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Coppin' a'tude About Poetry Contests and Fees and a severe caution issued Guest View

Thanks for cc'ing me on the issue of entry fees for writing contests. I'm letting Doug Rutledge in on this as well because he and I have had some substantial conversation on the issue of contests and fees as well. Both of us simply exploring the subject and attempting to give thoughtful consideration to both sides of any debate. Doug is the current President of the OPA (Ohio Poetry Association). You probably know that. I'm going to make some simple statements that might seem a bit contrary to each other–some of them. I mean "If I think this, well, then, why do I think that?" I do more arguing with myself than I do with others. But I don't wear religious brooches on a chain, I wear the question mark.

Pudding House charges $15 for the entry fee for our chapbook competition each year. It feels right-on. It's the lowest amount of money I'm willing to do that work for. And at Pudding House an imperfect poem can even win. I’m not looking for perfect, I’m looking for artful. I am one who ends sentences with prepositions.

We make enough to publish the winner's chapbook, give the winner prize money, and to publish additional authors' chapbooks that got notice, some years as many as 25 or 30 of the manuscripts get published. Last year only three or four. Some of it might pay me for a bit of my time SOME YEARS and there is nothing at all wrong with that. This IS my job, my business, and they who write against the entry fees for competitions I suppose would rather see the competitions or the press fold? What else could the opponent possibly want? Editors, judges, and publishers have to get paid somehow. Pudding House is a sole proprietorship, not a nonprofit organization. We aren't a charity and nowhere is it written that a literary venture SHOULD be.

I have a serious problem with nonprofit organizations who are getting grant funding and also charging over $15 and up to $30 for a chapbook entry that doesn't award at least $1000 and publication. I call that double-dipping if the contest doesn't award both cash and publication. But one argument for that double-dipping can be it all helps fund the program. It just isn't argument-enough for me.

I find that for a pool of 25,000 – 100,000 so-called poets (the presumed national population of poets according to David Alpaugh, Poets & Writers several years ago) who bitch and carry on about the lack of publishing opportunities, there sure are a mess of mean-spirited presumptuous experts on the topic who aren't thinking through the relevant issues.

There are downright criminal elements sponsoring "contests" and they are a loathsome population. But the publishers in the mainstream are not of that ilk and they're just trying to come up with various ways to stay alive, which is extremely difficult right now.

That being said, basically, I hold as suspect nearly all "contests" and that's why I call ours (chapbook only) a "competition". "Competition" implies a little higher level of effort and goals. "Contest" might as well be the draw for the lucky number. To me it sounds like a jingle writer trying to win a vacuum cleaner. I run a serious operation so I never use the word "contest" but that doesn't mean others who use "contest" aren't serious. To some this might be the epitome of a "quibble."

When I was a very young poet and entered a "competition" only my first year "out" as a poet, I won first, second, and fourth place (or something like that) in the Pteranadon national poetry competition judged by Jared Carter, a respected elder poet in Indiana. I'd never heard of him at the time but the win was prestigious, I was informed by poets far and wide. But, I learned enough within that next year that I NEVER entered another poetry competition even though I’d just come out of the best possible experience with one and in the hands of fabulous editors Carol Schott and her partner in Illinois. I considered myself fortunate to have won a respected competition with respected editors. But contests? Through the years that was a dress that just didn't feel right on me, but did on others and that's OK. However, I did begin to sponsor and still sponsor our single national chapbook competition with a $15 reading fee. I've never had anyone take us to task for doing that and have attracted only respect for the way we do it. Yet, and wait until you hear this. . .

I DO NOT want blind entries. And I do not NEED to have blind entries to run a fair and respected competition. That would completely defeat the purpose of sponsoring the competition. I want EVERYONE to write to the judge's biases, write to the competition. Try to influence the announced judge (always me) with poems they've grown to know as Jennifer Bosveld-type poems. Why do I offer the Pudding House Poetry Chapbook Competition in the first place? To invite poets into the act of trying to second guess Jennifer Bosveld's (the publicly-named judge) editorial taste. I WANT POETS WHO TRY LIKE CRAZY TO CATER TO THE JUDGE, POETS WHO WRITE-TO THE EDITORIAL TASTE OF PUDDING HOUSE PUBLICATIONS. Just try it; I dare you (I'm saying). How many more ways can I say this? That is an honorable intention. And amazingly, no one has ever taken me to task for it though I keep expecting it to happen. If anyone does argue with my reasoning about letting people know ahead of time that I'm the judge I'll have one simple response, "Ah, get over it." And there are certain writers who are more likely to win because they do an outstanding job of it. But the ones who do win don’t tend to write to my taste. They just enter great material and I recognize for what it is—great material. Then my message to everyone else is "I dare you to write something that will beat Roy Bentley, David Chorlton. . .", maybe 4 or 5 others. I'd like to spread the money around but if those two win the money frequently, I'd be happy to write checks to them frequently. I love running that kind of operation. I'm actually thinking about deleting the rule that a poet can't enter the year after he/she won. I'd like to hear a sofa-ful of poets saying "I'm going to try like hell to beat out Roy Bentley!" Ok, just try, I dare ya." See, isn't that fun? Let's get rid of that stupid rule right now, today, February 28, 2009, the day the bias died.

I have for years tried to build an inventory, in as many ways as possible, of poets who are our favorite sons and daughters, to use the political reference. Today, at this writing, we are releasing a collection of poets in that category–The Pudding House Gang ($18, 2009). One group of poets that tend to best represent my taste among the more rough and tumble poets. Another time I might build a collection of my more ethereal favorites.

NEW PASSION REGARDING LEGAL ISSUES involved with running a contest drives me to a WARNING regarding the judging of same. Once you've decided on a winner, both sponsor and judge should Google the language of the winning poem and certify they've done the most thorough job reasonable at assuring the winning work is the original work of the winner. This isn't THE end-all exercise that assures such a thing but at least it shows an honorable attempt. Plagiarism is on the upswing because poets are tending to scatter their work all over the Web and making it rapidly available to thieves by night or day. It's so easy to search, select, copy and paste into one's own document. I will press charges against any plagiarist who steals my intellectual property, the act will be identified as grand theft, and beware–people are going to jail for this now. And at least publicly shamed. Students stealing poems have lost their scholarships, served time, and have been embarrassed in front of their entire field of fellows in their literary life. Please forgive the important side-bar. Our new book, THE PUDDING HOUSE GANG, includes a short article about a plagiarism story affecting the marvelous young poet Eva Della Lana, robbed by another young poet theif.

I don't believe in poetry contests as an honorable or worthwhile exercise for me. I'm just not interested in entering them. But for people who enjoy the game, let 'em. The winners of other people's or organizations' contests have rarely if ever impressed me out of these state and organizational contests. And some years the Pudding House Competition scares the hell out of me. Last year out of hundreds of entries there was only one manuscript that came anywhere near winning and it's score was an "8+" (very good) out of a possible "10" being highest. The year before there were 4 or 5 that got a "10". Sometimes the only possible winner doesn't come in until the last day or week. Our criteria, though, is very high. Last year our competition made a profit which will allow us to publish more chapbooks this year.

I used to judge many competitions a year, all over the country, and some years many of those did not have a piece worthy of a first place. Judging is exhausting if you do it right and if the sponsor is fortunate enough to draw in an impressive pile of entrants. One year I refused to award a first place in one contest I judged. There was no winner in the Skyline Writers Conference annual contest and I couldn't with integrity say "this is a first place poem." I had to announce only a 3rd and 4th place and that there was no entry worthy of a higher place than that. To do that I had to study the entrants deeply in order to be sure I was right about that. There had to be obvious major flaws that kept the poems from winning. In my opinion I had to be able to prove the poem's guilt in the court of common poets. I assumed there would be a great deal of flap other that and I had to do it anyway. Scruples can get in the way of a good time. Poor Ben Rader who recommended me as judge. I apologized to him for any embarrassment that might have caused but did not apologize for the decision to not award 2nd or 1st place and have done it perhaps three times since then for other sponsors. When I'm asked to judge I ask the sponsor contact if I MUST pick a winner. I will not promise to recommend a first place. I do leave it up to the sponsoring organization to award their money to the 3rd

place winner and whether to award the poet who at least came in the highest. You've got to pay judges who work this hard over comparisons, fairness, and ethics, who investigate rightful ownership of the intellectual property, who put aside their urgent work of the day. Paying them means another few bucks on the entry fees.

I don't like contests, (have I come right out and said that yet?) I'm not even all that much for "competitions," if you buy a slight difference in meaning. I DO receive entries from a significant percentage of fine poets but I'm usually surprised to see how mundane the entries are, generally speaking. Occasionally I stare at the best of them, "How can the writers possibly think this poem or chapbook entry can win a prize, or money?" How can they think they have a stamp’s worth of a chance? Usually with ONE to 20 exceptions I’ll think that, and I'll offer to print every one of the exceptions. And based on my broad scope of judging experience I am proud that Pudding House receives the high quality level that we do.

We also publish out of another pool of authors–the general submission poets. For those there is a $12 submission fee, no cash prize, but a publication contract possible. Pudding House usually publishes about 150 – 250 book/chapbook/broadside titles a year. The $12 per chap submission hardly pays for any of MY time since I have charged $85/hr for everything I've done over the past 15 years and just raised my rate to $100/hr to help pay for the better quality paper and coverstock, upgrades in equipment, an occasional gift for a professional volunteer. Since we're not government funded we have no need to run a "transparent" organization but I don't mind sharing this. Many of the I.T. professionals I've known earned that, so why shouldn't the President of a publishing company. However, what I haven't told you is that adds only to the gross income of this sole-proprietorship and allows us to break even at the end of the NET year. If the president/consultant/professional/editor isn't worth her fee, you shouldn't be going to him/her. It's an honorable job (editor/publisher of a publishing company) and NOBODY ought to think $12 to read a manuscript is too much to pay for that. Where else do you suggest the money come from? That's old fashioned "poetry club" thinking from the time when poetry was the bastard of the arts. Nope. Let’s respect the field and the professionals in it based on the work they do. As if they installed new hardwood floors or ran a high-end dog-grooming operation for Pete’s sake.

I don't know all of anyone's intentions involved in this discussion, but I hope some of my comments touch on something important to Deb Strozier, Sammy Greenspan, or the writer of the instigating (said with a smile–this is good work) article. I've presented on all of this stuff at conferences, workshops, and in graduate program classrooms as a guest presenter. But I suppose it's all farm feed so the animals can frolic and whinny and poop and all the rest of us step in it every now and then.

Jennifer Bosveld, President

Pudding House Publications

the largest literary small press in America

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5 Responses to “Coppin' a'tude About Poetry Contests and Fees and a severe caution issued”

  1. Susan Kishner Says:

    Thanks for posting the article, was certainly a great read!

  2. Dave Clapper Says:

    Is there a link to the "instigating article" referenced in the final paragraph?

  3. Geoffrey A. Landis Says:

    Interesting. I'd also be interested in seeing a link to the "instigating article".
    I'd just written a post to the Clevelandpoetics blog discussing entry fees (here, and it's interesting to read your discussion, which is very insightful.

  4. admin Says:

    The "instigating article" is on Story in Literary Fiction site http://fictioneditorsopinions.com/?p=41
    and titled "The Devil in Literary Contests."
    Thanks for your interest.
    WHColes

  5. Kenny Says:

    This is a very good way to get more interest in winning contests, however very few have a chance.

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