Like it or not, contests are an integral part of America's poetry culture. An aspiring poet need only glance through Poets & Writers Magazine to discover a dizzying variety of contest listings, to say nothing of what he or she might find in the annual Poet's Market guidebook. Poets & Writers has produced numerous useful contest statistics as of late. According to their reports, 373 poets won legitimate contests of all kinds in 2004—while down from the previous year, this number still amounts to more winners than any one person could read.
There are several noteworthy book and magazine contests. The most prestigious include the Yale Younger Poets Series, the National Poetry Series, the Walt Whitman Award, the Discovery/The Nation award, the Boston Review prize, and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Award Series in Poetry. However, many magazines run poetry contests, and most poetry book publishers do as well—especially first-book contests, which can get thousands of entries.
It's easy to argue that poetry contests create an economy of false dreams. I know writers who spend hundreds of dollars each year on entering contests, only to be summarily rejected—and writers who win big contests who have spent the equivalent of their cash prize on contest fees over the years. The truth is many literary publishers make more money from contest fees than they do from sales of contest-winning publications. In fact, literary publishers often rely on contest fees to survive, and become almost addicted to the yearly influx of cash.
I don't blame literary publishers for this tricky position—I blame the shrinking number of poetry readers. According to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts, in the past three decades the number of Americans who actually read or listen to poetry has diminished—14.3% in 2002, down from 20.5% in 1992. During that same time period, an AWP study shows that the number of graduate writing programs in America increased almost 25%, producing more and more people trained to write and publish their own poetry. This, along with our culture's ever greater obsession with fame (look at the rise of reality TV shows), explains why it's easier for poetry publishers to find contest entrants than subscribers or book buyers.
Of course, the best way to win a poetry contest and get your poems published is to know what's happening in contemporary poetry. This means not only reading poetry, but also getting to know various contest-running magazines and presses as well. It's best to check out a given contest by reading its previous winners; it's also important to look at the publisher's back issues or backlist to see how your work might or might not fit into their overall aesthetic. Contest readers and judges often have an easy time rejecting ill-suited submissions—like a manuscript of simply-rhymed sonnets about nature sent to a press known for publishing book-length experimental poems.
Publishers do have a responsibility to run legitimate contests. The issue—moral and legal—is fraudulence, or judges circumventing the judging process and picking people they know as winners. In the guidelines for its book contest, AWP smartly states that "former students of a judge . . . are ineligible to enter the competition in the genre for which their former teacher is serving as judge." However, celebrity judges sometimes pick friends or ex-students despite such rules, and of course there are a few publishers who do not have judging guidelines at all.
Contest fraud has become a hot topic of late. The issue isn't new, though: a half-century ago a judge failed to pick a winner for a yearly book contest until his lover passed along a couple of manuscripts by friends. The judge was W. H. Auden, the contest was the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Series, and the winner was John Ashbery's Some Trees, one of the twentieth century's most influential first books of poetry—which proves there isn't an easy solution to the contest debate. The larger point is that contests offer publishers a high-profile means to get new poetry out, and a wealth of contests means more venues for all sorts of new poetry.
Despite their problems, I ultimately feel contests are good for poetry. Many of my favorite young poets—Rebecca Wolff, Cort Day, and Terrance Hayes, for instance—are contest winners; others—like Katy Lederer and Michael Earl Craig—did not win a contest they entered, but were selected for publication by the press's in-house editor. Which is why, when I start a press, I will undoubtedly run a first-book contest—and why I will look forward to reading contest submissions as much, if not more, than anything else I will do as an editor.