And the winner is…

Nancy Flynn Apostrophe Blog Archive, Wisdom, Writing

The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

Photo by Abbey Hendrickson

It seems to happen every autumn. For some reason—the shortened day length, the return of the rain, the cooler temperatures—I suddenly get the urge to blow money here and there entering what are likely long-shot poetry contests.

Below is a blog post from fourteen years ago—October 2009!—that still pretty much rings true about the whole literary contest-entering shebang. And all the time it takes because each competition has its own requirements and rules.

Photo by David Goehring

I’ve spent the past month entering contests.

Entering contests is not something I normally do; I’m generally risk-averse about most things financial, a good thing as it turns out re: the 2008 stock market. I’m not even one of those clued-in people who knows when the Powerball jackpot becomes ginormous and it makes sense to ante up for a ticket or two. Then I (finally) put the Photo finishing touches on a book-length poetry manuscript in the middle of September. So it seemed like more than fortuity when I opened up the newest issue of Poets & Writers to find page after page of contest listings.

Apparently the autumnal equinox brings not only waning hours of daylight (and a constant rain of leaves from the three towering Oregon big-leaf maples in our backyard garden) but over a dozen deadlines for various poetry contests run by literary magazines, presses, and poetry societies hither and yon.

A $2000 award here, another $3000 there, and most include publication. Why some even give you a whole passel of copies of the book, too, Woo-woo! One contest has a cash prize and an honorarium to cover travel expenses to go to a reading in Madison, Wisconsin. The winner of a contest for women-only receives $1,000 and publication and an all-expenses-paid residency in a castle in Umbertide, Italy. Now we’re talking…

Where do these poetry presses and organizations and non-profit literary organizations get all the money? Oh yeah, the entry fees, reading fees, non-refundable handling fees—whatever you want to call them—that nearly all of the contests I decided to enter required as part of submitting a manuscript. FYI, most seem to be $20 or $25 a pop. Suddenly, the allure of prize money and (in many cases) publication became a shiny bauble too beguiling for this underpaid poet to resist. What else to do with a (finally) finished—after much tinkering, in perfect order, poems flowing one after another like a symphony—manuscript but send it off?

Never mind the odds are always stacked mighty high against the scores of us who (of course) decide to throw our line-and-stanza hats into the competitive ring. Didn’t I just read somewhere that we are, indeed, in the midst of a poetry renaissance, a time when good, often very good, poetry is being written by many more folks throughout the U.S.? PP

Maybe by now someone has written an M.F.A. thesis that compares the likelihood of winning a poetry contest in these lean, mean, art-dissing times as right up there with winning at craps when your point is 8 and you throw it hardways (two 4s). Or getting bingo with the first five numbers drawn. Nevertheless, in spite of reality, I banished such thoughts and started to comb through the guidelines and requirements; that’s when the real fun began.

First, there’s the issue of what exactly is a book-length manuscript:

Manuscripts must be between 48 and 96 pages.
Manuscripts must be between 50 and 80 pages.
Manuscripts must be between 48 and 70 pages.
Manuscripts must be at least 48 pages of poetry not counting titles and table of contents.
Manuscripts must be 48-70 pages of poetry, counting any section title pages but not counting front matter.
Manuscripts must be between 50 and 100 pages, typed single- or double-spaced.

Then, what are you allowed to include in this book:

Manuscripts must be original poetry, not previously published in book form.
Poems published in print or on-line periodicals, anthologies, or chapbooks may be included, but the manuscript itself must be unpublished.
Manuscripts must include a table of contents and an acknowledgments page.
Submission may include a list of publication credits.
Submissions may not include a list of publication credits.
Submissions must include a list of publication credits but they must be called acknowledgments.
Submission may not include thank-yous or dedications.

And how to prepare the actual submission:

Manuscripts must be paginated with the title of the collection on each page.
Manuscripts must have the title only on a title page.
Do not stable or permanently bind submissions.
Manuscripts must be typed and bound only by a spring clip.
Manuscripts must be in a binder clip or a file folder, nothing else.

And what enclosures to include and not include:

Enclose a standard business-size SASE for notification.
Enclose a self-addressed, stamped post card for notification of manuscript receipt (sometimes optional).
Do NOT send by certified or registered mail.
Do NOT send disks.
Do not send biographical material, photographs, CDs, videos, or illustrations.

What constitutes the definition of a hard and fast deadline varies as well:

The reading period for the prize will begin on August 1 and extend through October 31.
Submissions must be received (not postmarked) between September 1 and November 1 (of the first weekday thereafter if November 1 falls on a weekend).
Mail by September 30, postmark deadline.

And last but not least, a few final, often bold-faced admonitions:

Do NOT send the only copy of your manuscript.
Manuscripts will NOT be returned.

Sheesh. Persnickety. And I haven’t even mentioned the rules around who is allowed to submit or not submit depending on one’s possible, prior relationships (student, teacher, spouse, offspring, BFF, Facebook buddy, Twitter tweet pal, etc.) with a given contest’s judge, a completely other can o’ worms. Or more likely snake pit.

I felt like I needed a personal assistant or, at the very least, an Excel spreadsheet to track of all these rules and their permutations. As I worked my way through all the assorted requirements, I became convinced that some of these poetry contest coordinators have future employment opportunities working for an acronym-centric governmental organization, maybe even with a crowd of serious rule-mongers like the I.R.S.

Undeterred, I scurried to the office supply store for 9 x 12 mailing envelopes, extra reams of paper, and printer toner cartridges. I created a basic manuscript template then proceeded to tinker, contest by contest. I dutifully ran spell checkers, re-arranged tables of contents depending on which contest required what, kept title pages with my name and address on them separate and apart from the ones with titles only. Found my stash of binder clips. Stuffed envelopes. And wrote a bunch of checks.

By the end of this poetry-contest silly season, I’d entered my book in ten competitions—and believe me, I winnowed the possibilities way, way down. Only one contest allowed me to submit electronically and pay the reading fee using PayPal. (Interestingly, that one, Silverfish Review Press, is based in eco-conscious Eugene, Oregon.)

Which meant I printed off nine copies (one side only, d’accord) of my manuscript—62 pages if you counted all the assorted elements you may or may not be able to include in the page count plus the title pages so more like 64—a total of 576 final pages. Which doesn’t count the how many pages I had to reject because I’d gotten something about the rules for that particular entry somehow wrong like forgetting to take out that damn acknowledgment or was it to be called a publications credits page?

Just this morning I tallied up my cost of doing all this “poetry business”—$235.00. Not that bad. Except that so far, in 2009, I have earned a total of $80 in prize money for three poems, and a $30 credit at the St. John’s Booksellers in exchange for three copies of my poetry chapbook, The Hours of Us. OK, maybe I do have a future on Wall Street, my hands out as the next-in-line for a TARP bailout.

And yet, so often, we in this creative writing biz take our silver linings, our lotus-jewel moments wherever we can find them. True confession for me? Mine has been the fun of selecting which self-addressed, stamped post cards to enclose—remember, the ones that acknowledge receipt of the manuscript (optional)—knowing that they will eventually come back to me and end up in my wacky, eclectic 40-year post card collection. So far, I’ve gotten back a W.P.A.-style woodcut of Hawaii National Park and another of Crater Lake. The reproduction of a Rice’s Seeds packet—Early Red or Purple-top Strap Leaf Turnip, 5¢, A Most Excellent Early Garden Variety. A print of Romare Bearden’s painting, Profile/Part II, The Thirties: Midtown Sunset. And a photograph of the incredibly cool Artifact Panel by William Morris in the Portland Art Museum’s permanent collection. If you live in Portland, Oregon and have never seen it, rush right down.

The funny thing is this: What now feels like the success, an achievement to sing hosannas to, is that I actually got a wildly diverse, often unwieldy and unpredictable fifty+ poems (written over the past five years) organized into a coherent collection in the first place. And then, miracle of miracles, jumped through all these submission hoops (see above) and managed to send it off as a coherent and readable manuscript—one that I am actually proud to call my work.

Truth to tell, I’ve put out of my mind the thought of any long shots like winning an award. That book manuscript itself—there’s my victory. Mission accomplished, as a certain (finally disgraced) ex- (and maybe not ever really elected) President of the U.S. once said. Even though in that instance, unlike for me now, it was far from the truth.

Nancy Flynn
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