The Writing Contest Scam

Two or three people, with healthy bodies and the right sort of receiving brains, could turn the whole tide of human thought, could direct lightning flashes of electric power to slash across and destroy the world of dead, murky thought. Two or three people gathered together in the name of truth, beauty, over-mind consciousness could bring the whole force of this power back into the world.

–H.D., Notes on Thought and Vision

There’s been a fascinating discussion going on the last few days over the Buffalo poetics listserv. It began when Noah Eli Gordon posted a notice about the 2010 Subito Press Book Competition. Richard Owens, mentioned in my last post, responded to this notice by writing:

for years now i’ve watched poets (many of whom identify themselves with radical politics, “progressive” thinking, non-normative practices) do nothing more than reproduce the logic of market systems and commodity culture by participating in (or, worse, organizing) poetry competitions engineered expressly for the purpose of roping in cash and fostering a competitive rather than cooperative cultural environment (&, yes, competition and cooperation are in _no_ uncertain way mutually exclusive).

but fair competition is a good thing, right? like, if only we could weed out a few greedy apples then market-based economies (cultural and otherwise) would be beneficial to all, no? and who doesn’t want to win?

Rexroth was spot on when he wrote: “If offered a crown | refuse.” Charles Ives was spot on when he sd: “Awards are badges of mediocrity.” [The post goes on, but this is the relevant portion for my purposes.]

What followed from this was enthusiastic agreement from a number of listservers, including John Latta, Pierre Joris, Gloria Frym, and others. Gordon then responded by noting that a) he is not affiliated with the Subito contest; b) he does run his own press, Letter Machine Editions, which has seen him go over $5K in debt; he then recalled c) a long list of contemporary poets who presumably have street cred with the folks on the listserv (Nathaniel Mackey, Elizabeth Robinson, etc.) who have won book contests; and he closed by writing:

Maybe these people would shun contest now, but that’s because they’ve had the opportunity to establish themselves in some (& not always so) small way through having won one. This is why I think Pierre Joris‘s comment about them being scam affairs comes from a place of privilege. Although I respect all of the many years he’s put into poetry, teaching, translation, etc., it’s just not that easy, as Amish Trivedi notes, for a young poet to break into the scene. Yes, I’m an advocate for starting your own press and journal, both of which I did. But for folks not lucky enough to live in a city with a large, active poetry community, or to study at a school like the University of Buffalo (as Richard did), with its instant community and funding for student-editing projects, it can be a daunting thing. Yes, creating alterative market systems is one answer. I think we all think Sub Press is pretty amazing. But the problem is much deeper than the tiny market systems of poetry. One can’t up & move to NYC to be a poet these days without being somehow independently wealthy. That wasn’t always the case, tho.

As hinted in Gordon’s response, several younger poets had chimed in along the way to wonder what beginning authors are supposed to do to “break into the scene.” C.J. Martin, one of the publishers of Dos Press and Little Red Leaves, suggested that Owens was being a bit too harsh — “Walk it back, man. No Salt? No Kelsey St. (I think they had a fee recently, though this might be wrong)? No Ahsahta? No Omnidawn? No Nightboat? This is a major erasure.” Tyrone Williams then added, “Like others I have found this conversation rather interesting but like a few here, Chris especially, I’d like YOU to offer what you might see as a politically responsible publishing model. To be blunt–what is the source of funding for damn the caesars? I know lots of people who use their own funds and state grants to support their presses but those models–siphoning capital–presuppose participation in a labor market and government subsidy model that has its own, shall we say, political problems..”

OK. That’s a lot of back-and-forth, and I’ve boiled down the long discussion thread considerably. What seems to be at work here, following from Owens’ initial objections, is the following layered response:

1) Contests are not ideal, but young poets need some entry point into the scene, a way to make a name for themselves, etc. (Noah Eli Gordon, others such as Amish Trivedi);

2) It’s disingenuous for some to be against contests, when a number of known and respected poets have used them as a springboard, in part, to get where they are now (Gordon);

3) In any event there are respected, legitimate presses that use contests as a way to promote themselves and raise money to put out important work by contemporary poets (C.J. Martin);

4) It’s disingenuous to criticize fundraising by contest when your press is receiving top-down, institutional funding that has its own problematic associations (Gordon, and much more explicitly, Williams).

With respect to the first point, I must admit I have no objection to the abstract idea of contests. I’m a competitive guy. I like the idea of winning. When I was in high school, my creative writing teacher, Mr. Chute, encouraged me to enter many local and school-sponsored contests. I did pretty well — won a fancy dictionary, which I still used up to a couple years ago, won some money, won some neat-looking certificates. The encouragement I took from that is probably what propelled me to continue working and studying poetry and writing during the bleak years to come.

The problem comes in when, as Owens points out, the contest becomes tied to a bottom-up way of funding the venture itself. To me, this is no different than a pyramid scheme. You collect money from a vast number of entrants, 90% of whom have no shot to win the contest. They are absolutely funding the prize kitty, publication of the book, and possibly more publications besides. Assuming the contest draws upwards of 100 entries, that means an intern –probably an already overworked and underpaid graduate student — is responsible for being the first set of eyes on 600-800 pp of manuscripts. Which in turn means quickly scanning the first five, maybe 10 pages of your manuscript before putting it on the “reject” pile. Is that worth your $20?

What about point no. 2? Yes, a fair number of poets have won contests and are now ‘established.’ But looking, for example, at Ahsahta Press, I notice that my old friend James Meetze has won the 2010 Sawtooth Prize for his manuscript Dayglo. Meetze already has a full-length collection and several chapbooks out. He teaches in the University of California system. He also founded Tougher Disguises press, which in its time published books by Peter Gizzi and Clark Coolidge, among others. Needless to say, Meetze is not a new poet coming out of nowhere. I would venture to add that most of the contest-winning poets Gordon mentions were roughly in the same boat at the moment they won: relatively young poets who nevertheless already had a strong publication record. That’s why I say that 90% of the neophytes wading into these contests have no chance. They simply don’t yet have the chops.

No. 3: I agree with C.J.’s assertion
that there are very good presses that engage in the contest gig. They should not be rejected out of hand. Some of the books published by this means are worthy, even important, and the authors as well as the readers who discover them are no doubt grateful. However, this just shows how insidious the culture of the pyramid scheme can be. We accept it without pause when it comes to the model of capitalism. It doesn’t much surprise us when entire towns are destroyed by Goldman Sachs via financial schemes set up to fail, and the outrage is not such that we’re willing to actually change anything substantial in the way the market works.

Just for the record: I understand that there’s a big difference between a corporation callously scamming billions of dollars and a small press trying to fund itself through a writing contest. I get that. And I know Janet Holmes at Ahsahta — I know that she genuinely enjoys running the contest, but I also know that overworked grad students do help with the screening. The point is, once you accept that the principle is the same, i.e., that a large number of folks with no real shot at the prize are paying for the benefit of the very few, then you can’t make exceptions based on the perceived legitimacy of the contest and press as a whole. Either the whole thing is corrupt, or none of it is.

How then do you fund a small press? This leads to point no. 4.
I find it lamentable, not to say laughable, that Noah Eli Gordon has run up $5K+ in debt running his. It’s true that there is some institutional funding available for those, like Owens and myself, affiliated with large universities which, against all odds, continue to show an interest in supporting such ventures. This bit of support will undoubtedly dwindle in years to come, as endowments and budgets in the humanities shrivel and disappear. However, my press has been up and running since about 2000. Owens began DTC before coming to UB. Neither of us got seriously in hock doing so.

Likewise, successful and relatively high-profile presses like Skanky Possum, Effing, and Interbirth. All of these sprang from the vision and energy of individuals, not funded by any outside sources. The models are disparate: Effing creates relatively inexpensive handcrafted books at somewhat high volume (several hundred per title), Interbirth does relatively expensive, artisan-style books at much smaller volume (50-100 per title); both attempt to break even by selling enough to offset production costs. And both, to my knowledge, thanks to the tireless efforts of Scott Pierce and Micah Robbins, respectively, have succeeded in doing so.

As to the sticky question of accepting institutional funding, there is one key difference: it’s top-down. It doesn’t suck the blood of struggling young poets to pay for the publication of slightly less struggling poets. Moreover, in the case of a publication like DTC, not to mention the whole history of student-produced presses going back to the mid-90s journal Apex of the M, the vision of the press is left to the individuals operating it, not subsumed into the institutional apparatus a la the something-or-other University Review. Not to say that those big “review”-type publications don’t also have their place, but there’s a huge difference in terms of the quality and frequency of the work being published.

The bottom line is that I believe poets seeking to break into the “scene,” whatever that means, should spend a minimum 10 years giving to that scene by doing one or several of the following: publishing a small press (chapbook and/or journal series), hosting a reading series, otherwise building community by engaging with a group of like-minded poets who both challenge and encourage you (again, via a reading series, weekly discussion, group study, exchanging and critiquing each other’s work, etc.). Call it an apprenticeship, if you will.

You may find that it’s not for you. You may find that you lose money, lose friends, grow frustrated with the egos involved and the very slim margin for error. In that case, though, perhaps poetry isn’t for you. Perhaps you need to seriously consider your motives for getting involved in the first place. Simply jumping in and expecting or needing to be published is the mindset of the capitalist weevil looking for immediate gain. You are ripe for the contest scam, and the contest scam could not thrive without that mentality.

Hence, the H.D. quote at the very top of this post. The scam would have you believe that you need a cadre of anonymous (or famous) judges to underwrite and legitimize your efforts. This is a lie. All you need are three or four like-minded individuals with a passion for the work, for your individual minds and efforts and energies to play against. Every important movement has been launched this way. Granted, there’s a bit of myth-making involved, but it’s not a terrible stretch to say that the various ‘-isms’ of the early 20th century involved a handful of people in each case — Imagism, Surrealism, Dada, etc. More recently, poetry movements such as the Language School and, yes, Flarf, began with a small group of individuals bouncing ideas and poems around. You don’t need the huge apparatus of a contest.

If you put the time in, withstand the bullshit, and grow to love this “apprentice” work, you will “arrive” on the scene in some fashion. People you respect will know and respect you. And you will be a better poet for it.

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7 Responses to The Writing Contest Scam

  1. Farid Matuk says:


    With all love and respect for the work you do as a editor/publisher and as a poet, I have to take issue with this notion of a community made primarily of like-minded individuals who deal poetry to one another through a gift economic (gifts of products, gifts of labor, gifts of tools, whatever).

    I love and believe in and benefit from the types of networks you seem to be championing here. However, I was once out of the loop. I was outside because I was poor and my family was poor and my mom never finished high school. We had no poetry and nobody talked to me about poetry, not in high school, not on the streets of Anaheim, not at the Pizza Hut. Nobody talked to me about art. Nobody talked to me about Husker Du or Fugazi either. I wasn’t part of a scene and didn’t even have feelers developed that would have helped me find a corner of my decaying, blue-collar suburbia where something like art might be happening.

    In other words, while it may seem that apprenticing to a gift economy is a nice way of weeding out the hacks or those with too-conventional tastes, you can’t arrive at that position until you first get a taste for poetry. Sometimes contest-driven presses are about distributing work to a larger number of people. And sometimes, among those hacks and bores and middle-brow folks who can’t be bothered to get to know great presses like Effing and Punch Press and Skanky Possum and Interbirth there are also some poor kids who are incredibly excited to just be reading literature on the floor of a suburban Barnes & Noble and who are ready to be turned on to more challenging work. If you can consider the possibility that some press runs a contest to help pay for advertising and distribution that in turn helps their books end up in that kid’s hands, then I would ask you to consider that as a value to help off set the corruption you’re identifying. If having been that kid makes me an accomplice to AIG and Goldman Sachs style thieving, then count me with the crooks.

    – Farid

  2. dhadbawnik says:

    Dear Farid:

    first, thanks for your thoughtful response. my position on the issue of ‘contests’ has developed gradually, and only recently, in conversation with rich, did i realize that it’s gotten to the ‘extreme’ point outlined above. i don’t begrudge anyone their entry point into poetry. nor do i begrudge struggling journals a way to make money to support their activities, provided they give an honest bang for the buck. (I was thinking about this the other day and it occurred to me that one way to maybe ensure this, in terms of giving each contest entrant a fair read, is to LIMIT the # of entries…. since the more entries, the less likely it is that manuscripts will actually be read — what if you budgeted for a certain #, hired enough people to do the reading, and, painful as it may be, RETURNED the money and entries of folks you couldn’t honestly do justice to??? i realize there’s a new code of ethics that many contest journals follow — an acknowledgment there’s a problem — but is it really possible to get through 500+ full-length manuscripts for a contest in any reasonable way?)

    at any rate, as you know, i arrived in SF many years ago with no contacts and no pedigree. different situation than yours, to be sure. i had some idea what was going on but no invite to the ball. i was LUCKY to fall in with diane di prima and her ongoing workshops, which taught me most of what i know about the ‘gift economy’ / DIY model and a lot besides. and without whom i would not have been put in touch with dale and hoa at such an early stage, hence probably not have met you and scott and susan.

    needless to say, we are not living in the 1950s in NYC, or even in the 1980s punk scene that rich is drawing some of his models from. we have what we have, and if a kid picks up a book of yours or susan’s or john ashbery’s in a chain bookstore and gets his mind blown and decides to become a poet, that’s a good thing, a miraculous thing. i would never propose to snatch that book out of his or her hand and give the kid a genuine poet starter kit, with a beret maybe and a pack of luckys and some binding thread. no way.

    BUT i do believe it’s on us, people who are now involved in poetry in some way, having come from whatever background, to look around and critique the things about it that partake too uncritically of capitalist modes. i do believe it’s on us to propose alternative means of production and distribution. i was talking with someone about this yesterday, and he said, ‘what if 200 people who entered X contest took that money and bought a small press book instead?’ i realize you’re saying that not everyone has the wherewithal to do this, but the folks reading the UB listserv presumably do. poets, presses, agents provocateur who are already involved — that’s the target audience from my perspective.

    finally, having said all that, i am definitely taking into consideration all that you’ve said and trying to rethink this from a broader viewpoint. i really do appreciate your response, and i certainly wouldn’t make you an accomplice to g sachs or anyone of that ilk.

  3. Dale says:

    David, Farid, this is a wonderful conversation. I think we’re all in service of communities and publics, but these are very different things. So these distinctions between contests, publicity, community formations, and personal integrity and loyalties might all be considered according to how we see these realities being produced through our efforts according to the situations we find ourselves in. In other words, what seems to be at stake for me are relationships that work–and those that don’t (and by work I mean that produce questions, challenges, and expansions of personal capacities). Where are the sources of vitality located? Where are they located for me–but also where are they located for the mall tween squatting on the floor of the Barnes and Noble? Farid’s comments bring up something I haven’t thought of in a long time. I wonder about how any of us do find poetry. It’s a mysterious process (Ron Padgett said that, and I agree). What accumulating forces motivate us to seek new relationships and to produce new actions and capacities?

    Anyway, these are just some meta-thoughts on the more exact offerings passed in conversation here. And I realize it’s kind of a cop out that dodges the fundamental questions. Regarding that conversation though, you can bet that the number of contests will dwindle over the next decade. The mall stores will close, too (they already are). We’re entering a moment of extreme structural adjustments, and this will force us to come to terms with where exactly our strongest commitments lie. Poetry will become a conversation, a word chalked on a sidewalk. In some countries it’s bodies in the sand.

  4. Dale says:

    PS: The more the contest system in poetry works like a peer review process in other academic settings, the better. A different vision of poetry gets expressed than what might be found in DTC or Skanky Possum, but that’s necessary. Ahstahta and other presses seem pretty good about this kind of ethical obligation to keep the judging anonymous. But like Rich, the money transaction with contests has always rubbed me wrong, even though Hoa and I would scheme of ways to make money for Skanky Possum (nothing ever came of it). Remember: poets are ruled by Mercury, god also of tricksters and thieves!

  5. dhadbawnik says:


    thank you! i agree this is a valuable conversation. farid’s point about how we come to poetry, which you focus on, is well worth thinking about. i think 90-95% of us necessarily come to poetry / writing via mass culture — i don’t think class makes this more or less likely, though it may (along with other factors — location, family background) throw more obstacles in the way. i think reading all this against sub/cultural theories of williams, hoggart, hebdige, would be fruitful and instructive. i.e., off the top of my head, the way mass culture more and more permeates and erodes the very concept of the local, the rapidity with which subcultures are coopted and compromised or already compromised—etc.

    i can’t claim to be holier than thou or to have never lied awake at night thinking about my ‘position,’ wanting to have a higher profile in the world of poetry. the ‘bitter poet syndrome’ — as hoa aptly calls it — is something i think we’re all prone to from time to time. (on a side note, re. profile, have you SEEN the bizarre goings on re. roger in the comments thread to silliman’s post on massey??)

    but more and more i dig the idea of scarcity. i dig the idea that the work of mine that’s out there, both the press and the poems, circulates in a very proscribed set of coordinates. in some ways, of course, i have to, because that’s the way it’s turned out for me so far and i’ve done little to altar that, and if it changes one day my attitude may change as well.

    more on this later — still mulling…

  6. Amish says:

    Sorry this is coming so late! I knew this was out there but I couldn’t think of anything to say 🙁

    Anyways, I what I want to say now is this: there’s no easy way in and I have no doubt that those who are now established poets didn’t just wake up one morning with a book and a job or whatever it is they wanted. I know people have to work for it.

    I think part of the implication from those established is that younger writers don’t want to work for it. We really do just want to have everything handed to us and to not have to work for it.

    This is, of course ridiculous and many of us work quite hard doing the things they do: we promote our work (whatever Steven Fama says) and we travel and do all sorts of things to find a way “in.” However, times have changed and technology has changed and there are tons of presses and those presses run contests and have open reading periods etc. It’s just the nature of the gig now.

  7. dhadbawnik says:

    thanks for the response…
    i think you’re pointing out something in my post that’s not terribly clear, which is on me.
    i didn’t mean to suggest that entering contests is a short cut to working in poetry. plenty of friends of mine enter contests — or at least send their writing out on blind submissions — and by and large they work very, very hard at their craft, i daresay much harder than i do at the moment.
    it’s more a question of where the work and resources are going.
    i was hoping to suggest that, for a young poet, rather than spend hundreds of dollars on contests and blind submissions, why not put that money into a small collaborative press with other young poets? why not spend that $20 entry fee on two small-press publications?
    why not rent a space and throw a reading series?
    I’m not trying to moralize or say this is something people SHOULD do — well, maybe I am a little — but i genuinely believe that poets would learn more, do more interesting work, if they took this approach at least part of the time.

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