for Poetry Submissions

How to Enter a Poetry Contest

by F.J. Bergmann

This exciting sequel follows a previous article, How to Choose a Poetry Contest. The advice below suggests protocol to follow, once you have selected an appropriate contest for your work.

Once more, with feeling
Re-read the guidelines! It’s easy to miss arcane specs buried in paragraph after paragraph of policy and disclaimers. Make sure that there are no restrictions on eligibility (genre, age, geographic location, ethnic origin, etc.—if you don’t know what GBLT means, the contest is not for you). It’s infuriating to realize several days after sending a painstakingly composed poetry-chapbook manuscript that you failed to notice that the contest is fiction in alternate years—and guess what? If you send in an ineligible entry, for whatever reason, they still keep your entry fee. Take care to note any variations from standard formatting and procedure. Occasionally contests may extend a deadline, or even cancel at the last minute; always check the contest website directly, if they have one.

Poetical activism
Not to beat a dead horse, but this may be the time, if you are narrowing down the number of contests to enter, to consider entering only those run in a poet-friendly manner. A properly-run contest, in an ideal world, would involve the following:

a) Ordinary format; i.e., a cover sheet and one copy of the manuscript. Avoid places that feel that they have to have umpteen copies, some with and some without the poet’s name, or a little flock of index cards or a disk or CD.

b) Named judge (see rant in previous article).

c) Specific date by which results are available. Lack of a notification date bespeaks poor organization and inconveniences the poet. Do not hesitate to request results from the contest sponsor if you have not been notified within the stated time.

d) And last, but most importantly, note the entry fee/prize ratio. An entry fee that is more than 2% of the total prize money is predatory.

Nearer to our hearts’ desire
Typical submission format for poetry contests (note that this differs from typical journal submission format) would include:

a) Single-spaced poems with no identification; chapbook or book manuscript with title only on first, removable page, table of contents, numbered pages, and an acknowledgments page unless directed to omit it. For clarity, I recommend not putting poem titles in all-capital letters, unless it’s necessary. For poems, do not staple or paper-clip unless specified. For book manuscripts, use a spring clip.

b) Cover sheet. It’s pointless to send an actual cover letter for a competition unless they ask for it; same thing with a bio. Contest entries are sorted by office flunkies, not editors. Include your name, address, e-mail, phone numbers, and the titles of your poems or manuscript; also the genre, if the contest is for more than just poetry.

c) SASP (stamped, self-addressed postcard) only if the contest requires it—or you’re one of those super-paranoid folks who send in way before the deadline. Otherwise, your canceled check will indicate receipt at least as reliably.

d) SASE. This should be a number 10 business-size envelope, for results only, unless indicated that your e-mail address will suffice. Most places do not want to return your manuscript, so don’t bother sending an envelope big enough for the manuscript. If postage rates go up during the intervening months, the contest staff should add the increase to your SASE, but use of a Forever stamp will save hassle.

e) Check. Do not forget this! With few exceptions, they will throw away your entry if you omit payment. Don’t forget to sign it, either. Many contests allow online payment through PayPal or are set up to take credit-card payments; this is an easy and risk-free method.

Fold and stuff into a standard #10 envelope unless specifically told to submit unfolded. Trust me, this will not affect the judging. I always submit poems folded, and have won a number of respectable contests. 5 sheets of poetry, a cover sheet, and an SASE will require additional postage—currently, 61 cents in the U.S.

If a contest allows online entries, by all means use this method, unless your formatting is too peculiar to paste into an e-mail. If attached .docs are allowed, format should not be a problem. Follow directions exactly for online or e-mail submission!

Trivial Pursuit
Be attentive for variations. Contests rarely forbid simultaneous submissions, but you are expected to notify the sponsor immediately if an entry is accepted elsewhere, Although generally an unwritten rule, it is considered extremely bad form to enter a poem (or book) that has already won a monetary prize elsewhere, And while simultaneous publication may not be noticed unless you’re very unlucky, contest winners tend to be publicized much more outside the journal that honored them, and to be carefully noted by non-winning competitors—many of whom will have entered the same contests, and are likely to be resentful.

Orchid: A Literary Review says: “Our guidelines page shows why simultaneous submissions are generally a good idea and we do accept simultaneous submissions for our contest. However, we have to ask: Why would you want to do that? Contests are somewhat different than regular submissions. Why have your story accepted somewhere for little or no money when you could have had publication and a thousand-dollar prize? You kinda, gotta assume that if the story is good enough for publication it’s good enough for the prize or publication as a runner-up. Think about it.”

With Fate Conspire
How to win poetry contests? That’s easy. Write good poetry and enter it appropriately. That is to say:

Format correctly (this includes eliminating all typos) Select contests where the publication involved—or the judge—is publishing poetry similar to yours, This would mean not submitting your urban rap to a journal that normally publishes only cowboy poetry, or to a judge who only writes spare, image-driven nature poems—you get the idea.

Enter contests where you are being published at the level of past winners. Sure, you could have no prior publications and still win a major contest, and yes, most of these things really are being judged fairly and blindly, but you are likely to be wasting your money, based on an inflated conception of the quality of your poems, unless you can substantiate your opinion by getting poems accepted in journals like the ones where the contest winners have been published.

Note that many contests run by literary journals also consider those submissions for publication. I have frequently had poems accepted from contest submissions, even though they were not prize-winners, and recently, a press where I had entered a manuscript that was not selected by the final judge asked me to resubmit a chapbook manuscript for publication.

Good luck!

© 2007F.J. Bergmann

Too busy to submit your poetry to magazines or journals? Don't know where they would fit in?  POEMFACTOTUM is an affordable poetry submission service!  No hourly fees; just flat rates:


F.J. Bergmann
W5679 State Road 60
Poynette, WI 53955

(608) 566-9087