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A Word To the Wise

On Entering Your Poems in Competition

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Our friend Kurt Heintz had some sage advice for the poet on the e-poets.net email discussion list who wondered about entering online poetry competitions. There are hundreds of contest listings on the Net & thousands of poets seeking prizes & publication. So we asked Kurt if we could share his thoughts on choosing where to enter your poems in competition with all of you & he kindly consented. Word to the wise...

What is the reliability of the hundreds of poetry contests being run on the Net? Is it prudent to submit manuscripts to them?

I am wary of this sort of publishing as a rule. Unless you can verify their intentions with your manuscript, or have legal safeguards for the use of your manuscript after you’ve submitted it, I would stay away. Many of these operations are vanity publishing schemes, and are not well run. True, many of them have good intentions, too. But often such contests are tactics for building up subscriptions or email distribution lists, ways to raise interest in sagging readership of a given site. Enter a contest, and get spammed thereafter. Caveat scriptor.

There are a few ways to determine whether the contest is legit, or likely to give you a positive experience from participation. First, examine the organization behind it. If it seems thin, i.e., if all you see online is the contest on their Web site, then let it go. Many legitimate literary organizations have an online presence, and such a presence should not be totally invested in a contest. They should be able to tell you what else they do, and demonstrate it in some way. They may even publish (gasp!) a telephone number where you may call them during real business hours. Feel free to use it!

One of the best examples I know of a legitimate online contest is at The Electronic Literature Organization. They gave out two big prizes in the spring of 2001, one for e-poetry and the other for e-fiction, and they accepted submissions online. But when you surf the Web site you can easily see that it’s not all about the contest. Through April and May, the 2001 ELO Awards were a big deal in ELO’s office, but they were hardly ELO’s sole concern. And you could see that there was a point to the Awards beyond the Awards, that the Awards didn’t merely serve themselves. By having the Awards, ELO was creating public interest in new writing in the new media.

A second way to know if a contest is worth entering is to see whether you or your peers can check the reputation of the contest sponsor in “the real world.” Who else do you know who has worked with them? Ask specific questions about specific contests. Active writers send a lot of material out for others to read, generally, and get a good measure of feedback. Be sure to consider your sources when someone says a contest is a good idea... Is the endorser a needy person? Are they hungry for validation, and thus easily duped into the whole contest racket? Or are they genuinely interested in copping a good prize, and writing competitive literature?

Third, don’t be easy. Don’t let just anybody pick up your manuscript. You’ve worked hard for it, so it deserves your highest care. What reward does the contest sponsor have for you beyond the prizes themselves? What legal provisions are there for the welfare of your manuscript and for you? Who owns your manuscript after you send it, and how may the contest sponsors reproduce it? Are there any limits on its use once it leaves your hands? A good contest will give you some rights to your own work once the contest is over, and won’t dilute your work’s value by random publication practices. They should be able to put this in writing for you. If they’re dodgy, to heck with ’em. Send your manuscript somewhere better. There are loads of contests all over the world.

Fourth -- and this is a really simple check to perform -- are past contest winners mediocre? If the contest sponsor is publishing anything they like, chances they’re not that discriminating themselves, and the welfare of the literature is not being served any more than they are. If you win, you want to win in a truly competitive venue, where writing excellence is drawn forward, recognized, and celebrated.

You know, it’s funny, but the ways to discriminate good online literary contests from bad ones really aren’t all that different from the print world. It’s one of those cases where we, as newcomers to a new land, can be naively duped into doing strange things we’d never do in the physical world simply because it’s an “e-” proposition. Our trust in the e-world is not always merited, though we may wish it were otherwise. I don’t think that many members of this group are vulnerable to the opportunist and predatory tactics of such literary contests, but I am amazed at the numbers of people elsewhere who are. Those contests get their fodder from somewhere, so there are obviously loads of people out there pining for recognition... at any cost.

~Kurt Heintz

Kurt Heintz is a writer, media artist, performer, and armchair theorist in Chicago. He is also the founder of the e-poets network, an alliance of media artists, poets, and presenters in the US, Canada, UK, and elsewhere, who employ new media and performance poetry to foster deep cultural interaction and education.

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