 poems for the love of it? (If indeed they read them of course – see note below on ‘sifters’). And who among us wouldn’t want the same treatment if we were in their position?

Not being able to afford the entry fees is another thing. Any solution to this I suppose requires people to self-identify as being in a very low income bracket, which I imagine not everyone wants to. Organisations like Arvon offer bursaries and there may be the opportunity of an ACE grant for professional development but I don’t know if that extends to competition entry fees.

I don’t know if it’s the case, but I like to think that the competition organisers might offer a few individuals free entry, if they are known to them. Maybe even state this in the ‘where your entry fee is spent’ section on a competition entry form – better still, ask people if they are willing to sponsor an entry by a poet who otherwise wouldn’t be able to enter, by paying some or all of their entry fee. I think there would be takers for that, much the same as buying someone a magazine subscription as a gift. I certainly know there are organisers of poetry readings who sometimes help people attend who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford the entry fee or travel.

2) My poems aren’t good enough

Ooh, are you sure? Maybe there’s more to it than this, but I’m no psychologist, so let’s take it on face value.

You only have to look at previous winning poems to know that there’s no magic formula or identifiable standard which makes a poem a competition winner. Second-guessing if something is ‘good enough’ is an impossible task.

There’s lots of advice on the web about what makes a ‘competition’ poem. Once you start writing them and getting the odd comp success, I think you get a feel for which of your poems are competition poems. But it’s tricky to identify any objective competition-winning DNA.

Standard advice is to research the judges. But that means finding out about their taste, not necessarily what they write themselves. Judges can be quick to spot ‘lookalike’ work, and it doesn’t always pay off. Is reading ‘something I could have written myself’ really going to surprise and delight a judge, send them into raptures? Personally, I doubt it.

So yes, read the judge’s own work, but also check out the results of other competitions they have judged. Read any interviews with them. Ask people who’ve been on their workshops. Or conversely, you might seek out competitions to enter where the judge is someone you have some experience of, as a tutor for example.

Remember too that many competitions employ first-round judges, or sifters. I encountered one competition where the named judge was sent only 30 or so poems, out of all the entries. You may have to read the small print (or ask around) to find this out.

3) What if I don’t win?

Although it feels a bit scary to send off a competition entry, in the early stage of one’s writing career there’s actually very little to lose, in terms of the fragile poet ego. Unlike submitting to magazines, you generally don’t get rejections. If your poem comes nowhere, you’ve no idea how quickly it was sifted out, and you can just forget (or pretend you’ve forgotten) you even entered. Or you can tell yourself your poem was probably in the top 10% of entries, if it makes you feel better.

If you’re an established poet, with a national profile and several collections to your name, entering a comp calls for a thick skin. Imagine appearing on a longlist, but you don’t make the short list. Then you find a CW student with two published poems gets third place. Or wins. WTF!I’m sure competition organisers publish long and short lists as a favour to poets – so they can see how far they got, and feel excited to try again, that sort of thing. Ironically, the more successful the poet, the more this actually becomes a disincentive to enter. Perhaps competition organisers could add a confidentiality checkbox to the entry form which says something like “I do not wish my name to appear on published Long or Short Lists.” It’s never going to happen of course, because having a high profile poet on a long list adds kudos to the comp.

In fact you may even be thinking it’s a bit of a non-reason. If you don’t want to be seen to lose, don’t go in for the comp! I suppose that’s one answer!

4) What if I win?

If this is seriously a reason not to enter a comp (because you’re worried about winning) then I’m not going to persuade you otherwise!

There are potential disadvantages to winning a high profile competition, such as dealing with unwanted attention – people criticising your work or even launching personal attacks in a way that doesn’t happen until you win big or find yourself in the national papers. But I doubt anyone ever got trolled for winning the Kent & Sussex.

So there you are. There’s really no such thing as the perfect poem that everyone agrees is marvellous. Comp organisers and poet-judges need the money. The monstrous poet ego needs the affirmation. Social media needs a constant fuelling of ‘who won what and look at me I won and yay for all the winners’ etc. Let’s go compete, and may the best (ahem!) woman win.

Good places to get info on forthcoming competitions:

The Poetry Library

The Poetry Kit

Angela T Carr’s blog

Comps and Calls 

14 Comments on “Reasons to enter (or not) poetry competitions

  • Marina Sofia
    February 26, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    I do enter poetry competitions (alongside regular submissions to magazines), but without any success to date (I was longlisted once, but nothing else to shout about). And that brings me to perhaps the last reason for not entering: ‘there is only so much rejection one can endure at a given point in one’s life’. So perhaps give competitions a miss when you are also querying, submitting, job-hunting, trying to find a new partner or all of the above…

    Reply
    • Robin Houghton
      February 27, 2017 at 8:45 am

      Hi Marina, that’s a very good point – not to put ourselves through things unnecessarily. Personally I think I’m more delicate about magazine rejections because as I said, a comp ‘loss’ feels less specific/personal. Although magazine rejections shouldn’t feel personal either, but at certain times in one’s life it can be a bit of a blow.

      Reply
  • john foggin
    February 26, 2017 at 8:12 pm

    Counter-intuitively: I have no sense of rejection if I fail to win a comp; if you look at most long/shortlists, I can see no reason usually why x won and y didn’t. This especially applies to ones I’ve won, and this makes me guilty. On the other hand I genuinely feel rejected when submissions aren’t accepted, because a magazine journal actually has anything up to 50 ‘winners’ in an issue.
    Competition entries are fun in the way that buying a lottery ticket is fun; you can dream.
    You probably get less of a rep by winning comps than you do by getting placed in a lot of reputable journals….competition poems vanish like smoke, but poets read poetry journals.
    I have no idea what makes a ‘competition’ poem (except that a punchline seems to work)…I’d say never try to second-guess the judge. But DO send poems to comps judged by poets you think are great. Just for the thrill of imagining them reading your poem.

    Reply
    • Robin Houghton
      February 27, 2017 at 8:52 am

      Thanks John – do you know I’ve never thought about the judge actually reading my poem? Probably because I’m a bit cynical about the likelihood of it getting read in its entirety! I don’t feel guilty if I’ve been placed and (what seems to me to be) a better poem hasn’t, because it’s all swings & roundabouts anyway. I was a bit miffed when you pipped me to the Plough Prize though, John – but revenge will be mine!!

      Reply
  • ann perrin
    February 26, 2017 at 11:25 pm

    At 76 as a late start poet, trying to gain a reputation in the poetry world would seem foolhardy. But I love having a go at a competition and have been short and long listed in big comps. and even won a modest local one in recent years. Frankly it’s the cost that puts me off but have recently decided to set a budget and have another go. Yes love to try for comps judged by poets I think are great and do get a thrill imagining them reading my poem!

    Reply
    • Robin Houghton
      February 27, 2017 at 8:55 am

      Hi Ann – I would say that there’s nothing foolhardy about ambition, and as John says, it’s nice to dream. Although I suppose if you ended up completely broke because of a comping habit that would be a bit silly. A lot of writers start late (I keep telling myself!) Plus, as you say, there are plenty of comps to go round. And you WON one! What’s not to like? 🙂

      Reply
  • Paul Brookes
    February 27, 2017 at 8:54 am

    Poetry competitions are more to do with raising the public profile of poetry. Winning is no guarantee of quality or credibility. It is like passing exams. It proves you can pass exams. The winner is decided by a small minority. I dislike poetry competitions intensely. They encourage me not to read the winner. And if I do I find myself asking “Why?”.

    Reply
    • Robin Houghton
      February 27, 2017 at 9:26 am

      Hi Paul – thank you for sharing another viewpoint – part of me does hate the competition culture, which was one of the reasons why I started Telltale Press. And I agree the winning poems can sometimes seem arbitrary. But the very subjectivity of it all, the randomness of it all, makes it seem like a bit of a game. Sometimes I’m up for it – I want to play and I want to win. Other times it can seem pretty crass and a bit odd, like a sort of beauty pageant for poems. But competitions can help poetry organisations stay afloat. It would be nice to find some other ways of raising money though.

      Reply
  • Cathy Bryant
    February 27, 2017 at 10:47 am

    My credentials: I’ve won 25 literary awards and writing competitions, and had work placed in many others. I’ve judged both prose and poetry competitions – and I refuse to judge a competition unless I’m going to read all the entries (which I do, at least three times each except in the obvious cases of plagiarism/totally illiterate etc entries).
    There’s a crucial difference between a writing competition and a lottery. In a lottery, everyone has the same chance. In a writing competition, if you proofread your work, follow the guidelines and avoid clichés then you’re already ahead of a third of the pack. So many people don’t do these things! Asked to send up to three poems, they send two hundred. They tear poems out of birthday cards. They copy the first paragraph of a literary classic. This is another reason why people shouldn’t worry that their work isn’t good enough.
    A reason not to feel rejected if you don’t win: I’ve served on panels of judges, and sometimes a piece has made me feel incredibly moved and impressed, and I’ve wanted to award it a prize. But the other judges didn’t agree, so the person never knew how much their work had touched at least one judge. as entries are often anonymised, there’s no way to find the writer and tell them.
    I recommend entering the hundreds of free writing competitions (some with excellent prizes – the Wergle Flomp, for instance) every year, and treating each entry as a submission. No more, no less. Approach it professionally and do the best job you can, log it in your submission document, and forget about it. In a free comp, you know that you’re up against everyone, not just those who can afford to enter. I get more of a frisson from winning a free comp than I do by winning one with an entry fee, for that reason.
    I am trying really hard not to plug my book on the subject, or website… 🙂
    As for a formula: try three good images, no clichés, an exotic location and some poignant human situation. I wrote a spoof prizewinning poem and won £100 with it, coming first in a comp. It was an experiment I was sad to find succeeded. I’ve never done it again, but it was interersting.

    Reply
    • Robin Houghton
      February 27, 2017 at 3:12 pm

      Hi Cathy, thanks for this – good god, do people really tear poems out of birthday cards..?! Going for the free comps certainly answers the problem of it being expensive, unless you count the cost of your time. But I suppose it depends on why you’re doing the comps in the first place. If it’s to win prizes/money then I can see it’s good to have a strategy and a method. Like a real ‘comper’ I guess. But if it’s to raise your profile as a poet then you might only go in for the bigger/more prestigious competitions. Personally I’m not that interested in entering small or unknown competitions, unless it’s simply to support (eg) a writers’ group with which I have an association. I once won some decent money in a competition that I thought would help raise my profile but actually the organisers did zero publicity around the winners – no press release/announcement on the website, no mentions on social media whatsoever. So although the money was nice (it went straight back into poetry anyway) it was worth less to me than doing well in the Poetry Society Stanza competition – no prize money, but people do hear about it – plus if you’re lucky it can bring you invitations and other nice surprises. So I guess what I’m saying is it depends on your motivation. Loved your anecdote about the ‘formula’ poem – ouch!

      Reply
      • Cathy Bryant
        February 27, 2017 at 5:58 pm

        People do all sorts of things, including tearing poems out of cards! There are also poems submitted by relatives of someone who has died, leaving a sheaf of unpublished poems, and it’s heartbreaking when the relatives beg to have the poems published because it would mean so much. Then there’s the perennial slew of rape fantasies….sigh.
        Re publicity, it depends on the comp – winning the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction prize, which was free to enter, got me into the Guardian, the Mail and a host of American papers. I was also interviewed on a radio show that went out to 700,000 people. That helped with book sales! The publicity was possibly more helpful than the cash prize.
        I agree about the prestige of Poetry Stanza competitions, etc. There are some wonderful ones in this country – the problem is that everyone is entering them (which is why I scoop the goodies in the others. I’d be sunk if you lot exercised your talents on them). It’s definitely about motivation. You’re right there. Writing is my day job so I want money, which is why no one has heard of me. Whereas you are well-known and respected all over the country. You pays yer money and you takes yer choice, as they say.
        Mainly, I want people to have fun with comps. The themes can be so interesting!

        Reply
  • Cathy Bryant
    February 27, 2017 at 10:48 am

    Please forgive the typos in the previous comment! I’m having eye problems (recurrent, nothing serious).

    Reply
  • Michael Murray
    February 27, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    Hi, good and useful piece, thanks.
    A local and published writer once commented, asking how many actually read competition winners, as opposed to magazine published.
    It’s a good question. The writer thought it was comparatively very few.

    Reply
    • Robin Houghton
      February 27, 2017 at 3:27 pm

      Hi Michael – thank you for commenting. The general opinion does seem to be that poems in magazines get read more than those that win competitions, although my feeling is that it depends. The organisers of high profile competitions often have the means to promote the results widely and thoroughly, and some of them actually do. So the prize winning poems find their way into newspapers, onto websites and across social media. Although we’re probably only talking about 3 or 4 comps, out the hundreds that take place. As far as magazines are concerned, again I imagine it’s only a small number of magazines that are read by a broad audience of poets. Magazine editors are usually poets themselves, so it always interests me to see where they are being published because it tells you something of the perceived ‘pecking order’ of publications. I’ve realised over the years that there are many small magazines with their own regular audience and submitters (usually interchangeable), but outside of that world are unread and not always known about. Those that are internet- and social-savvy punch above their weight, but that’s by no means a given.

      Reply
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