I was really happy to find that, on Facebook, a friend of mine, Claire McQuerry, wrote a blog post for the Missouri Review. The topic: contest submissions. Claire's job: contest editor.
I TAed for Claire one summer for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth program, in Palo Alto. I remember that Claire and I, both poets, had many conversations about our MFA programs (she was at AZ, and I at UW), in which I'm sure I sounded like the Scrooge of Poetry Past. We even discussed submitting our work, and I'm sure contests came up. I have always believed that contest fees are ridiculous. Reading fees can range from $15-$50, depending on the press. Submit to one contest a month, and you're spending $180-$600 a year. And who submits to those contests? Mostly MFA students. And as most MFAers (past, present, and future) know, stipends barely pay the rent. Now is it worth holding a second, third, or even fourth (yes I had four jobs at one point while at UW) to pay for contest reading fees? In my opinion, no.
While I am psyched for Claire to hold her position as contest editor (and I think very highly of Claire as a writer and a human being), I have to disagree with her position on submitting. The argument to submit, is excerpted here:
If I spend a couple hundred dollars a year on contest submissions, I’m still spending less than a sculptor spends on clay and glazes or a ballet dancer spends on pointe shoes.
Okay, true. Writer's materials aren't as tangible as rifflers and chisels, but a sculptor can (more likely than a poet) make a living from his art. A ballet dancer can as well. Perhaps fiction writers (a handful of the masses) have a chance to write a best-seller or even have their book turned into a movie, but for a poet, this is a long shot measured in light-years.
As a poet who is actively working on her first book, and almost ready to start sending it out, I have decided that I will go the open submission route vs. the contest route. Why? #1 I can't afford it (I'm still a student, and my stipend does not pay the rent); #2 there are wonderful presses that do have open submissions; and #3 I'm not absolutely positive (someone, PLEASE prove me wrong!) that these contests are 100% fair, and that my "reading fee" actually goes to supporting the "craft."
I support small presses by buying my books through SPD or locally run, independent bookstores like Open Books in Seattle (yes they ship!). I rarely spend money on stamps to send submissions anymore when the internet is a free and better organized system. While it's always nice to be acknowledged by winning something, I believe that writing poetry isn't about making money. And it isn't about spending money, either.
Read Claire's blog post here.